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How The L Word Made Being Gay OK

Remember how in the late 90s, films like My Best Friend's Wedding and TV shows like Will & Grace peddled the stereotype of the Gay Best Friend? All screaming, clapping and shopping? It was as though, suddenly, the gay man had become a coveted accessory (problematic). And yet, these depictions cleverly captured a moment of liberation enjoyed by many cis, white, metropolitan gay men during that time, after fear surrounding the AIDS epidemic had somewhat died down.

Throughout the same decade however, the representation of gay women arguably fell behind. TV depictions were few and far between. Movies like Basic Instinct and Wild Things offered girl-on-girl action fashioned by men for men, while an era of New Queer Cinema brought with it a slew of underground, arty lesbian films like Go Fish, High Art and The Watermelon Woman, which – as significant as they were – did little to propel lesbian lives from the margins to the mainstream.
Then, in 2004, The L Word changed all that. Aired via major US network Showtime, here was a show that was revolutionary not only for depicting a group of gay women on screen, but for the sensitive way in which it did so.
From the very first episode, this didn’t feel like an LGBT show filtered through straight male studio execs, but a story told by women for women. It was indeed created by a lesbian – Ilene Chaiken – and written by lesbians – including Guinevere Turner and Rose Troche. Sure, the cast were mostly straight (of the main characters, only Alice and Shane were played by “out” lesbians) and the show lacked a representation of more butch bodies... But still, the dialogue felt genuine, and the sex scenes authentic.

The L Word was based around a gang of fictional gay women living in LA; Bette, Tina, Alice, Dana and Shane. You might describe them as “lipstick lesbians”: mostly femme, white, middle class women – women who were wealthy enough to spend their income on cappuccinos at their friend Kit's bar and café, The Planet. One was a champion tennis player, another a curator at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art... they don't exactly represent the "everylesbian" but the strangeness of this group did at least say something about how eclectic queer communities come to congregate, finding similarity in their difference.

It all started quite innocently; we were first introduced to the women when "straight girl" Jenny moved in next door to Bette and Tina, along with her boyfriend Tim. Soon, Jenny met Marina – a seductive Italian lesbian who liked to namedrop Nietzsche – and the two end up in bed together. By the end of the first season, Tim was virtually out the picture. With this opening storyline, The L Word successfully pulled in straight viewers – who could probably see the merits in becoming a lesbian if all lesbians were as tall, Italian and beautiful as Marina – and gay girls, who could probably identify with Jenny’s coming out story.
Over the course of six seasons, from 2004 to 2009, the show went on to tackle issues ranging addiction, cancer and fertility problems and more. Gender transitions, workplace discrimination and 'Don’t Ask Don’t Tell' also skewered the various characters' plot lines. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t just seeing queer bodies on screen, but living breathing, complex people with voices and concerns and confusions about their own identities. When Jenny's girlfriend Moira decided to transition into Max in Season Three, for example, The show's writers didn't shy away from the impact this had on his relationship with Jenny, and the hypocrisy with which some of the main characters treated him. The show took all of this on before the word “intersectionality” became as widely used and understood as it is today, before same-sex marriage was legalised in California, and before Caitlyn Jenner was on the cover of Vanity Fair.
The L Word wasn’t all doom, gloom and discrimination though, it was – and this is crucial to its enduring importance (especially in light of other LGBT offerings on our televisions) – an overwhelmingly uplifting celebration of queer life. That celebration is only permitted by geography – I can’t see a Ugandan L Word airing any time soon, sadly – and other factors of circumstance, but it was still joyful to watch Max raise the money for his top surgery with a fundraising party, see the characters attend Dinah Shore – a thousands-strong lesbian party in Palm Springs, and witness Dana “get down with her bad self” on a lesbian cruise. For these reasons, The L Word was brimming with promise. It put forward the possibilities of a life outside the closet, a life that is full of love and humour and sex – an alternate universe where you can have a pool party every weekend and wank someone off in their seat at the opera.
Nothing about The L Word has aged well, and I love it for that. Each new girlfriend that I’ve forced to rewatch it with me over the years has marvelled at the lapels on Bette’s flared pant suits; we have gawped at Carmen fake DJing, hand-to-ear in a uniform white vest, and recoiled at seeing Papi’s fedora. Our community has never been known for its fashion forwardness but time has been unkind to both Alice’s armband tattoo and everything Shane wore, especially a leather waistcoat – which were never really “in” to begin with. In a five page interview with After Ellen in 2009, The L Word stylist Cynthia Summers admits that her team sometimes got it wrong. On Papi, she explains: “We struggled with her a little bit in the beginning and I think it shows, unfortunately. From a wardrobe point of view, she was overdressed.”

And then there are the cameos. Once your initial excitement over Pam Grier’s role as proprietor of The Planet dies down, you are inundated with a range of obscurely famous faces; Rosanna Arquette as the “cougar” Cherie Jaffe and Sandra Bernhard as Jenny’s scathing writing coach. Catherine Keener’s sister Elizabeth plays club owner Dawn Denbo, while Julia Roberts’ brother plays Shane’s Dad. The links to Hollywood are exceptionally tenuous. We also mustn’t forget that Ariana Huffington, Gloria Steinem and Snoop Dogg all made guest appearances (Snoop Dogg’s one line was “I respect that she’s your woman… I guess I’ll dream about the two of you.” – spoken to Bette) and the lineup of queer musical guests; Tegan and Sarah, Peaches and Sleater-Kinney, to name just a few.

While the cameos were fun, it was the characterisation of the protagonists that made The L Word what it was for six seasons. As with other iconic TV shows like Friends or Sex and The City – it flaunts a line up of character “types” that carefully tread the precipice between ‘two dimensional enough for anyone to identify’ and ‘complicated enough for us to care’. There’s a Buzzfeed quiz called “Which Character From The L Word Are You?’ and it works precisely because you’ll only ever take it to confirm a conversation you’ve had with yourself countless times already; ‘Am I a Shane or a Jenny? A Tina or a Bette?’ (When I suggested an L Word themed murder mystery party with my friends there was a real clamour over not being Tina. Everyone wanted to be Bette.)
The L Word wasn’t perfect. It has possibly the worst credits song of any TV show ever made (see lyrics above). Characters seemed to get entirely rewritten from series to series. It is maddening to watch Helena Peabody – in what could be historically the worst example of character continuity in television’s history– transforming from a sexy and sophisticated British heiress to a ditz, having a prison romance and sleeping with Papi in the back of a limo. (Did anyone else worry where her kids were?) It also got far too meta after Jenny wrote a book about the group of women, which then got made into the film-within-the-TV-show, Les Girls, meaning that by Season Four there was essentially two of every character. You get the feeling the writers were really pleased with themselves for coming up with that mindbending idea. Plus, the last ever episode was atrocious.

Still though, The L Word was informative – depicting experiences of gender transition, IVF and coming out at work – and fictional or otherwise, it definitely gave me role models. I have no problem admitting that, even now, at the age of 24, I am trying – and failing – to channel Bette’s sass on a daily basis. I am also desperately trying to emulate The Shane Effect. No show since The L Word, except maybe Transparent or Orange Is the New Black, has portrayed LGBT lives with so much sensitivity and accuracy, which is why we must never stop watching it and re-watching it. We must pass The L Word on to people who need its optimism, no matter how dated it will continue to seem. Queer, feminist, radically inclusive, it wasn’t just a show for lesbians, but for anyone who loves women, and needs a bit of help loving themselves.