Networking in Fortress Los Angeles: sexuality, race and the postmodern metropolis in The L Word

by Monique Rooney

© all rights reserved

In her review of Showtime’s cable television series The L Word, published around the time of the program’s release in January 2004, Eve Sedgwick describes a scene in the show’s pilot episode. Sedgwick writes that:

… the viewer watches two young women strip and plunge into a backyard pool, romping amorously in a scene that would not be out of place in soft-core girl-on-girl pornography aimed at heterosexual men or couples. The voyeuristic framing of the scene is even accentuated: We observe it mainly from the point of view of the fascinated woman next door as she crouches behind a fence. And when she re-enters her house, we see her in turn join her boyfriend in a sexual scene that is structured by their slow, shared, relishing narrative and re-enactment of the lesbian scene she has just viewed.1

A familiar staging of homosexuality as a minority (lesbian) spectacle viewed by the mainstream (straight boy or girl-next-door) spectator is here unveiled. In her description, Sedgwick makes much of the gaze of the fascinated neighbour from whose view we observe the lesbian spectacle. She argues that Jenny acts as "a conduit for the lesbian fixations of a variety of viewers–but maybe in the first place, nonlesbian-identified women".2 Recently arrived from Iowa, Jenny also (over)plays the LA newcomer. Her huge eyes and tiny body reinforce her role as, what Meaghan Morris might term,3 the "wide-eyed" subject who, in a perpetual state of bewilderment throughout the first series, confronts her own fluid sexuality after this initial encounter with lesbianism. The framing of homosexuality in terms of visual difference, therefore, is provided by this accent on the unfamiliar reader.

The L Word ‘s deployment of an uninitiated spectator’s viewpoint, for its pilot episode, works to represent an array of glamorous lesbians and bisexuals as a politically transgressive community. The distinction made here between naïve, mainstream viewer and edgy, minority spectacle is perhaps too sharply drawn, particularly since the show relies on populist formats and mainstream narrative forms. In the stranger-comes-to town plot, for instance, a newcomer traditionally acts as a voyeur in an unfamiliar terrain and inevitably upsets the social order. Like the transgression that already underscores this conventional narrative structure, the pilot episode’s representation of the lesbian as a lure for the straight girl next door troubles the program’s otherwise minoritising treatment of homosexuality. Although The L Word celebrates lesbian visibility, there is thus an underlying ambivalence about the accompanying theme of female spectatorship and its relation to desire and containment of the female body. An uncertainty about this theme can be seen in the image of two women embracing in a pool. On one hand, this image is contained within an affluent, inner-city home (located in the gay ghetto of West Hollywood) to reinforce the program’s hypervisible representation of homosexual difference. On the other, the proliferation of the lesbian spectacle takes place beyond the minority group domain to perversely influence the intimate actions of neighbouring heterosexuality. Reproduced in a private domain, lesbianism might be said to stand in for the trajectory of the virtual image in late capitalism. This path of this image may be increasingly restricted to a circumscribed domain, marked by social privilege and access to certain technologies, but it is bestowed with the power to beguile and recruit the unsuspecting observer.

For example, simulation of lesbian sex, in the scene described by Sedgwick above, challenges assumptions about normative heterosexual practices. This challenge is limited, however, by The L Word ‘s representation of simulation as a private pleasure that is restricted to the domestic realm. This privatisation of the lesbian image mirrors the spectatorship conditions that facilitate its circulation. The L Word is a recent creation of Showtime, a cable television subsidiary that produces original content drama. Narrowcasting, or the creation of drama designed to appeal to minority and special interest groups, is a trademark practice of companies like Showtime and HBO. The L Word ‘s plot, setting, characterizations and marketing can be understood in terms of Showtime’s targeting of a homosexual minority. For example, the focus on the transgressive (but also exclusive) community life of West Hollywood, an area known to be a gay ghetto, distinguishes the area and its inhabitants from suburban Los Angeles and regional North America. There is a (humorous) conspiratorial scene, for example, in which the five main players (Tina, Bette, Shane, Alice and Dana) equip themselves with mobile phones to communicate with each other while they spy on Dana’s love interest and test whether or not she is a lesbian. Through such maneuvers, West Hollywood is represented as a technologically networked, metropolitan community built on strong in-group identification. Although the gay neighbourhood is parcelled off from Los Angeles’ suburban suburbs, it is also characterised as a product of the larger, West Coast environment. Opening images of the Hollywood Hills and labyrinthine freeways convey the horizontal, suburbanised sprawl of this Pacific-rim city, which is marketed in direct opposition to the verticality of its modernist counterpart on the East Coast.4 The L Word ‘s slogan, "same sex, different city", positions both the city’s sex and its topography in opposition to Sex and the City, the Manhattan based cable drama about the lives of four heterosexual women. This representation of Los Angeles as sapphic space is evoked in the first episode when, prefacing her later spectatorship of the women in the pool, Tim collects Jenny from the airport and points out the direction of the Pacific Ocean on their drive home.

In what follows, I analyse The L Word ‘s televising of the lesbian as a spectral figure who personifies the postmodern landscape she inhabits. As both postmodern figure and space, lesbian identity can thus be read as a product of the corporate interests, marketing strategies and modes of reproduction of cable and other digitalised networks. In line with Showtime’s marketing of a queer audience, the lesbian is depicted in terms of this minority group identity. She is also depicted as a figure who, replicating the movement of the image in late capitalism, crosses mainstream/minority boundaries. For example, links between characters’ on-screen performances and their off-screen identities (generated partly through the plot and partly through official and fan-based websites) blur fictional and factual boundaries to position the lesbian as an object of speculation and surveillance. A long with star gossip and bios, the websites provide links to lesbian chat rooms and meeting places. This structure mirrors the drama’s fictionalization of lesbian and bisexual characters via their access to digitalized networks. It also underscores the stranger-comes-to-town plot, through which a young, (heterosexual) woman is drawn into a lesbian web. As the mid-Western girl who is magnetized to Tina, Bette and their circle of lesbian friends after her initial voyeuristic encounter, Jenny is pivotal to a narrative that entangles spectral reproduction with homosexual recruitment. This theme is not only central to The L Word ‘s fictional plot. Attraction of new viewers and online members is also key to the marketing strategies of the digitalized culture industry. Showtime’s queer narrowcasting may affect The L Word‘s minoritising depiction of lesbianism. However, the desire for expansion that underscores the lesbian recruitment plot, and is reinforced by the interactive marketing strategies of cable television and associated digitalized networks, contrasts with depictions of lesbian separatism. Oscillating between these poles, of expanding, predatory community and exclusive minority, lesbianism is associated with the highly technologised landscape of inner-city Los Angeles. Such polarised definitions feed into assumptions about homosexuality as an identity that is detached from "natural" subjectivity and capable of crossing boundaries. The homosexual figure thus channels widespread concerns about the reproduction of the image in the postmodern city.

The opening images of the pilot episode introduce this theme. Tina and Bette, Tim’s neighbours and two of the key players in the drama, are pictured kissing in their bedroom after discovering that Tina is ovulating. Bette is an African-American character who can, but chooses not to, pass for white. Tina is her blonde, blue-eyed partner. The inter-racial lesbian kiss, a prelude to Bette and Tina’s later attempt at artificial insemination in a doctor’s surgery, is spliced together with images of the heterosexual male neighbour. Tim is pictured converting his garage into a writing studio for Jenny, who is about to arrive from Iowa where she has completed an MFA in writing. Whilst Bette seduces her girlfriend with the words "Let’s make a baby", Tim arranges a writing desk for Jenny in the studio. This studio will later serve as the mise-en-scene for Jenny’s laptop compositions as well as her lesbian transgressions. The juxtaposition of the inter-racial lesbian kiss with the preparation of Jenny’s writing studio sets the scene for the depiction of straight, bisexual and lesbian urban women as creative and independent users of contemporary technology–media that ostensibly frees women from traditional roles as well as from racial, ethnic and social origins. Jackie Byars and Eileen R. Meehan explore the association between technology and liberal feminism in their essay on cable television programming and constructions of femininity.5 They argue that social transformations, wrought by second wave feminism in the 1970s, have had an impact on cable television marketing of niche groups (such as upscale working women) who are seen as performing new roles at home and in the workplace. Despite the hybridisation of melodramatic genres, to incorporate action and adventure plots, as well as re-scheduling of traditionally female-centred programs from daytime to night-time slots in order to appeal to working and professional women, these genres continue to construct women as consumers interested in romance, domesticity and relationships. In the post-feminist age, therefore, women remain both the objects and the spectators of melodrama as a genre concerned with the familial, interpersonal realm.

The association made between artificial reproduction and female self-invention, in The L Word, suggests that sex more than gender becomes the site for exploration of changing social roles and the locus for anxieties to do with technological proliferation in the postindustrial city. For example, sexual simulation is the paramount theme through which cultural fascinations and fears about "real" and "specular" reproduction, and its association with sexual definition, are circulated. This theme troubles, however, the idea that there is a stable referent, a fixed signifier that precedes a signified, or a "natural" heterosexual identity that might come before homosexual deviance. In her description of the pool scene provided above, for instance, Sedgwick writes that the girl-on-girl spectacle is already recognizable as "soft porn". This image cannot therefore be claimed as a stable sign of lesbianism, nor can it be ghettoized as a minority theme or practice.6 Lesbianism loses its specificity here and instead signifies female sexuality as simulation–an imitation of the real. There is no original referent in this chain of simulation. Instead, lesbian sex imitates male-oriented soft porn, which, through its obsession with the female double, itself performs lesbianism. The irreducibility of the lesbian image to an original homosexual act, separate from heterosexual reproduction, exemplifies the instability characterizing articulations of lesbianism, and feminine sexuality more generally. As in Freudian and Lacanian readings, feminine sexuality signifies as a lack of autonomy–as a sign of derivation and materiality rather than original, whole subjectivity. Or, in Luce Irigaray’s reading of femininity as the "sex which is not one", woman is the endlessly substitutable copy.7

An element of racial performance adds another layer to this depiction of lesbianism in terms of the feminised simulacra. Viewed from a long shot (that takes up Jenny’s position behind the fence), the identities of the women in the pool are ambiguous. What is clear, however, is that one is blonde and the other dark haired. When Jenny later asks Tim if he "knows" his neighbours as a prelude to their reenactment of the act she has viewed, they both assume it was Bette and Tina in the pool. It was in fact their dark-haired girlfriend Shane (described on her first appearance as a Don Juan) and her latest blonde flame whom Jenny had been watching. The specular confusion between these two women and the mixed race couple, Bette and Tina, has little impact on the preceding drama. However, the screening of racial misrecognition in tandem with knowledge of lesbianism introduces the double theme of racial and sexual passing which features throughout the first season. Passing-for-white is an especially loaded theme here, especially given Hollywood’s history of discriminatory practices and restrictions on how race gets represented. Hollywood codes that banned miscegenation (not lifted until 1956) and restricted roles available to African-American actors reflected widespread fears about racial intermixing. These fears continue to influence television broadcasting of racial difference. In his encyclopedic study, Primetime Blues: African-Americans on Network Television, Donald Bogle argues that the rise in multicultural studies since the 1960s, as well as the impact of cable television on free-to-air production and broadcasting, has produced an unprecedented outpouring of dramas, miniseries and sitcoms featuring African-American characters and stars. Television programming may have diversified since the 1960s, partly as a result of a shift in the political climate as well as a more diverse and specialized market. However, within this climate, African-Americans have tended to be ghettoized in all black sitcoms ( The Cosby Show, Moesha, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air ).8 Alternatively, African-American actors continue to play roles as asexual saviour types who, whilst filling an important social or institutional role, are often denied a romantic part in the drama. For example, unlike his Anglo-American peers, the African-American detective Arthur Fancy (played by James McDaniel) on NYPD Blue is denied a private life.9 The L Word ‘s representation of African-American characters with sex lives in some ways transgresses this representation. However, its deployment of the racial passing theme suggests that a fear of racial intermixing continues to influence the kinds of roles available to African-Americans. Sex and race are thus key categories through which uncertainty about visual, as well as biological, reproduction continues to be generated.

In a drama that narrowcasts lesbian lifestyle in terms of a ghettoised, metropolitan community, The L Word is a relatively safe environment for the representation of inter-racial sex. Lesbianism is represented as an identity that engenders possibilities for, and fears about, social intermixing but it does so through a melodramatic genre that, associated with the private sphere, is seen as relatively unthreatening. Women are represented in the program via their defiance of traditional roles. However, this defiance is significantly represented in terms of specular, as opposed to natural, forms of reproduction. Jenny’s spectatorial role as writer and ingenuous observer is, in another sequence for example, overtly intertwined with the theme of artificial insemination and lesbian parenting. The day after witnessing the women in the pool, Jenny is shown pacing, book in hand, in her writing studio. Returning to the back fence, she unexpectedly encounters Tina who is tending her garden. The two women then converse about their respective lives. Jenny tells Tina about her latest fiction which–unsubtly titled "Thus Spoke Sarah Schuster"–gives the viewer an indication of her post-Feminist credentials. Tina reveals to Jenny her plans to fall pregnant. Detecting Jenny’s immediate confusion, Tina clarifies that she and Bette are indeed a "couple" and that they are trying to get pregnant. Jenny’s mild befuddlement here acts not only as a "conduit for the non-lesbian viewer", it also channels the show’s publication of lesbian identity and enclave as a technologically creative but privatised sphere. This is reinforced when Tina glances out to the street, during her conversation with Jenny, and waves to passers-by. Framed in this shot by a bamboo overhang, Tina’s glance is at a group of gay males, with babies and backpacks, who are passing by just at that moment. Tina’s glance creates a trajectory between her domestic world and life on the street–a West Coast gay ghetto pictured as exotic and family-oriented. The implied continuum between minority identity and community, lesbian home and gay ghetto, enacts the cable television strategy of narrowcasting, as one that relies on private viewer subscriptions in order to engage specific viewers and appeal to and televise their minority lifestyles. Through this technology, lesbianism is arguably privileged as a utopic site of self invention, diverse social interaction and urban renovation. At the same time, the lesbian remains the locus for destabilising anxieties concerning the relationship between the "real" and the "specular".

Desire and identification

My reading of lesbianism in The L Word as spectral, unstable and inward-looking is not a view shared by at least two of the program’s producers who instead celebrate it as an example of postmodern diversification and liberalism. Building on Sedgwick’s critique of the program’s conventionality, I would argue that an homogenising assumption about lesbian spectatorship underlies the program’s professed heterogeneity. In her L Word review, Sedgwick discusses just how much diversity is represented through the program’s foregrounding of a "lesbian ecology" [her term]. Whilst she applauds The L Word’s centre-staging of a variety of identities and perspectives, Sedgwick reflects on its normalising take on queer politics. She critiques its somewhat polarised approach to race and its exclusion of gay men as well as a range of generational perspectives. By contrast, the show’s producer Ilene Chaikin markets what she sees as The L Word ‘s exemplary treatment of diversity. For example, Chaikin stated that even "if [the viewer] can’t relate to chic West Coast chicks… if the show is around long enough most lesbians will eventually see themselves".10 Bob Greenblatt, executive director for Showtime (creators of The L Word and Queer as Folk ) also promotes The L Word as an example of minority group expression. Voicing a widely-held view about how cable television has led to greater media democratisation,11 Greenblatt argues that because Showtime creates drama based on private subscription, and does not have to rely on advertisers who market middle-American audiences, the queer viewer has an increased influence. This, in turn, allows for more sexually permissive programming and means that the cable television writer has a freer reign". At Showtime, there is a relatively uncomplicated process to get the show on-air," Greenblatt stated in an interview "and the mandate is to do more challenging and unique shows. Writers are not censored at all… The biggest agenda here is that you can do anything".12

Such a championing of cable television drama as the domain of dissidence and minority group expression is contradicted by the first season line-up of mainly Anglo-looking, model-thin women who are one of a kind with those found in more populist soap opera.13 This is nothing new. Minority group narrative is often characterised by an oppositional stance that is unable to fully disengage from populist politics and aesthetics. Chaikin’s statement that lesbians will eventually see themselves reflected on screen reiterates self-definition as both a driving force and a representational burden of such narrative. However, also notable in this statement, and in debate about The L Word ‘s sexual politics more generally, is an ambivalence about how the female spectator directs her gaze. An unease about female, specifically lesbian, desire may also inform contradictory messages about sexual orientation on fan-based websites. For example, the question of how the lived sexuality of the show’s actors and viewers might inform their participation in the drama arises in a number of The L Word online forums. A Frequently Answered Questions webpage includes a question about whether and which of the stars are gay. Another asks whether viewing the program is itself a sign of gay-ness. Offhand answers to these questions, such as "Does it matter" and "That’s between you and whoever you sleep with. How would we know?" disavows the spectatorship anxiety theme which features in the first season’s plot.14 The star bios, on L Word online, also suggest that the relation between how you identify and what you desire on screen, is a significant factor in how the program commodifies itself. For instance, the bio for Leisha Hailey (who plays Alice) includes the rumour that she was once involved with KD Lang but gives no such gossip for other, straight or closeted, actors.

Underpinning the assumption, therefore, that lesbian spectators want to see themselves rather than admire the idealised bodies and lifestyles of star actors and characters is an apprehension about the specular connection between identification and desire, fact and fiction. The extent to which a visual drive, or scopic desire, defines gendered and sexual identification is, after all, central to both feminist and queer film theory. Debate about female spectatorship was, of course, first provoked by Laura Mulvey’s famous reading of the "to-be-looked-at" object on the silver screen.15 Mary-Anne Doane later challenged this reading through her argument that female spectatorship is an impossible "desire for desire". Doane’s only alternative to this narcissistic formulation of spectatorship is through the woman who invokes the "phallic power of the gaze" to take up a male viewing position. Female desire is made possible, for Doane, through masquerade as the act of crossing over to a masculine position implies an alternative desire.16 For Patricia White, what makes this alternative so disempowering is that it erases the possibility of a specifically female gaze. That is, female subjectivity is conflated with female homosexuality which in turn is conflated with male sexuality. Homoerotic desire is, for White, feminised as a ghostly imitation of the masculine gaze.17

The L Word ‘s opening depiction of a girl spying on a lesbian sex act departs, it would seem, from such a precarious positioning of both homoerotic and female spectatorship. The characterisation of this spectator (with her MA in writing and her knowledge of Nietzsche), who becomes enthralled with queer sexuality, suggests a cross-fertilisation between poststructuralist, feminist and queer debates and televisual broadcasting over the last two or three decades. As Meaghan Morris argues, the scholarly fascination with quotidian experience has taken just such a "wide-eyed" form.18 Rather than providing a sustained critique of continued racial and sexual exclusions for example, such a perspective may simply reverse previously invisible or unrepresentable versions of female subjectivity to associate this identity with a new-found technological freedom, creativity (including the capacity for self-invention), diversity and tolerance. A questioning of The L Word ‘s spectacularisation of lesbianism thus seems necessary, particularly in terms of what particular brand of sexuality this program is marketing and what kinds of inclusions and exclusions are replayed through this fascinated, rather than neglectful, gaze.

Cable television’s targeting of queer, feminist, and other minority and special interest group lifestyles provides a key to the commodification of lesbianism as a metropolitan identity associated with, as Bob Greenblatt states, sexually permissive programming. Lesbianism is deployed here as an identity that gets represented once broadcasting finds a technological medium that is untrammelled by censorship. Such an identity thus stands in for a technological liberalism and utopianism which is, in turn, understood as a way of life enjoyed by the inhabitants of first world, metropolitan cities.19 Reinforcing this is The L Word ‘s characterisation of the postindustrial urban landscape of West Hollywood in terms of its technological and social innovation, its demographic overturning of traditional gender roles and acceptance of independent female as well as gay and lesbian lifestyles. Reflecting its minoritising televisual medium, therefore, The L Word narrowcasts lesbianism as a hypervisible marker of sexual difference. Rather than a marginalised or invisible identity, lesbianism becomes a kind of emollient for negotiating a complex, postindustrial landscape. But what consequences might such a minoritisation of homosexual identity have for understandings of sex and race in Los Angeles, especially as concerns the wider social sphere rather than simply the inner city community of West Hollywood?

Postindustrial landscapes and televisual closets

The discursive shifts and social and cultural transformations that have come to be associated with postmodernism are, for many commentators, no better exemplified than by the city of Los Angeles. Attracting utopian and dystopian prophecies–as Mike Davis writes, it is the city of sunshine as well as noir–Los Angeles has come to crystallize the fears and hopes generated by the reign of the virtual image in late Capitalism.20 For Julian Murphet, "Los Angeles is either exhilarating or nihilistic, sun-drenched or smog-enshrouded, a multicultural haven or a segregated ethnic concentration camp".21 The focus on fragmentation and incoherency that, according to David Harvey defines postmodern discourse, is itself an effect of social, economic and technological transformations. Superseding Fordist-age mass consumption and assembly-line production are the information industries and global communication technologies dominating the social and cultural landscape of first world cities.22

Some of the more utopian advocates of postmodernism have accentuated the mobility and diversity that such transformations have brought. For example, the new social sector dominating the gentrified landscapes of first world cities is often celebrated as an example of postmodern diversification. Variously labeled the "knowledge workers", the "creative" and even the "vectoral class",23 this technologically-savy group is defined as one that consists of a broader social cross-section (including more women, immigrants and young people). Depending on how utopian or dystopian the perspective, this class is also viewed as being better equipped to meet the challenges of a diversifying, more flexible but also much less secure workplace. The economist Richard Florida, whose bestselling book on the link between so-called "creative cities" and economic development, argues that the cosmopolitan and technologised city is characterized by an open-ness to gendered and sexual difference. Florida points to the three Ts, talent, tolerance and technology, as resources that fuel a city’s capacity for further innovation and diversity. The networked, market-driven orientation of late capitalist economies has produced an ostensibly more interactive society and economy consisting of an array of minorities, special interest groups and "taste cultures". Madhu Dubey, in her book Signs and Cities, is more skeptical in her discussion of what consequences the dominance of digitalized networks has for notions of citizenship and community. She argues that in contrast to print media, understood in terms of an authoritative author who directs and controls a passive reader, digital media encourages but does not necessarily enable the notion that the contemporary citizen is an interactive reader of his/her environment.24

Television is just one of a range of technologies that have transformed understandings of citizenship and community that, according to David Harvey, facilitated a new "internationalism" as well as "strong internal differentiation based on place, function and special interest" central to postmodern definitions (Harvey 75). This is reinforced by the particular vicissitudes of cable and digital television–mediums that are said to have revolutionised the content of, and allowed for a sexually promiscuous turn in, everyday programming. The minority lifestyles and identities considered too high risk for network television, are not only more readily represented on non-network television, they have in fact proliferated within this format. In their article about the current television era of branding, niche marketing and digitalisation, Rogers, Epstein and Reeves argue that the hit HBO drama The Sopranos "is at the epicentre of a shift in the economic organization of television broadcasting". This new economic organization, comprised of audience subscriptions, program producers and content packagers, has had a dramatic impact on the style and content of television drama now produced on cable.

Because audiences pay directly for programming, either via a monthly subscription fee or on a pay-per-view basis, content producers and packagers are shielded from the fear of offending nervous advertisers. As is evident to fans of The Sopranos, this commodity relation enables producers to exercise more creative freedom and opens the door to the exploration of more adult themes and the mining of more controversial content. The fee also helps to protect packagers from charges that viewers are inadvertently receiving offensive material.25

The highly consumer oriented, and potentially closeted, viewing environment offered by cable is one that can presumably protect viewer privacy as well safeguard producers from censorship charges. Such a safeguard is re-enacted through The L Word ‘s opening pool scene in which lesbianism is a secreted pleasure for the (straight boy-or-girl-next-door) spectator.

Mike Davis argues, however, that cable television’s revolutionary potential is unlikely to extend to the information poor whose access to networks are restricted by ghettoized conditions that protect the affluence of the privileged. Davis argues that increased corporate control of media as well as land ownership in Los Angeles is destroying the city’s social and ecological diversity. In his essay, "Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space", Davis argues that "the American city is turning inward" as "new megastructures and supermalls supplant traditional streets and discipline their spontaneity". Parklands, Davis writes, have historically played an important role as social emollients that enable the mixing of classes in urban areas. Conversely, the increasing privatisation and surveillance of physical as well as technological space in inner city Los Angeles is leading to greater polarization between rich and poor. The Los Angeles ghetto, Davis writes,

is defined not only by its paucity of parks and public amenities, but also by the fact that it is not wired into any of the key information circuits. In contrast, the affluent Westside is plugged–often at public expense–into dense networks of educational and cultural media.26

Privileging just such a technological infrastructure, The L Word is nevertheless nostalgic for the kind of street culture and urban community longed for by Davis. Examples of this nostalgia include the fluid connection between lesbian house and street as well as the plotting of a protest culture (there’s an episode, entitled "Liberally", in which The L Word girls form a human blockade, outside the California Arts Center, to defend against a right wing attack on a controversial art installation). Even more significant is The L Word ‘s on screen and online representation of its all-female community as public space. A webpage image of The L Word cast linked arm in arm creates the impression of a West coast cityscape ( The L Word title similarly encourages the association of women with this utopic landscape through its alliterative play on l words to represent identity and location (lesbian, Los Angeles) and episode titles ("Let’s do it", "Listen up", "Liberally") as a strategy for endless creativity and self-production. Such a depiction is in direct contrast with how men are represented, at least in the earlier episodes of season one. For example, Alice comments that Bette and Tina’s initial failure to find a male sperm donor is due to the fact that the contemporary male is more spiritual and "precious" than the man of old. A technologically enhanced and reproductive femininity is thus juxtaposed to overly scrupulous masculinity.

However, undercutting this promotion of women as (self) proliferating public space, is the way in which the home is placed as the drama’s centre-stage and as prime location for soft porn scenes. My question is whether or not this underwrites cable television’s investment in the private sphere of the home, in a celebrated, postindustrial landscape, as the place of audience viewing. Paul Levinson discusses the new market for nudity and soft porn that cable broadcasting has created as a medium which, he argues, exists "midway between magazines and network television". Relying on viewer privacy, and free of mainstream censorship, cable has "delivered its programming outside of the public airways" and this has "made it less vulnerable to Federal Communications Commission intimidation". "Because nudity in itself" to quote Levinson "is not all it’s cracked up to be–at least, not as an element of narrative", cable television writers need to find a good reason in their stories to present these risqué elements. He argues that the Bada Bing! nightclub, in HBO’s award-winning drama The Sopranos, is a brilliant solution to the question of how to represent nudity meaningfully.27 But what does the strategic yet exploitative placement of the naked female in an Italian mafia nightclub say about how racial and sexual difference gets played out in a postindustrial landscape? How might this ethnically ghettoised sex scene link to Showtime’s deployment of the (lesbian) female body in the domestic sphere as the site of a liberal but similarly restricted alternative?

Generated in cybernetic as well as physical space, The L Word represents lesbianism as a diverse, tolerant, fertile and relatively harmless enclave. Its depiction of a benevolent, lesbian network is exemplified best through a diagram created and maintained by Alice, who is one of the central characters. Featured on Alice’s whiteboard and then later on her laptop, the diagram is "vast, ever-changing" and "multi dimensional". As Sedgwick describes, it "shows who exactly has slept with whom, and how many nodes of connection mediate any two points in Sapphic space ".28 Significantly, it is Leisha Hailey, the only "out" lesbian in The L Word cast, who authenticates Alice as the creator of this lesbian genealogy. Alice is a native Los Angelene, whose mother is a B-grade Hollywood actress who flirts with lesbianism. She might, therefore, be read as signifier for the city of angels itself, particularly through her diagrammatic tracing of L Word ‘s lesbian community as a diverse, intertwined network. This, in turn, mirrors the online website infrastructure which has links to lesbian meeting groups, chat-rooms etc. This benign web perhaps recuperates counter discourses of the lesbian as predator and subversive conspirator (I’m thinking of the cult film Black Widow for example). However, it confines such an identity to a metropolitan location and to the domain of simulated reproduction.

Such a configuration of West Hollywood’s gay ghetto trades on the idea of the homosexual as a spectral figure, a ghostly meeting of fiction and fact, as well as on the continued mythologisation of Los Angeles as the exemplary postmodern city, the city of ever-proliferating images. To complicate these themes and the ghettoisation of race and sex in terms of the difference between the "real" and the "specular", I want lastly to briefly compare The L Word ‘s view of lesbian community with its, in some ways more subversive, treatment of racial difference and ghettoisation. Madhu Dubey argues that in the hyper-real postmodern context, in which mobile, fractured identities are often celebrated, African-Americans too often stand for palpable reality, or bodily presence.29 A dramatization of the "real" of racial difference as against the simulacra of homosexuality might be said to be taking place in The L Word, especially through the casting of two actors with a racially-inflected screen history. Bette and Kit are played by Jennifer Beals, an African-American actor who passed as white for the part she played in Flashdance, and by Pam Grier, an actor whose roles are racially determined by her darker skin and by her profile as the "Queen" of 1970s blaxploitation films. Pam Grier’s Kit is a struggling alcoholic and musician who is linked to a well known rap artist, acted by Snoop Dogg. Kit’s introduction to the narrative is through a scene where she is apprehended for drink driving and then taken to a party under police escort. This marking of the visibly black character in terms of law enforcement can be contrasted to the more temperate characterization of her fictional sister. Jennifer Beals’s Bette is an out lesbian who is curating a controversial art exhibition, called "Provocations", and who waxes eloquent on the political repercussions of her ability to pass for white. Bette’s African-American father, however, looks on her parenting of a child, through artificial insemination, as a "fiction of [her] own creation". The theme of racial and sexual self-invention thus occurs through the passable character of Bette rather than through her darker-skinned sister. Whilst this exposes the constructed nature of racial and sexual identities, it also displays how these categories get entangled in particular cultural, social, institutional and bodily histories that confine the extent to which liberation and diversification can take place.

If The L Word is driven by a need to free narrative from middle-American conservatism and censorship, then surely a critique of what stake new technologies of power have in this desired liberation continues to be necessary. Otherwise, to quote Foucault, "Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, and against ourselves, that we are repressed? By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated?"30


Monique Rooney is a lecturer in the English Program, University of Wollongong. Her current research project is an exploration of changing representations of poverty in texts produced over the last century.


1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, " The L Word : Novelty in Normalcy" The Chronicle of Higher Education 50:19(Jan 16, 2004), 10-11

2. Sedgwick, " The L Word : Novelty in Normalcy", 10

3. See Meaghan Morris, "Things to do with shopping centres". Morris writes "if it is today fairly easy to reject the rationalist and gynophobic prejudice implied by Adorno’s scenario (theory breaking the witch’s spell), and if it is also easy to refuse the old critiques of ‘consumption’ as false consciousness (bewitchment by the mall), then it is perhaps not so easy at the moment also to question the ‘wide-eyed’ pose of critical amazement at the performance of the everyday". The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 300.

4. Thanks to Elizabeth Wilson who contributed this and other valuable insights when I delivered this paper as part of the Sexual Revolutions Symposium at the University of Wollongong, December, 2004.

5. Jackie Byars and Eileen R. Meehan, "Once in a Lifetime: Constructing the "Working Woman" through Cable Narrowcasting" in Television: The Critical View (Sixth Edition), edited by Horace Newcomb ( New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 144-68.

6. This representation of female sexuality, not as an individuated identity or politicized minority group so much as a source of both fear and fascination, may seem outdated in the current (post)feminist context. However, as David Harvey argues, the challenges to master discourses that have characterized postmodern and poststructuralist debates may have exposed the commodification of female (and other marginalized) bodies within rationalist discourses. It does not necessarily follow that such an articulation releases women from this exploitation, if anything the possibilities for continued manipulation are multiplied. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, Massachussets: Blackwell, 1989), 65

7. Luce Irigaray, This sex which is not one (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

8. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a good example of this ghettoisation. It is based on the true story of its African-American writer, Benny Medina who lived with a white family after the death of his mother. NBC bought and produced the program, which starred Will Smith as the African American orphan. However, the white family of Medina’s autobiographical narrative was changed to a black family. Donald Bogle, Primetime Blues: African-Americans on Network Television (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001), 385.

8. Bogle, Primetime Blues, 438

10. Chaikin is quoted in Sedgwick, "Novelty in Normalcy", 11.

11. See Jeffrey P Jones, "Vox Populi as cable programming strategy", Journal of Popular Film and Television, (Spring 2003) 31:1, 18-29.

12. Quoted in Mike Goodridge, "Showtime for Greenblatt: after toiling for network TV and helping create Six Feet Under, Bob Greenblatt takes the reins at Showtime, the home of Queer as Folk and The L Word ", The Advocate (Sept 30, 2003), 46.

13. Many of the   reviews of The L Word in both the mainstream media and the gay and lesbian press objected to the glamorous depiction of lesbians. See, for example, Nancy Franklin, "L.A.Love" The New Yorker, Feb 2 (2004), 80; Winnie McCroy, "’L’ is for Invisible" New York Blade (October 31, 2003) Jo Chichester is one commentator who questioned the idea that a drama about lesbians should necessarily be realistic, or free of mainstream stereotypes. Chichester writes "Why is The L Word assumed to be the definitive statement on lesbian culture? Why can’t a lesbian audience enjoy a fantasy of glamorous sexually charged woman-on-woman action without being accused of taking part in the promotion of “elaborately produced advertisements for the gay elite" as a male writer in the Herald suggested last week? And while we’re at it, what’s so new about stereotypes on TV anyway?" "Lighten up about those TV lesbians" The Sydney Morning Herald (April 26, 2004), 17.

14. See TheLWordonline ‘s FAQs webpage at

15. Laura Mulvey, Visual and other Pleasures (Blomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

16. Mary Anne Doane’s The Desire To Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s ( Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) was an influential contribution to a body of writing, published in the 1980s and 90s that focused on the crossover between sex and gender in formulations of female spectatorship. Other important works include Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) and Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984). Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows: Rereading Gender in 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

17. Patricia White, Chapter 3, "Lesbian spectator, lesbian specter" in Uninvited: classical Hollywood cinema and lesbian representability (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), 61-93.

18. Meaghan Morris, "Things to do with Shopping centres", 300

19. I would not want   to suggest here that digital technology shapes understandings of lesbian identity in the same way across different cities. In Australia, for example, The L Word was first screened not on cable but on free-to-air television where it received a mixed response in the mainstream and gay press. See Chichester, 17. However, like many of her US counterparts, a   reviewer for the minority gay press, Sydney Star Observer, concentrates on the transgressive treatment of butch/femme categories   to emphasise the program’s diverse treatment of lesbianism. Stacey Farrar, "Arts on Television" Sydney Star Observer (1 July 2004).

20. Mike Davis, City of quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles (London and New York: Verso, 1990).

21. Julian Murphet, Literature and race in Los Angeles (Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 2001), 8

22. For discussion of the information age, see Manuel Castells The Information Age: economy, society and culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).

23. These terms describe the information workforce of the postindustrial age. McKenzie Wark discusses the vector or vectoral class in his Virtual geography (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994). Wark borrows the term from Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics (New York: Semiotext(e), 1986), 143-4. Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge workers in Landmarks of tomorrow (New York: Harper, 1959) and Richard Florida discusses the "creative class" in Rise of the creative class (New York: Basic Books, 2002)

24. Madhu Dubey, Chapter 5, "Reading as mediation: urbanity in the age of information", Signs and cities: black literary postmodernism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 186-233.

25. Mark C. Rogers, Michael Epstein, and Jimmie L. Reeves, "The Sopranos as HBO brand equity: the art of commerce in the age of digital reproduction" This thing of ours: investigating The Sopranos, edited by Davis Lavery (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2002), 47.

26. Mike Davis, "Fortress Los Angeles: the Militarization of Urban Space" in Metropolis: center and symbol of our times, edited by Philip Kasinitz (New York: New York Universities Press, 1995), 357

27. Paul Levinson, "Naked Bodies, Three Showings a Week and No Commercials: The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV" in This thing of ours: investigating The Sopranos, 28

28. Sedgwick, "The L Word : Novelty in Normalcy", 11

29. Dubey, Signs and cities: black literary postmodernism, 8.

30. Michel Foucault, "We, ‘Other Victorians’", The History of Sexuality, Vol 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 8-9.

Also by Monique Rooney in Australian Humanities Review:

In Australian Humanities Review, see also:

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