March 12, 2009
I have many topics to rant about these days (misogyny in the Watchmen movie, the debate over castration of sex offenders in Europe, Campbell Brown’s ludicrous claim that her opinion-based “news” broadcast on CNN contains neither bias nor bull, the Rihanna scandal, etc.). Isn’t it a lovely time to be a woman! (It’s raining out and I’m entitled to be grumpy!)
After last Sunday’s broadcast of the final episode of The L Word, it got less lovely, I’m afraid.
The show’s creators claim to be astonished that so many straight women have feverishly tuned in to watch the lives of Los Angeles lesbians unfold over the past six seasons. Why? What other television programs do we have that are devoted entirely (and seriously) to women? Other shows about women often depict lives that revolve around men. Not The L Word.
True: the show does have its schmaltzy moments. It’s gone out with a bang: the “Who Killed Jenny Schecter?” bang. But it has also given us a lot to chew on over the years when it comes to the difficult challenges that face all (or many) women, gay and straight. I’d like to pause for a moment of silence in memoriam, and then tell you what this heterosexual woman learned from The L Word, and why she will miss it.
The L Word gained notoriety early on rather than being swept under the rug owing to some pretty impressive star power. Many actors worry that “playing gay” will land them in typecasting hell. But once the beautiful – and surprisingly soft spoken despite the often harsh tones employed by her character – Jennifer Beals signed on to play Yale-educated, interracial art connoisseur Bette Porter, all of the rest of the chips fell into place. Beals - perhaps best known for the movie Flashdance (1983) - brought poise and intelligence to this keystone role. I love that the creators adapted some of her most interesting attributes for the character: Beals is a Yale graduate with interracial heritage.
Before long, actresses like Margot Kidder (iconic for her role as scrappy reporter Lois Lane in the Superman films) and Kelly Lynch - and even cultural heroines like Gloria Steinem - were making cameo appearances on the show. And by the end of its six seasons, controversial, full-figured comedy actress Cybill Shepherd, out and proud lesbian funny lady Jane Lynch, and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (playing the first deaf lesbian romantically involved with a hearing lesbian in television history) were regulars. Throughout, Bette, Tina, Shane, Alice, Tasha, Max, Helena and Jenny would meet and eat at The Planet, owned by Kit (Pam Grier – renowned tour de force black American actress). (If any of those descriptions sound insulting, I assure you that they are all reasons to be proud in my book!)
According to its before-the-finale special, The L Word challenged many of the stereotypes heterosexuals believe about lesbians: they hate men, they wear flannel shirts and Birkenstock sandals everyday, and they experience “lesbian bed death” the longer they sleep together. Because some of the sex scenes have been very explicit over the years, the show also lifted the veil over female same-sex sexuality. I confess that I often found the career and friendship exploits more enticing than the steamy love scenes, but it was definitely interesting to learn and understand the mechanics of a sexuality that I haven’t personally been privy to.
The L Word brought lesbians to a mainstream audience, and with “Les Girls” came some of the most important revelations for women in television history. I cried with Alice when her best friend Dana died from breast cancer. I looked with horror upon Dana’s amputated breast, clearly shown for all the world to see. We never get to look at breast cancer that way. We never get to see that butchery to women’s bodies.
Similarly, it’s also uncommon to spend time with a female character who identifies as a male and works toward transitioning from one sex to the other. Bravo to actress Daniela Sea (Moira/Max) for portraying this difficult life alteration with dignity and honesty. I cried for him every time he had to look in the mirror and see himself wearing a “costume,” the female body he was born with.
Kudos to the show for bringing smart alec Alice into our lives. I related to her desire to ”figure out” the world we live in by creating “The (Sexual Connection) Chart,” forcing the issues, pushing people’s buttons and speaking her mind. Come to think of it, I need to get myself one of those “I Love Alice” tee shirts from the show’s online store so I can wear it with pride: gay pride and feminist pride. (That’s right! I’m a straight woman with lesbian pride.)
I cried with Bette and Tina when they took their daughter Angie to the hospital with a high fever and the receptionist demanded that they decide which parent would represent Angie because the receptionist couldn’t comprehend one child having two mommies. I sympathised with Jenny when she sliced open her skin on the bathroom floor (as she’s done since childhood) and Shane found and comforted her. I cheered for Kit when she and Helena bought back The Planet and threw that witch Dawn Denbo out on her butt! I’m cheering now even though I know it’s time to say “goodbye.”
But the most important moment I experienced while pondering The L Word was to finally understand the politics behind the lesbian identity. It used to bother me when people (children) would tease me for my feminist ideals saying, “You must be a lesbian!” Why must I be? Not all lesbians are feminists and not all feminists are lesbians.
In late 2007, while writing an MA English paper on warrior sex and gender in an epic poem, I realized that I actually am a lesbian: I am a metaphorical lesbian. It dawned on me that, just as lesbians fight to be taken seriously as individuals in a world that applauds beauty and simple-mindedness in women and validates strength only in women who stand behind their men, I too fight to be taken seriously as a woman: just me, not me in relation to my husband or father, not me in relation to femininity. I refuse to model myself after a feminine ideal that isn’t natural for me. As a queer theorist, I reject the notion that sex and gender must always go hand in hand.
The “metaphorical lesbian” has been established, first by Bonnie Zimmerman in her essay “Lesbians Like This and That: Some Notes on Lesbian Criticism for the Nineties,” and then again by Elizabeth LeBlanc in her essay “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” There is a political component to lesbianism that hasn’t always existed for gays. Historically, gay sex has been acceptable for free men, so long as they were in the active role of penetrator. This active role is associated with masculinity, while passivity is associated with femininity. According to Freud, it “is clear that in Greece, where the most masculine men were numbered among the inverts, what excited a man’s love was not the masculine character of a boy, but his physical resemblance to a woman as well as his feminine mental qualities – his shyness, his modesty and his need for instruction and assistance” (10). Kirk Ormand refers to some women of Ovid’s poetry as “impossible lesbians” because, with two female and thus passive participants, sexuality is at best limited and at worst unachievable. Lesbians therefore have something to prove: they must proclaim their active and yes, masculine, nature, and furthermore, they must convince the world that this nature is acceptable or even “normal.” “Because ancient Rome perceived sex as essentially predicated on an asymmetry of power, one of the two parties must be active and, if a woman, therefore monstrous” (Ormand 85). Lesbianism, as a political force, is thus parallel to feminism because both movements seek to achieve acceptance for socially unacceptable women: the active/masculine woman or metaphorical lesbian.
I never could think about lesbians without stereotypes until I got hooked on The L Word, and thus I certainly could not think about myself in relation to them. If someone accused me of being a lesbian today, I’d tell them, “Yes, I am.” Like “political lesbians,” I refuse to be defined by my relationship to men: daughter, wife, etc. I refuse to be compared to the feminine ideal and found lacking. I am a masculine woman. I wear dresses and boots. I’m pretty and tough. I’m not afraid to stand up for people and animals who can’t stand up for themselves…just like Alice!
I’ll miss the girls. I really liked them all…except for Jenny…but everybody is missing her these days anyway.