I have a special relationship with The L Word. Back in undergrad, I was kind of a big deal amongst the campus queers because I had just about every queer movie or television show imaginable. I would host weekly L Word viewings and we’d lament the losses, celebrate the happy moments, debate over who killed Jenny, and contemplate which character was the hottest. The show was both wonderful and terrible, but I loved it — so much so that I’ve rewatched the series about five times.
My current rewatch happens to coincide with a recent Entertainment Weekly reunion of The L Word cast with one of its creators, Ilene Chaiken. There has been much talk about a potential reboot of the show. Chaiken said, “We talk about it all the time. When we went off the air in 2009, I think a lot of people thought, Okay, the baton is passed now, and there will be lots of shows that portray lesbian life. There really nothing. It feels like maybe it should come back.”
The L Word was a pretty progressive television show when it aired in 2004, depicting the lives of a group of queer friends living in West Hollywood. These characters were largely white and affluent — one of the biggest criticisms of the entire series. What was most important about the series was finally having an outlet to tell different stories about the queer experience and how these experiences intersect. There were storylines about a closeted tennis player coming out to her parents (and the world), exploring the myth of the lesbian bed death, a lesbian couple attempting to have a baby, a transman beginning his transition and later dealing with pregnancy, being queer in the military, and the universal queer experience of coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation. The show also highlighted themes of mental health and substance abuse.
The show also, unfortunately, perpetuated stereotypes. The first season had a predatory lesbian character who at times is shown to be preying on the “straight” woman engaged to a man. The characters of color were, at times, caricatures — including objectifying the legendary Pam Grier as the token alcoholic African American character. Their transgender character was played by a cis-woman. The list goes on.
If The L Word comes back for its swan song, I hope that viewers get the revival that we deserve. Chaiken told EW that “the burden of representation for every single lesbian experience got projected onto us.” It’s true that not every story can be told, but a revival would be an opportunity to tell different stories, or to change the ways that certain stories are told in our current political climate. Times have changed significantly since 2009. Leisha Hailey (Alice) made an excellent point when she said that “Our country is so polarized right now and the political landscape is such a mess. We need shows that are about community and acceptance.” It would be pretty incredible to see what this show would look like now, during the Trump era, in a world where same-sex marriage is legal. Some things, however, would need to change.
We deserve a show that doesn’t buy into the “bury your gays” trope. When Chaiken killed off Dana Fairbanks, she was killing off one of the most beloved and relatable characters. She even says that it’s the one storyline she truly regrets. She has talked of the importance of telling the story of battling cancer and has acknowledged that perhaps Dana should have survived. Dana’s relatability came in the form of her awkwardness in talking to women, her journey coming out of the closet, and her interest in playing sports. We deserve more creative storylines that don’t rely on the tragic lesbian ending to advance the story.
We deserve better trans visibility. Though Max was the first transgender character to be a series regular on a television show, his storyline was, overall, a hot mess; his hypermasculine, abusive macho bullshit was explained away as taking too much testosterone, which overshadowed the importance of his initial transition and his marginalization in the workplace. We deserve trans characters portrayed by trans actors.
We deserve less ageism. The character of Phyllis, played by Cybill Shepherd, is a middle-aged woman who begins the process of coming out as a lesbian to her husband and adult children. This is an experience that many people face, especially those from older generations when it was not safe or acceptable to come out early in life. The ridicule of the character as an older, “late-in-life” lesbian certainly reflects the ageism in the queer community, but does little to challenge these stereotypes. Phyllis’s relationship with Joyce (Jane Lynch) is almost portrayed as comic relief rather than as a legitimate relationship.
We deserve better bisexual representation. Alice was an out and proud bisexual in the first season and received much shame and ridicule from her friends. While the criticism of Alice’s bisexuality absolutely reflects the same biphobia in the queer community, it perpetuates the problem rather than depicting positive bi portrayals. In season 4, Alice addresses her season one bisexuality and says, “I came to my senses.” I cringed.
We deserve butch visibility. Almost every butch character on the show was ridiculed — if they were shown at all. This is an entire community of women who is all but invisible on television, and The L Word could be a perfect opportunity to show that not all queer women are feminine or androgynous. It would also be a refreshing change of pace to see characters who fall outside of the gender binary.
We deserve a better reflection of the real queer community. Sure, affluent lesbians exist, but this isn’t the majority. We are a community of different shapes and sizes and backgrounds, and it would be refreshing to see that reflected on screen. Television has come along way since The L Word’s end in 2009; look at shows like Orange is the New Black, which is revered for its diverse casting, challenging stereotypes, and trans visibility.
Lastly, we deserve to know who actually killed Jenny Schecter.
If The L Word returns, I would happily be one of its viewers. I would love to see these characters return to do what they do best: