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:: R E A L I T Y  C H E C K :  I S  T H E R E  L E S B I A N  L I F E 
A F T E R  T H E  L  W O R D ? ::

Diva MagazineMay 2008

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.

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 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 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 for?

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.

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 opportunity.

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 inevitably follow.

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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The L Word Online has been designed by Oz and Slicey.  Unique images designed by Oz.  Site maintained by Oz & Slicey.  This website is intended to be fun and informative, and was created with respect to show appreciation for the women and men involved in the creation of TV's first real lesbian drama.  This site is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with Showtime Networks Inc., the television series "The L Word," or any person involved in the making of the show.  No copyright infringement is intended.  Images and other borrowed content are copyright their respective owners.  Credit is given where due.  All original content is the sole property of  the creators of The L Word Online copyright October 2003.