TelevisionMade possible by

Throwback Thursday: How it felt to watch The L Word as a lesbian teen

Felix Desmarais rewatches The L Word, one of the first mainstream TV shows to put queer voices on the small screen.

The year is 2005. In the dark – past midnight – in the lounge, I am lit by the glow of The L Word on TV and I am feeling things. They are very teenage things. Lorde could write a song about them, they are so teenaged. Homemade Hormones. Green Loins? Ew. Liabiloins. Perfect.. ah, well, Places.

It’s a delicious kind of irony that, as I write this, I’m one day on testosterone and 16 all over again. I’m watching The L Word while my hormones rage once more.

Hormones or none, returning to the slick and sparkly lesbian drama feels like visiting a former version of myself, one for whom this first show focussed entirely on ladies-who-like-ladies meant so much. It’s easy to write off its impact now, in the age of Transparent and Orange is the New Black, but The L Word laid an important foundation for queer characters on TV. 

Remember when Will and Grace was controversial? The L Word helped take us beyond that. It also helped me confirm that I was gay. As hell.

As a hasbian, I can still talk about lesbians and have it not be too creepy. So let’s just ignore the fact I came out as transgender six months ago and hark right on back to my lesbo gay day. I’ll go with feminine pronouns for that past self, since she sure as hell didn’t know who the heck she was, anyway.

Hark we do, right on back to baby lesbian Felix, who got drunk on gin and cranberry juice and pashed her best gal pal in an elevator. The Felix who fumbled through clueless sort-of-sex, whispering juniper-berried breath into the night “I think I’m bisexual!” Because, of course, I did still have a boyfriend, but he was a jerk, so fuck him.

The next morning, I turned to kiss that same gal pal. “No,” she said, “I’m not…”

Not what?! She couldn’t even say it! Still, I was hopelessly in love with the idea of her and my new-found queer identity. I listened to Anika Moa’s Stolen Hill on repeat, crying at myself in the mirror, luxuriating in both my misery as well as looking like I was in a music video.

And I watched The L Word on DVD and, once more, felt things.

Years later, it’s kind of incredible to watch the show in 2017. If for nothing else, it’s just a great reminder that, once upon a time, these haircuts were really cool:

Looks like one of the dancing brooms from Fantasia.

An unjust war in the Middle East is no excuse for this look.

It’s also incredible to remind our queer-ass selves what the show represented, and how far we’ve come with giving queer people voices on TV. It meant so much to see a reflection of myself being played out on (almost) mainstream TV. The L Word seemed a far cry from Ellen DeGeneres Yup-I’m-Gaying semi-apologetically out of a literal closet and crying on Oprah, even though it happened fewer than 10 years beforehand.

These were representations of lesbians and queer women where their sexuality was almost normalised, if still hyper-sexualised (but y’know, it was on Showtime after all). These were complex, rich characters.

And when I say rich: they were rich.

This is where The L Word shows its age. If The L Word were being made now, surely someone in production would have said “Isn’t it kind of weird how all of these lesbians are mostly white, rich, employed, able-bodied, conventionally attractive and thin?” Maybe someone did and that’s why they threw Pam Grier as Kit Porter in there.

Then again, maybe they threw Pam Grier in there because she’s Pam Grier and she’s amazing, I’m just speculating.

Despite being over 10 years old now, The L Word is still addictive and entertaining as hell. It’s pure lescapism, but it was and is groundbreaking. Plus, it’s the little things that make a revolution, like seeing an actual female gaze on TV:

Yeeeeh Jenny get it gurl. Heterosexuality is but a distant memory rn

It takes skill to make a truly likeable character, but the writers and Mia Kirschner went one better with Jenny bloody Schecter. She’s so deliciously hateable, but with just enough vulnerability to make you feel a little bad for her. I truly believe it’s one of the most underrated performances of the 2000s. She’s Piper Chapman 1.0.

It’s a shame the end of the series was undercooked (probably due to the writers’ strike that year), but the scope of The L Word in its prime was impressive – tackling breast cancer and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and featuring a transgender character and a deaf character (played by someone who was actually deaf!).

Even in 2017 I am still #emotion for Bette, Tina can fuck right off with her simpering lip-glossed face, and I’m horrified at the thought of how many other young lesbians may have modelled their behaviour on Shane’s. It wasn’t perfect but, along with Queer As Folk, it was the beginning of a new era for queer voices on the small screen.

Pass me the popcorn, I’m (muff)diving right back in.


Click below to watch the complete series of The L Word on Lightbox:

This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.