An Ode to The L Word, The Lesbian Drama That Let Us Live



If you are a queer woman in the 21st century, chances are you have at least heard of (if not religiously binge watched) the iconic lesbian drama The L Word. Chance also has it, that you, like me, are buzzing with excitement at the announcement of the show’s reboot, largely starring the original cast. 

The L Word was my first real glimpse into what lesbian adulthood looked like for some women; as a closeted young teen my scope of what LGBTQ life consisted of was limited to the minuscule group of out lesbians in my school, a handful of LGBTQ support-group style Instagram pages,  and a few YouTube clips of the often scandalised lesbian storylines featured in soap operas. Despite the shallow pool of information available to me, this scarce representation that I was offered alleviated some of the doubts I had about my identity.

I fixated on these characters and the people in my own life, admired their courage and yearned for the sense of self and the pride that seemed to emanate so effortlessly from them. The intensity of the joy and despair I felt witnessing the successes and failures of these characters only confirmed to me what I already knew about my sexuality, and although this knowledge terrified me, I found comfort in the relatability of it. Seeing adult lesbians leading healthy lives and finding fulfilling, loving relationships gave me hope and encouraged me to believe that although I felt alienated and alone, the lifestyle I envisioned for myself was possible.

My obsession with sourcing LGBTQ representation wherever I could only intensified with time, leading me to discover The L Word; a six-season long triumph in lesbian representation, following the lives of a group of lesbian friends in Los Angeles. The show tackled a variety of issues ranging from alcoholism and divorce, to cancer, to trans identity and the experience of queer military personnel during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era in America. 

The show filled a niche in the media and was the first of its kind, offering rare and valuable lesbian representation centered around women and the situations they faced. It conveyed the complex, tender and sometimes ugly side of lesbian relationships, and was a welcome break from the often seen portrayal of hyper-sexualised lesbianism catered solely to the male-gaze. Although in contemporary society diversity is the least we can expect from any worthwhile source of media, the inclusion of the voices and stories of the marginalised in TV and film was not always (and arguably still isn’t) a guarantee. In this way, The L Word was progressive and further pushed boundaries within its storylines, including the inclusion of women of colour and the particular issues that they face. 

Race played a key role in the custody dispute between Bette, a biracial woman and Tina, her white ex; with Bette claiming that she should be granted sole custody of the couple’s child due to Tina’s perceived inability to fully cater to the needs of a black child growing up in America. The show also explored the theme of race through a discussion on white privilege between white-passing Bette and her darker skinned half-sister Kit. It is a result of the inclusion of thought provoking and important scenes such as these that keeps The L Word and its characters relevant and interesting over ten years on from the original release. Without pandering to the male gaze, and evading the stereotypical trope of coming out as an entire storyline, The L Word gave a depiction of ordinary, troubled yet likeable LGBTQ people and helped normalise this to wider society. To me, this is what made The L Word so poignant and cherished.

The L Word reunion photo. Image Courtesy: EW
In an interview for People Magazine, creator of The L Word Illene Chaiken stated that she hoped that after the show’s finale there would be a precedent set, allowing for the continued representation of lesbians. However, Chaiken has since shared her disappointment that since The L Word, lesbian representation in mainstream media has been scarce. Representation is vital. It provides visibility to the often hidden, it gives a voice to the voiceless and inadvertently grants those who need it the permission they require to be themselves. Despite this, there is a lack of positive lesbian representation in current media - gayness is often used as bait to reel in a queer audience, yet the promise of suitable representation is rarely delivered upon. 

Lesbians are hyper-sexualised; often portrayed as only capable of being in romantic relationships if they are torrid, lust-filled fantasies of the heart. This cliched depiction creates unrealistic, cringeworthy, and borderline pornographic scenes that show no reserve in their depiction of fornication, but leave much to be desired in terms of believable storyline and characterisation. Alternatively, in the instances that we are offered decent representation, lesbian characters that we grow to love and admire are killed in often sudden and brutal ways due to the aptly named ‘bury your gays’ trope. The origins of this trope date back to the 1920s when the Hays Code, a set of rules dictating what could and could not be shown on TV and film, was introduced. The Hays Code banned the depiction of the triumph of deviant or criminal characters; this included LGBTQ characters. As a result of this, an entire group was largely omitted from the media as a way for directors to avoid legal troubles; and on the rare occasion that queer characters were included in storylines, they were killed or injured. 

Now, despite the abolition of the Hays Code in 1968, the tendency for LGBTQ characters to be killed still pervades the media, with Out Magazine reporting that 62 lesbian and bisexual female characters have been killed in television’s past two seasons. Although it’s understood that the killing of characters is often fundamental to the continuation of a plot; the scarcity of lesbian characters in the media means that the weight of deaths of these characters is much more keenly felt than that of others, and lesbian fans are all at once left shaken and upset in the wake of yet another tragedy. Lesbians as a demographic are repeatedly abandoned by the media industry, and we are left searching for scraps of homoromantic undertones in a bid to satiate the hunger for representation in a heteronormative media.

Our media is a reflection of the times in which we live. To omit certain demographics from the media is to cheat posterity through the offer of an inaccurate portrayal of current affairs. The search for representation has lead me to shows which I would have never previously considered worth my time, however these same shows have hooked me in and rendered me unable to quit them. The shows that offer us both respite from and a reflection of our own realities are the ones that most resonate with us; it is shows like The L Word that unite women, challenge stereotypes and reflect the plight of our communities that help to better society. I don’t know what to expect from the upcoming reboot of The L Word, but I hope that it will continue to push boundaries and let the stories and the voices of the ones that need to be heard the most prevail, as it has always done.


Follow Nali on Twitter: @Nalisheboo