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.
Sometimes a movie just finds you right when you wanna see it. I felt this way the other night watching Alex Sichel’s only movie, 1997’s All Over Me. Five minutes into this poignant story (written by Alex’s sister Sylvia) about a young girl coming out, crushing on her friend, learning about homophobia, finding love, and thrashing on her guitar, I was hooked.
It didn’t hurt that the movie makes good use of Babes in Toyland and Sleater-Kinney.
I originally put this one in my Netflix queue because Leisha Hailey is in it. She has hot pink hair and plays in a band led by Helium’s Mary Timony called Coochie Pop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love her. I met her once when a friend was building her house in Marfa and she was as nice as I was paralyzed with awe. I think I was about 11 when I heard “You Suck,” a song she recorded as one-half of The Murmurs. I also really like their cover to the theme for H.R. Pufnstuf from the ultra-90s alterna compilation Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. They were two girls with Manic Panic hair, acoustic guitars, and helium voices that swore a lot, often in harmony.
And, then there’s all the other stuff she’s done. The Yoplait ads that a lot of people have slammed but that she and I argue are super-queer (especially this one). Her electro project Uh Huh Her (taken from the PJ Harvey album of same name). She was also consistently my favorite part of The L Word, playing sarcastic, loyal, proudly bisexual wordsmith and deejay Alice Pieszecki.
Anyway, Hailey’s the love interest in this one. And does she ever meet cute with the movie’s protagonist. They exchange flirtatious glances in a guitar store. Hearts.
The story itself focuses on Claude (not Claudette, even though that’s her given name), a fifteen-year-old, working class baby dyke who loves knee-length shorts, her guitar, and her best friend Ellen (played by be-credded Imitation of Christ impresario Tara Subkoff) who is in serious denial about her friend’s true feelings (and possibly her own).
All around Claude, people are correcting her, trying to convince her that she likes boys, telling her to dress more feminine, putting lipstick on her. It’s particularly hurtful that the worst enforcers of heteronormativity in her life are also the two closest female presences — Ellen and her single mother, Anne (played by Ann Dowd, who plays Cookie Kelly, a similarly unsympathetic mother, in Freaks and Geeks).
It doesn’t help matters that Claude is totally in love with her best friend, who has ambivalent feelings about their relationship. Ellen seems to be aware of Claude’s attraction, and in two instances (momentary) reciprocates physically, but quickly dismisses these moments, running away from them so as to get closer to Mark, her dangerous, homophobic, possessive, violent boyfriend who may have killed a young gay man in the neighborhood. He’s played to type by Cole Hauser, who may be a lovely individual, but has a low monotone and looks like a red-headed potato and thus seems pitch-perfect to play angry young chauvinists.
When Ellen isn’t running to Mark, she’s abusing drugs and drinking. Add to that her (anorexic?) skinniness and blondeness and you have a girl trying very hard to be rebellious and subversive but who actually plays right into staid notions of straight, white, patriarchal society. And while she always reaches out to Claude in need — notedly through music, as both girls play the guitar — she is just as quick to push her away.
Meanwhile, Claude can’t really abide by straightness or patriarchy. There’s no room for her without completely destroying her spirit. Actress Alison Folland (who I thought was heart-breaking in To Die For) makes Claude both nervous and sedate, on edge but starting to make peace and embrace her lesbianism, recognizing that a life in the closet is far graver than the initial scariness of coming out.
As a result of recognizing her burgeoning sexuality, Claude starts breaking from Ellen, making a few queer friends in the process. A pleasant surprise in the movie is the presence of Wilson Cruz. He plays Jesse, who works with Claude at the neighborhood pizza parlor. As many know, he played Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life, one of the first and more fully realized gay teens on television. In some ways, he’s not playing too dissimilar a character here — the gay friend — but, like Ricky, is also a quiet, pensive, damaged but resilient young man. And one key way that he is not just playing the gay friend is that he is the gay friend to a young lesbian, thus promoting the idea that members of the LGBT community can be friends and allies across orientations.
Claude also gets involved with Lucy, a local musician played by Leisha Hailey. While Lucy’s age is never explicitly stated, it is revealed that she lives at home with her dad, who is often away, implying that she’s about Claude age. Claude meets Lucy at her band’s concert, blown away by her talent. Yet, she’s able to play the chivalrous dyke and buy Lucy a drink. She then goes home with her to hang out and listen to records, while Ellen camps out with Mark in Claude’s bedroom. Claude puts on one album (presumably Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia), and has the following emotional scene.
While I have ideological problems with Patti Smith’s gender configurations and how essentializing and normativitizing (male) rock historians can be of her work (particularly Horses), I was completely moved by this scene. By my count, there’s two things going on here: Claude is in anguish over Ellen and she is starting to confront her fear and anxiety of being gay (“Should I pursue a path so twisted? Should I crawl defeated and gifted? Should I go the length of a river?”).
Importantly, Claude isn’t galvanized after this scene or by this song (indeed, perhaps some would argue, in this movie, as she never has a big coming-out moment; the closest moments are at the end — one is implied, the other wordless). Through the rest of the movie, she struggles and evolves while learning to own and articulate her feelings for Lucy and confront the impossibly for her and Ellen to be together. Yet, Claude is becoming aware and is learning to develop and assert herself, potentially holding a guitar in one hand and Lucy’s hand in the other. No small feat for a fifteen-year-old lesbian teenager.