seven times 'the L word' shaped lesbian culture

From its terrible emo haircuts to its sensitive depiction of the struggles of a transgender man, here’s how The L Word influenced lesbian culture.

by Sophie Wilkinson
03 August 2017, 1:05am

The L Word is to return, as Showtime confirms a new series is in the works. Not only are many of the original cast available -- the last we heard, Leisha Hailey (Alice) was running a pet wig company -- for filming, but Ilene Chaiken, its creator, insists that lesbian representation in the media needs a shake-up. She recently told Entertainment Weekly: "When we went off the air in 2009, I think a lot of people thought, Okay, the baton is passed now, and there will be lots of shows that portray lesbian life. There's really nothing. It feels like maybe it should come back."

While I agree, and look forward to the return of the show as earnestly as Tonya looked forward to a life of bossing Dana about, or Jenny looked forward to making any given conversation about her, or Bette looked forward to dropping in a reference to Sanskrit, Chaiken shouldn't be so downcast. Because though The L Word departed our screens in 2009, the show shaped modern lesbian culture in numerous ways. Here are just seven such lesbian-defining moments.

1) Dana and Jenny proving we don't all fuck each other
Though Dana attempts to put dibs on Jenny on first sight ("Crispaaay!"), the spark ends just about there. Bumping into each other at an old-school dyke bar way later in season one, the pair end up fumbling in Jenny's studio, all elbows and scuffles and clinical gropes. It's probably the most awkward part of the series, bar the entirety of season six. And as well as flattening the misapprehension from skeeved out straight women, internally homophobic lesbians and horny straight guys that think lesbians will fancy any woman they see, it goes to show, just like so many IRL lesbian relationships been and gone, or never quite established at all, that romantic intentions can quickly turn to friendship. And that it's ok for that to happen.

2) Shane and Carmen dancing together
You can buy a 'Femme Vibe' T-shirt from Urban Outfitters and basically dilute and eventually erase an identity that was carved out by and for lesbians. Or you could learn everything you need to know about the allure of the dyke-dichotomy of butch and femme by watching Sharmen (that's Shane and Carmen to all you non-believers) flirting and dancing with each other. Sex scenes were hardly in short supply on The L Word. And Shane, who reached parodic excesses of fucking, going so far as to fingerbang three members of the same family on one of their wedding days, was no exception. But this scene, cut unfortunately short -- thanks, Jenny -- still carries intense eroticism, intimacy, and yearning, all built on the power-play of who's going to fuck who tonight. Bonus points for being soundtracked to something other than Betty.

3) The Arts
Whether it's Bette fingering Alice at the opera, or Bette getting Stendhal Syndrome while looking at potential benefactor Peggy Peabody's art collection, or Bette stealing a massive 17 Reasons Why! sign from, um, San Francisco, to tow on a tractor and present to her ex-girlfriend Jodi Lerner in order to win her back, or Jodi then making a slut-shamey performance art video of Bette saying nonsense like "fuck me" and "leave me alone" or basically any of Jenny's monologue/writings about manatees, carnivals and Nietzche…the show got artsy. And why not? The niche references intellectualised a sometimes cringe-ridden series and carved out a firm fictional space for lesbians in the art world. If that helped even one lesbian feel more entitled to a seat at a creative table, then it's a good thing. It's a beautiful thing. So beautiful, I'm crying etc.

4) The Chart
It would be a fallacy to suggest all lesbians know each other -- some haven't even come out yet! -- but seriously, the chart, as run by pop culture writer Alice Pieszecki, was the closest thing to a realistic physical manifestation of the sprawling connections lesbians have to other lesbians bar a 20-tonne pile of spaghetti. The Chart magically becomes meta, tumbling out of the four walls to feature the stars of the show e.g. Tammy Lynn Michaels, who played Shane's stalker Lacey, went out with Melissa Etheridge, who dated Julie Cypher, who dated k.d. lang, who dated Leisha Hailey (who plays Alice!), or, say, Guinevere Turner, who plays Alice's mean ex Gabby Devaux, dated Portia De Rossi, who was once engaged to Francesca Gregorini, who -- it is rumoured! -- once hooked up with Katherine Moennig -- who plays Shane! With a little bit of detective work, and a whole heap of gossip, we've all been Alice and friends, (fondly) remembering who's hooked up with who in times gone by.

The L Word firmly cemented the phenomenon of lesbian club names' nods to the nethers by showing Twat: The Night: a fully fledged night wherein attendees shuffled through a giant crepe-paper vagina to gain entry.

5) Max
Years before the mainstream fashion press started "celebrating" trans women in order to sell more frocks and make-up, we got to see a very rare depiction of a trans man in Max, formerly Moira. We followed his struggles fitting in in both straight and lesbian communities, his disgust towards his female body, the impacts of testosterone on his behaviour, the special treatment he got when he "passed" as a man, and the eventual attraction he felt for other men. Though initially just a party trick by which Jenny could make her friends feel uncomfortable, Max's working class mid-West roots gave the writers an opportunity to poke at the affluent and aspirational lifestyle they'd bestowed on previous characters. And while many of Max's storylines can be problematic -- Was Kit Porter out of order to beg Max to remain a woman, in order to bend the parameters of its definitions? Were the writers raining hell down on Max by leaving him pregnant and alone? -- the same could be said of the show in general. Chaiken now says: "The burden of representation for every single lesbian experience got projected onto us." And, at the very least, in some circles, Max's existence got the ball rolling on conversations about trans identities way before Caitlyn Jenner came out.

6) Twat: The Night
Lesbian clubs have had silly names for aeons, but without Facebook to remember it all or easily-accessible libraries of erstwhile DIY flyers with scribbled fannies on, the herstory of our predecessors' puerile humour is lost. But The L Word firmly cemented the phenomenon of lesbian club names' nods to the nethers by showing Twat: The Night grow from project planning at The Planet, to a fully fledged night wherein attendees shuffled through a giant crepe-paper vagina to gain entry. Twat Boutique, Butch Please, Aphrodyki, Femmme Fraiche, Fish Fry, Club Lesley, Clam Jam, and Pussy Palace -- basically any lesbian night that's helped me get laid -- can thank The L Word for giving great publicity to such a valuable tradition.

7) Shane's hair
What 'The Rachel' did to straight women's hair in 1994, 'The Shane' did to lesbian hair a decade on. And just as even the smallest village will now have a vape shop, even the most parochial of gay bars will, to this day, host a sulky woman glaring out from under the tendrils of her choppy, mussed up progression of Rod Stewart's mullet. And while other famous dyke-tastic haircuts in the public eye, like, say, Ellie Goulding's shaved side-panel, or Justin Bieber's helmet fringe, were eventually snipped by their owners, Kate Moennig has committed to 'The Shane' for all these years.


Text Sophie Wilkinson

The L Word
bette porter
jenny schecter
shane mccutcheon