Tagged: Alison Bechdel

Using the L Word to talk about title sequences

Recently a grad school acquaintance referred to Showtime’s The L Word as the worst show that she followed in its entirety. I can almost relate. I watched all but the last two seasons, and just watched the fifth season. Soon I’ll finish the soap about ladies living and loving in Los Angeles, even though I know how it ends and that Showtime didn’t buy The Farm.

Cast of the L Word (with Shane and Tasha wearing dresses and no Max--FEMME FAIL)

I watched the first season alongside the final season of HBO’s Sex and the City with a college feminist group I was starting to hang out with. The L Word promised to be a groundbreaking melodrama, the network’s attempt at applying the success of Queer as Folk to queer women. You’ll note that the original tag line for the series was “Same Sex, Different City.” Evidence of network rivalry. I missed the fifth season during it’s original run for thesis-related reasons, and gave up on the sixth season. As someone who went to watch parties for four seasons, I can break down any episode in three segments: 1) socially relevant drama, 2) wacky or glamorous group scenes, and 3) bat-shit craziness. This isn’t a 3 Glees situation either. It’s moment to moment, regardless of whether L Word creator Ilene Chaiken wrote the script or an episode was credited to someone else.

Along with many of the fans, I had five problems with the show.

1. It used cheating as a means of advancing story lines, which was really evidence of lazy writing that often resulted in interchangeable sexual encounters that ultimately lowered the stakes for most of the characters involved.

2. Actresses of Asian descent were often cast to play Latina characters, which I certainly don’t think had anything to do with a shortage of Latin American actresses in Los Angeles.

3. It was wildly inconsistent with characterization. Why does blogger/deejay Alice Pieszecki date a trans woman in the first season only to be totally awful to her Web admin Max Sweeney, a trans man, in the fifth season? British heiress Helena Peabody is drawn as a viper when she enters into orbit in season two but is a generous person to a fault from the third season on. Only three cast members stay on script throughout the show’s run: art aficionado Bette Porter is wonderfully alpha and conflicted, hack writer (and Chaiken avatar) Jenny Schecter gets progressively more unhinged, and Lothario hairdresser Shane McKutcheon slouches toward another doomed conquest. Many of the characters have little to do, most woefully Kit, Bette’s half-sister played by the incomparable Pam Grier. Sometimes if Chaiken didn’t know what to do with someone, she’d kill them off. Hence why the cast and fans still mourn the loss of Dana Fairbanks, who died of cancer in the third season. Lazy. And mean.

4. The show really missed an opportunity with Max. They could have created a complex, interesting FTM character who was fully integrated into the show’s principle ensemble. They could have handled his transition with sensitivity and kindness. Instead, they tended to other him and treat him like a freak. I wasn’t previously aware of his ripped-from-the-headlines arc in the sixth season, but Autostraddle already laid out how poorly it was handled in an open letter to Chaiken.

But uncharacteristic bouts of transphobia aside, Alice Pieszecki is the bisexual femme of my dreams. Leisha Hailey, you were perfection. If the writing rose to meet you, you might have had a lock on an Emmy nomination for season three. Jennifer Beals, you were pretty great as Bette too. You could have gotten a nod for season five.

Go ask Alice . . . if she'll take me out to dinner; image courtesy of flickr.com

As I alluded to in an earlier post, I loved how the show prioritized lesbian visibility and queer identification on a cable television show. The show dealt with major issues like transitioning, same-sex partnerships, and the closeted military. The show also employed directors like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, Karyn Kusama, and Angela Robinson. Folks like Ariel Schrag and Guinevere Turner wrote some of the episodes, but you shouldn’t hold that against them. I wonder if Alison Bechdel was ever offered to write for the show. Can you ask the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For to work on the Sapphic version of Melrose Place?

Often identification was done through music. Alice, Kit, and deejay Carmen de la Pica Morales engaged with it in their professional lives. Acts like Sleater-Kinney and The B-52s would perform at the Planet, a local hotspot the ensemble frequented and Kit owned. Toshi Reagon, the Ditty Bops, and Teagan and Sara made cameos. Each episode contained extradiegetic music from Gossip, Joan Armatrading, and Uh Huh Her and rarely featured a male voice.

But this wasn’t always a positive, which leads me to my fifth issue. The show was scored by Elizabeth Ziff (credited as ezgirl), who, as a member of BETTY, was also responsible for the show’s infamous theme song. It made it’s debut in the second season and was loathed by even the most die-hard fans. The production is slick. The vocals are shrill. The lyrics display no subtlety, especially during the bridge. “Fighting, fucking, crying, drinking”? More like “Kicking, screaming, cringing, heaving.”

But I think The L Word‘s title sequence is notable for a few reasons. For one, it actually does establish the show’s tone, cast, and sense of place. For another, title sequences have become something of an anomaly in both television and film, getting increasingly shorter with time. Many shows use pre-existent material while others, most notably Glee, dispense with a theme song altogether. Some shows try to elevate the title sequence to art. Network identification is important here, as many of these programs are on HBO and have hired design companies like a52 and Digital Kitchen. Showtime didn’t or couldn’t go that route with The L Word, which speaks to how gender and production values impact perceptual differences between quality programming and pop trash. Hate it or really hate it, The L Word title sequence and theme song are integral parts of the show.

Applying the spirit of the Bechdel Test to dance songs

I wonder what Mo and Sydney think about dance songs; image courtesy of 1979semifinalist.wordpress.com

So, I was having a breakroom chat on Friday with my co-worker friend Rebekah. She was asking my thoughts on the cause-and-effect relationship between Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and “Monster.” We were discussing what we made of the idea of Gaga directly addressing the threat of sexual assault for women being flirty and getting trashed at a club, in effect providing social commentary for her breakout hit.

I spent a significant part of my week listening to Katy Perry and Ke$ha’s debut albums. In doing so, I thought about how pervasive drunkeness and/or hookups are in dance songs (sexual violence is not as prevalent, though Kiely Williams troubled the waters with “Spectacular”). Another friend is putting together a mix for her birthday party and helping her come up with a track list exacerbated the point. Though I don’t eschew getting drunk or hooking up, Rebekah and I struggled to come up with a song that didn’t focus on these things either with direct language or through euphemism. She mentioned that applying something like the Bechdel Test to dance songs might be interesting, though difficult.

I find a lot of value in the Bechdel Test. It originates from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic series, wherein a character named Mo vows to only watch movies with 1) at least two women in them who 2) talk to each other about 3) something besides men. It’s a simple set of criteria to use on film that is actually difficult for most texts to abide by (in addition to the clip above, read Rachel McCarthy James‘s recent TelevIsm’s post about applying the test to television shows).

So I hope to draft a list where drunk behavior and hookups aren’t mentioned. I haven’t come up with a snazzy handle, but the idea is there. I came up with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” ESG’s “Get Funky,” Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s Alright,” Out Hud’s “One Life to Leave,” and Hot Chip’s “Over and Over,” among others.

Prince – “1999”

Pylon – “Dub”

Le Tigre – “My Metrocard”

Gossip – “Pop Goes the World”

Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope”

Assuredly, there are others. Feel free to offer yours in the comments section, this blog’s Facebook page, or on Twitter (via @ms_vz).

Ariel Schrag’s Likewise

A portrait of the artist as a young dyke; image courtesy of austinchronicle.com

I finished Ariel Schrag’s Likewise earlier last week and finally stole some time to write about it. Though denser and more structurally complicated than the three previous titles of her high school comic series, this one may be my favorite. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s in part because of those things that I liked it best.

Taking her cues from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Schrag attempts her most ambitious work with Likewise, incorporating a stream-of-conscious approach to storytelling and a panoply of writing and visual styles to document her senior year. I was especially interested in this, as I was always jealous of my high school friends a year ahead of me who got to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in senior AP English and write their autobiographies in a Joycean style. By the time I started senior year, the book had been taken out of the curriculum. Since then, I haven’t made time to read any Joyce. Having read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and heard Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, which “likewise” (har har) share Ulysses as an influence, I best get on this.  

Fun Home (Mariner Books, 2006); image courtesy of wordbrooklyn.com

Hounds of Love (EMI, 1985); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

In Likewise, Schrag incorporates Joyce’s challenging writing style into the graphic novel, using images as a means to anchor the content. Sometimes, events are presented in a straightforward fashion. Some events — particularly mundane occurrences — are retold in painstaking detail, as is the case with the 30 pages used to recount a circular conversation with friends about the elusive “It” factor. Other times, remembered dialogue inspires the narrator to free associate or drifts her off on tangents. Panels may include carefully typed, detailed exposition or notecards scrawled in haste or pictures without captions.

Many of these images are startling, both in the graphic nature of their content and in their matter-of-fact depictions. Recalling Schrag’s rendering of menstruation colliding with virginity loss in Potential, several panels focus on the protagonist’s reflections and engagements with penetration, cunnilingus, masturbation, and bathroom time. Schrag also doesn’t shy from revealing deep feelings, no matter how contradictory or unflattering. For a piece some detractors dismissed as an indulgent vanity project, Schrag isn’t too preoccupied with looking good.

Despite its stylistic departure, Likewise is in many ways a continuation of Potential. The tome to her junior year is released during Schrag’s senior year. As the pressure of its success looms over her, attention is paid toward it in Likewise. She is also dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, her parents’ struggle to fund her college education upon early admittance to Barnard, her mother’s noncommital hippie boyfriend, and her unresolved feelings for erstwhile paramour Sally Jults, who is ostensibly straight and attending Reed College. 

As with Definition and Potential, Schrag lets us in on experiences meant to bolster her writing process, which involves recording friends’ conversations, get stoned with her mother and kid sister, taking head shots of characters, heart-to-heart conversations with mentor teacher Ms. Salt, remembering and forgetting and misremembering Jults, fooling around, entertaining publication interviews, working part-time at a movie theater, going to friends’ concerts, accompanying friend Zally to a strip club for “research,” and jilling off.

She also includes negative opinions toward her work, recounting her father and some peers’ less-favorable attitudes toward the seemingly uneventful (and unabashedly queer) Potential. She herself bristles at the mistakes she finds when revisiting Awkward and Definition, but marvels at her rapid artistic and personal maturation in the two-year interval. While I treasured all of these moments, my favorite might be her stumbling upon the name of her final installment. As a fellow writer, I can relate to the pleasure of accomplishment that comes with settling on the perfect title.  

I find it particularly interesting that Schrag continues to question her sexuality in Likewise, noting some of the latent homophobia she may share with Jults. She also grapples with feeling conventionally masculine within a cisgender female body, at times seemingly imagining herself having sex with women as a man. She fools around with a few boys in Likewise, most notably Zally and co-worker Darrek. This doesn’t detract from her attraction in women, however, nor does it build up her tolerance for listening to boys prattle. Toward the end of Likewise, Schrag attempts to document Darrek and another male co-worker discuss why they like Helium’s Mary Timony but makes them stop out of boredom. 

My only quibble with Likewise is the omniscience of Schrag’s guitar. Recalling the function of Chekhov’s gun, I waited for the protagonist to pick it up but she never does. I have no problem with how Schrag chose to spend her teenage years — in fact, I marvel at how she used her artistic inclinations toward published manifestations of personal expression. But if she’s not playing it, I know a certain blogger who’d be happy to document putting it to use.