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    Wednesday, January 18, 2006

    The L Word: Having Just Watched Episode 2, Season 3

    outofdisorder said it best:

    One word about the first episode of the L word... painful.

    I am embarrassed to myself sometimes that I am involved in this show. It strives for things sometimes. But overall, where television-as-an-art-form is concerned, it is awful. It's not only that it's one of the only shows on television with queer women on it; it's also that it's one of the only shows on television with original women characters period. Women like Bette and Shane simply don't exist elsewhere. So I will watch it until it's cancelled, while cringing through at least half of each episode.

    Jennifer Vanasco says in her column in Southern Voice:

    “The L Word” is certainly not a great show. It’s not even a good show. It’s a soap opera. But it’s our soap opera, and really, that’s the thing that matters.

    I usually watch Bette, Tina, Alice, Dana and Shane—OK, usually I just watch Shane‑—‑at a house party thrown by friends. Notice that I have left out Jenny. I hate Jenny. Every lesbian writer does. She is bad for our image.

    But Jenny isn't the only one ruining queer womens' image, the show itself does a lot of that. A lot of the annoying things that people associate with lesbians are precisely the things that make this show pretty bad. The writers of the show take themselves too seriously and a lot of technical elements (decent editing, lighting, music) are sacrificed, while overwrought plots that seek to "address" a million and one "issues" rule. Also, the storylines often have the pace of the cliche lesbian relationship- the Uhaul on the second date approach. I mean, Shane supposedly can't deal with relationships, can't fall in love, but she's in love with Cherie halfway through the first damn season and with Carmen episodes into the next? Jenny transitions from calling herself "straight" to "bisexual" to "lesbian" over the course of about four episodes? In between seasons, Helena and Alice, who truly couldn't be more different in personality, become best friends? Bette and Tina only got back together on the last episode of the 2nd season, by the first episode of the 3rd season they're damn near break-up time again? And Mark just disappeared into thin air. (I hear Tim's coming back, which should be interesting. If he and Jenny got back together and moved away forever, I'd be happy as a clam.)

    But, like I said, I appreciate that the show is always striving for something. Often, I think to myself that it would be nice if the writers could just relax and write a good drama, but they can't because they've got all of gay and gay-ish America scrutinizing their every move. And these aren't people who work well under pressure.

    As a poster by the name of Seahurst on the Showtime boards puts it:

    I was trying to put myself in the writers mind...and figure out why they did that. This is what I came up with. I might be totally off base, but I needed to try to understand them, and this worked for me. I don't agree with them, but it worked for me.

    Ok...we are all sitting around (the other writers and myself) thinking that we need to have another fun scene at The Planet where all the girls are together bantering back and forth....Hmmm, what can we have them talking about...nipple confidence...no, been there done that....what about trimming...no, already did that too.....

    Hmmm...wait, I know! How bout we have them sitting around shouting out all the different names for the female genitalia!!! Yeah, that's a FABULOUS idea.

    What Seahurst brings up is another one of the show's major, painful flaws. You get the feeling that the writers are so afraid lesbians won't seem "cool" or "hot" or "fun" and the scenes seem stupid. Like the women all sitting around listing as many possible words for "vagina" as they possibly can. Sorry gals, but any list like that written post-Vagina Monologues just seems profoundly uncool and unhip and trying way too hard. It's also hard that none of the characters are cool anymore. Shane used to be cool, now she's squirming around in a dress, a weave, and a pair of cha-cha heels, and even her potentially hot sex scenes are interrupted by weirdo-Jenny's phone calls. Bette used to be cool, now she's unemployed (and when a good part of what makes you cool is your cool job, losing it is dire to the audience watching you) and frustrated and totally disempowered by every situation in her life: her relationship, her kid, her professional development. Alice used to be cool, and thanks to Leisha Hailey is still completely entertaining, but she's gone from a hip, well-dressed, completely dateable, journalist to a total basketcase. And we already had enough basketcases; Jenny counts as at least 12. Dana used to be cool, now she seems just to lie around with Lara and feel Alice's weirdness hone in on her at The Planet. I don't think she's said anything funny in either episode this season. Get her drunk and get her on the dancefloor.

    In the first season, the emphasis on sex seemed sometimes forced. The first episode of the first season, which hooked me hard, kicked off the show with heavy sex and that ebbed and flowed through the first two seasons. I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing what were often pretty good sex scenes between women, having lived through a couple seasons of Queer as Folk's Lindsey and Melanie, not to mention years of thoroughly unsexy lesbian films like Bar Girls and the like. I also enjoyed that, in addition to hot sex, the show didn't hesitate to show bad sex, awkward sex, painful sex. But, after a point, I couldn't handle Jenny yanking her top off and looking pathetic. Season 2 had some of the hottest sex scenes on screen anytime between Shane and Carmen, but this year has "blue-balled" us, to use Moira's quaint little phrase from Episode 2 of Season 3. Jenny awkwardly going down on Moira in the truck, while making clear that she's an INDEPENDENT WOMAN, not Moira's girlfriend, just before the truck ran out of gas; Jenny and Moira walked in on by angry stepdad; Carmen and Shane seeming like they might- but wait, no, false alarm. This is the sex of Season 3.

    No, no wait. There are always the little opening, snapshot-from-"lesbian-life" scenes. I can't think of a stupider, more pretentious device in modern TV.

    Hothouse: Blogging for Lesbians had this eeky insight:

    We are troubled by the nagging thought that if the show had at least one male writer the sex scenes wouldn’t leave us consistently blue-balled.

    In the new Feminist Carnival on Feministe, you can read Blackademic's excellent rant on The L Word and its representation of minorities:

    the characters of kit and bette, and the new addition carmen, serve as multicultural placeholders, that work to afford the show a false sense of liberalism.

    I'm sorry, but Carmen's frequent mentions of "Latino culture" make me itch. And I like Carmen. What makes me itch even more is that I kept reading last season about how she was "feisty" and "wouldn't take shit". Um, come on. Did you watch her relationship with Shane? Just because the woman's dark-skinned, doesn't mean she's not willing to "take shit" on occasion. Here's an example of the way racist readings of the show have, at times, undermined some of the writers' legitimate efforts not to work purely in stereotype. However, I don't want to hear "Latino culture" used ever again unless it's someone deconstructing it. And I sure as hell don't want to hear the theme song in Spanish or with a salsa beat just because Carmen's on screen. Spanish-speaking people I know says she speaks Spanish like a gringo. So don't have her speaking it, even if we all think it's sexy.

    It's not that I think there's a problem with showing Carmen and her family; I think that's a good idea. I just wish it could be "Carmen's family who are Latino" rather than "Carmen's family=Latino culture".

    Edited to clarify: The problem I have is not that I am "sick of hearing about Latino culture" but that I concerned about the way the show reifies racist notions of differences by referring to Carmen's family as "Latino culture". Precisely the point Blackademic makes in her piece and I am merely picking up on.

    And, the first season, Kit soooo had that wise black lady thing going on: "There's one thing that unites all our realities. Love." Or some such thing. On the other hand she was the alcoholic who abandoned her kid. And she was a blues singer. She was a whole lot of stereotype in one.

    I have to admit though, contrary to Blackademic, that I thought a lot of the way that race was handled in the first season was pretty cool. Here's what Blackademic had to say about it:

    one of the main characters, a bi-racial bette, is the prime example of this binary system. on occasion, references are made to bette's "black side," but for the most part, she is coded as white. we are only reminded of her ties to blackness, through her recovering alcoholic half-sister and her estranged father. (both of which i can write a posting about another day.)
    bette re-inforces the "white-other" racial binary, as her character presents blackness as a threat to white homosexuality. as the first season developed, bette, is initially portrayed as a headstrong museum exec. however, as the season progresses, bette begins to question her relationship with her african american side, and in the process, unearths her "black savagery" as she cheats on her pregnant partner, only to force sex on her at the season's closer. as bette grew "blacker," the more emotionally unstable, and in some cases, almost psychotic she became.

    I think the show actually did quite a good job of refusing to code Bette as white or black, singularly, though it addressed the fact that many other people had chosen to code her as white and that some of her lifestyle made that easy for them. She had conflicts about her racial identity, which maybe isn't the best way to portray a biracial person on television but neither is Jenny the best way to portray a woman coming out. I thought it was incredible when Tina attacked her about "putting her on the spot" by asking Marcus Allenwood, a black man, to be their sperm donor. "I don't know the first thing about what it is to be black," she says. Bette replied, "I think I could contribute something in that department."

    As the season progresses and Bette tries to deal with the intense rejection she felt from Tina's reaction to Marcus Allenwood, the two enter therapy and meet a woman, Yolanda, who really challenges Bette (as Kit has to some degree) on her sense of racial "allegiance". It is through Yolanda that Bette meets Candice, the Latina woman with whom she has an affair.

    I understood the plot as dealing with Bette's tremendous sense of being rejected by her white partner. She has an affair because she no longer feels that she truly has a partner; she has underestimated the difficulty of sharing a life with a white woman. I don't think she acts "psychotic" or "savage", but acts as a terribly wounded person. Wounded by her partner's racialized rejection of her.

    Edited to add: I certainly don't intend to explain the relationships above as "representative of an accurate portrayal of the race politics between white women and lesbians of color"- I would have no idea. I did think that the show tried very hard to show that Bette's infidelity was a response to Tina's incredible inability to understand her and racial insensitivity. I thought that the relationship between Bette and Tina was explored in a new and interesting way; I didn't think that it could or did represent, by any stretch of the imagination, "race politics between white women and lesbians of color."

    I think that a cultural unwillingness to recognize biracial individuals as biracial is at work in many readings of The L Word (I don't mean Blackademic's by the way.) I think that the first season addresses the delicate issue quite well and again and again, rather than relegating it to one episode, the discussion anchors the primary conflict between the two main characters throughout the first season. Bette as not white and not black is constantly discussed, yet I personally find it interesting that Pam Grier was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, while Jennifer Beals was not, despite Bette's being a far more "real" and fully realized character than Kit and Beals's performance far more nuanced (she did have the fortune of decent material, to be fair to Grier).

    aside from the issues of race, the l-word is just another example of a lesbian minstrel, where over-sexed, and ridiculously underweight lesbians fuck without protection (yes, lesbians carry std's), and engage in poorly written dialogue with lackluster plots--all to entertain a voyeuristic audience craving hot lesbian sex.

    They are skinny, that's for sure. I think I am, for better or worse, part of the target "voyeuristic audience craving hot lesbian sex," so I am probably not one to judge that aspect of the show. But I think that lesbian sexuality needed to be portrayed as something other than all-night-long caresses. And I was glad the show offered that. Back in the day.

    Psychotic Cocktail has complaints too:

    I have a love/hate relationship with this show. Most of my feelings about The L Word fall on the hate side, unfortunately. I hate the writing, the lack of characterization, the telling rather than showing and the dearth of diversity. The cast of The L Word don't seem to know or date any women of color and they only know one butchie and one bisexual? It took them 3 years to encounter a transgendered person in West Hollywood?

    I agree that women of color, bisexuals, butches and trannies have been underrepresented, but this is overstating it a bit. Three of the main characters (meaning they're on the poster) are women of color (yes, Bette fucking counts, deciding she's white because of the relative lightness of her skin is so old-school I don't even know what to say about it): Bette, Carmen, and Kit. Should there be more? Obviously. But it's nice that it's not a complete segregation the way Queer as Folk and Noah's Ark (for which I can't seem to find the link??) Several of the main characters are or have or will identify as bisexual: Alice does, Jenny did, Tina (from spoilers) will and maybe already does. I do think Malindo Lo makes a great point in her essay, The L Word's Vanishing Bisexuals, as I said here. I have spoken to the butch issue already. As far as transfolk go, the first season had Ivan, whose self-identification was certainly ambiguous, so it didn't take us 3 seasons.

    The class issue is extremely weird, mostly because we have people who shouldn't have much money shopping at Whole Foods and wearing designer clothes. Then again, do you remember Monica and Rachel's Manhattan apartment on Friends: Rachel was a waitress! I'm not going to scapegoat The L Word for what I think is overall an absolutely ridiculous picture of economic realities on television as a whole.

    And here's where I think things are really complicated: the pressure we all put on the show to be a model of political correctness is not a pressure on any other show. Think of Queer as Folk: they didn't bother with that. And it was a better show for it (please don't think I'm defending anything they did with the "lesbians"). And that doesn't even begin to hold back other of television's great works, like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. I am usually a big fan of political correctness, but I find that our expectations that The L Word be 90% low income women of color, 50% trans, 100% non-conventionally attractive, etc, are things that not even Rita Mae Brown or Audre Lorde or Pat Califia could live up to in their writing, much less a semi-mainstream cable television show. It doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't ask for more out of a show that is a first for queer women, but it does mean that our requests no doubt tie the writers up in knots.

    As I said before:

    Why does any show with the slightest feminist bent or women in serious roles have to be the best show on television? Because otherwise it'll be relegated to the girly ghetto of "Touched By An Angel", "Judging Amy," "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," and other such. Just like when "The L Word" came out and everyone was going, "Oh, that's so unrealistic!" while "Smallville" got critical raves. Double standard much?

    They're trying. The problem is that they're simply not capable of making good television.

    So, they do all this, thinking they're going to please their audience, but THEY'RE NOT. I'd venture to say that there is no audience in the whole world that is this loyal to a show they mostly fucking hate. I wish that the writers would read the boards, read the letters they get, because I must say, there's a lot of consistency in what people want. For example, NO ONE LIKES JENNY. No matter how "gay" they tried to make her last season, WE STILL DIDN'T LIKE HER. And, even if her girlfriend transitions, WE'RE STILL NOT GOING TO LIKE HER. Why, oh why, is she still on the show? Most everyone ADORES Shane and Carmen. So, what if ... just a thought ... they had more a part on the show? And Alice is a favorite. Ahem, let's not make her a total freak because we miss her sitting around wisecracking at the Planet. Helena was a total waste, she did her thing, sleeping with huge Tina, losing Bette her job, now she can go back to NYC. No one would miss her. Because NO ONE believes for a SECOND that she and Alice would be friends or that Bette and Tina would let her come to Angelica's 6 month birthday party.

    I love what theriomancer, a.k.a. Cirrus Kain has to say: So the L Word is pissing me off. ... Alice, hello, weren't you supposed to be like "the sensible funny one" honey? And, uh, *pulls Shane aside and whispers* you're AFRAID of commitment... possibly because of foster homes... remember? -_-

    Oh, and Dana? Get that lump checked out so they can cut your tits off and we can get out of this boring breast cancer storyline. And please tell your staff that it is possible to market a show at women WITHOUT giving someone a lil' pink ribbon. Thanks.

    Finally, having watched the scenes from next week on sho.com, I still hold out this little tiny bit of hope that it will be interesting to see the interaction between Shane and Moira over their own respective gender boundaries and understandings. But I'll probably just be really, really disappointed again.


    Blogger nubian said...

    please un-link me from your blog.

    it is very disrespectful of you to contradict and negate what women of color have written, voiced or said about the show, simply because you do not agree with us. it is fine to disagree, but it is not fine to declare that our opinions are so "old school", or that you are sick of hearing about latino culture...or even that these characters represent an accurate portrayal of the race politics between white women and lesbians of color. if you do believe this show is doing a good job at representing all lesbians, since three of us are in the cast dominated by white women, i feel really sorry for your naivete.

    12:51 AM  
    Blogger EL said...

    Consider yourself respectfully un-linked from my blogroll.

    10:55 AM  

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