Why The L Word matters.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 18 2005 10:59 AM

Lipstick Lesbians

Why The L Word isn't just eye-candy.

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The L Word: "Hot lesbians" is not an oxymoron

If you were worried that the new season of The L Word (starting on Sun., Feb. 20) would be less explicit than the first—that all those gleaming limbs and bare breasts were just a gimmick to draw in viewers hungry for high-end girl-on-girl action—rest easy: I have seen the future and it's naked. The second season of The L Word is accurately represented by Showtime's publicity campaign, which pictures the cast in a nude tangle. But let's be clear. All that sex isn't there just for fun. For the very first show on television about lesbians to depict lesbian sexuality as hot isn't pornographic; it's corrective.

Despite the keg-party cliché that every man's fantasy is to see two women make out, our more pervasive cultural fantasy about lesbian sexuality is that it is not all that sexual. In this formulation, lesbianism is about emotion, connection, sisterhood, herbal tea. It is about womyn loving womyn for various reasons, some of which are political and others of which are snuggly. And to be honest, this stereotype actually has a basis in history. During the women's liberation movement, there really was such a thing as lesbian separatism—a point at which lesbianism seemed as much like a fringe political party as it did a sexual identity. "Lesbianism is a women's liberation plot," was how the group Radicalesbians put it when they famously commandeered the mike at NOW's Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. The first installment of The Furies, a publication put out by a lesbian feminist collective of the same name in 1972, proclaimed, "Lesbianism is not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy."

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This conception of lesbianism is a bummer. It makes it so that the options are being a heterosexual who has sex for pleasure or being a lesbian who has sex as a form of protest. Which sounds like more fun to you? Obviously, we are in a different lesbian era now. While The L Word is eye candy, a glossy production on which everyone is luminous and constantly having explosive sex, it is also a memo to the nation (including the lesbian nation) that there are other reasons for women to have sex with each other than to dismantle the dominant paradigm. The best reason for a woman to have sex with another woman (or for anyone to have sex with anyone) is because she wants to.

The value and validity of female desire was also the subject of Sex and the City, a similarly shiny show that was at once a fairy tale about dressing up for big dates and an enormously influential piece of pop culture. Sex and the City marked the first time women were allowed to be sexual aggressors and opportunists on television. The L Word builds on this theme, and it uses similar methods to make its case. (Showtime is well aware of this; the original publicity campaign was a series of billboards and print ads of the show's [clothed] cast looking, shall we say, fabulous, above the words "Same Sex, Different City.") Part of the pleasure of watching Sex and the City, if you actually lived in the city, was seeing the restaurants and streets and styles that formed the backdrop of your daily life reflected back at you on television, shimmering with romance. If you were not from New York, Sex and the City asked you to believe that somewhere in Manhattan, life was being lived to the fullest. The L Word is the first, the only, show that is fun to watch if you are a lesbian, because it lets you see the terrain of your social life reflected back at you on television, cool and glamorous for once. It is a deeply pleasurable thing to watch a bunch of lesbians who aren't marginal characters whose maudlin tales of coming out and familial rejection are not really our problem. Instead, on The L Word, lesbians are enviable. Bette, Jennifer Beals' character, is a powerful art-gallery director with a relentlessly stylish wardrobe. Shane, the androgyne hairdresser rumored to be modeled loosely on Sally Hershberger, is a smooth player. They have palm-lined pools in the backyard and endless time to hang out with their friends at the coffee shop (just like Carrie and Co.), and their sex lives do not stop. If you are not a lesbian, The L Word asks you to entertain the possibility that life as a female homosexual is a blast. Who has ever asked that of you before?

Much has been made of how conventionally feminine and improbably gorgeous all the women on The L Word are, and it is true that theirs has been a butchless universe. (Most lesbian enclaves on planet Earth are not.) This was a weird and significant omission, but they are starting to broaden out: In Season 2, the blond cuckold Tina gets a tough-talking, tie-wearing female lawyer, and we see much more of the mortifyingly named drag king, Ivan Aycock, played with brilliant specificity by Kelly Lynch. In terms of the generally disproportionate level of beauty on The L Word, let's remember: This is television. Was it improbable that the four friends portrayed on Sex and the City would all have long legs and perfect complexions? Wasn't it a little weird that every friend on Friends was so attractive? Of course it was. But it never bothered us, because we all accepted a long time ago that actors look better than regular people. Similarly, most of us have subconsciously accepted the idea that lesbians look worse than regular people. (Thus the refrain: "She's a lesbian? But she could get any man she wanted ...") For this reason, the pulchritude on The L Word is jarring instead of predictable.

None of this is to say that the makers of The L Word are motivated by pure altruism. I'm guessing they grasp that hot chicks having hot sex is good for ratings. Creator Ilene Chaiken has gone out of her way to come off as the lesbian Alfred E. Neuman in the press: What? Me political? She recently told the New York Times with grandiose modesty that she "won't take on the mantle of social responsibility." But she has very little choice. Unfortunately, the presentation of gay women as normal, beautiful, sexual, funny, and sometimes, ahem, married, is still political, whether any of us would like it to be or not.

Ariel Levy is a contributing editor at New York magazine. Her first book, a nonfiction exploration of the rise of raunch culture and the fall of feminism, will be published in spring 2005.