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.
Tara Rodgers’s book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound collects interviews from a variety of female musicians who work with electronic instruments, either as deejays, composers, sound artists, or sometimes a composite of all three. Anticipation was high for this book, which began as a Web site Rodgers started while in graduate school at Mills College. I began reading over the interviews available online when preparing an encyclopedia entry on female DJs and found it an invaluable resource. When I finally picked up a copy and began pouring over the cover — which features Jessica Rylan playing a self-fashioned synthesizer — I was sold.
The project takes its name from both femininity’s associations with pink and a technical term which refers to variations of white noise that contain low frequencies, resulting in an equal distribution of energy per octave. I was especially inspired by Rodgers’s work, as she launched the Web site while in graduate school. She used the site as an opportunity to pursue personal and scholarly interests by interviewing musicians (many of whom were professors or colleagues). She also provided a resource for female instrumentalists who had technical or musical questions, thus also creating a safe space from women who didn’t want to be condescended to or demeaned by (male) “experts.”
Female musicians engaging with technology is the book’s main theme. One thing that is especially productive about the book is that, by focusing on software and electronic instrumentation, it acknowledges that instruments are fundamentally technological. This helps dispel the myth that music has to made with string, brass, or woodwind instruments. Also, despite the lack of guitars, many of these women are influenced by punk’s DIY ethos. They also challenge the music-making process. For some, this rebellion comes in opposition to their professional position as members of the academy, particularly at institutions like Mills College and the University of Illinois-Champaign. Pauline Oliveros made a name for herself for pioneering the concept of Deep Listening. Christina Kubitsch incorporates electromagnatic induction and light panels into her compositions, which are meant to be experienced rather than just heard. Annea Lockwood finds music in rivers, devoting much of her career to archiving the sounds of bodies of water from around the world. Others have little to do with the academy and use their work to challenge electronic music’s cerebral tendencies. Maria Chavez is a turntablist who often uses broken records.
Furthermore, I was particularly heartened by Rodgers’s interviews with women who create their own instruments and their reading about their relationships with them. Laetitia Sonami created the Lady Glove, an electronic instrument she had grafted onto her hand. Rylan’s developed the Personal Synth, and other systems, as a direct response against sweatshop labor and electronic waste. Many of these women are engaged with political activist groups dedicated to social justice, most notably DJ Rehka and Mutamassik.
A final point that the book contributes, and Alley Hector astutely pointed out in her review for AfterEllen, is queer women’s contributions to electronic music. This is evident with the inclusion of Le Tigre, Pauline Oliveros, Susan Morabito, and Bev Stanton (aka Arthur Loves Plastic), who has some interesting comments to make regarding lesbians’ actual musical preferences which she notes tend to be more cutting edge than bars and clubs suggest them to be. As many of these women champion subversive and unconventional approaches to composition — and work extensively with their hands — it follows a logic that many of them, not unlike guitarists Kaki King and Marissa Paternoster, identify as lesbian and bisexual, as well as encompass a broad spectrum of representations and expressions from within those categories.
One minor quibble I had with the book is that it (intentionally) gets a bit technical, gear-heavy, and theoretical, which is also one of the book’s main contributions to complicating the gendered notions of musicians’ technological interactions. While there’s a glossary to guide folks through the terminology, I would recommend reading the book an interview at a time and giving yourself a moment to process the information. Finding performance footage may help make concrete some of the artists’ more abstract assertions.
However, those willing to wade through a little bit of jargon will be rewarded by a good book that champions the musical output of a variety of female electronic instrumentalists who continue to challenge how we conceptualize popular music.