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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m stretching my parameters with tonight’s entry, as Ariel Schrag’s Potential has very little music-related fodder. She doesn’t jam on the guitar or obsess over bands or go to many shows during her junior year of high school — at least she doesn’t devote panels to it. But I’m something of a completionist and I know a few folks were interested in my take on the third volume of Schrag’s high school series. Also, Kristen at Act Your Age forwarded a link from Tegan and Sara’s Twitter feed to Ariel and Kevin Invade Everything, Schrag’s comic with Kevin Seccia, I figured we could get all bendy here.
In fairness, I don’t know how Schrag would have time to think about music. Potential represents a relentless shit storm that was her junior year. I understand why Killer Films would work toward adapting it for the screen, as it has social relevance toward queer youth and has the most straightforward narrative of the three issues I’ve read. I’d certainly see it, but I’d bring a box of Kleenex.
The least of Schrag’s concerns is coming out as a lesbian, which she tidily resolves in the first few pages. It’s well established in the first two issues that her environment and friend group afford her safety and support. I also like that she commemorates coming out by picking up a box of black hair dye. I thought her sartorial commentary about the importance of balance was hilarious and strangely dated, as the tight pants and slouchy shirt look she eschews for her belted jeans and tees are now ubiquitous.
Schrag’s pride in her lesbianism is not shared with her girlfriend Sally, who is ambivalent about her sexual orientation, harbors huge reservations toward their relationship, and clearly has a cloud of depression hovering over her. The scenes where Schrag tries to make their relationship work but Sally pushes her away out of disgust and self-loathing were wrenching.
As if it wasn’t enough to endure a relationship with someone who not only doesn’t want to be with you, but may in fact be ashamed of your relationship, Schrag’s parents embark on a nasty divorce that rips at the familial tapestry, neglecting and damaging their two daughters in the process.
Finally, Schrag loses her virginity. I use the term’s strictly heteronormative useage (i.e., it only counts when your hymen is broken by a dude’s penis, ladies), as she has sex with former boyfriend Zally, who clearly wishes she could reciprocate his feelings. I was troubled that she believed having sex with a boy, an act from which she derived no pleasure, was necessary to reach this milestone (that we consider it a milestone further suggests staid sexual norms). But I also found macabre amusement in the impossible situations and the stress caused in the pair’s efforts to “seal the deal.” I also like that Schrag was always upfront with Zally about her lack of romantic interests in him, and thought it was cool that both of them wrote down how they felt afterwards. I just wish she didn’t think she needed cock to cross over when she obviously didn’t want it.
Apart from recurring characters and a continued interest in science, I liked witnessing Schrag’s style evolve within the series. As with Definition, Potential depicts a few moments where she and her friends discuss her work and opine as to whether certain scenes will be included in subsequent issues. I was intrigued when she revealed while stoned with Sally’s sister that she sometimes sees events in her life as if contained in panels. But I particularly fascinated by how the protagonist renders dreams, as she departs from warped cartoonist caricature to a more realistic yet transient visual style. It’s an interesting way to represent our unconscious thoughts as being more faithful to our true selves.
Potential was released in 1997, and it would take several years to follow it up with Likewise. As Noah Berlatsky notes in the preface to his interview with Schrag for Bitch, college and a stint writing for The L-Word delayed the author in writing about her senior year. But I’d also like to think she needed time to recover. I on the other hand am ready to blaze through the series’ final installment.
Last night, I cuddled on the couch and read Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition. I needed something to do while my computer burned the mix CDs for Kristen‘s and my Girls Rock Camp music history workshop, which we teach tomorrow. As session #1 is in full swing, it seemed fitting to read two graphic novels from a queer girl cartoonist and avowed rock music fan.
For those unfamiliar, these two books document Schrag’s first two years at Berkeley High School in the mid-90s. She composed them during the summers between each school year. Potential, which follows her junior year and Likewise, which captures her senior year, were published later. If you weren’t aware of Schrag’s work, perhaps you can recall her name being mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” or recognize her as a writer on The L-Word. But Awkward and Definition put her on the map.
I find these two books interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the visual style changes dramatically. Awkward is sloppily put together, with characters resembling melted Precious Moments figurines. Definition has cleaner lines, surer plotting, and better defined character composition. Not that Awkward‘s messiness is in any way a disadvantage. While it may cause eye strain at times, the sheer exhilaration of a girl putting this together was enough for me. That cartoonist and chemistry enthusiast Schrag already had her own voice and vision at such a young age is inspiring to me.
There’s also the matter of Schrag’s fandom, which is a key aspect of her queer girlhood. It’s evident in who she idolizes. Evincing the era, Schrag is a big alternative rock fan who loves going to shows and acquires a Fender Stratocaster from her mom on her 16th birthday. Her idols cover her walls as well, as her bedroom becomes a shrine to L7, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, and Juliette Lewis. It’s also interesting how she uses language to possess her idols. An early male love interest is called “my L7” because of his coveted band t-shirts. Application of glittery make-up is referred to as “putting on my Gwen.” And Juliette Lewis is simply “my Juliette.” I find it particularly interesting that Scrag watches anything with Lewis in it, but has a particular affinity for Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers.
Schrag is also girl-crazy — identifying as bisexual, but will later come out as a lesbian — and surrounded by girl companions who fall in and out of her social circle. This is refreshing, in part because I grew up in an area where bisexual, lesbian, and transgender girls assuredly existed, but primarily remained in the closet. So perhaps I sound like a West Coast outsider, but it’s staggering to me that Schrag had so many queer and queer-friendly girlfriends she could crush on, but also call upon as friends. Having just read an article about two gay teen male friends in New York who were voted king and queen of their prom by their peers further instills me with hope.
I was also pleased by the depiction of drug use and Schrag’s engagement with the street. I didn’t do drugs in high school and received fairly strict parameters from my parents, who wouldn’t let me go to punk shows in Houston until I graduated from high school. This was primarily because gigs usually weren’t close by and because my mom worried about what dangers could befall a young girl. And while I’m more than a little surprised by how permissive Schrag’s parents were (or perhaps how little they knew about their daughter’s social activities), I’m also pleased that Schrag’s drug experimentation isn’t sensationalized. Pair this against, say, Larry Clark’s Kids, a movie I hate in part because it promises to be transgressive in its representation of urban teenagers but actually espouses a cautionary, conservative ideology (note: I dislike Requiem for a Dream for similar reasons). This isn’t to say that I approve of how often she hits the pipe. I just like that we can see a girl character partake of drugs without dying, getting raped, or contracting a disease. It’s refreshing.
Similarly, I like that Schrag and her friends are sometimes put in scary situations, but are resourceful enough to work through them. This is best exemplified when Schrag and her friend Julia attend a Bush concert (No Doubt cancelled! NO!) for Julia’s birthday. They get dropped off at the wrong venue and have to figure out how to get to the show and get home. This requires the two girls — who are also high — to walk vacant streets, take the bus, ask for help from the useless police, attempt to hail a cab, and finally get a ride home from Julia’s dad. Again, this situation is far from ideal. Yet I like to see girls be tough, resourceful, and successfully get out of bad situations.
Of course, I can’t review the two graphic novels without mentioning the exnomination of racial and class privilege. I’m not sure of Schrag’s socioeconomic background, but she does come from a politically progressive area that appears to be predominantly white. Thus it was probably easier for her to grow up queer than it is for rural, working class young people. That said, I’m still pleased that she possessed the confidence to declare her teen years important enough to capture in self-made panels teeming with wit, anxiety, and glee. I only hope Potential lives up to its title.