The New L Word Roundtable: "I said I liked it, and then I snarled again"
a chat with Grace Lavery, Christina Grace Tucker, and Danny Lavery, three supremely attractive television-watchers
Danny: Friends, I have to confess, I was not especially prepared for how rapidly New L Word Fever would overtake me yesterday. I've been dimly aware of the reboot for the last few years, vacillating between “Oh, this'll be fun and silly” and “PLEASE stop sending me updates about how my college ex is doing, I DO NOT NEED THIS MUCH INFORMATION.” And then yesterday rolled around, and 7pm PST drew near, and it was like my whole body turned into a countdown clock: “New L Word is on. I have to watch it. It's not about choice, or goodness, or badness. It's L Word time. My body has always been obedient to L Word time.”
And it felt so good to be yelling at The L Word again! You know? I love yelling at The L Word! It makes me feel young and strong and righteous. I didn't know how much I wanted to yell at new episodes of The L Word. And on that front, New The L Word delivered.
Some stray thoughts:
- The new baby Shane (Findlay? I want to say?) wears almost exclusively TomboyX, a detail that fills me with totally inexplicable fury
- Alice is clearly dressed like Charles Nelson Reilly on Hollywood Squares for her new show? And I love it?
- Every time they made a stupid aside about how “It feels like it's been so long since I saw you!!!” or “Didn't that hiatus feel like it lasted...I don't know, a DECADE?” the dumb little trained seal of my heart sat up and clapped.
- I cannot discuss either of the trans men on the show, both of whom I irrationally resent. But I'm excited for Tess, the trans bartender who "can see everyone else's relationship problems...except her own" that we're going to be meeting next week.
Christina, how are you holding up? Grace, how does this compare to the handful of L Word seasons you've watched with me? What is this feeling?
Christina: What an extraordinarily apt song selection, my dearest Daniel. Having seen Wicked when I was sixteen, right around the time I discovered The L Word, there was a strong link between the two in my developing emotional and homosexual intelligence. How better to describe how I felt watching the L Word for the first time than My pulse is rushing // my heading is reeling // my face is flushing.
I'll be honest, an L Word reboot was not something I was particularly clamoring for right here in the year 2019. It happened, it was incredibly important to me despite its many flaws, but couldn't we have just left it, happy to let the memories grow fond and frosty in our collective rearview mirrors?
...and yet. Despite the trepidation I felt, the eye-rolling induced by the self consciously 2019 dialogue, when all was said and done and I was surrounded by a bunch of queers in my house, I felt a thrill I didn't expect! I wasn't surprised I cried the minute I saw Bette Porter, I have been loudly on the record about my love for her. My friends are back! They are older and wiser and maybe I am too but damn I was happy to see them!
My own stray thoughts:
-Good LORD in heaven this dialogue is refreshingly bad but honestly that has been my complaint with TV writ large lately, maybe it's a me thing? (No it's bad I would write better dialogue.)
- Finley's chaotic energy is TOO MUCH, it set my nerves a janglin'
-Boy I wish Dani's dad had been played by Jimmy Smits.
-Alice's skin is radiant like the sun also ugh what a co-parenting nightmare zone, hard pass.
-Imagine admitting your wife fucked a woman that hot instead of you IN FRONT OF PEOPLE?
-I am not attracted to Shane, and yet.
-"Death is coming" - Bette Porter, 2019.
Grace, I cannot wait to hear your thoughts.
Grace: Well, the first of my thoughts is that I shall have none of your attempts, Daniel, to diminish my views of The L Word as merely reflective of a “handful of episodes.” Rampant transmisogyny, sir: you of all people should know that I have published work on The L Word in queer meeja, and that my sophisticated and nuanced take on Lisa the Male Lesbian is by now an industry standard. Of course I did not “grow up” with The L Word - I tried, good god - and the first time I spent any time watching the show I was off my bean on meth and having Shane-like sex (interminable, chemical, mean, and poignant) in the very city of Los Angeles itself. Four hours of puffless pounding with no release, and talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking circling endlessly around in the background. But just because I was birthed into this cultural stream belatedly, does not mean that my commitments in respect of it are any the weaker. I may be late to the dyke show, but I’m claiming my seat nonetheless.
If there is a difference to be marked, it is my only the relatively limited access trans women have to hate-participation in cis lesbian culture. If I like The L Word, then good - all is well and affirmed. If I dislike The L Word, that‘s a shame, but then perhaps it wasn’t for me after all; perhaps it was really a girl thing, or a real girl thing, anyway. And so, of course, I tear at scraps to find something to like in, or at least say about, a show that not only is clearly not very good, and clearly finds my claims on personhood and dignity to be mostly comical, and perhaps also slightly contemptible. Unlike you, Danny, I am not looking forward to the appearance of Tess, because either she will continue the fairly harrowing treatment of trans women that the show has always kept in its back pocket, or else that pattern will simply be arrested and displaced, with nobody saying anything except, perhaps, that these are different times now and isn’t that wonderful. Ilene Chaiken, and this show, do not deserve a fresh start on this question. Unless we get some kind of flashback which shows Alice kicking a trans woman off her dating app, Dana refusing to compete against Renee Richards, Bette failing to support a trans student bringing a sexual harassment suit, Shane - well, actually, I tend to think Shane probably banged a lot of trans women because she is led around by her dick, rather than by the rich-girl ethics that the rest habituate themselves to - but anyway, unless we get to see that, we will presumably also be forced to assume that Chaiken simply wants us to treat these characters as flawed only in the most sentimental of senses, and incapable of the cruelty that, in fact, the show has performed since day one. Transmisogyny, after all, is just a good dyke’s flaw.
All of which being admitted, and registering that the deep caverns of transsexual resentment fall far below the surface of gentle textual analysis, and could swallow that analysis at any moment, guess what? I kind of liked the new episode. Sure, it was sad to see mommi sandblasted down to cheekbones and bittersweetness - you guessed, Danny, that Bette’s campaign against oxy will have been caused by the untimely death of a sister, and you’re surely right, but her half-cocked facial work tells a slightly different story. I wouldn’t vote for her, of course, especially since she seems to think that Angelenas are prepared to elect a mayor on the basis of an opinion about opium addiction (rather than, say, homelessness, poverty, protecting undocumented workers, infrastructure, or, perhaps above all, decarceration). Opium addiction is such a tragedy - they talk about it on Fox News, even. Equally troubling was the news of Alice, who spends the episode either thrilled about the prospect of speaking to the former Attorney General of California, Sen. Kamala Harris, or sulking that she won’t be able to. The less said the better about the brave new take on #metoo that she and Bette are cooking up.
I said I liked it, and then snarled again - but I did like it, for real. Why? Shane. This is odd. In the past, Shane was the character who interested me the least - a straight-friendly non-butch who managed to convert her own sadness into sexual charisma, and her sexual charisma into cruelty. And I simply loathe how she treated Carmen, an act of titanic shittiness, absolutely motivated by a racialized contempt for Carmen’s attitude towards marriage, for which her friends never held her accountable, despite an episode and a half of tutting. But now, she seems different somehow. Rich, for one, so her sadness now has a crepuscular glow - can you believe, she tells Finley, can you believe I was once poor, like you? And dear Finley (whom I found totally smoochable) could not believe. I liked her as older, and aware that her sadness now had grounds other than her material deprivation - a point on which earlier seasons seemed unclear. (Shane used to hate therapy - wellllllll she was too smart for it, too broken.)
I’ll tune in next week. We’ll see if the ground can hold, or whether the cave will swallow it all up - bangs, private jet, menstrual cunnilingus (hot), and all.
Danny: I take your point about your full-throated engagement with the show, and I've loved getting to read your work on Lisa, and the whole sodden mess of the project of L-shaped words. It always seemed likely to me that your at least some of your hostility-cum-indifference towards Shane had at least something to do with your own Shane-ness, much in the way that you have instinctively bristled upon realizing there is a second British person in your immediate vicinity. And I also take your point about the quiet/ashamed approach to casting trans women for the reboot – there was a trans actress in the first episode, and a second one to come next week, but my guess is the show's general approach to reckoning with transmisogyny is going to be, as you say, some variation on "It's nothing but a good lesbian's flaw" – something like, "Back in 2004, who could possibly have known trans women existed? Certainly not us. And of course it's only natural to resist the idea, but once we had it explained to us a few dozen times, we had no problem with the idea of buying drinks from a trans bartender. Come on in, Tess!"
That soapy, ridiculous moment with the betrayed husband yelling at Bette at one of her own rallies was such a mess – both because it led to the show's ensuing half-hearted attempt to claim that women who sleep with their employees can't possibly do so in a manipulative/predatory/dangerous way "like those male predators," which is monstrous, and also because it's a little hard to imagine someone willing to go live and on-air to admit their wife cheated on them with Bette Porter. (The former being rather more serious than the latter.) And the wild enthusiasm over "top cop" Kamala Harris was certainly jarring! The politics of the show have always been such a jumble – sometimes an avowal of unbridled anti-social hostility, sometimes the coziness of marriage and home ownership, sometimes anti-censorship, sometimes pro-cop (remember when Tasha quit the military to become a police officer?), etc.
Grace, you've led me to think back on the first time I ever watched the show – alone on my laptop in my apartment when all of my roommates were gone (when they were in the house we watched How I Met Your Mother on DVD) during my last two years of Christian college. I had absolutely no conception of myself as a trans person, although weirdly enough my school was only about a half-hour drive from where the show was set. Sometimes a few of the other semi-closeted students on campus and I would drive out to West Hollywood, go to the Abbey, and pretend we had just seen a member of the cast outside or over in the next room. The last time I seriously rewatched the show was when at the very beginning of my transition, when I was at my most cagey and housebound, and I tore through all of the Max subplots in absolute panic and terror.
My own resentment towards Shane, I think, came from the implicit Max/Shane comparisons that came during season 3. The comparison might have been mostly in my own head, but it felt like Max just took everything Shane had/wanted/did and comically misunderstood it, like Beetle Bailey or Amelia Bedelia taking "draw the curtains" too literally. Shane was always fucking up, of course, but there was nowhere on the show she couldn't go or didn't belong; it seemed like Max pratfalled into a more humiliating trans position week after week – getting casually talked out of top surgery by a disgusted girlfriend one week, turning into a T-addled monster the next, finally getting impregnated and abandoned by Tom and humiliated and misgendered throughout the world's most condescending baby shower.
I remember so vividly the fun everyone else seemed to be having, the casual lightness with which they (sometimes) corrected themselves, the nighmarish busy-ness of Max's shitty throne and the dead affect on his face.
I find it really uncomfortable even to include this screenshot! And I'm a little surprised by my own sadness in this moment, and it's kind of like – what do I want from this show, I wonder? Why do I want so badly to just have a really fun time watching the reboot? The two trans guys we've seen onscreen in the rebooted pilot are both nicely dressed and good at their jobs, maybe relatably awkward, but the vibe feels very much, "Nobody worry, we've got it this time around." I'm sure they're both fine actors and interesting characters, but they're not a very satisfying answer to the problem of Max.
One thing that I think is probably going to be important for me going forward is not trying to pin too much on making sure I feel like the new L Word has something for me. I made that mistake with my family of origin!!!
Christina: One of my strengths? Weaknesses? Is my ability to blithely, voraciously enjoy things without much concern for it's ability with to provide something for me, or even provide something good. Of course, this blitheness, especially with regard to the L Word is entirely due to the fact that I am, more or less, exactly who the show was (is?) talking to: cis, femme, middle class. I know some part of me as a youth saw Bette and thought "Oh, that's what I am— light skinned and femme," and never really interrogated her further than that.
But of course she elides the power dynamics of sleeping with her employee because they were both women. Of course Bette has laser focused on the amorphous problem of "opiate addiction," with no critical thinking behind it. Of course her lofty ideas come down to the person at the center, never at the systems behind. On a gut level, I understand the kind of choices Bette makes to be the person she is.
Allow me a moment to explain. There is a talk with Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, where Melissa is talking about how being cis, being straight, being light skinned, having a white parent means that she has likely been seduced by power, that her proximity to whiteness has allowed her to believe that "that if I could just get the right white folks to give me cover, everything would be okay." To the level that I imagine Bette thinks about her choices (which I don't think is a lot), I think she operates under this assumption. Her lack of closeness with any black people besides Kit, her penchant to use her blackness when it suits her, ignore it when it doesn't—Bette is addicted to her proximity to power, and I am thrilled and repelled by it, no doubt because I have deeply felt the temptation to do the same.
In retrospect, it is entirely possible (one might even say likely) that I watch things without concern for their larger meaning because I hate having to look deeply at myself. Damn.
Grace: I must begin by acknowledging my surliness in yesterday’s email - god knows, I don’t want to piss on anyone’s chips, and I really don’t tend to go in for the joy-killing form of feminist criticism. I like joy and I want there to be more of it, especially the joy we can snatch from objects that don’t care about it. That being said, I don’t regret my own rudeness at this point, since it spurred Danny into a moving engagement with Max, and Christina to offer a nuanced reading of Bette’s self-positioning in respect of her lightness and her ambivalent Blackness. The contrast you make between Bette and Kit is so fructive, Christina: where Bette is utterly capable, and exerts dynamic control over her own racial legibility, Kit is the sister who lacks that power, and is stereotyped with various negative tropes of Blackness (addiction, straightness, etc) from which Bette is exempted. What your insight reveals is that the utopian form of lesbian sociability - the world of sisters as equals, beset by medium-intensity but low-stakes dyke drama - is bought through a negation of Blackness. I’d also recall my observation about Shane and Carmen, where the racial dynamics are obviously different, but where the capacity to perform one’s low-grade, salvageable lesbian dirtbag identity depends upon the negation of a racialized figure, Carmen, for whom it actually matters.
I guess what is motivating my own bumptiousness is a fear that my relationship to The L Word is somehow a barometer of my relationship to lesbianism. That is, queer trans women are not lesbians, but fans of lesbians, who are perhaps indulged out of a spirit of generosity, but not accorded voting rights or even, lez be honest, really granted permanent residency. Put it this way: if it really is true that trans women are women, and trans lesbians are fully welcome in lesbian communities - and I should say that most of my own experiences have been in lesbian communities where that is true - then the habitual exclusion of trans women from, for example, The L Word, or Her (the lesbian dating app that I was kicked off, and then asked to show my passport if I wanted to get back on), or the trans women punched in the face and pulled out of The Lexington by her hair - these are historical exclusions of a profound and consequential kind. And they are exclusions that would require a fuller accounting than The L Word: Generation Q has demonstrates any interest in conducting. The moment of lesbian liberalism that generated the show in its first place (2004-2009), was a period of history in which trans women were - perhaps more than ever before - excluded.
The question one asks of every utopia, since Plato, is the same: who are you excluding? Here, it’s obvious. So I’m opting out of the critical consensus that Crispin Long names in the New Yorker, for example, under the headline “The L Word Reboot Seeks to Absolve the Original’s Sins,” where the sins in question are the cringy representation of Max, which Long calls the chief sin “most infamously, its crass, misinformation-laden depiction of Max, a trans man played by a cis woman.” But the campy framing around sin and absolution misses a key element of the sacrament of reconciliation: confession. There’s no absolution until one actually names what one thinks one did wrong, and The L Word: Generation Q has swerved to avoid. The world of these women - that sexy world - depended upon the exclusion of trans women. That’s not a quirky sin, that’s a principle of governmentality.
Since I’m probably not going to be asked to write about The L Word again, I’ll mention one other thing - and recall a moment that you will remember very clearly, Danny. Do you remember when we watched that Tasha/Alice sex scene? And I started weeping uncontrollably, because nothing had so perfectly depicted the desire of my heart than the pressing together of these smooth, elegant shoulders? My shoulders are that smooth and soft now, thanks to the glorious effects of estradiol and spironolactone, but back in 2009, they were not. The grief there is obviously mine and mine alone, and neither The L Word nor any of the people who held cis-only viewing parties of it are to blame. Obviously. But this is why it turned out to be impossible, in the end, for me to feel distracted enough to slip into the framing of The L Word as a lovable penitent. I don’t think it cares about me at all. And I refuse to settle for mere fandom of lesbianism: all the way in, forever with my whole soul and body, or nothing.
Danny: Grace, thank you for the gift of your surliness! I like your surliness; it often inspires me to move out of despair and defeat, and it's often an optimistic sort of surliness. What makes me so stressed-out at the thought of Bette's heretofore-unnamed "personal stake" in the fight against opiates being Kit is I just know they're going to have killed her off via OD – I don't know if either of you remember Kit and Bette's relationship with their father (Ossie Davis!!!) back in S1, but it feels like the show replicated his obvious favoritism for Bette, whose self-righteous anger is given the most loving, impassioned screen time (like when she abandons the silent retreat or after Jodi's revenge-based art show). And I mean, I'm often seduced by her self-righteous anger – Jennifer Beals is impossibly beautiful, and when she combines that trembling-in-anger voice with big liquid trembling-in-sorrow eyes, I almost always forget whatever Bette's angry about and just want to pledge myself in fealty to her. And I don't mean to suggest the show is unaware of Bette's faults, either, just that it seems to fall into that same category of "only a good lesbian's faults" that Grace was talking about earlier, if that makes sense. Whereas Kit's humiliations – Ivan screaming at her when she walks into his apartment after being invited, Angus' cheating, that one guy who tried to date her in order to recruit her for his MLM, her relapses – feel endless.
The white low-affect dirtbagginess /jilted Latina femme dynamic between Shane and Carmen pretty quickly gives way to Papi, who shows up two episodes after Shane leaves Carmen at the altar. She's like, 'more Shane than Shane,' the first girl on the chart with more hookups, but she's puzzled and irritated by Shane's "aw-shucks-who-me" approach to sex and romance, and ends up falling for Kit, who sort of falls for her in return, before getting blackout drunk and passing out before they can actually hook up. It's such a weird coming-together of abjection and abandonment and avowal! Everything matters to Papi, too, but once Kit relapses, the show hustles her offstage, never to be seen again.
I had the same thought about the New Yorker piece too – I'd call Max' depiction much worse than cringey, but the foundational exclusion of the original L Word wasn't of trans men but of trans women. And not naming that exclusion is, you know, a continuation of that exclusion; if you showed both L Words to someone with no other entry point into human culture, that viewer might be forgiven for thinking that trans women came into existence sometime in between 2011 and 2014, and The L Word starting casting them as soon as they showed up.
I remember that moment, when you cried over Alice and Tasha – I felt so much for you in that moment, and (of course) I felt personally guilty because I used to be Alice-ish, and I felt like I'd taken something away from you by transitioning myself. It's a very weepy time for us, these days, and I might as well just lean into it. I have a hard time not taking the position of either the lovable penitent or the quick-to-forgive friend of the penitent, of holding to that old, hasty evangelical parody of what apologies and forgiveness can even look like.
Christina: It is genuinely chilling to see the ways in which the show failed Kit so dispassionately listed—my god the MLM married man! Ivan's treatment or her! The very likely fact that she will be revealed to have died of an overdose; her life being, in the end, a reason for Bette to run for mayor. I would like to pretend I have complicated thoughts about Shane, but truthfully I always found her whole deal kind of boring, though she is consistently the better friend to the rest of the group. Despite my noted issues with Bette, simply reading Danny's description of her angry pulls at my heart, a woman's eyes should not be able to hold so many tears so beautifully. It should be said that my loyalty to her is due in large part to fact that she was partnered with Tina, a person that the less is said about, the better.
You know, in all my discussions of The L Word over the years, the conversation often boils down to "Justice for _______!" Justice for Dana, Justice for Carmen, Justice for Kit, for Papi, for Tasha (Tasha), for Max, for Lisa...the list goes on. (I will not be including Jenny, I hope Bette choked her to death.) I am fairly certain none of that will come to fruition during this reboot. And I don't really need the show to relitigate it's past, I think we've done enough of that over the last ten years. I am in a place where I can let it be whatever it is and not feel the searing passion I once felt about it, probably because it is no longer the touchstone I have to legislate my own queerness.
Maybe the justice I've found in the years since is as simple as being out, not being my miserable closeted self, clandestinely watching while my parents weren't home. Maybe the justice I've found is having conversations like this, friends like you both, who challenge me and make smarter and more thoughtful. Maybe outgrowing this show is the best thing for me.
Of course, I'm tuning in next week, I mean, what do you take me for?
Danny: I'm glad you mentioned the "Justice for X" element, Christina, because I definitely don't want to get sucked into saying something like "It is the L Word's responsibility to depict happy, healthy people treating one another well and respecting each other's boundaries"; I think that it's important to talk about the ways that show exemplifies real-life issues facing various queer communities and our own hopes/desires/resentments without demanding The L Word turn into Sesame Street for adults – or, as you say, considering it a touchstone for our own identities or communities. I want to be able to talk about the show's failures without writing a strongly worded personal letter to Ilene Chaiken.
*extremely Lesbian Henry Higgins voice* What do I take you for -- a fool? (Well, no one taught her take instead of taik.)
Love to you both,