Falling for The L Word’s Soft-Porn Fantasy of Neoliberal Lesbianism (Again)

‘Generation Q’ is as implausible as the original series, but complaining about the show’s lack of nuance is missing the point

The year was 2004. I asked the hairdresser to make me look like Leonardo DiCaprio. Hindsight called to say I looked more like Alex Parks. Billboards went up advertising a new television show about a rabidly horny lesbian clique who considered it their duty to have sex on every inch of prime Los Angeles real estate they encountered. Given the size of their homes this was a Herculean task. Nobody wore a bra. Everyone had a wardrobe filled with see-through vests. Reader, I was hooked.

The L Word (2004–09) set about countering a void in onscreen lesbian representation by mining any cliché going. Characters included a closeted tennis player, a journalist with a barbwire tattoo, a high-flying art curator and an aspiring mum-to-be who spent her days warming specimen cups of sperm between her thighs. And then there was Shane McCutcheon, the scrawny hairdresser with the libido of Eileen Myles and the fashion sense of Russell Brand, who had seen more knickers than a Marks & Spencer underwear buyer.

Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas) and Sarah Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), The L Word: Generation Q, 2019, TV still. Courtesy: Showtime

A decade after season six ended, and in the wake of the mainstreaming of queerness, the show returned to US audiences on 8 December repackaged as The L Word: Generation Q. Along with an updated arsenal of lesbian tropes and a new executive producer in Marja-Lewis Ryan, Generation Q begins with some gold-star virtue signalling. As the credits roll on episode one we are introduced to new character Sarah Finley riding a bicycle. The camera zooms in on her scuffed Vans shoes: dyke credentials confirmed. (Just ask Kristen Stewart.) A man on the street catcalls her as she zooms past. ‘Time’s up, jackass!’ she yells, breaking into a joyous laugh. Who knew sexism could be so uplifting?

The message is delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: The L Word got woke. But while the producers have increased the diversity of the cast and promised to atone for the historically dubious depiction of trans characters, not much else has changed. The show remains a soft-porn fantasy of neoliberal lesbianism, set in a world in which improbably wealthy women mill around luxury homes passing around work contacts, girlfriends and sperm-donor recommendations like the rest of us share Doritos. This season the characters are richer than ever and they all seem to be engaged or married. Forget ‘Generation Q’, Dyke-Wives of Beverly Hills would be a more accurate title.

 Some of the old gang are still around. Bette Porter, the former curator, has taken a break from riling the Christian right by staging exhibitions of erotic art and is running for mayor. She’s fighting the good fight – ‘How do you sleep at night?’ she shouts at the daughter of a Big Pharma mogul (because it’s The L Word, the daughter is also lesbian, along with most of Bette’s staff). But, like Bill Clinton in a magenta trouser suit, her campaign is dogged by accusations that she’s been fucking an employee. Shane’s hairdressing empire was apparently so successful she’s now a multi-millionaire. She makes her entrance from the stairs of a private plane, promptly undresses the air hostess and moves into a house so big she doesn’t know how many bedrooms it has. Meanwhile, Alice Pieszecki, the journalist, has gone full Ellen DeGeneres with a talk show of her own. These days she’s serving European-curator realness, taking to the air in a pair of black-framed glasses so large they would give Hans Ulrich Obrist pause for thought.

Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals), The L Word: Generation Q, 2019, TV still. Courtesy: Showtime

Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals), The L Word: Generation Q, 2019, TV still. Courtesy: Showtime

Shooting down The L Word for a lack of nuance is like watching porn and complaining about the dialogue. The politics have always been off. The characters have never been plausible. The costume department still appears to be run by a gang of trolls. But what about the sex? This, to be honest, was always what the show was about. In 2019, everyone still treats going down like an extreme-sports version of apple bobbing. ‘Time’s up’, ’Green New Deal’, ‘opioid crisis’ and ‘the patriarchy’ are part of a new vocabulary of politically-conscious pillow talk. And there remains something frankly dystopian about just how much sex goes on. Whether this stems from a misguided obsession with proving that lesbians can rival even the basest stereotypes of gay male promiscuity, or if the show simply abides by the failsafe rule that lesbian sex sells, it’s a miracle any woman in Los Angeles is still able to walk.

Fifteen years since The L Word first aired it’s as ridiculous as ever. I’m still trying to pull off DiCaprio. And, reader, I’m still 100 percent hooked. There have been some gains. Series one began with a depressing story arc about a woman being lured from her boyfriend by the nymphomaniac denizens of planet dyke. This, I imagine, mirrored what the producers considered necessary to make a ratings hit: seducing straight audiences with the most exoticizing rendition of lesbianism they could muster. In contrast, Generation Q opens with a period sex scene between two women in love. You may never see a cleaner depiction of menstrual blood, but it’s an improvement.

Main image: The L Word: Generation Q, 2019, TV still. Courtesy: Showtime

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer based in London. She is an editor at The White Review. Her book Double-Tracking was published by Carcanet Press in October 2019.

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