Showtime’s Sapphic shag-fest The L Word will air its season finale Sunday night, capping off, until next year, four tumultuous years of lady love, naked breasts, barely veiled woos and widespread sexual chaos. It’s like the show’s graduation day. Four years—that’s the time most of us are given to find ourselves in college. Sadly, The L Word is more confused at this moment than that never-been-kissed, grade-skipping 16-year old who shows up on every freshman floor.
That freshman girl will grow up; The L Word, however, is regressing into a petulant adolescence. In its first season, The L Word was not only shocking—oral sex at the doctor’s office?!—it was genuinely surprising; instead of a soft-core, girl-on-girl version of Melrose Place that would appeal mostly to lesbians and beer-clutching straight men, it wound up being a massive hit with women on both sides of the sexual divide. (A cursory poll shows that straight men who have so much as glimpsed the show are loath to say so, let alone Tivo it.)
As The Observer noted two years ago, The L Word drew straight women in droves. A gorgeous, L.A.-based gyno-utopia where women loved each other, loved fucking and loved their jobs, the show offered a wholesale revision of female empowerment. Remove most of the men, and voila! There goes the political and social friction that exists between the two genders and makes our co-existence so fraught.
On The L Word, women were free to roam in a cozy, lush environment of pools and palms, coffee shops and clubs. They barely seemed to work. They lunched and drank and woke up enticingly clear-eyed and bed-headed.
Straight women loved The L Word not because they all wanted to sleep with their own kind (and get that perfect bed-head); they loved it because the show was about them. The L Word ladies may not have worked as hard as New York career women, but when they did, it was usually on something interesting, intellectual even. They may not have had husbands or children, but their friendships resembled ours more than did the ladies of Friends or Sex and the City. (What exactly glued those four women together has always been elusive.) And who knew: Turns out well-off lesbians and wealthy straight women share a taste for Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs.
Forget “lesbian”—more than anything, “L” stood for “lifestyle,” something that every woman has a stake in. It even meant “liberal”: The show sought to be inclusive, to open up a mysterious world and share it. It had courage and heart.
But as the seasons have gone by—and as the much-maligned theme song has listed all the things “L” can stand for (live, laugh, long, lust, love)—The L Word’s definition has grown increasingly narrow, so much so that it means just one thing: lame.
The great message of acceptance and transgression it initially sent so strongly is barely audible. The show that sought to smash stereotypes has wound up reinforcing them.
In The L Word’s first season, Jenny Schecter (played by baby doll Mia Kirshner) moved to L.A. to be with her fiancé Tim (Ugly Betty’s Eric Mabius), a nurturing college swim coach. A budding fiction writer, Jenny was a tortured-artist type who toiled as a checkout girl at a local grocery (wearing gingham, of course). After befriending her next-door neighbors—lesbian couple Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman)—she met and was quickly seduced by fabulously Eurotrash femme fatale Marina (Karina Lombard).
To the extent that The L Word provided voyeuristic pleasure for straight women (and make no mistake, it did), it was initially through Jenny: the straight turned curious, well-meaning if loopy new kid in town. She loved her fiancé, but felt the pull of a new world. She oscillated between wanting Marina and wanting to get married. The scenario was plausible: Even as her predicament made her increasingly self-obsessed, Jenny was able to convey the thrill and pleasure of a fresh sexual experience, and the worry, sadness, complicatedness and cost of having that thrill. Hers was a realistic, educational, sexy and cautionary tale, all at once.
Tim ultimately rejected Jenny, and the second season followed her coming-out, which turned out to be more of a struggle for the women she slept with—and screwed over—than for her. Jenny, it has become increasingly clear, is a woman who loves a cause. Her raging curiosity was admirable. In fact, the widespread promiscuity on The L Word has been a great strength of the show. Forget lesbian bed death; The L Word portrayed women—in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and even older—as sexually ambitious creatures comfortable in their skins.
But the show’s creators have squandered the good will that Jenny brokered with the audience. She has used a girlfriend transitioning to be a man (more on that later) to make other people uncomfortable; she spews clichés about lesbianism at every opportunity. She wrote a story for The New Yorker (oh, my!) that was a thinly veiled, moralizing memoir about her friends. Forget tolerance: She makes it seem like coming out will turn you into a prejudiced tyrant.
There have always been men on The L Word. Jenny’s fiancé Tim was the first; he was cute and kind and treated affectionately by the show’s writers, and he was heartbroken when he lost Jenny. He left the show after the first season with the audience’s sympathy mostly intact.
Since then, almost every man on the show has been an unrepentant dick. We can forgive Melvin Porter (the late Ossie Davis) for his inability to accept his daughter Bette’s lesbianism. He was a man of a different generation, and his character was fairly nuanced. But what about Mark, the roommate shared by Jenny and Shane (Katherine Moennig)? He seemed nice, but then it turned out he was videotaping their intimate goings-on for a reality show about lesbians. Seriously.
Then there’s Henry. He dates Tina, who left her rocky relationship with Bette last season to date men. He’s seemed O.K.—he has been neither overly curious nor critical about Tina’s lesbian history—but his straight, male friends are caricatures. Earlier this season, at a party Tina hosts in an attempt to integrate her present and past worlds, a man named Brad butts into a conversation about Angelica, Bette and Tina’s sperm-donor-produced daughter. A straight woman at the party has asked Bette what she would do if the infant might want to live with her donor father:
Bette: I really don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Brad: Sorry, excuse me, I know you don’t want it to happen, but kids have minds of their own, and I’m sure your parents would rather you weren’t a lesbian.
Bette: My parents are dead.
Brad: I’m not a homophobe, you know what I’m saying? Look, if my son came home and told me he was gay, you know, I’m sure I’d come around to it, but at first there’d be a reaction. And I’m sorry—I’m just trying to be honest here.
BETTE: An honest homophobe. How nice.
This is at an afternoon cocktail party. In Los Angeles. With what appear to be educated people.
In fact, there isn’t a single straight friend of Henry’s who doesn’t eye Tina’s friends with lascivious curiosity or disgust. The girls behave no better, though. When Bette first arrives at the party, her friend Alice (Leisha Hailey) greets her as follows.
Alice: Thank God you’re here.
Alice: Ugh—straight people.
Even Angus (Dallas Roberts), the sensitive baby nanny who became Kit’s (Pam Grier’s) unlikely lover, turned into an ass, cheating on her with a hot baby-sitter (who in real life never would have given him the time of day—sorry, Dallas!). His indiscretion hurled the formerly straight Kit into the arms of Papi, (Janina Gavankar) a womanizing Latina lesbian, as if there’s some credit system in place where a woman can handle only a finite number of disappointments by men before she throws up her hands and switches sides.
And back to Henry: On last week’s episode, he was clipping his toenails in the living room. I have never seen a man do this in my life. It’s a cliché—shorthand to illustrate how rude, selfish and plain old gross straight men are. It was a cheap shot at a man who, until this point, was treated with respect by the writers. By extension, it was a cheap shot at the women viewers who like men and live with them.
This season has brought another conversion. Cybill Shepherd joined the cast as Phyllis, a hotshot art-school administrator. Phyllis—a 56-year-old mother of two, married for 25 years—meets and sleeps with Alice, falls madly in love and leaves her husband. Just like that.
But Alice doesn’t want her, and Phyllis becomes hysterical (though Cybill Shepherd is so botoxed at this point, it’s hard to tell). Leonard, Phyllis’ husband, confronts Alice one afternoon, as Alice lounges on her bed with her new girlfriend and a handful of others. The women are utterly unmoved by Leonard’s grief, and he crumbles in their presence while the girls roll their eyes and stifle giggles. They treat him like a kid.
Phyllis is a ridiculous character. She tells her daughter and husband that she’d like to throw her entire past life in the garbage. That’s where straight lives are now tossed on The L Word: in the trash.
If a woman friend has ever chewed your ear off about The L Word, she’s probably mentioned Shane, the androgynous slip of a woman who skulks about with a mess of black hair, layers of black eyeliner and a slash of red lipstick. She’s gorgeous; she’s got a smoker’s scratchy voice and an unlikely, devastating smile. When the show began, she was the believable seductress who snatched up young femmes and spit them out within the hour. Now she’s been neutered.
In this season, Shane has been recovering from heartbreak after leaving her lovely, loving girlfriend Carmen (former Cowboys cheerleader Sarah Shahi) at the altar. She’s also had to take on the responsibilities of parenthood after her estranged father saddled her with his preadolescent son Shay (yes, that’s right), Shane’s half-brother. Shane’s evolution isn’t bad in and of itself; seeing characters adapt to new circumstances is part of the fun of watching television. But it’s all happened too fast. The most appealing, barrier-breaking character on the show has become a family woman. Taking care of her brother dulled her character in the way the childless fear that raising kids will: Shane has turned sentimental. She’s lost her edge.
And it feels like we are supposed to be cheering.
The L Word has gotten one character right, the female-to-male transsexual Max. He’s played by Daniela Sea, an androgynous woman, but with vibrant blue eyes and a strong jaw and an irrepressible sweetness. (As Shane’s virility has faded, Max has become the most captivating character on the show.) Max appeared first as Jenny’s girlfriend Moira; she was poor and unkempt and lacked the refined palate of Jenny’s friends. For a while, it seemed like her job on The L Word would be to make the show’s fancy lesbians, and viewers, uncomfortable.
The initial stages of the Moira-to-Max transition were hard to watch. The hormones made him aggressive and crazy; the soul patch he sports—it separates him clearly from the girls—is icky. Last season, he had a fling with Billie, a gay party-promoter played by Alan Cumming. But in the end, Max—who isn’t even a lesbian and, in fact, loathes his woman’s body—might be the savior of The L Word.
Take that affair. In the backroom of a club, Billie gave Max a blowjob on his prosthetic penis. It didn’t just push boundaries; it redefined them. This was a gay man fellating a pre-op F-to-M transsexual—on Showtime! It was a bold choice, and whether it was sexy or not depends mostly on your feelings about Alan Cumming. More important, it was a choice that seemed in keeping with the original spirit of the show: shocking, and surprising. Instead of building walls between the genders, between gay and straight, between promiscuous and virtuous, The L Word was back to breaking them down, inviting us all into a world that many, if not most, viewers had likely never seen. A world that some of us, no matter our orientation, don’t want to be shut out of.