'I’ve heard there’s going to be a lesbian in it.'
Once these words are uttered you can pretty much guarantee that 90% of the lesbian population are going to tune in to said show and cross their fingers that they’re going to have a new sapphic sensation to lust over. Lexy from Lip Service anyone? So when The Real L Word burst onto our screens in the summer of 2010, claiming to follow the real lives of real lesbians it was like prayers had been answered. Here was going to be a show that had real life lesbians on it, making them in theory actually attainable, and they were going to represent our community and everyone was going to be happy, right?
The Real L Word is the brain-child of Ilene Chaiken the woman responsible for bringing us The L Word, a show which you should never ever ask a drunk lesbian about. If you do you’ll get a long tirade about why they shouldn’t have killed Dana, repeatedly asking 'how could Shane leave Carmen at the alter?', and their undying hate for Jenny Schecter. Just trust me on this one.
The Real L Word follows the lives and loves of a group of lesbians in Los Angeles, and most recently in Brooklyn too. The cast is made up of predominantly white, fairly successful lesbians in their late twenties and early thirties with so many tattoos that if they stand too close to each other they just blend together. Looking in on these girls' lives, you get the sense that they like to party, not work very often and sleep around. As a lesbian viewer you know that this does not represent everyone but for a heterosexual viewer there is a chance it makes us all look crazy.
A friend's opinion of the show is: ‘I think it's good in the sense that it's making gay rights and just being gay an actual topic that can be discussed openly but it makes us all seem slutty drunks who don't actually work and just party and host events.’ The show is definitely guilty of pandering to stereotypes and the visibility it offers isn’t great. It’s fantastic that there is a TV show centred around lesbians but the way it has been done leaves a lot to be desired.
The Real L Word evokes opinions, a lot of opinions. Just like The L Word before it, as well as shows like Lip Service and another foray in to 'reality lesbians', Candy Bar Girls, everyone who watches it has something to say. Lesbians are an opinionated bunch to start with and then we are only given the tiniest handful of shows that are meant to somehow represent such a diverse group of people who are so desperate to see their life reflected back on the screen. This is why The Real L Word has attracted criticism from the outset. The lives they reflect aren’t 'all encompassing', and so have enraged online commentators (particularly angry lesbians of Twitter) for the ‘characters’ coming from similar socio-economic backgrounds and in season one, being too white.
To compensate the latter situation the production team introduced Sajdah in season two. An African-American woman who had only recently come out, changed from being a fake nail wearing girly girl to being rather butch, and subsequently relocated to LA. The problem here however was that Sajdah was basically a walking stereotype. She was just beginning her foray in to the world of lesbian dating and was a classic example of a U-Haul lesbian (meets a girl and within about two weeks and then packs her life into a U-Haul, moving in to her girlfriend's apartment and adopting a three-legged cat from the local shelter). Most lesbians can probably name a girl or five they know that are guilty of this but it is not an element of the community anyone is particularly proud of. Latching on to this kind of behaviour does not provide any kind of growth or positivity to the lesbian community.
The best character to look at for the portrayal of lesbians on this show is Whitney Mixter. Whitney is the only main cast member to be in all three seasons of the show and has in that time become the face of the show and can be found gallivanting across the globe hosting club nights. Before the show Whitney was working as a makeup artist and had in her spare time apparently hooked up with most of the lesbians of West Hollywood. This brought an instant level of drama to the show as Whitney interacted with the numerous girls she was seeing at the same time as well as navigating her sea of exes.
It gave initially a very negative view of lesbians and gave the impression that monogamy was difficult and that everyone had slept with everyone else. Even the women in relationships on the show came across as unfaithful or unable to have a stable relationship. The shows characters do seem to spend a large chunk of their lives inside bars and clubs ingesting copious amounts of alcohol before being let loose on each other to have screaming matches or end up in bed together. When the latter happens the camera does not shy away.
The show does however deserve credit for the way it tackles some LGBT issues. We’ve had girls coming out to family members, a couple trying for a baby and two weddings. These are all positive affirmations to the community that it is okay to be gay and that sometimes people on reality shows are completely normal. Whitney has grown and progressed through the three seasons as we have just seen her get married to Sara, one of the girls that rotated through her bed in season one. The journey to this outcome has been tumultuous with more drama than you can shake a stick it, but the outcome has been positive. These are negative points that the show is guilty of, but if seeing the show and someone come out to a parent or grandparent helps a girl or a woman do the same then it’s had a positive impact.
It would be fair to say that sometimes lesbians are too demanding of the representations of themselves on television. They’re either too white, too skinny, too femme, too butch, too crazy. It’s a perpetual cycle of wanting and expecting more and not getting it. Yes, mainstream media is still very heterosexual, however attitudes are changing and more gay characters are being introduced, but these things take time. Overall we’re lucky to have some representation and have views and ideas heard even if the platform for it is a bit wobbly. Reality of shows are about, drama, ratings and crazy lifestyles. No one wants to watch a girl go to work, eat a bowl of cereal then stare at .gifs on Tumblr of Brittany and Santana making out. That’s not entertaining.
Realistically, using The Real L Word as a basis of your opinion for all lesbians is like basing your opinion on the entire population of Newcastle on what you’ve watched on Geordie Shore. Yes, a percentage of people are like that, but you have to take what you see with a pinch of salt, and understand that it does not represent everyone. However, as lesbians are underrepresented on television this kind of show may be damaging to the overall perception of the community.
Featured image courtesy of Jeff Lipsky/Showtime.