Face to Race

Gender, Ethnicity and the Media

The Black Lesbians Are White and the Studs Are Femmes: A Cultural Studies Analysis of The L Word

by Jennifer Esposito and Bettina Love, Georgia State University, USA

1     In an early episode of Showtime's popular series The L Word, a group of lesbians sits around a table having breakfast.[1]Showtime is a subscription cable channel widely aired in the United States and Turkey. Showtime has over 39,500,000 subscribed viewers. According to Cabletelevision Advertising (2006), 'the average Cable household income stands at $68,151/year — +21% higher than the average non-Cable home.' This information is important given that Showtime, and thus <em>The L Word</em>, may only be available to those with a particular income level. This is particularly important given Jon Binnie's (1995) assertion that queer textual studies often focus on meaning but neglect production (markets and capital accumulation). They are all young, white upper-middle class femmes. In walks Shane, a self-proclaimed butch.[2]We use the words 'stud,' 'butch' and 'femme' to denote particular kinds of lesbians. Though, we do so with the caveat that these are racially and culturally specific terms. For instance, 'stud' is a term intending to denote the performance of Black masculinity by a woman while 'butch,' the term often used in popular culture, is the term White women performing White masculinity utilize. 'Dom,' is another term often used by lesbians of color to signify the performance of Black or Latina masculinity. The word 'femme' to signify the performance of lesbian sexuality is not racially specific, though, performances of femininity are, of course, racially specific. She is dressed in tight jeans and a close-fitting shirt. We read her as a femme. However, one of her friends says that she looks 'too gay.' This short excerpt raises a variety of questions for us as academics and cultural theorists. For example, what does a lesbian really look like[3]See Esposito and Baez, 2008 for a discussion on the uses and limits of 'gaydar.'? Who gets to decide? On The L Word, it is the producers who decide but the power of these representations are such that often these decisions made by a few have societal consequences for many.[4]<em>The L Word</em> has numerous producers: Ilene Chaiken, Steve Golin, Mark Horowitz, Elizabeth Hunter, Larry Kennar, Rose Lam, Bob Roe, Rose Troche, and Mark Zakarin.

2     The L Word follows the lives and relationships of a group of middle class, well-to-do lesbians, living in the plush hills of Los Angeles. Although The L Word has aired four seasons, our analysis centers on Season One. We believe Season One deserves a comprehensive cultural analysis because it was a defining moment in television history. It was celebrated as the lesbian Queer as Folk and received much attention in the media. Season One,[5]We have analyzed Season one only. <em>The L Word</em> has now aired Season Four. is set around seven lesbians and two heterosexual characters, Tim (Eric Mabius) and Kit (Pam Grier). A few of the main characters embody an ambiguous sexual identity. For example, Jenny (Mia Kirshner), Tim's fiancée, is a talented writer, who seems to be in a constant battle to find her sexuality and sanity. Her current love interest, Marina (Karina Lombard), is the owner of the Planet, a café that the The L Word women frequent. Similar to Jenny's personal sexuality conflict, Alice (Leisha Hailey) is a funny, witty, bisexual, who is looking for love in all the wrong places. Dana (Erin Daniels), Alice's best friend, is a professional tennis player with a talent for attracting the wrong women and, to add to the dramatic ambiguity, she has not fully accepted the fact that she is gay. Tina (Laurel Holloman) is a selfless lesbian, who wants nothing more than to have a baby with her partner Bette (Jennifer Beals), a high strung, control freak who demands the undivided attention of Tina and everyone around her. Important for this paper's argument, Bette is biracial; however, she performs for the most part as a White woman. Bette's half-sister Kit is a recovering alcoholic with a troublesome past of which she cannot seem to let go. Shane (Katherine Moennig), mentioned above, is the so-called butch of the show, a tomboyish heart breaker who has a problem with commitment. All of the characters, with the exception of Bette and Kit, are White.

3     Our analysis of The L Word is important to the fields of sociology, education, queer theory, and cultural studies because popular culture is a site that educates us about others and about ourselves. Marginalized groups such as lesbians, who are not well represented in mainstream culture, are "particularly susceptible to being 'created' by popular representations" (Inness 3). The L Word's representations inform heterosexual perceptions of lesbianism but they also, to an extent, inform lesbians' perceptions about themselves. As Kellner argues:

Media culture also provides the materials out of which many people construct their sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality, of 'us' and 'them.' Media culture helps shape the prevalent view of the world and deepest values: it defines what is considered good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil. (1)

Indeed as Hall eloquently states, "it is only through the way in which we represent and imagine ourselves that we come to know how we are constituted and who we are" (30). Given that school systems in the United States, for the most part, silence lesbianism, The L Word becomes an important site for education (for lesbians and heterosexuals) about who lesbians are. The L Word may be, in fact, one of the only texts students consume that takes up the issue of lesbianism.

4     In recent years, media representations of homosexuality on television have increased substantially; however, heterosexual normalization and andocentric ideology fuel many of these representations. We argue that the representations of lesbians on The L Word are heteronormative and, thus, narrow. We utilize the term heteronormativity similar to the definition provided by Berlant and Warner, who state that it is the 'institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent – that is, organized as a sexuality – but also privileged' (548f). In this way, heterosexuality becomes normative and this normativity is recreated through daily social interactions, institutional ideologies, and popular culture texts. In fact, the privileging of heterosexuality "often operates unconsciously or in ways that make it particularly difficult to identify" (Valocchi 756). Popular culture, as an institution, helps reify heterosexuality's dominance when heteronormativity within representations remains un-interrogated.

5     Heteronormativity pervades The L Word as characters are portrayed in an assimilationist fashion. They experience serial monogamous relationships and some of them work toward obtaining the ultimate signifiers of heterosexuality, a house and children. The show privileges heterosexuality by representing lesbianism as similar to heterosexuality. For example, the first season does not examine homophobia and discrimination experienced as a daily fact. The realities that we experience as lesbians, such as having to perpetually 'out' ourselves or 'teach' heterosexuals about lesbian life, are not represented. Such a representation does disservice to the many complexities of lesbian life. The L Word helps create a heteronormative narrative.

 

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