Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through ‘inclusion’ as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to deny and erase female reality once again. (Rich 323)
On January 18, 2004, Ilene Chaiken presented the lesbian community with their first specifically lesbian series ("The L Word Episode Guide"). A two-hour episode of The L Word, a drama about the experiences of a group of queer women living in Los Angeles, aired that Sunday night on Showtime. Even after strong promotion at queer events starting the prior summer,7 the premier pulled in less than a million viewers, however, this was enough for Showtime to renew it after only two episodes. In February 2005, The L Word began its second season on Showtime (Guido). Not only had lesbians been given our own show, but The L Word will begin its fifth season in January 2008. While the small number of viewers in the first season would have killed other shows, Showtime gave The L Word a chance, perhaps due to the huge critical buzz surrounding the series. The lives of women, regardless of sexual orientation, had been shown in a light never been seen in popular culture. The L Word was not just validating the existence of lesbians, it was presenting women in realistic relationships, with complexity of emotion (love, lust, anger, happiness), and depicting female friendship and sex, and in their rawest forms.
When first aired, The L Word was compared to both Queer As Folk (QAF) and HBO's Sex in the City. It was dubbed "Showtime's gay answer to 'Sex and the City'" (Cullen) and was said to be "the definitive new 'Sex and the City,' only with more true sex and more dramatic intent" (Goodman). It has also been called the female "Queer as Folk." The show is neither of these, nor is it like anything else on television today.8 Gay men are the main characters in series like Will and Grace (NBC) and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo) and are the basis for QAF, but queer women had yet to have a show all our own. Ellen had a lesbian as the leading character, but Ellen spent most of her show in the closet, only to have her show cancelled when she did come out. Any lesbian character put into the storyline of a mainstream television show is there as a support to the heterosexual ones and is shown asexually, only to be phased out of the show, as was the case on ER (NBC) and Roseanne (ABC). Even QAF has done little with its lesbian characters, other than putting them into maternal roles. "In other words, the strategy is to make the lesbian characters so 'normal' and de-sexualized, viewers will almost forget that they're gay" (Warn "Introduction" 5). However, without shows like Queer as Folk and Ellen, to name a few,9 The L Word might not be starting its fifth season. All were landmarks in the visibility of queers in television.
The L Word's only similarity to QAF may be its same-sex relationships. In fact, the show was actually created before QAF was introduced in the US. A "year or so" prior to the first episode of QAF (taken from the UK version of the show which began airing in 1999), creator and Executive Producer Ilene Chaiken pitched an all female, queer show, originally titled Earthlings, to Showtime (Warn "Will Earthlings (now The L Word) be the Lesbian Queer as Folk?"). They passed on it. After QAF became a success, Chaiken pitched the show again. The next day, Showtime approached Chaiken and asked her to produce the series ("Power Up Panel").10 Fourteen episodes of The L Word aired from January 18th through April 11th 2004, with the season rerunning several times before the second season kicked off February 20th 2005 ("The L Word - Episode Guide").
Though there are many problems with The L Word, the series has made positive steps for the visibility of not only lesbians, but women in general. Unlike other shows, The L Word is female-centered and the relationships are not represented as a result of patriarchy or male control. Claire Colebrook writes that "women, traditionally, are seen as physical objects of beauty, as bearers of children and as domestic laborers who live their lives not through their own self-created ideals, but through the man who represents active humanity for them" (3). This holds true in mainstream US culture; everything from sex to female career goals is defined by male society. Though the characters in The L Word are still physical objects of beauty, like most pop culture representations of women, they are not created for male pleasure and control. The characters are represented as not dependent on men for anything. While there are shows that are female-centered and have female characters that are more independent, the women are depicted as depending on men to fill a hole in their lives. One example of this is Sex in the City, a show which has been seen as empowering women, but is still centered around the phallus in some way. Main character Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a sex columnist who is very brassy, uninhibited and opinionated. At one point, Carrie decides she can have sex "like men" by being unattached and experiments with this, but in the end realizes she needs the emotional attachment of a relationship with a man. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) fits into Carrie's above description of masculinity (i.e. sexually uninhibited), but she too eventually falls for a man, which she sees as a moment of weakness, and becomes dependent on him. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) spends the entire series searching for the perfect husband and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), who seems to not need anyone even after having her baby, also ends up dependent on male companionship. Another example of this is Bones; Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) are both strong willed women and begin the series with no attachments. Unfortunately, in the second season, both become emotionally and physically dependent on men through their intimate relationships with co-workers (in Bones' case, it is the usual sexual tension between male and female lead characters that causes viewers to hope the two will become a couple). In departing from this conversation, The L Word is empowering for women.
Rosemary Hennessy, among many others, states that in media men are represented as having the phallus, the power, and women are the object of the phallus, the object of desire; this certainly holds true for mainstream television, regardless of whether or not a relationship is the central premise of the show (153). "Queer" magazines such as Out are filled with images of men while women are only a sidebar; lesbians have bigger roles in porn than in mainstream television but even then are controlled by men; men play the leading roles in most television shows with female characters supporting them (Lost, 24, The Sopranos, House, CSI, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother); and though homophobia towards men maybe more predominant, The L Word was only aired after its male counterpart, QAF, was a success, even though it was pitched in the US first. When queer characters are allowed a presence in the mainstream, it is done so with discretion, as long as they remain sexless. What room does this leave for representation of queer relationships? We therefore have film and television "naturalizing social differences as the way things are" (Hennessy 146). Homophobia prevails, to some extent, because these images allow for queer people to be nothing more than a joke or a problem while heterosexuality is seen as the norm.
The L Word, while traveling the path that gay men in television blazed for it, has thus begun to help normalize lesbian relationships, and will continue to do so. One month prior to the airing of the first episode of the second season, it was announced that The L Word would be picked up for a third season (Amatangelo). One can only speculate why Showtime has been so quick to renew The L Word for five seasons prior to any real ratings coming out.11 The reasoning behind such a quick renewal is more justified when a series has been on the air for a few season than two episodes into a series' premier season. Perhaps Showtime feels it will eventually have the same cult following as QAF.12 Or perhaps it is about image and Showtime's attempt to be the most diverse premium channel with their No Limits entertainment promotion of their lineup. This can be seen either as support for the queer community (even if just as a PR stunt) or as a reflection of Showtime's recent realization that networks for some years have left untapped vast communities with disposable income.13 Or maybe there is a lesbian in the head office. We can also enjoy the fantasy that someone is creating all this No Limits entertainment merely out of the goodness of her heart to give those underrepresented in mainstream television an image that resembles them. But most likely the series is a result of the recognition that catering to
demographics will lead to new subscribers. Whatever the reasoning behind the success of the show, or rather its staying on the air, The L Word, Ilene Chaiken and Showtime will hold a place in lesbian history.