Reality Bites: Why <i>The Real L Word</i> Is Bad for Lesbians

Though it's impressive that a mainstream television show centered on queer women has seen such success, the show's distorted depiction of lesbian culture is something to mourn, not celebrate. Young queers deserve positive, nuanced examples of lesbians in mainstream media.
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Ask any queer girl: When it comes to gaydar, haircuts count.

Surely not every pixie-haired chick out there is hiding steamy Sapphic fantasies inside her carefully pomaded head, and I've met plenty of lesbians with hair that looks straight in more ways than just texture, but any lady with a shaved side, faux-hawk or asymmetrical 'do gets at least a second glance from me.

When I came out in college, I was lucky enough to do so in the company of three highly experienced lesbian roommates, all of whom advised that I reconsider the long, shapeless locks I'd carried over from my high-school days. One of the gang, as odds would have it, owned all six seasons of The L Word on DVD -- 24 discs of the kind of soft-core, girl-on-girl action that only Showtime could get away with -- and we scoured each episode for hair inspiration.

I eventually settled on Shane's cut, the only style on the femme-heavy show that looked queer enough to help me land a date. I printed out a photo and brought it to a hairdresser in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.'s original gayborhood, to take my first physical step toward assimilation into the all-welcoming queer community I imagined was waiting for me.

Even though I emerged from the salon looking more like Florence Henderson than a hip L.A. scenester, that day remains one of my most cherished memories of a confusing, thrilling, inelegant time in my life when my sense of self was in flux and all seemed possible -- if only I could figure out just how a "real" lesbian was supposed to look, dress, walk, stand, talk, flirt, and interact in a world that still saw her as a straight woman.

Finding community as a gay person requires a certain amount of proficiency in the codes we use to build affinity and offer discretion to those who need it. In the absence of gay role models, queer youth and residents of towns or countries that stifle gay culture often turn to popular media like television shows for guidance. The lack of queer representation in international media makes those few American examples even more salient: A friend who recently wrote an ethnography of lesbians in Beirut found that The L Word was an important common reference for queer Lebanese women, even in spite of a steep language and culture barrier.

I'm far more comfortable in my identity now, not least because my ill-advised mommy mullet grew into something a shade less frumpy, but also because my years as an avid consumer of all things queer have taught me that there are as many different ways to be a lesbian as there are, well, lesbians.

I realized that, like the characters in most identity-based narratives, the women of The L Word -- my original touchstone for lesbian culture -- were a reductive cross-section of an infinitely diverse population. It might have been queer, but it was still a mainstream television show on a premium cable network that aimed to attract a broad audience.

The L Word's glamorized depiction of an almost entirely femme group of lesbian friends didn't make any pretenses about representing the real world of queer women. It was a heavily fictionalized caricature that glorified West Coast wealth as much as it did particular standards of beauty and drama-laden lesbian behavior -- which certainly made for some entertaining television.

In many ways The Real L Word does the same thing, with one notable distinction: the word "real." The catty insults and drunken fights? "Real." The backstabbing and steamy scenes of adultery? "Real." The hyper-feminine hotties who get all the action? You get the picture. The standard conventions of reality TV -- typecasting, contrived conflict, joyless sexual undertones -- feel malicious when overlaid onto an already marginalized and stereotyped group. With so few examples of queer women in popular culture, The Real L Word has a majority stake in the way "real" lesbians are portrayed to both the straight community and, more importantly, young women looking for a point of entry into the wide, wonderful world of queers, like I was in college.

Whitney Mixter, by far the most well-known Real L Word cast member and, by Showtime's own admission, the "core of the series," spends her off-camera time touring the country's lesbian nightclubs, greeted by a hefty paycheck and a plaid-clad throng of drooling, would-be lovers at each appearance. On the show her shtick is a perennial womanizing streak that leaves a jilted trail of meticulously made-up paramours in her wake.

Mixter's explosive popularity has sparked a new wave of urban queers sporting white-girl dreads -- but will her influence stop there? As a "real" role model for young lesbians, will Mixter, or the hyperbolic playboy character she's been chosen to play, become the new standard for a desirable mate?

The show's third season debuts July 12, and with a cast that includes serial flirt Kiyomi McCloskey, the frontwoman of alt-rock quartet Hunter Valentine, this year's Real L Word antics promise to top -- so to speak -- those of seasons past. I guess it's a mark of successful lesbian assimilation that we've got our own trite, degrading reality show that appeals to the least common denominator of our desire for guilty-pleasure TV. I'm starting to wonder whether poor representation is worse than no representation at all.

Though it's impressive that a mainstream television show centered on queer women has seen such success, the show's distorted depiction of lesbian culture is something to mourn, not celebrate. Young queers deserve positive, nuanced examples of lesbians in mainstream media -- and we owe them more than dubious hair advice.

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