At times, cultural visibility can simply be synonymous with commercial exploitation or with the ‘degaying’ of gayness for heterosexual consumption… At other times, though, cultural visibility can really push the envelope, bringing complicated and substantive gay identities into public view. And sometimes these cultural images slowly, almost imperceptibly, chip away around the edges of bigotry, never really getting to the core but perhaps revealing it all too clearly. (Walters 15)
We are a voyeuristic society and television is the ultimate in voyeurism. We look to it as reality, as an escape from everyday life, because these characters have the life we hope for, or are at the very least fascinated by. Hennessy presents her reader with the idea of film, or television, as myth. Popular culture is a representation "of how things are or should be" (Hennessy 145). Television and film portray, as Hennessy has pointed out, the norms held by a society, in other words, heterosexual relationships. What happens when a show defies this ideology? She states that television and film are both popular forms of narrative, though television tends to exhibit a single character's life much more extensively than film; we get to visit with these people every week. Dominant culture and ideology influence what is put on television, but this pop-culture then turns around and influences our ideologies and dominant culture.
Butler states that queer bodies "should expose the ways in which the queer body disrupts all the norms of gender identity" (Colebrook 230). The L Word almost entirely dismisses this fluidity of gender by allowing for only three of its queer characters over four seasons to exhibit a gender identity that does not mirror that of the other characters, that truly represents the performative nature of gender. All of the other main characters exhibit a similar gender identity. "The queer body is not some essential identity outside gender relations; it is a capacity to repeat and destabilize gender identity from within" (Colebrook 231). The show's uniform cast, combined with the focus on fashion, lead me to wonder if Chaiken (or Showtime) is attempting to create a new lesbian identity centered on consumption. These images seem to be founded on representing lesbians as normal but at the same time they champion capitalism and produce a homogenous lesbian image that few could live up to. The L Word attempts to tackle some serious topics and can be seen as empowering women sexually, but regrettably, this may be lost in the exclusion of any serious discussion of these issues.
The recent explosion of queer visibility has both its positives and negatives. When there are so few representations of one population in mainstream culture, that population tends to embrace all images that could embody them. The L Word takes the ideologies of a heteropatriarchy, specifically regarding sex and relationships, and challenges them. But as academics, we are more inclined to critique any images we see that could be based on the stereotypes used to produce these depictions. Queers are then forced into an internal battle of quality versus quantity. Should we be happy that we are finally seeing ourselves on television or do we criticize these images for their use of existing stereotypes and their creation of new ones? In bringing this new lesbian into the living rooms of mainstream America, are we forcing those not represented back into the closet? And how does capitalism dictate these new images? We are torn between representative entertainment and entertainment through representations. "Which forms of visibility are the ones that shake up the world, and which ones just shake us down" (Walters 15)?
In producing a show like The L Word, one has to expect not only praise, but also criticism. While much of the criticism of the characters is justified, there has been little if any analysis from these critics of the show's focus on fashion and consumerism or its erasure of the seriousness of social issues, such as domestic violence. In fact, very little truly critical academic writing exists about The L Word. Most of what can be found is short news articles and gossip. It seems though that there is much in the making (dissertations, theses, anthologies and articles such as this). While much of the writing is diverse (mainly in their perceptions and the scenes they focus on), most of the criticism has questioned the show's target audience and appearance of characters, suggesting that it supports a male gaze. The same is true with the only book on the show published thus far, Reading the L word: Outing Contemporary Television,25 other than the fan book produced by the show itself one year earlier: the L word: Welcome to Our Planet: The Official Companion Book to the Hit Showtime© Series (this book contains an introduction to the show, cast and crew info, episode synopsis, and of course, a chapter on fashion). But this construction of the male gaze is problematic in this case, as it creates an ideology of women as sexless or in being there for male pleasure. The L Word is supposed to break stereotypes, and this stereotype of women as asexual is the one stereotype I feel it does break.
Walters asks the question, "[a]re gays the exotic other to be watched voyeuristically from a safe distance, or are gays just June and Ward Cleaver with different haircuts, family friends you can go bowling with and slap on the back?" (Walters 17). Even the show's original title, Earthlings, supports the idea that Chaiken is in fact attempting to say that lesbians are "the same as everyone else." On the contrary, we are not; "everyone else" is allowed to marry, allowed to be sexual, allowed to walk down the street holding hands and allowed to have a show on a network television channel sans warning labels. In fact, we are not even like each other. We are feminine and butch (and androgynous). We are rich and poor. We are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And we are certainly sexual. This initial title supports what is most problematic with the show - the denying of certain identities to avoid "certain stereotypes" while creating new ones and allowing for continued oppression of these queer identities which vary from what is acceptable by societal standards of what a woman should be.26 The L Word is a step in the right direction, if you consider its empowerment of female sexuality, but perhaps the question should not be whether or not these images are representative, but rather what do we do with these images?
Chaiken claims that creating the show is in itself a political act, while at the same time rejecting pop-culture as a political medium and refusing the "mantle of social responsibility" (Leonard). We saw Ellen's coming out as political. It caused people to talk and paved the way for queers to be included in mainstream television. Every time a new queer show (or rather straight show with queer sidekick) hits the airwaves, or a same-sex kiss happens on television, a wave of politically fueled media follows. Perhaps The L Word will generate the same response. It is, after all, a show unlike anything that lesbians have had thus far, and it has made similar advances to those of Ellen. Chaiken has given voice to lesbians where others have taken it away. This show is a political move, regardless of what Chaiken claims, but, "[t]his is the tension that faces us now: how to embrace the new visibility without losing gay uniqueness and gay difference; how to link the explosion of cultural images to a simultaneous explosion of actual gay rights; and, most importantly perhaps, how to make this visibility last, grow, develop, expand so that it becomes not a moment in American history but American history itself" (Walters 25).