The U.S. slang term “boob tube” for television can have an all too literal meaning for our voyeuristic society. We look to televised sex as an alternative to reality, an escape from the mundane, living vicariously through the characters that we so desperately desire to intimately be with. While television spreads the glitz and glam of sex quite nicely, it also provides a significant springboard for social change regarding sexuality. For example, shows like Queer As Folk, Modern Family, and Glee broadcast queer visibility to viewers who might not otherwise interact with gay culture. However, we mustn’t forget that queer visibility on television embodies a double-edged sword of pros and cons. However, when there are few interpretations of one population on television, queer females in particular, negative stereotypes are more likely to emerge and hinder social change. For example, previously aired shows like The L Word created rather homogenous queer female roles that few real lesbians or bisexuals can fulfill. Through the reinforcement of the male gaze and heteronormativity in relationship to queer visibility, The L Word set new standards for what it means to be a queer female in American society—standards that just might put queer females in boxes smaller than their closets.
On many television shows, the male gaze occurs when some sort of producer or medium purposefully puts its audience into the perspective of the heterosexual man. With a title like The L Word, one would think that male gaze excused itself from this queerly driven production. However, the opposite holds true. For instance, capturing the true essence of the heterosexual male’s boob tube, the first episode of The L Word greets us with two very naked lesbians having sex in a pool. Think Victoria Secret lingerie model, perfect size zero, and curves in all the right places for the duration of this scene and then it will be clear as to what perfection was casted in this show and just who might have casted these ladies. With all of this sultriness taking up the screen, the male gaze leaves little room for women to embrace their very own masculinity.
In other words, The L Word dismissed the butch lesbian stereotype right off the bat, introducing the lipstick lesbian that was sure to seduce just about every brother, son, boyfriend, and husband out there. The show takes it one step further when the questionably heterosexual Jenny witnesses her neighbors’ hot, steamy sex and describes it to her boyfriend later that night, simply to spice up their heterosexual foreplay in the bedroom. By including Jenny’s detail-oriented recap of the sex scene as foreplay specifically for her boyfriend, the academic viewer picks up on a television tradition that American society knows all too well. Television has traditionally been constructed with a male audience in mind, and sex continues to sell. More specifically, heteronormative sex sells.
Heteronormativity refers to the cultural and socially constructed bias in favor of heterosexual relationships of a sexual nature. Examples of heteronormativity might include laws that actively discriminate against homosexual relationships, or more pertinently, the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of same-sex couples in advertisements and entertainment media like television programming. In looking at the media images of The L Word’s flawless cast, it is clear that the show reinforces heteronormativity despite it being a show about women who are sexually attracted to other women. The clarity of the show's premise brings us back to the infamous lesbian sex scene. The scene does little justice to reveal the beauty of two women being in a romantically, emotionally, and sexually invested relationship. Instead, the scene concludes itself to be just another soft pornographic moment for heterosexual males in the history of television.
In the New York Times, Ilene Chaiken, the creator of The L Word, notably rejects “the idea that pop television is a political medium,” and refuses to “take on the mantle of social responsibility.” However, the show takes on social responsibility whether Chaiken believes it or not. As active viewers, academia needs to question the political and social relevance of The L Word and other contemporary shows that bring viewers radically into the queer realm of society. For example, are queer females the exotic other and should we enable society to view them under a voyeuristic lens?
At a safe distance, in the comfort of our own living rooms, The L Word appeared to be taking a step in the right direction if you consider its empowerment of female sexuality. Again, the academic viewer needs to dismiss the heteronormative sexual pleasure that Jenny's boyfriend receives through this supposedly explicit empowerment.
Furthermore, Chaiken attempts to say that lesbians are just the same as everyone else. Everyone desires equality and some airtime on television, right? On the contrary, we as queer females are not the same as your average Joe and plain Jane. “Everyone else” is allowed to marry, allowed to be openly sexual, and allowed to have a show on a network television channel without the necessity of warning labels. In fact, we as queer females are not even like each other. We are feminine, masculine, and androgynous. We are racially and ethnically diverse. And most certainly, we are not all hypersexual.
Not only does the male gaze and heteronormativity continue to sexualize and objectify women, but shows tend to over-represent women as having made it in society from an economic standpoint. For example, The L Word displays characters like Bette, the concrete sequential Saab-driving vixon; Alice, a critically acclaimed magazine writer; and last but not least, Dana, the tennis playing superstar. On top of their successes in various fields of work, all characters embody slender, model-esque physicalities. Now, queer female viewers have nothing against tall, skinny, intelligent women, and there are plenty of lesbians and bisexuals who fit that category. Problematically, since Chaiken claims to represent queer females as “real women” in an attempt to break the stereotype of lesbians as physically and socially hyper-masculine females, her construction of lesbians, fits into a capitalist ideology, and idealistic feminine beauty and fashion ends up driving the show.
Similarly, the denying of certain identities of queer females to avoid certain stereotypes while creating new ones such as the ultra-feminine “lipstick” lesbian allows room for continued oppression of these queer identities, which stray from what is acceptable by societal standards of what a woman should define herself as. Let society face the fact that the controversy resides in how conventionally feminine and aesthetically pleasing all of the women on The L Word are, and it is true that their world has been a butchless one. While The L Word embraced entertaining eye candy at its core, a glamorous production on which everyone is flawless and constantly having fiery sexual encounters, again, it is a memo to the nation whether creator Ilene Chaiken desires to take on a giant chunk of social responsibility. Perhaps, there are other reasons to have a contemporary show about women engaging in sex with each other besides the attempt to dismantle the dominant paradigm. However, the best reason for the existence of a show like The L Word is to reveal the value and validity of female desire. Then again, this is not groundbreaking television. This sort of soft pornographic television programming has been around long before The L Word and tends to appeal more to heterosexual men than to any self-respecting feminist—queer or not. Yet queer females are asked to get excited or even so much as to embrace shows like The L Word because it is about us.
If you are not a queer female, then shows like The L Word ask you to entertain the idea that life as a queer female is socially active and glamorous. The impeccable and improbable beauty of the cast does not necessarily bother the nation of television viewers because society has accepted a long time ago that actors and actresses look incredibly better than regular people. Similarly, the majority of society has accepted the idea that lesbians look worse than regular people due to the misrepresentation of grungy, hyper-masculine “dyke” stereotypes. Unfortunately, the representation of queer women as paradoxically heternormative, beautiful, sexual, and humorous completely relates to the politically and socially constructed alienation and open discrimination of real loving, working queer women in our society whether we would like to admit it or not.
The question remains in the hands of the active, academic viewer. If this show tells the stories of queer females for the target audience of lesbians and bisexuals, then why is the male gaze and heteronormativity so incredibly still present? For the very first show on television about lesbians, society needs to give credit to The L Word for opening up the discussion about feminine sexuality. However, viewers need to remind themselves that this queer visibility is to confirm, not to reject, the value and validity of the female desire to have sex with another female. The queer female wants to engage in a sexual encounter with another female due to love, passion, and emotional intimacy—just like any other relationship—heteronormative or not. If the male gaze and heteronormativity continue to override the agenda of queer culturally-based shows, then television is not only boxing in lesbian identities with their unwanted stereotypes, but telling them to stay in the closet.
Ashley R. Tanberg is an intern for the Northfield Enterprise Center and Northfield. Patch