Why The L Word still matters ten years on

There's still no successor to the much-loved (and hated) lesbian TV show. Why not?

The-L-Word

Today, there is still nothing on mainstream TV that portrays a group of lesbian friends any better than The L Word. It’s completely ridiculous, full of absurd subplots, horrendous clothes and music, but still, it’s the best that girls who like girls have to watch, rewatch and then show to straight people to make them gasp. (Other recent lesbitelevisual options have included BBC Three’s Lip Service, which tried to pick up where its Hollywood counterpart left off, but was cancelled only two seasons in.) 

Orange Is the New Black was an important moment, sure: the show wasn’t exactly about lesbians, just featured them heavily, in a largely female cast. But this prison drama isn’t intended to represent real life, removed as it is from normality, varying between looking like a hot all-girl sleepover and a terrifying moment down a dark alley with a Bible-bashing homophobe. If you’re a frustrated baby homo trying to work out where to meet girls, wishing you could one day go to prison to meet them is definitely unhealthy. Whereas hotfooting it over to The Planet or She Bar in West Hollywood is so much more chic (even if you do have to visualise it in the early 2000s when flicky layered haircuts and weird sunglasses were mandatory).

Even now, HBO is making inroads into a similar territory for the male gay community with its new offering Looking, whose thoughtful dialogue and considered depictions of contemporary gay life fit in with the current cultural landscape, even if it’s billed as a dramedy. Yet there’s nothing that has managed to replace The L Word for ladylovers on mainstream TV.

Is it because The L Word is too much of a behemoth to compete with? As the year begins, there are calls within the lesbian community for Netflix to recommission another series. Over six seasons, creator Ilene Chaiken tackled so many of the issues and questions that had never been dealt with on TV before. Lines like “what makes you think lesbians don’t fuck?” aren’t possible in hetero-dominated scenes. When the majority of the characters are gay, the dialogue can be weighted differently. These exchanges ring true in a society where representations of lesbian sex are mostly seen in porn, and where real life lesbians are assumed to be kind of like best friends who sleep over all the time.

There’s a knowingness about the way that The L Word dealt with sex that made it powerful. That, and the fact the sex scenes, which appear without fail in every episode, are hot. That is important – it’s not sex between two women to titillate men, it’s just women doing what comes naturally to them, and it’s hot. After all the controversy about Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s sex scenes, it seems clear this is an area that is still not demystified today. For queer women, this was a huge deal.

“Lines like ‘what makes you think lesbians don’t fuck?’ aren’t possible in hetero-dominated scenes"

The characterisations of The L Word affects any TV writer writing a lesbian character now. Power lesbians are indebted to Better Porter, give-a-fuck ladykillers to Shane McCutcheon, but the series, most importantly, provides a ton of other representations of the vagaries of vag: normal, varied, human characters who just want to sleep with women. The problems they face (falling in love with a straight girl, overconnected love triangles, co-parenting) have, partly due to The L Word, become typical lesbo tropes – now can get on with becoming encrusted into clichés like all the straight people things are. 

But it’s not just lesbians who got more nuanced presentations on screen – series four saw the introduction of a deaf main character, Jodi, who was fiery and independent as well as (obv) gay. Trans character Max, who transitioned over the course of the series, was also a big step for the small screen. The derision he faces from the main characters, who constantly belittle him and demonstrate some serious prejudice, is actually great. We are shown all these open-minded, liberal lesbians and bi women, who can barely get their heads around the concept of Max’s changing his gender. Four seasons after Max was first introduced (as Moira), he still gets incorrect pronouns from some of his close friends, portraying with unflinching honesty the LGB community’s continued dismissal of trans* issues (GLAAD only expanded their mission to include bi and trans* people last year, don’t forget). 

By the sixth season, the show could only spiral into new levels of craziness and peter out, driven into an uncontrollable tornado of its own absurdity. The meta-film-within-a-TV-show, Lez Girls, is shot over the final two series, directed by original spaghetti girl (Google it) Jenny. As the film gets made, The L Word becomes incredibly self-aware, demonstrating its consciousness of its own iconic status within the lesbian community. Jenny’s first-season storyline of falling for a woman while engaged to a man is blown up large, playing out again across the final seasons of the show. Of course, it all ends in typical L Word fashion (in the bedroom) when self-obsessed Jenny falls for the actress playing herself.

The main strength of The L Word was breaking the boundaries of writing all this stuff down, becoming iconic for lesbian and bi women everywhere. It’s never said enough times that there is a dearth of culture that is mainstream and convention-forming for lesbians. Another, new lesbian show wouldn’t be breaking down those same walls, but building on the remains they’ve left – creating something new for the sapphically inclined to recognise themselves in.

More Arts+Culture