More than 10 years on from the final episode, LGBTQ+ communities have much higher expectations of how they’re portrayed in the media, even more so now that straight audiences are far more likely to see queer characters on screen, with mainstream series like Netflix’s Riverdale showcasing these narratives. Whether this increase in representation reflects real acceptance from wider society is hard to judge, but it’s clear that producers are keen to drive up viewer numbers by engaging with the LGBTQ+ demographic.
The L Word reboot has a new platform to educate and entertain but it has to make some adjustments before it can be the show that queer people have been waiting for.
When I was 18, after years of vaguely knowing that boys didn’t always cut it for me, I found myself searching for scraps of guidance; something equivalent to a "lesbianism for dummies". Then I came across The L Word. As the first (and so far only) mainstream show to centre on the lives of lesbians, it seemed like the guide I was looking for. However when I emerged bleary-eyed from binge-watching all six seasons, I was disappointed. I had been out for approximately 2.5 seconds but I was already aware that The L Word’s coterie of almost exclusively femme, white queer characters was not representative of the IRL community.
The L Word’s coterie of almost exclusively femme, white queer characters was not representative of the IRL community.
My concerns are echoed by the other lesbians and queer people I've spoken to about the show's return, who regard it as something of a problematic fave. You can appreciate how the show helped normalise same-sex female desire while recognising that it isn't an accurate depiction of LGBTQ+ life. The series’ lack of trans women and pervasive bi-erasure are just two of the serious issues that, in 2019, make it dated and even difficult to watch.
One of the missteps that most stands out is the heavily stereotyped handling of the show’s only trans man, Max Sweeney (played by Daniela Sea), which also happened to be one of the first mainstream media depictions of its kind. As Max was originally introduced as a comedic foil to main character Jenny, this plotline — which could have been vital to those struggling with their gender identity — is not treated with the respect and sensitivity it requires. Max is also negatively stereotyped, shown as becoming aggressive when taking black market hormones, and forced to suffer gratuitous trauma, ultimately becoming pregnant after exploring a gay relationship, then denied an abortion and left by his boyfriend. Given the damage narrative decisions such as these can inflict in both the public consciousness and for LGBTQ+ individuals, The L Word reboot runs the risk of alienating the very demographic it wants to target unless it makes some changes.
I spoke to Cathy Keen, community and events manager for the dating app Feeld, and she thinks the reboot is still of vital importance in today’s landscape. "Any increase in representation is a step in the right direction since pretty much every other show is mainly focused upon cis-hetero storylines." Cathy makes a valid point: mainstream shows devoted entirely to the queer community are long overdue and The L Word reboot provides an unparalleled opportunity to shrug off recent heteronormative depictions of lesbianism. You rarely hear discussions of even the common terms from queer culture — 'strap-on' and 'lesbian bed death' spring to mind here — in mainstream depictions of queer women, which suggests that they're written with the straight viewer in mind. Films like Disobedience seem hellbent on only depicting queer love (or lust) between white, gender-conforming women who are palatable to equally white, gender-conforming audiences. Not all representation is positive representation — something The L Word reboot needs to be conscious of.
Award-winning campaigner, speaker and writer Ellen Jones highlights more targeted ways in which the show could improve. She says more diverse storylines need to feature, especially for the differently abled. "I would like to see stories about queer disabled folks being told in particular, because I never get to see people like me and it is hard to feel like we exist at all. I want to see more stories told from as many different people in the room making the content as possible. The world is a diverse place – so why isn't our media?"
She adds that she’d like the reboot to avoid the original’s casting missteps, namely the decision for cis actress Daniela Sea to play trans man Max Sweeney. "I want to see trans characters being played by trans actors." Ellen points to an industry-wide issue, one which I feel is unacceptable. It was painful that the original show, which aimed to speak for and to the queer community, did this in the first place. Katie Bowerman, a lesbian in her late 20s, seconds Ellen’s stance on casting and states that it should build upon the original’s choice to cast queer actresses like Leisha Hailey in roles which matched their real-life orientation: "I only want to see LGBT people in LGBT roles."
The bi character is always either presented as 'secretly gay' or 'secretly straight'. This is so damaging for bi people – it just reaffirms that we really don’t belong to either space.
Helen Sterling*, a bisexual woman in her 20s, takes issue with the original’s shoddy handling of bi narratives. Alice and Jenny are characters who served as strong bisexual voices in the first series but by the show’s final episode, seem to identify exclusively as lesbian. According to Helen, all this does is confirm the nasty stereotype that bisexuality is just a 'phase'. "Bi-ness in wider media is presented as a myth: the bi character is always either presented as 'secretly gay' or 'secretly straight'. This is so damaging for bi people of all ages – it just reaffirms that we really don’t belong to either space. The L Word fell into this trap with Alice and Jenny and I hope it does less of a disservice to bi people the second time round."
While it is not uncommon for people’s sexual orientation to change over time, Helen is right to point out that the original L Word swerves any substantial commitment to representing the bi experience. It’s worth remembering that the show also indulges in pretty blatant biphobia: in one episode, Alice quasi-jokingly describes bisexuality as "gross" and when Tina dates a man in season 3, she is roundly criticised by her circle of lesbian friends.
Activist and visual artist Florence Given echoes Helen’s thoughts, and says she’d like to see "more queer/bi/pan relationships – I didn’t think bisexuality/being queer was valid because of the negative stereotypes associated around this identity. I was always told by my friends that bisexuals didn’t exist." Additionally, she notes the need for a greater range of genders to be shown on screen. "It would be great to see some gender fluid/non-binary representation too."
Thus far, it looks hopeful that the reboot could deliver something more in line with what these queer voices want to see. The show’s creator Ilene Chaiken has confirmed that a younger lesbian voice, Marja-Lewis Ryan, will be taking over the directorial reins to give The L Word something of a millennial makeover. Apparently we can expect more of the "sexy stories about sex" which hooked audiences in the '00s, but now from the perspective of someone who is "keenly attuned to the issues of representation and inclusivity". It sounds like a step in the right direction, allowing us to hope that The L Word reboot can deliver on what its stans and potential fans really want, without falling back into the original’s problematic patterns.
*Surname has been changed