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Not Your Mother's Lesbians

In the past, when lesbians were seen in pop culture—if they were seen at all—they tended to be sexless creatures draped in flannel. Showtime’s The L Word reverses the stereotype. And, writes Kera Bolonik, New York’s lesbians are ready for a new paradigm.

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The cast of The L Word.  

Since the dawn of gay liberation, lesbians have been relegated to the role of the queer community’s fishwife. Just turn on the television and you’ll see us decked out in fanny packs, tool belts, Birkenstocks, ear cuffs, and bolo ties, as we revel in our man-hating, tofu-eating, mullet-headed, folk-music-loving, sexless homebody glory. Our image serves as ideal fodder for sitcom jokes and comedy sketches, as on Saturday Night Live, where they recently spoofed Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, sending five dowdy dykes into an unsuspecting heterosexual woman’s home, pelting her with softballs and stanzas from bad feminist poetry, transforming her feminine closet into a flannel wonderland, and encouraging her to throw away her disposable razor and “let her garden grow.”

Sure, Ellen DeGeneres was a pioneer, in 1997, for having been the first sitcom personality to come out. But her daffy, well-scrubbed, asexual lesbian alter egos, Ellen Morgan and Ellen Richmond, couldn’t shoulder all the responsibility, and her more recent role as an endearingly quirky talk-show host actively shrugs it off, lest her show be seen as “too gay.” After Rosie O’Donnell came out, she revealed herself to be moody and sanctimonious as a closeted lesbian single mom on Will & Grace—and hard-assed, mercurial, and charmless as a magazine editor in real life. For two seasons of ER, Dr. Kerry Weaver enjoyed sapphic liaisons, but proved to be too cantankerous to sustain a relationship, or even a personal life. We met Ross Geller’s ex-wife Carol, a granola-head, and her stoic partner, Susan, in earlier seasons of Friends, and while it was conveyed that the two had a lot of sex early on in their relationship, they would seem to have settled into a cuddle groove before disappearing from the show altogether.

But lesbian stereotypes are about to be exploded, thanks to The L Word, a powerful, wildly sexy new television series starring Jennifer Beals, Mia Kirshner, Karina Lombard, and Pam Grier, premiering January 18 on Showtime. The show is a kind of sapphic thirtysomething, about life in Los Angeles for a circle of glamorous female friends who have in common a tremendous drive to succeed. They’re all dressed up for the American living room, with money, looks, style, and wit to spare.

“There’s a unique anthropology to our lives,” says Ilene Chaiken, the show’s executive producer. “It makes these stories especially worth telling because most people don’t know these details. The lesbian characters we’ve seen were mostly created by men. We’ve been marginalized from the culture for a very long time, and I think that we’re ready to claim our rightful place.”

The show’s title plays on the long-established trope of lesbian invisibility, the sense in which we’re here (and queer) but not here. So the culture hasn’t exactly gotten used to us. “Lesbian is one of those taboo words,” says Chaiken. “I don’t know if it was the context first, or whether it’s just that the word isn’t aesthetically pleasing.”

Lesbian invisibility has been self-perpetuating. “What kept me in the closet for so long, or even from realizing I was gay, was that I didn’t identify with a lot of what I saw out there,” says Kimberly Burns, 39, a New York freelance publicist and writer.

While Showtime was breaking new ground for gay men with its hit series Queer As Folk, an American version of the British show that offered a candid portrait of the sexual lives of gay men in a working-class town, it has hardly blazed any trails for their homo sisters. If anything, its honesty has allowed it to depict a particular type of gay man’s tendency toward a homogenous social existence. Sure, there is the supportive P FLAG mother, a whiny lesbian couple, and a few stray fag hags here and there, and the occasional “straight” trick living on the down low. In a way, shows about gay-male life highlight the dearth of programs substantively featuring lesbians and the ways we all negotiate the straight world.

It’s not that we haven’t seen hot women together on prime time before. Everybody but Miranda dabbled with girls on Sex and the City. Even off camera, girl-on-girl action conveys a certain level of street cred: Angelina Jolie recently boasted about her tryst with former Calvin Klein model Jenny Shimizu. And when her popularity was on the wane, Madonna reminded everyone of her role as provocateur with a vampiric spit-swap with Britney Spears on the MTV Video Music Awards. These images are titillating, but they’re not aimed at a lesbian audience. These are bi-curious babes, tempting and taunting men, pandering to a fantasy. All of these women finally return to their men—and boy, did they turn them on.

Which makes The L Word a coming-out party, closing the gap between how lesbians see themselves and how the world sees us. This being television, the glam factor has been cranked up considerably: The women of The L Word are sleek, beautiful, zealously groomed, stylishly dressed, and as obsessed with sex as Sex and the City’s Samantha and Carrie ever were. (Straight men are liable to find plenty to interest them here.) They’re politically aware, sure, but they’re largely post-political, which will come as a welcome relief to many women for whom the struggle for liberation became its own kind of prison.

“So many of us grew up in the era of women’s studies, where our identity was made into a college curriculum,” says Melisse Gelula, 33, an editor at a spa-and-travel magazine. “We all have a sense of the politics of what it means to be gay women. But while the boys have been having circuit parties and doing ecstasy and poppers,” she says, laughing, “we’ve been having potlucks and making warm and nutritious foods.”

Gay men have always owned the rights to cattiness, interior design, theater, opera, and fashion. Lesbians have a legacy, too, and it is one that unites the many subcultures composing our blip on the cultural radar. No, it is not the ubiquitous U-Haul truck, the flannel shirt, the grim disposition, or even the strap-on dildo.


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