Last Sunday evening, four straight women—Jessica Joy and her friends Anna, Nathalie and Marge—got together at Ms. Joy’s Lower East Side apartment to watch her favorite show. Apple martinis, bruschetta and cigarettes at arm’s reach, the four women slumped into a comfy red futon to watch, with the concentration usually reserved for an art-house flick with subtitles, the premiere of the second season of Showtime’s The L Word.
“I watched the whole first season on demand,” said Ms. Joy, an attractive 26-year-old actress and student, puffing on a cigarette during a lull in the action. “I really like Jennifer Beals and her relationship—it’s so truthful, the way they fight, all the mixed-up sex stuff. I watch them and I think I had that same scene with my ex-boyfriend. And the sex scenes are really hot.
“And the sex scenes are from such a feminine point of view,” she added. “It’s not hot because it’s a lesbian sex scene, it’s hot because it’s from a female point of view, which is unusual on TV. It’s usually messy and emotional and more intense than normal hetero sex scenes, like in Sex and The City, where its more about being funny about fucking.”
For the next 13 weeks, a small but growing coterie of women will be staying in on Sunday nights to get their weekly fix of lesbian drama. While the series has a loyal following among the city’s lesbians—like Sunday worship, followed by the post–L Word pilgrimage to the East Village bar Starlight for potential pick-ups—more and more straight women are becoming hooked. Call them Sapphosexuals: straight women with a twinge of curiosity, a natural penchant for flirting with their female friends, and a high dose of emotional frustration with the city’s crop of narcissistic metrosexual males who perennially fail the Prince Charming test. Why not date a woman?
Indeed, why not?
“You know, these women with women, they fight, they fuck, they eat, they drink—we all do the same thing, but they seem to have a lot less problems than heterosexual people,” said Carolann Lynch, a 46-year-old Manhattanite who recently resubscribed to Showtime to be ready for the season premiere.
Rather than the predicted audience share—horny straight guys looking for some naked girl-on-girl action (Yeah, baby!)—last season’s ratings skewed heavily toward women ages 18 to 49. Though the statistics are not (for obvious reasons) broken down by sexual preference, it seems that The L Word—with its bus-shelter ads featuring the show’s stars naked and proclaiming “Venus Envy”—has to some degree filled the vacancy left by Sex and the City.
The excited chatter reserved not so long ago for Carrie and Mr. Big has been replaced by heated girlie chats over which L Word lovely is the hottest (Shane, the androgyne hair stylist); who’s a total bitch (Jenny, the straight-turned-gay doe-eyed writer); who they’d like to get to know (Bette, the high-powered museum curator); and, of course, which was the best sex scene. Ms. Beals’ Bette Porter slapping her girlfriend Tina (Laurel Holliman) and then engaging in make-up sex was, confess otherwise men-loving women, hands-down the hottest!
About the show’s straight female demographic, the show’s creator and executive producer, Ilene Chaiken, speaking by phone from her Hollywood Hills home, said: “That pleases me to no end. I’ve heard it statistically, but also from a lot of my straight friends, who talk about the show being as much about women as it is about lesbians. We all like stories that are different from our own. I think people are drawn to know about a culture or lifestyle that’s unfamiliar to them.”
Ms. Chaiken added another reason for the show’s crossover appeal: “I think probably among some women, there’s what is commonly referred to as the ‘bi-curious’ phenomenon. Women are a lot more sexually fluid than men.”
Where Sex and the City played for laughs, discussions of misshapen manhood and pink pubic hair, the L Word ladies ponder whether it’s bad form to go down on a girl on the first date over morning espresso at the Planet. Risqué? Subversive? Maybe for some, but several former Carrie wannabes are lapping it up.
“The L Word is a lot more serious about sex and relationships,” said Ms. Joy. “Sex and the City was more like, ‘Isn’t this ridiculous, all these things we do for men?’”
“I feel the relationships of the characters in The L Word are more believable than the Sex and the City characters,” said Janine, a 27-year-old from Washington Heights. “The consequences of the sexual relationships in The L Word are serious; the consequences of the sexual relationships in Sex and the City are humorous.”
Another draw may be the show’s implicit seal of approval from its cast. How can it be icky if Flashdance siren Jennifer Beals (married with kids) looks like she’s into it? A sneak peak into the lives of lesbians who don’t look like their brother Jim (a pervasive, homophobic stereotype even among many “hip” New Yorkers), the show gives women a chance to reclaim a not-so-uncommon female fantasy that has, until this point, been hijacked and corrupted into (Suburban Dykes et al.) visual Viagra for men.
For some women, The L Word—with its a constant stream of sex in various states of undress among the show’s long-limbed female cast—is pure, high-sheen entertainment, slickly directed with just the right mix of juicy dialogue, an unusually attractive cast, a sunny location, and a subject that most women enjoy unraveling on a regular basis: sex and relationships.
But aside from the entertainment factor, why do many straight women find The L Word so captivating? The show offers a safe, couch-bound entrée into a hitherto alien lifestyle which is only tapped into every so often: Madonna and Britney’s clumsily staged kiss, Mischa Barton’s cutesy girl crush on The O.C., Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon coming out in real life as being in a lesbian relationship. Showtime’s dedication to a long-running, exclusively lesbian drama offers a prime-time pop-culture podium for Lesbian Chic. Thanks to The L Word, being a gay woman isn’t all that bad; in fact, according to the subtext of the show, it’s a sign that you’re an empowered, self-identified woman in a woman’s world. As one fan declared, “I’m such a faux lesbian.”
“These relationships are new to us; seeing gay sex is a new thing,” said Heather, a 29-year-old magazine editor from Brooklyn who became addicted to the show last season. “They’re powerful and intellectual and beautiful women. Whether they’re gay or straight, any show that has women like that is just awesome …. I had a sort of interest in the show because I am, in some way—though I’m a totally straight person—I definitely find women more attractive than men anyway. From the time I was 13, watching a Sprite commercial.
“There are probably a lot of women walking the streets that are like me,” Heather continued. “Had relationships with men, but have always been sort of curious about women. There are also a lot of straight women who probably wonder—not just on a sex level, but on a real level of intimacy—about how they have these amazing relationships with our girlfriends: How amazing would it be if it extended to every level of our love lives?”
But, she added, “I wouldn’t just dally with the other side. All my lesbian friends tell me, there’s nothing worse than the straight girl who thinks that she might like girls.”
“It’s just different from watching a man and a woman,” said Ms. Lynch. “You just see these two women, and it’s so passionate—I don’t think a lot of people realize it can be like that. They always think of lesbians, you know, with pants and short hair.”
“I’m obsessed with it,” said Elizabeth, a 24-year-old woman who works in fashion. “There’s nothing on TV that comes close to beating the sex on The L Word. The actors obviously fake their chemistry really, really well, and you sort of envy them for having such naturally randy relationships. I watched it with a boyfriend, but he thought it was cheesy.”
“For years, we’ve been told women are not turned on by visual stories, but that’s not true,” said Candida Royalle, the creator of women-friendly sex films and the author of How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do. “But,” she added, “not all women are turned on by lesbian scenes. I’m not into watching it, but I’ve been more into doing it.”
“I think women aren’t ashamed of saying they’re turned on by it,” said Diane Peragas, a 34-year-old documentary filmmaker. “A lot of women find the idea of being with a woman erotic on some level.” She added she was under the impression that the publicity for the show has been “very vocal about advertising that most of the actors are actually straight. They’re doing these love scenes, but really they’re straight.”
At this point, only one cast member—Leisha Hailey, who plays Alice, the bisexual journalist—has talked publicly about being gay.
Set in Los Angeles, The L Word follows a group of thirtysomething lesbians as they navigate their personal and professional lives. In familiar TV terrain, the women all meet at the same coffee shop, share dating and relationship woes, and dress in a fashion-forward, dyke-centric style. (Designer Patricia Field’s attention to detail on Sex and the City is mirrored by The L Word’s weekly array of looks, from Bette’s Armani power suits to Shane’s grunge-punk svelte silhouette and Marc Jacobs aesthetic.) The sun is always shining, L.A. looks hazy and golden (though the show is filmed in Vancouver), and sex is always on one of the women’s agendas—girlfriends are shared, stolen and swapped in a nod to the lesbian community’s incestuous daisy chain.
The female cast is arguably the most attractive on TV.
“It’s television,” explained Ms. Chaiken, who, at a recent media screening of the show, joked: “I know why the Desperate Housewives are desperate—because we’ve got the best-looking cast on TV.”
With guest appearances by Rosanna Arquette, the late Ossie Davis, Arianna Huffington (playing herself), Sandra Bernhard and, coming this season, Melissa Rivers as a lesbian version of herself, the show was recently given the green light for a third season.
Ask any woman, straight or gay, who their favorite L Word character is, and without missing a beat one name pops out: Shane.
“I immediately developed a crush on Shane,” said Heather. “She’s the bad girl. I like her style, her attitude—I like that she cuts hair. She’s cool and punk rock. She’s like the kind of woman I would dream of seducing me.”
Played by Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin Katherine Moennig, Shane is a skinny-hipped, boyish hair stylist whose motto—“Sex with no emotional entanglements”—provides the show much of its X-rated content. (And Ms. Moennig’s vagueness about her own sexuality takes up an inordinate amount of space on fan message boards.) In the Season 2 premiere, Shane, after styling Arianna Huffington’s coiff, slunk off to a TV sound studio with Carmen, played by former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Sarah Shahi. The Shane character is reputedly modeled on Sally Hershberger, the New York celebrity hair stylist. (During a recent Fashion Week party to celebrate the launch of Ms. Hershberger’s Shagg collection of denim and T-shirts, held at her meatpacking district salon, a constant stream of cooing middle-aged women approached her with googly-eyed flirtations. “I would follow her to the end of the world,” said one blond-streaked woman from Connecticut.)
Each episode, Shane is seen lip-locked with a procession of women. Last season, she attracted the attention of a wealthy Hollywood wife played by Rosanna Arquette. Of course, it ended in tears—but not without explicit love scenes. A rarely seen study in the sexually empowered lesbian, Shane’s ability to get any woman she wants was a major turn-on for several fans.
“Shane’s like the poetic-asshole guy,” said Ms. Joy. “I think she reminds a lot of women of their bad boyfriend.”
“I like the skinny butch girl, because she’s nuts,” said Alisha Silvera, a 35-year-old single mom from Brooklyn. “She’s just so messy with her girls.”
“Shane’s like Samantha, in a way,” said Ms. Lynch, referring to the Sex and the City character played by Kim Cattrall. “Samantha’s with this one and that one, and she’s like, ‘Awww, if they don’t like it, fuck ’em.’ Shane kind of has that attitude, too, but she’s also very caring and sensitive about her friends.”
Interestingly, the character who arouses the most dislike in viewers, gay or straight, is Jenny, a straight woman who moves in with her husband, Tim, then meets the lesbians next-door. Jenny is played by Mia Kirshner, who made a name for herself at age 19 by playing a stripper in the art-house flick Exotica and then kept the pot boiling with her performance as a nymphomaniac who tries to seduce her brother in the 2001 spoof Not Another Teen Movie.
“I saw two women having sex in the swimming pool,” she whispers to Tim with wide eyes. Of course, curiosity kills the cat, or at least the marriage: After a tense seduction by Italian femme fatale Marina (Karina Lombard), Jenny is caught in the act by Tim. Marriage over; cue Jenny’s sexual self-discovery.
“She’s an idiot, because she handled it so badly. I understand that she wanted to experiment, but they way she handled it was just wrong,” said Ms. Silvera.
“I feel so bad for Jenny,” said Anna. “She’s so confused and doesn’t know what she wants. It’s interesting how she’s portrayed as an indecisive, flaky person and all the other women are really strong.”
“I can’t stand her,” said Ms. Lynch. “She’s always whispering. Always in turmoil. She gives me anxiety. One night, she had a guy and a girl in her room and she was still living in Tim’s apartment. She broke his heart in a million pieces.”
“It’s a true portrayal of the way that often happens,” said the show’s creator, Ms. Chaiken, who confessed to enjoying people’s anger toward Jenny. “But it’s not even exclusively about someone who’s heterosexual and falls in love with a woman. It’s a story about someone who’s in a relationship and thought she was committed, and then falls in love with someone else. It shows how bad some of us behave in that situation.”
Ms. Chaiken was careful to point out that the show wasn’t trying to mythologize lesbian sexuality or to “win converts.”
“I think gay women are just as sexually troubled and/or sexually free as straight women,” she said. “I think there are plenty of straight women who are fabulously sexual and liberated and who approach sex with many degrees of abandon. And there are plenty of gay women who are repressed and troubled by sex. This is a really tricky generalization to make, but I think that gay women overall may be a little more self-determined, because of having had to define ourselves by our own measure.”
New York’s own lesbian scene, as tangled as Showtime’s portrayal, has had its fair share of straight interlopers. According to Karen Gilliam, a bartender who has worked at the mixed gay bar Starlight for five years, more unfamiliar faces—sometimes accompanied by a boyfriend or husband—have started walking through the door.
“I think The L Word has given women a lot more confidence to check out the scene,” she said. “I can tell by someone’s body language that they’re new. When women are there with a man, it’s obvious they’re both looking for a woman to share.” (She added that the bar’s door policy has become stricter over the years to keep out lechy guys.) Immediately after Sunday night’s season premiere, there was a line—mostly women—to get in. Inside Starlight, it seemed as if the women were channeling their inner Shane.
Whether The L Word will create a new strain of Shane or Jenny wannabes is hard to say. “I do feel like an outsider peeking in on that community, and it’s interesting in that way,” said Ms. Joy. “I was surprised at how linked the community seemed.”
Amanda Moore, a top model who’s been open about her sexuality, said the show was realistic in its portrayal of lesbian life.
“The New York scene is just as glamorous as The L Word,” said Ms. Moore, who at 25 has graced the cover of Vogue, was the face of Tommy Hilfiger’s “Tommy Boy” campaign and is a runway favorite in Paris and Milan. “There isn’t anyone on the show who I can’t compare to a woman I know—and when it comes to hanging out on the scene, I have friends who’ve slept with friends and ex-lovers. It gets difficult sometimes.”
She added, “It’s really good to have people on TV who have been suppressed for so many years. But it scares me that, in bringing out people’s curiosity, there’s going to be a lot of day-trippers. And I don’t want to be someone’s experiment.”