Unpacking the L-Word: Lesbian Representation in Contemporary Popular Culture
Session Organizer and Chair: M. Catherine Jonet
Dept. of English, Purdue University
500 Oval Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2038
That's Not Me: Queer Performance's 'Troubling' of the Desire for Authenticity in The L-Word
The L Word is the first television show devoted purely to lesbian representation – there is not merely one lesbian character but rather a multitude of queer representations. A main question that has been asked on radio shows and through numerous articles about The L Word is: does the series represent “real” lesbians? This desire for a “real” representation could make queer scholars feel uneasy because it hints to a claim of an “authentic” lesbian performance. Part of the anxiety that surrounds The L Word is the amount of femme representation within the series, and I investigate what this femme performance teaches us specifically in reference to authenticity. Thus, I propose a queer reading of The L Word where I look to different moments that question and reify the desire for authenticity. Femme performance, gender performance, and racial performance combine for different claims and questioning of authenticity. I use Judith Halberstam’s article “The I Word ‘I’ is for invisible, as in real-world lesbians on TV” and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick article “‘The L Word’: Novelty and Normalcy” to inform my reading of The L Word’s and our own struggles with authenticity.
Lipstick and Lesbians: Visibility in The L-Word
Mainstream media coverage of The L-Word almost inevitably applauds the series for the attractiveness and stylish dressing of its characters, which is placed in opposition to ‘stereotypes’ of lesbians. This paper will examine the twin issues of visibility and style within The L-Word and the relationships they have to one another in terms of lesbian representation. The focus of the paper will be an attempt to ascertain how lesbianism is visually coded in the series, via both presences and absences of representation, and the significance of these codes in constructions of the lesbian subject. Analysis will also be undertaken of matters integrally related to these issues, such as gaydar and various forms of passing, as they arise narratively and visually within the series. In order to examine the manner in which The L-Word negotiates lesbian signification it is necessary to scrutinise the concurrent movements of repositioning femme in lesbian theory and practice, the feminising of images of lesbianism in mainstream culture and the closeting of the butch in mainstream cultural discourse. Femme lesbians have historically been marginalised in discourse around lesbianism, either positioned as inauthentic or figured solely in relation to the ‘magical sign’ of the butch’s ‘marked body’ (Walker, 2001). In the ‘new lesbian visibility’ imparted by the The L-Word, the images are predominantly feminine – I will consider the implications of this for lesbian visibility and representation, and whether lesbianism is “subsumed” as “images get feminised” (Ciasullo, 2004).
University of Sydney, Australia
Witches and Femmes: Packaging Lesbians for Television
Despite the increasing visibility of gay men on television, series about lesbians have emerged only recently, first with the appearance of Willow in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and then with The L-Word, a series devoted almost entirely to lesbians. Buffy depicted a romantic relationship between Tara and Willow, but we see no sexual contact between them, and their relationship ultimately fails. But The L-Word, as reviewers have observed, is “hot”; it depicts not only lesbian relationships and issues but also features lesbian sexual contact. If theorists like Terry Castle are correct in contending that patriarchal civilization rests upon an erotic triangle of male homosocial desire, stabilized and concealed by the woman who serves as the conduit for the male relationship, then such depictions, which radically suppress the possibility of male bonding, should be threatening. Yet the show has drawn no general male opposition, perhaps because the lesbian leads are identifiably feminine, and thus vulnerable to the male Gaze. In this paper, we will consider whether The L-Word’s depiction of lesbian sexuality is radically subversive, or whether it conforms to stereotypes about lesbians.
Susan J. Wolfe
University of South Dakota
Lee Ann Roripaugh
University of South Dakota
Lesbians in Popular Culture: Not the “L-Word” Anymore?
This essay examines the production of categories on Showtime’s new series, The L-Word. It also considers the show’s attempts to demonstrate—through references or “head nods”—an “insider knowledge” of dyke social practices, identities, and cultural production. This paper asks: What version of “lesbian subjectivity” does The L-Word present? How do these productions and “head nods” bring it about? This paper also considers the negotiations that must occur in order for there to be “lesbians” in prime time, which might mean for there to be The L-Word there might be a subsuming of “l-words.”
Laura Anh Williams
M. Catherine Jonet
Queerness and the Lesbian-Identified Man in The L-Word
This paper examines Showtime’s new lesbian drama, The L-Word, in terms of how it self-consciously engages with issues of gender and sexuality that seem to resonate with trends in feminist and queer theory. These include the engagement with the intersections of race and sexuality as embodied in Jennifer Beal’s character, Bette, and the presentation of Ivan, the drag king. In addition, the camera techniques and imagery of the show also tend to foreground these issues, as mirrors and liminal spaces dominate the mise-en-scene. However, despite the show’s engagement with these issues, the depiction of Lisa, the lesbian-identified man, is a site of biological determinism in a way that Ivan is not. In particular, the sex scene between Lisa and Alice, a bisexual woman, is examined in terms of transgender and queer issues. As Carole Vance reminds us, “being a sex radical at this time, as at most, is less a matter of what you do, and more a matter of what you are willing to think, entertain, and question;” The L -Word, however, does not seem willing to seriously engage with the issues it raised with Lisa and instead goes for the cheap laugh (23).
Where The L-Word Meets the F Word: Random Acts and the Limits of Representation
The L Word is landmark television which depicts what Adrienne Rich would call lesbian existence, a women-centred experience that is traditionally overlooked, erased, derided or appropriated for male pleasure. It assumes female spectatorship, represents female desire, and goes still further by appropriating traditionally masculine representational strategies for the pleasure of women. While the show cannot possibly represent ‘real’, lived experience, it recognizes these limitations particularly through the ‘random acts’ that uniquely preface each episode. These sequences ironically stage the heterosexual male gaze as the standard. Moreover, they also provide a feminist interpretive framework for the otherwise understated feminist politics that suffuses the episodes. While the actual episodes often fail to challenge the politics of sexual difference and the hetero-normative status quo explicitly, the framework established by the ‘random acts’ encourages the audience to read outside of the text or at the margins, arguably already a lesbian reading strategy. Thus acknowledging the limits of representation is both liberating and political. Insisting that there is more to the story than one representation, one performance, one moment can express, The L Word resists the representational strategies of masculine visual culture at the very same time as it ironically deploys them.
Laura M. Robinson
Fabulousness as Fetish: Queer Politics in Sex and the City
“Gay men understand what’s important – clothes, compliments and cocks.”
--Samantha from Sex and the City
As the “queer revolution” proliferates on primetime and cable television, feminist audiences must continue to ask, “Where are all the queer women?” Created by gay men for an arguably straight female and gay male audience, HBO’s Sex and the City relegates queer women to abjection, silence, and subalternity, constantly privileging relationships with gay men over interactions with gay women. “Fabulous” gay male characters embody Freudian notions of fetishism for straight women, deploying the affirmation of male phallic privilege and the simultaneous disavowal of sexual difference, most notably in queer women. For Sex and the City’s straight female protagonists, gay men act as markers of cultural capital, and as idealized substitutions for both romantic partners and platonic friendships between women.
Employing Judith Butler’s notion of invisible lesbians as “unviable (un)subjects,” this paper examines an especially insightful episode, “The Cheating Curve” (episode 18, season two), detailing Charlotte’s unsuccessful quest to join a group of “power lesbians.” Charlotte’s personality as a prude who hates sex is integral to the subtext of the narrative; it simultaneously recodes lesbian sexuality as non-sexual and queer female identity as cold and unfriendly, a ubiquitous trope in popular culture. Written from a gay male perspective, what does this say about the value, or more accurately, the lack of value, of lesbian friendships and communities? While seemingly progressive in content, shows like Sex and the City comfortably fall back into pseudo-heterosexual patterns, instigating subtle lesbophobia through exclusion and desexualization. For Sex and the City audiences, queer women remain invisible, unknowable, and non-existent, yet always present in their constant denial as the negative placeholder of the straight woman’s fetish.
University of CA, Davis
An Existential Look at The L-Word
What version of contemporary identity politics do we encounter in the first season of the Showtime drama The L-Word? Certainly in terms of the viewing audience, The L-Word represents an important shift towards the inclusion of lesbian narratives and characters within mainstream cable culture. However, such representation depends crucially upon the text securing moments of recognition for the viewers, who must watch for conversations, experiences, and individuals that coincide with their own communities and relationships. And such recognition is itself dependent upon a very specific scripted formulation of lesbian identity. Rather than simply celebrating this form of representation, this paper will evaluate the show in terms of its queer politics by advancing an existential reading of the characters of The L-Word. In this analysis, we are mobilizing an approach to queer ethics demonstrated by thinkers such as Michael Warner, Lauren Berlant, and Eric O. Clarke. A quick survey of the main characters in The L-Word finds them to be almost exclusively white, wealthy, and gendered in overly feminine terms. In terms of the character who confronts prejudice and mainstream normative prescriptions with an authenticity that seems the most compassionate, as well as the most ethically promising, we conclude, somewhat unexpectedly, that Kit proffers the most potential for queering ethical norms, for resisting stabilizing conceptions of identity, and for moving beyond scripted stereotypes.
University of CA, Davis