Why "The L Word" Still Matters 10 Years After It Debuted

"I think you're Dana. Well you're PART Dana, but you also have a little Bette in you.

"-And Tasha!"

"Yeah, and Tasha. Wait, are we using people from later seasons?"

"No, only the originals! Okay, fine. And Tasha. And Carmen."

"Guys, who am I then?"


There is a game we play. It's not something I'm proud of, but it has happened a few times. Get a group of gay women, or really any group of former cable-watchers over the age of 24 on the right night, and you can play the game too. The goal is to match qualities of the characters in Showtime's The L Word with your friends. You can also do it with most shows: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and, of course, Sex and the City -- except for some reason in that version I always end up most closely identifying with Mr. Big's briefcase.

That is why The L Word mattered. It's also why ten years later it still does. However, because The L Word was more or less a soap opera about lesbians set in Los Angeles, and we are a reality about lesbians set in New York, things in the game don't always line up exactly. Most of my friends are living lives that are nothing like those of the characters in that show, and they never will be. They are at best extremely loose compilations of their fictional counterparts; most of the time it's a stretch based on a sliver of a detail. Except for the friend who is Shane. Everybody knows a Shane.

The L Word is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its premiere this month. Who were you ten years ago? I was a completely different person and also exactly the same person I am today. Back then I was a queer person living in New York City, who hadn't yet seen Showtime's The L Word. Today, I'm a queer person living in New York City who has seen Showtime's The L Word. See what I mean? No?

Watching The L Word, and enjoying it, means being able to hold two opposing conditions in your brain, without losing your mind at the contradiction. If you're gay you might already be familiar with this process for a number of other reasons. The L Word is a terrible show. The L Word is a great show. In my opinion both things are true, so I just try to enjoy it for what it is: television.

Have you ever involuntarily rolled your eyes at something, yet kind of wanted to hug it? If so, then you understand how I feel about this show. It's hard to grasp how important such melodramatic characters, idiotic plot points, and story lines as bonkers as the theme song could be to someone who doesn't normally value those qualities in anything. Yes, it is embarrassing and unrealistic, (oh God, please let it be unrealistic), but also it made lesbians appear on my television screen in 2004 without me having to tape tiny photographs of my friends' heads over the cast of Entourage.

Not only that, on occasion I was able to strip away the cosmetic trappings of Los Angeles. Sometimes, despite the exaggerated, preposterous situations -- pausing from oral sex to calmly introduce your ex-wife, attempts to steal sperm from a total stranger, endless maniacal car chases, the Cheris Jaffe -- there was a tiny queer truth with which I could identify. Other times, they were murdering each other, making up fake slang (e.g. "meat tagged"), or hallucinating a Dust Bowl circus that I'm pretty sure was the inspiration for the short-lived HBO series Carnivale. Still, if you blurred your eyes they were just gay women living their lives and that is something with which I could and can relate.

Indeed, sometimes all those slivers of detail added up to something relatable for me, other times not at all. Sometimes they added up to one character informing another, "I can't be around you anymore. It's confusing to me and it makes me feel insane." I get that. I mean seriously, I get that. Other times they added up to one character informing another, "She has the best nipples in town and she knows it." I get that much less. But it always added up to what is still the ONLY television show with more than one lesbian character in the main cast -- Netflix series and Pretty Little Liars notwithstanding. (Go ahead and prove me wrong, Spencer!)

It can be hard to watch something considered "groundbreaking" a decade later. First of all, it's a good idea to be careful about calling any television show "groundbreaking" until one of them solves world hunger. Second, sometimes it's easier to notice the failings of earlier attempts at progress than it is to just accept them as fucked up ancestors and try to write something much better. The L Word did a lot of things wrong -- and those things are called haircuts.

The show also had a number of gender, race, and class representation problems that someone more qualified than me can and has addressed. It has also been criticized for pandering to the male gaze. It probably did. But it also pandered to the female gays.

But despite its evident and substantial problems, there was something about it that wouldn't let me stop watching. It's that holding two ideas in your head thing again.
Recently, I tried explaining the show to my friend Harris who had never heard of it before our conversation. I explained that it's a show about lesbians who love, hate, and sex each other and that each episode title uses words starting with the letter 'L'.

"So, the 'L' word is 'lesbian'?"

"Yes. Also, no."



The L Word is a terrible show. The L Word is a great show. Happy 10 years to all those girls in tight dresses who drag with mustaches. Say "hi" to Dawn Denbo and her lover Cindy for me.