When The L Word, a soapy drama about a group of L.A. lesbians, premiered in 2004, it seemed the logical, even inevitable, product of a gay-friendly moment on TV. At the time, critics were heralding Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as bold proof of a new openness to gay stories and characters. And if America was ready for swishy Jack McFarland and Carson Kressley, well, who wouldn’t flock to a show about beautiful women making out?
This opportune moment seemed to blow up out of nowhere: The L Word’s creator, Ilene Chaiken, has described how at her initial pitch meetings, in 1999, she was met with the TV equivalent of polite smiles and patronizing head pats; then, after the success of Showtime’s gay-male series Queer As Folk, the cable channel told her The L Word was a go.
Jennifer Beals is just one member of the strong female ensemble, but the Flashdance icon is the best-known star, so she’s become a de facto spokeswoman for the show. She spent a few days in New York last week, promoting the first-season DVD, attending a party to launch the second season, and generally doing a fair amount of riding around in the back of a Town Car. “What’s nice about the show is that people actually watch it,” she said, as muted honks sounded outside the car’s windows. “That it means something to somebody, somewhere.” When I asked her about the political climate The L Word now finds itself in—a climate in which no one is trumpeting an openness to gay stories on TV; in which SpongeBob SquarePants is being outed by grim-faced opponents; in which, let’s face it, a show like The L Word, with its sperm donors and two-mom households and explicit, unapologetic, bed-hopping lesbian randiness, could be Exhibit A in any conservative’s case for What’s Wrong With America Today—she didn’t rail about politics or curse the show’s foes, but instead said serenely, “I think it’s the nature of creation. You expand, then there’s a slight contraction. And then you expand, and then there’s a slight contraction. It’s the nature of growth.”
That pattern might also describe Beals’s own career, which started with the big bang of Flashdance, followed by a prolonged contraction. When I suggested as much to her, she let slip a sly smile, but she wouldn’t play along. She neatly derailed the line of questioning with an actors-handbook reply. “There’s always a flow,” she said. “You try to go with the flow the best you can. And pay your rent.”
After green-lighting The L Word, Showtime approached Beals about playing one of two characters: Bette, a headstrong, temperamental workaholic, and Tina, Bette’s slightly more well-adjusted domestic partner. Beals took to Bette, but she wanted Chaiken to complicate the character’s life in one additional way—by making her explicitly bi-racial. Beals, the daughter of a white mother and a black father, felt this would make the role more attractive to her. So Chaiken wrote that into the part.
“After spending a long stretch of her early life as a literal poster girl, Beals is reemerging now as a different kind of icon.”
Pam Grier’s character, Kit, was originally supposed to be Bette’s friend, but her role was rewritten as Bette’s half-sister. “I wanted to explore what it means to be bi-racial in a larger cultural context and what it means within the gay community,” Beals said. This dryly noble goal led to one of the first season’s juiciest twists, when Bette arranges a sperm donor for Tina without telling her the donor is black, and Tina has to deal with her resistance to carrying, and raising, a bi-racial baby. “Don’t you think, on top of everything else, to also have two moms, that is a lot of otherness to put on one child?” she says, moist-eyed and quavering, to Bette.
With its klatch of gossiping buddies, its closets full of fabulous clothes, and its strained efforts to coin pithy sexual catchphrases (one groaner in the first season involved the phrase “bush confidence”), The L Word seems consciously modeled on Sex and the City. Yet because of its subject matter, it can’t help but be more political in its story lines, and more personal to its audience. And this is no soft-focus, Personal Best, stolen-glances-in-the-shower-room treat- ment of lesbianism. The characters are brazenly lusty, and the show never flinches when the clothes start coming off. I asked Beals if this political element drew her to the part, or if it gave her pause before signing on. “I’ve learned that everything is political,” she said. “So if you’re playing a part that can make people realize that the ways in which we’re similar are so much more numerous than the ways in which we’re different, that’s a plus.”
Her grammatically immaculate answers tend to remind you she’s a former Yale English student; in fact, she was famously plucked from the New Haven campus at 19 to star in Flashdance, a silly romance movie that launched a national mania of hit songs, iconic moments, and regrettable fashion trends. She was, for example, patient zero in the early-eighties leg-warmer epidemic. She prompted an entire continent’s worth of young girls to shrug their sweatshirts off one shoulder. In fact, just days before our meeting, I was at an Off–Off Broadway one-man show that ended with the male star stretched over a chair and getting doused with water dropped from the ceiling, aping the famous scene from Flashdance, to great appreciative hoots and applause. Whatever the success of The L Word, it’s hard to imagine that Beals will ever regain such a prominent place in the culture, though for her, once seems to be enough.
In the twenty years since Flashdance, she’s delivered admirable performances in interesting films, and admirable performances in unmemorable ones. In 2002, she appeared in Roger Dodger as a worldly, unexpectedly nurturing woman who’s picked up by Campbell Scott and proffered sexually to his virgin teenage nephew. Beals, who looks roughly four years older now than she did in Flashdance, has come to specialize in just that kind of role: the beautiful woman who slowly reveals an edge of world-weariness, tempered by hard-won compassion.
After spending a long stretch of her early life as a literal poster girl, Beals is reemerging now as a different kind of icon, to an audience that’s smaller but far more passionate. And while not everyone has been enthusiastic about The L Word’s parade of glamazon lesbians, accusing the show of playing to a male’s girl-on-girl fantasies, Beals believes it’s been important to simply start the conversation. “What’s really exciting is that people are vocal about how they want to be represented,” she said, “after they’ve been invisible for so long.” I asked her if she has advice for the show’s other stars, many of whom are experiencing this level of attention for the first time. “I do remember in the first season saying, ‘Enjoy this right now. Because nobody’s watching you. And it’s a different feeling when everyone’s watching you.’ ” She looked out the window at the people on the sidewalk. The car inched her toward another interview. “Some of the women said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘You’ll see.’ ”