Not Your Mother’s Lesbians

The cast of The L Word.Photo: Globe photos

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.

  In this issue…

Friends & Lovers
Gay women in New York quickly discover just how many degrees of sexual separation lie between their ex-girlfriends and their latest hookup.(August 18, 2003)      

Lesbian Bars
Search our database to find a place to hang.      

Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier of The L Word.Photo: Globe photos

It is “lesbodrama,” a word that describes all those internal, and seemingly eternal, fraught personal politics that play out between women in bars, cafés, parties, gyms, online, on the phone, anywhere we meet one another, or avoid each other, as the case may be. Lesbodrama is made all the more intense by the exceedingly small gene pool. There may be just as many gay bars and clubs as there are Gap stores in New York, but you can practically count all the lesbian establishments on one hand, with the effect that everybody is somebody’s ex-girlfriend, former tryst, or conquest. In this closed-circuit scene, ties are neither wholly severed nor mended. We must tread carefully. One sloppy move—falling into bed with your best friend, inadvertently outing a colleague, making out in a bar with the bartender’s ex—and suddenly life gets incredibly complicated and claustrophobic.

The women of The L Word are L.A. all the way, styled within an inch of their lives, cynicism-deficient, with houses and swimming pools and professions that, if they aren’t fabulous, put them in direct proximity to fabulousness. L.A. is, after all, a one-industry town. “I felt that in L.A. there was something particularly interesting and unusual going on (in the lesbian scene) and it would be a revelation to the rest of the world,” says Chaiken.

New York lesbians will undoubtedly watch with a mixture of bemusement and awe, as we behold the crew leisurely whiling away their mornings at the Planet—a lesbian-owned café as tidy as Central Perk on Friends—and working the party circuit at night cruising for love and trouble.

At the heart of The L Word group are Bette Porter (Beals), a wheeler-dealer museum director, and her partner, Tina Kennard (Laurel Holloman), a film executive who has recently left her development job to dedicate herself to the pursuit of pregnancy, and to rescuing their seven-year relationship from stagnation. Bette and Tina, whose collective seven-year itch fuels one of two main story lines this season, are idealized as the perfect couple by their younger single gal pals looking to hook up—or get hooked up—throughout the sprawling metropolis.

“If you hold events just for women, they will come out for them; they’ll make the effort. We want to be around each other, women like ourselves.”
—Jennifer Hatch, 42, managing partner, Christopher Street Financial.

Their crowd includes Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey), a flaky bisexual journalist as eager to make herself known as an equal-opportunity lover as she is to brainstorm ten-best lists for Los Angeles magazine; Dana Fairbanks (Erin Daniels), a professional tennis player trapped between her romantic loneliness and the desperate need to keep her sexuality a secret from her sponsors; Shane McCutcheon (Katherine Moennig), a sexy, cocksure female-Casanova hairstylist wanted all over L.A. in every sense of the word; and the sultry, erudite Marina (Karina Lombard), who, with her Pan-European accent, is a dead ringer for Charlotte Rampling, and who owns the Planet, the West Hollywood café where all of them congregate for daily postmortems, affirmations, and occasional snarky showdowns.

There’s also a new girl in town, and she’s looking good to everyone, especially Marina. Freshly graduated from college, Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) has moved next door to Bette and Tina to join her hunky former Olympian turned swimming-coach boyfriend, Tim Haspel (Eric Mabius). When the planetary proprietor makes a move on her at a party, the young waif finds herself in an unforeseen, and utterly confusing, predicament—The L Word’s other major narrative thread, one focused not so much on an imminent sexual-identity crisis as on the emotional chasm that has begun to develop between a couple outgrowing one another.

If New York lesbodrama is played out against a less glam—and more diffuse—backdrop, it’s partly because New York is the workaholic capital of the world, which often makes it far easier to befriend colleagues than strangers in bars. Many lesbians find that they have as many if not more heterosexual friends than they have gay pals in their lives, like Burns, who has lived both in L.A. and New York. “Here I hang out with a lot of straight people. In L.A., homos stay away from straight people. Maybe there you have to work with them in the industry, but it’s a much more insular life. New York just brings together a lot of like-minded people.”

“Who you sleep with,” quips Deborah Kass, “does not a community make.” Kass, a 51-year-old artist who lives in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill with her partner of eleven years, fellow artist Patricia Cronin, 40, says that they hang out with so few lesbians, “I can count them. I’m involved in such a tiny little world—the art world—and though we tend to hang out with a very gay and gay-involved crowd, we have often been the only lesbians in the room.” While these women feel at ease in mixed company, newly single Candace, a 29-year-old lawyer at a major firm, says socializing with her straight friends can become an issue when she wants to go out. “It’s hard for me to get my straight female friends to go to dyke bars.”

Talk to any New York lesbian about invisibility and you’re likely to get a critique, if not a savaging, of the sapphic bar scene. No sprawling bungalows, no glistening, idyllic pools, except maybe at summer homes in the North Fork or Cherry Grove for the more elite among us. Instead, our cultural mecca is host to a total of six dingy dyke bars. There are the no-frills venues, decked out with little more than a pop-filled jukebox and a full bar like the recently made-over Henrietta Hudson and neighborhood hangouts the Cubbyhole in the West Village and Ginger’s in Park Slope. Rarely is there a dull moment at Meow Mix on the Lower East Side, where revelers guzzle from plastic cups as their worlds are rocked by post-punk bands and go-go girls and bois. If ever we yearn for Bacharach or Sondheim, we might head to the piano bar at Rubyfruit Bar & Grill downtown, or go uptown to Julie’s on East 53rd Street, where the heavily bridge-and-tunnel crowd also enjoys a newly installed dance floor. Needless to say, some of these bars could stand to be upgraded.

Melisse Gelula, 33, magazine editor, with Tiffany Wolf, 33, drummer.Photo: Gabrielle Revere

Boy bars will occasionally pick up the slack, offering a weekly girls’ party on an off-night. It is almost always a Sunday night. These days, the scene is at Starlight Bar & Lounge, on Avenue A, where things don’t get going until well after midnight, a challenge for any professional over 30.

“We always get the funky off-nights. I guess women aren’t very committal when it comes to going out,” surmises Christine, 32, the general manager of KSA Publicity, who now forgoes late-night outings to be with her partner, Karen, and their 9-month-old son, Ziggy. “They’re not going to generate the kind of revenue a place would need on a Friday or Saturday night as it would if they rented it out to a gay-male party or a straight party.”

Many lesbians over 30 see only twentysomethings in the bars. “Meow Mix has that I’m-not-set-in-my-career-yet feeling,” observes Denise, 38, who works in finance. “I think the same holds true with the West Village bars. It’s all 21-year-olds. You don’t go to bars and see people in their thirties. They domesticate, pair off, hibernate, whatever.”

Christine, who lives in lower Manhattan, theorizes that there are three stages of lesbian bar life. “You go to Meow Mix in your twenties. Then you graduate to Henrietta Hudson, and then you eventually graduate to Rubyfruit (which caters to a middle-aged clientele), from young age to middle-ish age to your retirement age, presuming you don’t hook up with a long-term relationship. Some people don’t ever want to couple up. It’s not their thing.”

Some theorize that the dearth of sapphic nightlife is gender-based; that women just don’t go out as much as men. “If you look in straight bars, there are always more men,” observes Karen, 40, an independent film producer. “They have more money, and they go out more than women, that’s all there is to it. So, when you have gay men and gay women, it’s magnified. Of course there are women who carouse and men who nest, but they’re the exceptions.”

Melisse thinks the bars are also to blame for women’s waning interest. “The lesbian bars in this city that have closed—and even the ones that are still open—were not giving lesbians what they wanted, and they were not any longer representing who lesbians are in 2003 and 2004. The really frustrating thing is that the stereotypes really convey a limiting image of who we are supposed to be. I feel really circumscribed sometimes. Those bars have a way of recapitulating those standards. We want to see women who look like us.”

Melisse, who lives in Park Slope with her girlfriend, Tiffany Wolf, a drummer for the rock band Triple Creme, says, “Maybe that’s why we retreat to our homes, to make a world that we wish existed outside. I’m not self-hating. I go to dyke things all the time. It’s just that my idea of what that means is not even offered. It seems like the fags have a better idea of what I want, or the Ian Schragers of the world have a better idea of what I want.” She cites as an example a neighborhood restaurant/bar, Long Tan, which has qualities she’d love to see adopted by a lesbian venue: affordable drinks served in glassware; hip décor; sexy, friendly wait and bar staff; and, above all, ambience.

There are also a handful of circuit parties, like Shescape, which has become an institution if only for the fact that it’s been going on for twenty years and draws hundreds of professional-women couples and singles, both from the outer boroughs and outlying suburbs. Invitation-only parties like the Brooklyn-based “Muffler” bring together a more hipster sapphic element, 200 women at a time, ranging in age from twentyish to fortyish. And the more upwardly mobile may find themselves running into one another at benefits like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center women’s events. “A lot of my social life and that of my friends’ is centered around these series of benefits,” explains Jennifer Hatch, 42, the managing partner of Christopher Street Financial, an investment-management firm that works with the lesbian and gay community. “If you hold events just for women, they will come out for them; they’ll make the effort. We want to be around each other, women like ourselves.”

How far will The L Word go in changing the uneasy out-but-invisible experience of gay women? At a minimum, it will begin to fill a huge void, and not only by serving up platters stacked with brainy lesbotic eye candy. We will actually get to behold scene after scene of soft porn written and directed by lesbians—an especially momentous occasion because we’re renowned for our mood-killing, self-conscious erotica.

But it will also begin to redress a grievance: that lesbians have long been perceived as interchangeable with hard-core feminists of the humorless persuasion. “Whereas with gay men, it’s perfectly fine to have a gay hairdresser and watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which are all very pat and cute and funny, gay women are considered serious, boring, political,” says Denise. “Rosie O’Donnell drills that stereotype of the dumpy lesbian home every time you see her in the New York Post. She’s either saying something obnoxious or she’s got some god-awful outfit on. I saw a picture of her in the tabloids at the U.S. Open wearing khaki pants that were way too short, with tube socks and clogs. I wouldn’t even wear that to take the garbage out.”

These images may seem limited to the aesthetic realm and therefore easily rectified, but Candace believes it goes deeper than how we present ourselves to the world. “Generally, society is more comfortable with the idea of women having sex with each other than men. It’s a strip-club and porn kind of thing. But when it exceeds the realm of fantasy, I think there’s a huge discomfort with it because it is seen as a rejection of the heterosexual norm, or men. Gay men are not perceived to be rejecting anything.”

As much as The L Word focuses on romantic relationships, the show devotes its attention equally to the intricacies—and intimacy—of friendship, which is where so much of the lesbodrama enters the picture. On the show, as in life, friends double as competitors in the limited dating arena. Unless a statute of limitations is set and made readily available, we are constantly running the risk of tromping on our pals’ territory. And of course, what turns up the heat on a friendship quite like romantic and sexual tension?

And The L Word plays this out with a cast of women who don’t remotely suggest the sapphic stereotypes to which American audiences have grown accustomed. Bette’s soft, curly hair caresses the shoulders of her exquisitely tailored power suits; Shane’s chiseled features are framed with a glam-rock shag and clothes that look as easy to tear off as Paris Hilton’s; Marina could seduce anyone, anywhere, anytime. There are no mullets for miles.

Is the new lesbian image, as put forth by The L Word, too metrosexualized? Inevitably, there will be those who argue that it is, and just as many who will argue that it’s been a long time coming. We’re argumentative—it’s part of our lesbodramatic legacy. But after years of living down our dumpy reputation, perhaps it behooves us to put our best, most madeup faces forward, for a change. I mean, how many “anomalous” dykes does it take to prove to straights and gay boys that not all lesbians wear bolo ties and Birkenstocks? After The L Word, the answer will, one hopes, be zero.

Not Your Mother’s Lesbians