Saturday, September 11, 2004

The L Word 

For those who don't know yet, and haven't been over-exposed to articles about it in newspapers and TV listings, The L Word is the new 'controversial' drama about lesbians showing on Living TV every Wednesday - "Same sex, different city". It centres around a group of LA café-culture lesbians going about their lives being gay, and recruiting others along the way.

I'm hooked and watching every episode, but then I'd have done that whether or not it was any good. After all, I kept watching Bad Girls long after any realistic lesbian content had disappeared, in the hope that it would return, and happily exposed myself to three awful hours with Tipping The Velvet in 2002. Yet this show is actually quite good, and will really raise lesbian visibility, which is still way behind gay male visibility, though that's perhaps to our advantage (given the representations of gay men on TV).

I recently re-watched the coming out episode of Ellen, and I vividly remember the importance of that 'event' not just to me, as a lonely and closeted 13 year old, but to the whole gay community (it was watched by 42 million people in the US, some congregated in theatres because their state - Alabama - had refused to air it on TV). It was the first time a gay person had been at the centre of a mainstream programme, and not just in it for sideline amusement. But then Ellen was cancelled due to poor ratings, resulting from ABC's refusal to advertise it in the fifth series and a boycott by the religious right. Ellen Degeneres had huge amounts of hate mail, as did everyone involved with the programme. Mainstream culture could still outlaw positive gay representation.

One problem with Ellen post-outing was that it was almost entirely about her coming to terms with herself as a lesbian and finding/revelling in her true identity. This obsession with coming out has been highlighted by Daniel Harris, in his book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, as 'the adolesence of the entire subculture', focussing on a single emotional moment and falling into a 'yawning intellectual rut'. So it could be argued that The L Word, whose characters do not (all) live lives centred around coming to terms with themselves, is the subculture climbing out of that rut and entering maturity.

Admittedly, that's a very 'LA' sort of maturity, with lives lived in Bohemian cafés and apartments, as professional tennis players and museum directors. And it suffers in other ways, too. There are too many characters to get to grips with at first and there are several plot lines which trail off into nowhere. The straight sex scenes last longer than the gay ones - though at least there are gay ones (and very nice they are too) - and one can't help feeling that the producers aren't exactly trying to push away any straight men watching for their own amusement. Avoiding stereotypes is one thing, but to have no butch women and an awful lot of hetero-conventionally attractive ones is a bit suspicious.

It's also a shame that there aren't more gay actresses in it. There's only one open lesbian and she, ironically, plays a bisexual. This could be positive too: One article highlights the fact that actresses are now more willing to play lesbians than they once were. But while I'm glad it won't ruin anyone's career to hop into bed with a woman onscreen, I'd much rather it was done by a lesbian, or at least a bisexual. We may not have reached full representation onscreen, but surely we're beyond The Black and White Minstrels.

All this aside, though, it's generally very well done, very sexy and usually gripping. I'm pretty sure it will be influential and generally important for a long time to come, too. So it's worth watching for anyone with cable or digital, and worth waiting for for anyone without.

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