We last saw the women of The L Word in glorious hair and make-up-shimmering close-up, seemingly about to give themselves up to the law in the matter of the still-mysterious death of super-nutty Jenny Schechter (Mia Kirshner). They smiled enigmatically at each other, then us, as a special arrangement of the show's theme by Betty played.
Then, they were gone.
Now, Showtime’s groundbreaking soap-like series about a Los Angeles lesbian community is being revived, the cable network recently announced, and will premiere by the end of 2019. Jennifer Beals (Bette), Katherine Moennig (Shane) and Leisha Hailey (Alice) will reprise their roles “alongside a new generation of self-possessed LGBTQIA characters experiencing love, heartbreak, sex, setbacks and success in L.A.”
For lesbians like myself, the news brought back memories of the 2004-2009 period during which the show dominated our social lives through watch parties and endless discussions and critiques—cultural lesbian processing, as it were.
But the show’s reemergence has also highlighted a truly pathetic aspect of where lesbians stand in the cultural milieu today; The L Word will be the first show to focus on a central cast of lesbian main characters since... well, The L Word.
Ten years after it went off the air, The L Word is still the only network or cable television show ever based entirely on lesbian lives, at least in America; in Britain Lip Service premiered in 2010 for two series. (Oh, I wish we could count Orange Is The New Black. But perhaps it’s better not to think about how the next most lesbian show takes place in a women’s prison.)
It’s a sad reminder of just how little we have in reality as well as on TV. There’s been no dearth of discourse over the national disappearance of lesbian bars. Queer women’s media is like a vast desert with the occasional oasis (Autostraddle, Tagg, Curve) dotting the horizon, and struggles financially in a market where investors and advertisers alike see lesbians as moneyless bumpkins who somehow exist without ever needing to buy stuff.
The famed lesbian fangirl hub AfterEllen pivoted away from being the lone voice of queer women in Hollywood and became notorious for ‘TERF’ (anti-transgender) rants.
We have one dating app (HER), whereas gay men have Grindr, Scruff, Hornet, Adam4Adam, and countless desktop sites. If anything, the queer women’s community has grown since The L Word was on; more young people identify as LGBTQ, and bisexual and trans women are less likely to be shunned. But despite our growing ranks, the rest of the world just hasn’t caught up to us.
The L Word reboot arrives bearing an enormous amount of pressure to represent the entire community, as is often the case when a minority is the only one in a room full of majorities.
The show’s new executive producer and showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan seems keenly aware of the overarching responsibility, telling Entertainment Weekly in November 2017 that the reboot is an “opportunity to usher in the next generation of diverse queer people.”
In June 2017, series creator Ilene Chaiken told the same magazine the original show was besotted by constant lesbian complaints due to the sheer scarcity of lesbians in media: “The burden of representation for every single lesbian experience got projected onto us.”
Lesbians on social media are already airing decade-old grievances with the show, fully prepared to both obsessively watch and obsessively critique the new show.
The L Word was never representative of the entire community of queer women, and it shouldn’t have to be. I remember feeling alienated from the series from my first viewing, wondering who these fancy rich ladies were and how they could be so wildly different from the queer crusty punk-activist types I knew who booted around in the pit at Homocore shows.
I had never seen a femme-on-femme couple, and I didn’t know any queers who did not have tattoos and piercings and candy-colored hair. Where were the handsome butches? Why wasn’t everyone vegan? What on earth was going on with Shane and Alice’s ridiculous haircuts?
The dykes I knew were poor, constantly struggling to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck as underpaid social workers or community organizers, or were artists and musicians surviving on the gig economy before the gig economy was a thing we were all forced to take seriously.
The most realistic plotline of The L Word, in my young eyes, was “The Chart”—Alice’s intricate map of how all the dykes in Los Angeles were connected through dating and sex.
The lesbian world can feel small in an undeniable way; despite my protests against the show’s lack of realism, the fact is I’ve dated someone who was in a relationship with one of the show’s central cast members, and am only separated from another cast member by maybe two degrees of dating.
You can’t go to a lesbian event without encountering an ex or two; if the chart were real it would connect The L Word’s cast and crew with every lesbian working in media or Hollywood, as Slate recently pointed out in delicious detail.
In Portland in 2006, every Sunday meant cramming into the packed crowd at the (now-closed, of course) Egyptian Club for the local lesbian bar’s weekly L Word screening. Or, if you were lucky, you knew someone with cable who hosted a watch party in their living room.
Together, you watched as familiar language rolled out of the mouths of the characters on screen; jokes about Uhauling and bed death and the incestuousness of lesbian circles were on TV for pretty much the first time. But it felt surreal to watch this glammed-up version of our lives.
I’d watched a lover or two bind their breasts down with an Ace bandage, but Kit’s accidental run-in with auto mechanic Ivan (played by the impossibly beautiful Kelly Lynch) involved some really fancy kind of binder I’d never seen before, and the scene took place in what looked like Ivan’s millionaire bachelor pad.
Still, The L Word was it. It was literally the only thing we had, and it was birthed into a relative vacuum—just a few years after Ellen DeGeneres came out and briefly lost her career as a result. Before The L Word, there was pretty much just Willow and Tara on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, besides the wishful thinking and reading into things we projected onto characters we wanted to be queer (some lesbians still refuse to admit Xena and Gabrielle weren’t a couple).
I don’t expect The L Word reboot to stray too far from its deliciously dramatic soap opera roots, but it couldn’t hurt to see a tiny bit more realism. The lack of masculinity on the original was jarring; if my own community is visibly defined by anything, it’s flannels and fades, men’s Carhartts and wallet chains.
The L Word was great for femme visibility in a world where feminine women are often not immediately clocked as gay, but the absence of butches left a bitter aftertaste—the same sour bile that arises when scrolling through “lesbian porn” reveals little more than vapid scissoring fantasies for straight men that fail to resonate, for the most part, with women who actually fuck each other in real life.
Everyone has a laundry list of things we’re hoping the new L Word will give us. Autostraddle’s entertainment critic Heather Hogan summarized the bittersweet hopefulness in January, saying, “Maybe, for example, people of color and trans people and bisexuals exist in West Hollywood now! Maybe lesbians know how to talk about those identities without being monsters!”
It’s hard to imagine the reboot would fail to keep up with the diversity of the community, especially when it now has to compete with increasingly diverse, fully-developed LGBTQ characters all over film and television—including trans actors playing trans characters (sorry, Daniela Sea and Kelly Lynch. But Max and Ivan will always be iconic).
The L Word can’t simply return to airing episodes in which five different confusingly wealthy and model-gorgeous cisgender femme lesbian couples have graphic swimming pool sex when it has to follow the trans-cis lesbian dating drama of Herstory, the homemade prison dildos of Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, Tara Chambler’s plaid-clad futchiness on The Walking Dead, or the imperfect lesbian parenting of The Fosters.
There are nonbinary actors winning awards for playing nonbinary characters now, for chrissakes. We’ve come a long way.
The new L Word can’t get away with repeatedly casting Indian and Iranian women to play Latina characters, as the old version did with Janina Gavankar as Papi and Sarah Shahi as Carmen. Papi was a caricature of the “spicy Latin lover,” and Carmen’s generic tribal tattoo was based on her Mayan ancestry? Sure.
The L Word also can’t get away with reducing its trans guy characters to pained outsiders or “drag kings” with mental health issues. Race and gender were handled awkwardly; some episodes presented too many cringe-worthy moments to tolerate watching.
Fans are already drafting fantasy teams for re-casting the show; Out magazine suggested 12 queer and trans actors—many of whom are people of color—that would do justice to the central cast. And with both Jenny and Dana dead—yet the actors who portrayed them scheduled for the reboot—jokes about a haunted L Word horror installment aren’t too far-fetched.
As comedian Fortune Feimster noted on Twitter, the original L Word introduced the world to a lesbian community for the first time: “It showed normal lesbians doing things like working, being in relationships, dating, getting coffee, being friends.”
But a decade has passed since it went off the air, and it has arguably been the most fast-paced decade for LGBTQ equality and visibility America has ever seen. Same-sex couples can legally marry nationwide. Lesbians and trans women have given speeches at the Democratic National Convention. Lena Waithe, a black butch lesbian with an Emmy, wore a goddamn rainbow flag cape to the Met Gala.
What will The L Word add to our world when it comes back? How will it balance trying to represent the breadth of our community while pushing us forward and entertaining us without coming across as a preachy after-school special? And how exactly is Mia Kirshner supposed to reprise her role as Jenny, the most hated character in the history of queer women’s culture?
I, for one, am voting for the show to return in the form of a gory American Horror Story miniseries installment in which the ghosts of Jenny and Dana (Erin Daniels) show us just how deadly lesbian drama can be. But maybe I’ll just have to save that idea for the fan-fiction chat rooms.
Or maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will finally let us have more than one thing. Maybe the return of The L Word will open the door for more shows, more websites, more news platforms, and more movies that put queer women at the center of the story.