Why “The L Word” Was So Important in Shaping Femme Visibility

Ilene Chaiken changed the landscape of lesbian visibility when she wrote “The L Word.”

“Are you gay or straight?” were the words the bartender at Sisters had for me as I walked up to order a drink at my first lesbian bar. Taken aback by her frankness, I answered “gay.” As I looked around I quickly realized I was the only feminine-looking woman in the establishment. No wonder she felt she had to clarify; she wasn’t sure if I “belonged” in a lesbian bar. This wouldn’t be the only time in the coming years I felt the need to justify my queerness to other lesbians, simply because my outward appearance didn’t scream “gay,” and it definitely wouldn’t be the first time I felt alone as a femme in the gay community.

It was 2005 when this happened. I’d graduated college, and also had just started my first relationship with a woman. New to the gay “scene,” I tried desperately to connect with and become a part of the LGBTQ community. Despite meeting gaggles of incredible queer humans,  I had trouble finding other femme women. Everywhere I went—pride in Washington D.C. and New York, OutFest in Philadelphia, and every gay bar and circuit party I could find in my city—I saw beautiful, strong masculine-presenting women, a “type” I was completely attracted to, but what I couldn’t find was a reflection of myself.  Feminine women just weren’t a big part of the lesbian social circles in the cities I lived in at the time and they were barely visible in mainstream media. We had Ellen, Melissa Ethridge, the Indigo Girls and Sandra Bernhardt, all incredible performers and openly gay, but all predominantly masculine in the way they presented themselves. Femmes were a scarce find in my cities and completely invisible in the media.

In short: I couldn’t find my girls!

Then I found “The L Word.”

Rachel Shelley (Helena), Pam Grier (Kit), Mia Kirshner (Jenny), Katherine Moennig (Shane), Jennifer Beals (Bette), Laurel Holloman (Tina), Leisha Hailey (Alice), and Rose Rollins (Tasha) in
Rachel Shelley (Helena), Pam Grier (Kit), Mia Kirshner (Jenny), Katherine Moennig (Shane), Jennifer Beals (Bette), Laurel Holloman (Tina), Leisha Hailey (Alice), and Rose Rollins (Tasha) in “The L Word”Photo by Don Flood / Showtime

The first time I watched the show, it was already in its second season and my devotion was swift and hard. For the first time, I saw multiple femme women who dated women and more importantly, who exuded confidence, power and femininity. I felt a kinship and a sense of belonging. These characters gave me reassuring hope that I could remain true to myself, while still being a part of the gay community.

Everyone has their pivotal character from the show: the persona that spoke most to their inner self. For some, the playboy antics of Shane or the coming out struggles Dana faced were the most accurate portrayals of either themselves or people they knew. For myself, watching the femme powerhouses like Bette, Helena, Tina, Carmen and even Jenny made it okay to wear designer dresses and rock the highest of heels all while pursuing a professional career with vengeance and being an outspoken feminist. The femme women on this show had nothing to prove; they did not apologize for their gender expression, and they gave femme lesbians multiple potential role models.

Ilene Chaiken changed the landscape of lesbian visibility when she created “The L Word, ” and in particular she helped give multiple faces and personalities to femme queer women, as well as transgender, cross-dressing, bisexual and questioning people. She broached topics of femininity in the lesbian world, such as the difficulties and dangers faced when being perceived as straight because of a heteronormative physical appearance.

As a feminine-presenting queer woman, I can attest to the fact that at a non-gay designated bar, for example, I silently prep myself with how I will address or avoid the inevitable come-on from someone who believes I am straight, simply because of how I look and dress. This does become tiresome and can become dangerous, two additional facts I can personally validate, and something we saw happen to characters like Jenny and Carmen.

Chaiken broached the topic of gay marriage between two femmes, such as Bette and Tina, and explored the difficulties they had with the complexities this dynamic could lend itself in a world where some men may discount or silently invalidate their relationship. She also showed how being femme can have its allowances: sometimes, it was far easier for the feminine women in the show to get away with acting a certain way or attaining the outcomes they desired.

Their appearance made them less threatening to others who weren’t accepting, and they could easily hide behind their seemingly straight appearance. Whether valiant or evil reason lay behind the character’s actions, this was the first time femmes had a solid presence on television.

As we await the revival of this pivotal show, I hope the writers not only maintain its widely cast net of inclusive story lines–but try to go a little further.

Thirteen years after its debut, the opportunity to delve deeper into the life of lesbians is ripe for exploration. Within the realm of femme gays in particular, a multitude of complex issues are available to broach, including abuse and misogyny from masculine-presenting lesbians, appropriation by mainstream society, and femme presentation across various cultures.

Not only are these topics available, but they are also important and they have a wide, willing audience still hungry for lesbian role models.

If a show like this could burn such a fierce imprint in a society that people still discuss it at length over a decade later, imagine what addressing these deeper issues could do for the future of the community?

At the time “The L Word” came out, femme visibility in major cities, in media and in lesbian culture as a whole, was lacking. Now, because of this show, we can simply glance across social media and find the wide and varying array of women presenting themselves as gay, queer, lesbian, trans, and falling into every nook and cranny on the gender spectrum.

How fast can you wave your flag? 🏳️‍🌈

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We can’t discount the many other factors that helped open the doors for more open expression, open conversation, and general inclusiveness, but in the case of femme visibility in both the queer and straight communities, the original “L Word” was the pioneer.

And for that, I—an extremely outspoken, career-driven, feminist femme—will be forever grateful.


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