Watching hot lesbians
from Los Angeles live, love, lust is cool, says EC WOOD. But shouldn’t we
switch off, get out and populate our own Planet?
Sometimes I wonder what
lesbians did before The L Word (TLW). Who graced the cover of DIVA before
Leisha Hailey and Katherine Moennig? Who did the 44.6% of DIVA readers who
consider Kate to be their style icon want to emulate before Shane? It may
not be primetime viewing in the UK (it’s broadcast on LIVING at midnight on
Fridays), but the show has made a massive impact on lesbian culture around
the world in a relatively short time. It’s shown in over 20 countries.
The popularity of TLW among lesbians is hardly mysterious. The show offers
them something they’ve never had before – vicarious access to a glamorous
lesbian utopia. Nearly everyone on TLW is attractive, well dressed and
confident. They’re successful, wealthy, sexy – and they’re (mostly) gay
women. When the show first aired in the US in January 2004, it was the first
time that lesbians had been offered a televised world in which their sexual
preference was the norm, and in which they were portrayed sympathetically.
This is a show that accepts and celebrates gay women, and gay women appear
to have embraced the show wholeheartedly in return.
Historically, lesbians were portrayed onscreen as dowdy and butch; TLW
permits gay women the beauty and glamour usually reserved for gay men. And
they’re reasonably diverse. The first four seasons have given us variety,
including bi-racial art director/ college dean Bette Porter, sporty, quirky
tennis pro Dana Fairbanks, lanky, androgynous hairdresser Shane ‘Vanilla’
McCutcheon, English rose Helena Peabody, DJ Carmen de la Pica Morales, sexy
Latina player Eva ‘Papi’ Torres, stern black soldier Tasha, cross-dressing
mechanic Ivan, transgendered Moira/ Max, and, the focus of the first series’
coming out story, troubled Jewish writer Jenny Schecter. (This is only
variety of a kind, of course; these women are all in their 20s/ 30s and,
without exception, slender and attractive).
And they inhabit a fantastic world where misery memoirist Jenny can get her
novel published by Simon & Schuster, where the same Shane who can’t get her
head around the concept of flavoured coffee can hold down a job and even run
her own business. The weather is always great and houses are large, well
furnished, and affordable. This, then, is TLW, a parallel universe where
Jennifer Beals is gay, lives next door, has a pool, and you’re welcome to
come over any time. It’s pretty much perfect.
MORE THAN A TV SHOW
Since it first aired in 2004, TLW has grown into more than a TV show; it’s
developing a significant real-world and online existence, and has become an
important, ground-breaking social mechanism. On a basic level, TLW provides
its fans with a shared, specialised language, with some terms having been
created by the fans themselves, others originating in the show’s script.
Fans have devised a series of commingled names, including ‘TiBette’ for Tina
and Bette, and ‘Danish’ for Dana and Alice. (A particular favourite of mine
is ‘Lard’: Lara and Dana). The show has also popularised a number of
important sociological concepts, including – but not limited to – ‘nipple
confidence’, ‘meat-tagging’, and ‘hasbianism’, and most fans will recognise
the origins and contexts of quotes like, ‘You’re looking very Shane today,’
and ‘Crissspayyyy!’ with little effort. The importance of this shared
language and the (albeit fictional) historical references shouldn’t be
underestimated; a common language and history is what communities are built
on, after all. For those gay women who watch the show, the catchphrases and
shared knowledge help to create a valuable sense of belonging that may be
lacking in their real community. They give a lesbian viewer in Aruba and
another in Australia a shared mythology of sorts.
As well as offering fans a set of amusing catchphrases, TLW has thoughtfully
provided events during which fans can use them; in common with a number of
cult science fiction shows (Buffy, The X Files, Star Trek) TLW has fan
conventions, events that provide an opportunity for fans to meet the stars
and one another, usually, but not always, in exotic locations: LA, Bonn,
Blackpool. These events generally feature guest talks, autograph and photo
sessions and parties. The convention tickets are very popular despite being
reasonably pricey; a Planet Pass at the recent West Hollywood convention
cost US$400, entitling punters to the best seating in the auditorium
(presumably close to the front and the show’s attending stars),
complimentary autographs, a colour brochure, and entrance to two parties.
The show has also provided valuable promotion for a few well-connected
bands; theme-tune creators and fairly regular guest stars Betty for one, and
Leisha Hailey’s real-world band Uh Huh Her. Both receive a great deal of L
publicity, with Hailey’s band tour dates listed on L Word fan sites.
Just as the conventions and gigs provide a space for the show’s devotees to
meet in person, numerous online forums provide the space for them to make
virtual connections. The popularity of these online meet-and-greet spaces is
impressive and undeniable; on Media Blvd, a thread devoted to Tina/ Laurel
Holloman has attracted 677,000 views, and has received 7900 replies – and
counting. There’s even a forum devoted entirely to the subject of TiBette
(check out www.tibette.com). On The L Word Online site a scrolling screen
shows visitors’ countries of origin; when I visited, there were fans from 21
countries on the site, an illustration of its global appeal. These kinds of
forums aren’t unique to TLW, but they represent a milestone in lesbian
history. That such an intense, extensive community of avid viewers should
interact in this way, to chat about a TV show devoted to the lives of a
group of fictional gay women, is surely a happy development.
When the show first
aired, it was the first time lesbians had been offered a
televised world in which their sexual preference was the norm.
As well as connecting
online, you can read the TLW comic, buy T-shirts proclaiming ‘Dana Lives’ or
‘Shane is my Homogirl’, splash out on something special from the official
jewellery collection, order the DVDs, books, and soundtrack albums. The
range of products is growing; surely it’s only a matter of time before an
official range of merchandising is unveiled – official figurines, including
the TiBette couple with baby and birthing pool, the Shane and Carmen wedding
set (without Shane), Dana Fairbanks tennis dresses and the perky little
Alice doll, complete with blue Mini Cooper.
Then there’s ‘The Chart’. On the show, The Chart is a project begun by
Alice; initially it’s nothing more sophisticated than a white board on
Alice’s wall, but by the fourth season it has become an interactive website
mapping sexual connectivity between the show’s lesbian characters. Recently,
however, the fictional Chart has bled into reality; it now exists in the
virtual world at www.ourchart.com. You and I can sign up and join other fans
of the show in mapping out our real-life interconnectivity. From its humble
white-board origins, The Chart acts as an international networking site, a
niche version of MySpace or Facebook.
Over the past four years, TLW has changed the way many lesbians think about
themselves and about their communities. Without explicitly posing the
question, TLW asks if a lesbian-centric world could be possible. And the
sexiness and glamour of the show’s stars encourage gay women to see
themselves as glamorous and sexy, just as the show’s various physical and
virtual outlets allow them to connect with one another in innovative ways.
Although it has many things in common with unreal LA soaps of the past, TLW
offers a positive alternative reality, something to strive for. In doing so,
at the very least it offers gay women new places to meet, and that’s got to
be a good thing.
While TLW is one of the largest collective spaces that gay women have – and
it’s a pretty good one – there’s a drawback: it isn’t real. An obvious
observation, but no less significant for that. Lesbians have been gifted a
few shared phrases (‘Jenny, I was thinking about you.’, ‘This coffee tastes
like poopy-shit.’, etc), a tasty batch of sex symbols, and a glamorous
ready-made fantasy, but isn’t it problematic that a soap opera offering
fewer than 12 hours of fresh entertainment per year provides gay women with
pretty much their sole source of current cultural reference points? Is the L
all we have?
That such an
apparently progressive show fails to give more gay actresses a
break isn’t only a shame, it’s also a missed opportunity
We know that many women –
and some men – connect via TLW’s web portals, but the internet is a
notoriously unstable place; it’s easy to misrepresent yourself there, to lie
or even to disappear overnight. One could argue that virtual interaction is
no replacement for face-to-face friendships, and that all online communities
are transient and illusory. It may be true that many of us are making
connections thanks to TLW, but are the connections we make genuine? Without
intending to deny the friendships that are forged there, is the wider online
L Word community, with its endless discussions of relationships played out
by a cast of predominantly straight actresses, the best gay women can hope
This touches another issue: the heterosexuality of most of the stars.
Unsurprisingly, much of the substance of fan interaction involves obsessing
over the actresses, and viewers having formed strong attachments to
characters. For the most part, however, the actresses are heterosexual,
which rather exposes the truth that the show is a construction, a pretty
lie; the world at large is still predominantly homophobic, and most women
living in it are heterosexual. It’s telling that probably the most iconic
star of the show, Kate Moennig, style role model to nearly half DIVA’s
readership, refuses to disclose her sexual orientation. The choice is
unarguably hers, but her reticence sends a message of ambivalence that Shane
would probably disapprove of.
LET"S GET REAL
Here, I believe, is one of the major sticking points at which TLW fails its
lesbian fan base. When they obsess over Tina and Bette, they’re heavily
buying into a two-fold illusion – but the relationship is fictional, and the
sexuality they’re claiming to represent isn’t theirs. In a world badly in
need of famous out lesbian role models, the scarcity of gay actresses on the
show is unfortunate. That such an apparently progressive show fails to give
more gay actresses a break isn’t only a shame, it’s also a missed
It’s possible, too, that we make false assumptions about the show’s core
audience. TLW forums aren’t populated solely by lesbians. Anecdotally, the
show has a significant straight fan base, many of whom are self-described
hetero women with a one-off crush on a particular female cast member. The
implications of this are rather bizarre; this is a TV show about hot, femme
lesbians in which the predominantly straight cast are lusted after by
legions of straight women. As Alice would say: ‘What the frickin’ frack?’
Who then, is the show really connecting with?
Is TLW distracting us from working on making the real world more
lesbian-friendly? Couldn’t the many hours spent posting jpegs of Katherine
Moennig, writing fan fiction, responding to yet another ‘Hottest Couple’
poll be better spent going out on the scene and meeting actual lesbians, or
working on making reality more pleasant for gay people? To what extent are
we treading water, finding in TLW a distraction from the difficulties and
social inequalities of life? There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism,
but if we spend every spare moment discussing Sharman (Shane and Carmen -
keep up) in forums, we may find that much-needed social change in the real
world moves a little slowly.
There’s also the issue of the show’s origins; despite the ostensible ethnic
diversity of its core cast, TLW represents a very specific liberal American
fantasy world. North American TV is a huge influence on global culture – to
a great extent it is that culture. Is this dominance, and our reliance on
it, making it more difficult for non-American lesbians to get their voices
heard? Where’s the internationally popular show about a lesbian community in
London? In Sydney? In Auckland? TLW is great, but it would be greater still
if it were just one of many, if lesbians from other cultures could also see
themselves celebrated on screen.
These aren’t issues that need bother the stars or creators of the show; TV
is about making money, about generating spin-off revenue through convention
attendance, T-shirts, etc. The creators, writers, and actresses owe us
nothing; they aren’t providing a public service, they’re creating a product
to fill demand. But in my opinion, like it or not, they are creating
something that fills an incredible void, and certain responsibilities
Ultimately, my fear is that although the fantasy world of the show suggests
that we lesbians all live in affluent, supportive, primarily gay
communities, the truth is quite different. Many of us are isolated, many are
deeply closeted, and many more are openly gay only in certain circumstances.
There’s a lot of work still to be done before we will feel confident to come
out completely and en masse. TLW has provided an important stepping-stone,
giving us something we’ve sought for a long time, a vicarious, shared
fantasy world. Thanks largely to the internet, we’re able to connect with
sympathetic people of all sexualities, through our love of and desire for
that world. What I fear is that we’re relying on it too heavily, and placing
all our gay eggs in one basket. There’s no other show like TLW, nothing that
comes close. It allows us to glimpse what life might be like if all women
were gay, if the world were a more tolerant, sunnier, sexier place. But it
won’t go on forever, and eventually TLW, like Friends and Buffy before it,
will finish its final season. What will we do then?
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