The L Word is a popular television series on Showtime that depicts the lives of predominantly lesbian women in the present day. The most recent episode that I watched was Lassoed and the trend of femininity and masculinity throughout the series is exemplified within it. The production team of The L Word maintains a balance between strict gender roles and challenging those roles in an effort to present lesbians as normal female characters.
The activities, interests, and careers of the main characters of the L Word represent femininity. The jobs they hold, while dominant positions within their fields, fall under stereotypically feminine fields. Bette is the Dean of Art at a university. While her position is very powerful, therefore bending the rules of femininity, it is within the world of art which is seen to be typically feminine due to its “frivolous” nature. Two of the characters, Alice and Jenny, are writers. Again, as they are very accomplished they break the mold slightly, however, this job is also considered feminine and frivolous. The most telling career of any of the characters is Shane’s position as a hairdresser. Shane is the most butch lesbian on the show and in order to counteract her masculinity, the production team gives her the most feminine career out of the main characters.
In order for the audience to truly define femininity quickly and easily within the context of the show, masculinity must be presented as a counterpart. Max is a female to male transgender character. He provides a great a deal of the masculinity within the show. In this particular episode, Max is seen working on the engine of a car while Shane comes to pick up her 10-year-old brother, Shey. Max seems to be showing Shey the car and what he is doing, therefore, helping Shey into his own masculinity. After an exchange with Shane, Max offers to hang out with Shey for the day and bring him out to eat burgers. Max’s masculinity is seen in every aspect of that scene, juxtaposed with Shane as the female character needing to be feminized due to her butch identity.
Female sexuality is also used to enforce gender and comfort the audience in regards to lesbianism. In any scene that includes two or more lesbian women, sexual relations are the central focus, a continuous undertone, or referenced one or more times. “But despite their growing media presence and influence, one subtle but powerfully stereotypical theme remains: that gays and lesbians are either extremely or at least moderately preoccupied with sex” (Newman, 99). “The chart” is the most obvious and recurring sexualized object of the show. This chart is a web of all known hook-ups and relationships between female characters. Different women, specifically Shane and Papi, are considered central hubs on the chart and their sexuality is constantly referred to on the show as they are seen having a new sexual partner with every episode and often multiple partners within one episode. In this episode, Alice and Jenny discuss Alice’s sexual encounter with Papi and without any hesitation or concern reference that Papi proceeded to hook-up with Helena, Alice’s roommate, later the same night.
Even when characters themselves are not involved in sexual relationships with each other, the sexual conversations and undertones of their interactions with each other go far beyond what would be the normal dynamic of their relationship in the real world. Phyllis is Bette’s boss at the university. In normal interactions a supervisor/ supervisee relationship may include discussions of personal life, however, Bette and Phyllis are barely seen discussing their jobs at all. Phyllis comes out to Bette and uses her as a lesbian mentor, consistently garnering advice on how to find women to hook-up with. The over sexualization of these women is a way for popular culture to define them as true women.
The lesbians on The L Word are hyper-feminized in both appearance (clothing, make-up, jewelry) and body language. Every aspect of the ways in which gender is performed according to Gender Codes can be seen. In the scene between Bette and her Teacher’s Assistant (TA), the TA wears a short skirt, a revealing top, and acts out the girlish hair twirl. Even Shane consistently wears make-up and fashionable clothing and is photographed in the head cant pose on the box cover, while maintaining a strictly butch identity.
While strict gender roles are apparent, the overarching and obvious plots will continue to promote acceptance of lesbian women in general. In the scene at Tina’s house party including both her lesbian friends and her straight friends, some of the straight men become threatened by the lesbians raising children without a father because they feel that children show have male role models. This conversation became more heated when the straight men were “mostly” accepting of lesbians but creeped out by gay men, the threat to their masculinity being a motivating factor. This encounter is a way that The L Word reminds its viewers of the hegemonic dynamic between the straight and lesbian communities. “Hegemony is the power or dominance that one social group has over the other” (Lull, 61). The L Word was sure to squash this blatant form of homophobia but the more subtle undertones of the need to feminize the women are not seen as such. Although it one goal of the show may be to promote acceptance, it is not showing the true diversity of the lesbian community.
The fear that lesbian characters may not be seen as true women, due to confusion between sexual orientation and gender identity, drive these producers to rigidly define their genders. Because the audience cannot functionally watch the series without the framework of gender, the fear could become damaging to the success of the show. Gendered jobs, over sexualization, and hyper-femininity help to reduce the likelihood that the lesbian identities presented will shock the audience.
Lull, James. “Hegemony.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media: a Text-reader. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003.
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006.