Heteronormativity in The L Word


The L Word, which was marketed as the “queer successor” to Sex and the City, piloted in January of 2004 and featured the slogan, “Same Sex. Different City.” The L Word was also the first television show to focus on the lives of lesbians. The show has stirred up a lot of controversy in its content and explicitness but more significantly in its representation of the lesbian community. Existing commentary on The L Word is mostly about the issue of lesbian visibility in mainstream television. As important as visibility and representation are in a show about a marginalized group, it’s also important to look at the politics of norms, especially on television. Television participates in the reproduction of norms, thereby influencing our idea of culture and reality. The narrative structure of The L Word is problematic not only because its representation of lesbians is limited but also because of the way it perpetuates the normativity of heterosexuality. The issue of representation alone only touches on one small facet of the bigger issues of gender and sexual politics. Norms implicitly presume, construct, and reinforce what is “normal” and television contributes to this construction and reconstruction. The lesbians on The L Word reify heteronormativity by imitating heterosexual norms and thereby preserve patriarchal ideas and practices.

Heteronormativity suggests that people fall into one of two distinct and complementary sexes (male and female), each having certain gender roles. It also suggests that heterosexuality and its practices are more “normal.” Obviously a show about lesbians isn’t suggesting that heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation but the show does consistently represent constructions of heterosexual romance (e.g. marriage, children, the breadwinner versus the homemaker). For example, The L Word promotes the heteronormative ideas of what constitutes a ‘good’ relationship. Although promiscuous sex is depicted, it is made clear that monogamy is the better, more fulfilling, choice. Those who don’t engage in monogamous relationships are often punished. When Jenny cheats on Tim with Marina, she experiences an emotional breakdown afterwards and when Bette cheats on her long-time partner, Tina, she is ostracized and alienated by her friends. Even Shane, who is always with a different woman, is only truly fulfilled when in a committed relationship. Other heteronormative storylines like Tina and Bette trying to have a baby and Dana and Tanya’s engagement are strikingly present in the series. The depiction of lesbians engaging in heteronormative activities isn’t wrong or even inaccurate but the show’s privileging of these practices is problematic.

The L Word also actively preserves the gender binary. The show openly discusses sexual orientation and the politics of sexuality but it’s less willing to talk about gender, especially if it blurs the gender lines. This distinction between sexual orientation and gender is one aspect of the heteronormative nature of the show. For example, all of the lesbians on the show are attractive to straight men. They are sexualized, desirable, feminine, and often subjected to the male gaze. Lacy lingerie is always present in sex scenes and there are no “butch” characters on the show. Shane, the stud of the show, is perhaps the most aggressive female character, and the least “femme,” but even she is still more feminine than a real “butch” lesbian. Then there is Moira (turned Max), a female to male transsexual, who is originally portrayed as a butch lesbian but ends up identifying as male. There are no truly masculine women on the show besides one who identifies as a man. This preserves the idea that there are only two genders, male or female, and that people must identify as one or the other (and therefore take on the standard appearance and mannerisms of their respective gender). There is also a lack of understanding of transsexual people, which is problematic for a show that aims to represent the LGBT community. When Max announces that he will no longer go by his given name, Moira, and will be transitioning from female to male, the women on the show are initially not very accepting. One of the women, Kit, even says to him that he should be proud to be a woman. She and the other women don’t understand why Max would want to transition. This lack of understanding of the inner struggles and confusion that a transsexual person goes through is heteronormative in that it doesn’t recognize the fluidity and the psychological aspects of gender.

The L Word tries to appeal to not only lesbians, but also to non-lesbian viewers and, in doing so, rests on the understanding that lesbian sex is attractive to heterosexual men. Early in the first episode of The L Word, two young women, Shane and one of her many conquests, strip down, dive into a backyard pool, and fool around passionately, while the young woman next-door, Jenny, watches with fascination, crouching behind a fence. This scene could have been taken out of a soft-core girl-on-girl porno targeted for heterosexual men (or heterosexual couples). After Jenny enters her house, she and her boyfriend, Tim, engage in sexual activity framed by her slow, detailed, and savoring account of the lesbian scene she has just witnessed. Jenny is from the Midwest and is overwhelmed (and fascinated) by the gay scene in West Hollywood. Jenny is almost instantly attracted to café owner Marina Ferrer and this budding affair serves as the centerpiece for the first season. Jenny starts to question her sexuality and her relationship with Tim but remains in denial until the second season. The fact that she is both fantasizing about women while being intimate with her boyfriend and using images of lesbian to engage in foreplay perpetuates the heteronormative and almost pornographic notion of desiring lesbians. This notion makes lesbians the object of desire to supplement straight sexuality.

There’s also the issue of including men in the sexual relations between the lesbians on the show. The first more visible lesbian sex scene is between the long-term couple Tina and Bette. They are trying to have a baby but are having a problem finding a sperm donor. After many failed attempts to find a suitable donor, they decide to have a threesome with a random good-looking man that they meet at a party in hopes that he will impregnate Tina. He doesn’t realize that he’s being used for his sperm, however, but is just so excited to be engaging in a threesome with two beautiful women. At the moment he tries to put a condom on, both Tina and Bette smile and say that it’s unnecessary. This basically sums up the heterosexual male fantasy: two attractive women that are willing to have unprotected three-way sex with an utter stranger. This seems far-fetched, though, like something out of porn. It seems pretty unlikely that two educated lesbians would be willing to engage in (unprotected) sex with a man, let alone a man they don’t know.

The lesbians on The L Word can be accepted into popular culture because they are feminine and therefore pose no threat to heteronormativity or the gender binary. When the ladies go on a lesbian cruise, Alice, the “femme” bisexual, spots a “butch” woman and exclaims, “Now there’s a hundred footer! You can tell she’s gay from a hundred feet away!” Alice’s statement suggests that being visibly gay is not necessarily a good thing and that if one is too “butch” they should try to make their appearance more feminine in order not to be obviously gay. On the other hand, there is the straight presumption that one can only be gay through an affirmative declaration. This confirms the heteronormative idea that one must reveal one’s sexuality or must be prepared to have everyone assume wrongly about it. In other words, you can’t be ambiguous about your sexuality (because that’s confusing!) but you also can’t “look like a lesbian.” This is an attempt to appease the straight audiences by saying to them that lesbians are just like them. Lesbians look like them, they act like them, they aren’t so different at all! The L Word paradoxically breaks norms and reifies them. Even though the show aims to enhance the visibility of marginalized sexualities, it also tries to appeal to a mass audience, which could explain the heteronormative nature of the show.

Here’s the promo for Season 1 of The L Word.

by: Antonia Santoro


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