- “To Teach and to Mentor: Toward Our Collective Future” (2013)
- “Feeling Women’s Culture: Women’s Music, Lesbian Feminism, and the Impact of Emotional Memory” (2012)
- “Performing Jewishness In and Out of the Classroom” (2012)
- “Casual Racism and Stuttering Failures: An Ethics for Classroom Engagement” (2012)
- “On ‘Publics’: A Feminist Constellation of Keywords” (2011)
- “Unassuming Gender” (2011)
- “The Greater Good” (2011)
- “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality” (2009)
- “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein” (2008)
The sixth and last season of The L Word constructs the ending of its dyke drama around the mysterious death (murder?) of Jenny Schechter, the character everyone loves to hate. I have to say that I wasn’t an early adopter of the antipathy for Jenny, as were so many fans of the show. When the first season or two centered on her coming out story, I even found aspects of her experience resonant and somehow true. I still remember, for instance, her decision to visit Marina (a character I much preferred loving to hate) in the Planet’s office after closing time one evening, with the formerly resistant Jenny now peeling off her top and succumbing to her new, impossible-to-corral Sapphic desire.
But since the show has embraced its fans’ distaste for the character, Jenny’s arrogance and narcissism have become loathsome, so it’s only appropriate that the swan song season should focus on her early demise. The flashback structure lets us anticipate what we hope will be a delicious and deserved death. (This sounds like quite a cold thing to say, but in the fantasy/melodrama/comedy vein of the show, it’s entirely appropriate.)
In the first episode of season six, the girls (and that’s The Girls, not Les [or Lez] Girls, to you) huddle in Bette and Tina’s living room (which I always find remarkably small, given the lavish décor and generous spread of the rest of their fantasy house), watching in shock as Jenny’s body is removed on a stretcher after she’s found floating face down in the Ur-couple’s pool. The Sunset Boulevard-esque device is fun and effective; each of the next several episodes flashes back to set up a different potential murderer, planting enough motive among the main characters to persuade spectators that any one of them might have done Jenny in, and sending us barreling toward the show’s grand exit.
The L Word has only ever been as good as each episode’s writer/producer and director. The sixth season’s first, written by Ilene Chaiken, The L Word’s creator and executive producer, was typically terrible. Chaiken has never been the best of its many scribes; I cringe when I see her name in an episode’s opening credits as writer or director. Her dialogue is flatfooted and awkward, and the characters’ interactions are always less complex and witty when she’s at the helm.
True to form, the first episode of season six was filled with obvious, stagy patter and melodramatic events, most of which set up the subsequent episodes: Bette and Tina’s plan to adopt another baby and their over-the-top rush to the E.R. when Angie gets a cold; Shane’s dejected determination to win back Jenny’s friendship after betraying her by having sex with Niki at the Les Girls wrap party; Helena’s chastity, while she invests her time and energy into the new, upscale evening disco arm of The Planet, in which she’s Kit’s new business partner; Tina’s despair over the hetero-izing of Lez Girls, which by the second episode has been renamed The Girls and its ending changed so that the main character goes back to men; Bette’s friction with Jodi, who’s now got a vendetta against her boss and former lover; and Alice and Tasha’s attempt to mend their faltering relationship.
Although the story-line is no doubt produced by committee, Chaiken’s rendering of the characters rings hollow and sends the proceedings plummeting from the realm of guilty pleasure and into embarrassing boredom. Thankfully, the redoubtable Rose Troche wrote and directed the second episode and several more this season, returning The L Word to its more parodic outlook and moving it along with a much lighter, wittier touch. Subsequent episodes have mostly maintained a more satirical élan, but you can also feel the producers’ urgency about developing new plot threads for this last season while also tying up loose ends as it moves toward its wrap.
The women’s various relationships—both as couples and within the larger kinship network that’s perhaps always been one of the show’s most interesting and successful projects—have grounded The L Word’s view of its very partial lesbian community. Alice and Tasha, whose interracial pairing is interesting mostly for the class differences between them, struggle to stay together despite the clashes of values and interests that continually threaten to break them up.
Their second episode scene in a couple’s therapist’s office was both hysterical and sad, as it nicely clarified Alice’s inadvertent but nearly total domination of her girlfriend. Alice answered each question the shrink addressed to the more reticent Tasha, talking for her and about her as Tasha sat in uncomfortable silence. By the end of the session, the shrink suggested they’re too different to stay together, which only appeared to strengthen their resolve to work things out. Leisha Hailey’s Alice continues to be the show’s bright spot, whether because of her innate sensitivity to lesbian relationship vibes (if I could be so essentialist to suggest), or because of how genuinely she responds the game Rose Rollins’s laidback demeanor. Rollins’s/Tasha’s throaty laugh, which throws her chin up and her head back with pleasure, is one of the show’s unadulterated, infectious delights.
Then there’s Phyllis (Cybill Shepherd), the newly out provost, and her determined butchy lover, Joyce (played by the redoubtable Jane Lynch), who insists they marry and proclaim life-long dedication. The show’s portrait of Phyllis’s work as the provost of a major university is so ridiculous it’s campy, capped by Joyce’s appearance, in the nude, in Phyllis’s office to propose holy matrimony. Phyllis’s betrayal of Bette, when Jodi threatens to sue her former lover for sexual harassment, seems cold and out of character, although Phyllis has always been played more for laughs than for depth.
After several uncomfortable professional moments, in which it’s clear that Jodi’s career has taken off after the opening of her piece exposing Bette’s disloyalty, Bette resigns from the university, blithely leaving her prominent deanship to return to the art world. The big-eyed Elizabeth Berkeley was quickly introduced as an old college chum who reappears in Bette’s life as a recently divorced, settlement-wealthy art collector, who needs Bette’s expertise to run her gallery and whose not so subtle flirtation with Bette fans the always smoldering flames of Tina’s jealousy.
The appearance of still another woman to distract Bette from her long-term if fraught and only just recently reaffirmed relationship with Tina feels forced. I don’t know why the show brands Bette as an always-straying Jezebel, but there’s something incipiently racist about this aspect of The L Word, as though being biracial keeps Bette from making clear choices about whom to love.
Tina’s constant jealousy has reduced her character to a charade of a whiny house-frau. Laurel Holloman’s already superficial acting chops haven’t been flattered by the recent vagaries her role, which requires too much righteous indignation—over Bette’s new/old friend, over the disintegration of the lesbian perspective of Lez Girls, which she produced, and over the possibility of adopting another child. Holloman spends too much time with her voice and her eyebrows raised, and her relationship with Beals has so far lost much of its sexy luster. I hope it returns by the series’ end, as their erotic connection has always been one of the show’s main attractions.
In one of the most blatantly ripped-from-the-headlines plot threads, transman Max has become pregnant, thanks to his gay male lover Tom’s sexual ministrations. Max, now sporting a full (and very unconvincing) beard, discovers his pregnancy too late to abort, and Tom at first claims to be willing to raise the child with him. But Max discontinues his testosterone treatment (which doesn’t seem to affect the fullness of his beard) and finds himself swelling and suffering from too-female pregnancy hormones.
A scene in Episode Four in which Max disrobes, revealing an obviously prosthetic belly and breasts and the utterly disposable dildo he packs, is pedagogical—as though the producers want to instruct the audience in the apparatus necessary for a transgender person to perform masculinity—and laughable, as Max’s equally plastic-appearing stomach and boobs give off an unnatural sheen.
It could be giving the producers too much credit to suggest that they’re underlining the construction of both masculinity and femininity in this scene. And such a critique doesn’t quite work because the moment is so flat and overwrought, and Max’s psychology so superficially drawn. When he throws a jealous hissy fit over Tom’s innocent flirtations at a gay bar, Tom has second thoughts about their partnership and decides to walk, emptying his closets and drawers without warning or word. Episode four ended with Max’s discovery that he’s been abandoned by his erstwhile partner. With his trans surgery postponed because of his pregnancy, Max’s life is left very much up for grabs. Here, the story line veers from its obvious referent, the transman Thomas “Pregnant Man” Beattie, who maintains a stable relationship with his female partner and is now pregnant with their second child.
In another far-fetched plot development, after Jenny skewers Shane and Niki when she catches them in flagrante delicto, she admits that she’s in love with Shane, who takes the bait and hops into Jenny’s bed with barely a second thought. Earlier in the series, the two women’s friendship was one of its sustaining elements, their easy physical and emotional camaraderie always grounding and pleasurable, especially given Shane’s disastrous affairs and Jenny’s increasingly self-centered self-stylings.
But to recreate them as a couple forces their intimacy into a nearly incestuous phase, and implies reductively that close lesbian friendships inevitably fall into sexual romance. The rest of the crowd expresses impatient antipathy for their new status as a couple, and even Shane seems dubious. Jenny’s increasingly excessive jealousy, and her insistence that Shane stop smoking and stop flirting, can’t bode well for their romantic longevity.
Of all the characters, Helena’s trajectory tops the pack as the most surreal. She’s gone from being the mean-spirited, competitive, wealthy art benefactor of her first season on the show to a rich girl disinherited by her mother (played with ecstatic verve by the terrific Holland Carter), to a clueless inmate serving jail time for fraud, to an escapee who disappears to a Caribbean island to have a fling with her escaped cellmate, to serving as Kit’s partner at the Planet.
In her insistent indifference to dating, who should reenter the scene but Dylan (Alexandra Hedison), the erstwhile straight woman who blackmailed Helena earlier in the series by seducing her into a relationship that set her, too, up for charges of sexual harassment which (if only temporarily) ruined Helena’s life. The otherwise chaste Helena can’t resist Dylan’s reinvigorated seductions, despite her earlier betrayal. Dylan has come out as queer and returned to the Planet (and the lesbian planet) determined to woe Helena. Despite her friends’ admonishments to steer clear, Helena can’t help but find her interest rekindled.
In episode five, the girl gang use Niki to test the authenticity of Dylan’s renewed love for Helena. When Dylan successfully resists Niki’s seductions (as the others watch through the Planet’s elaborate surveillance system), Helena marches back into Dylan’s arms. Their episode-closing love-making moved me more than any of the characters’ sex scenes so far this season, perhaps because their intimacy actually forwarded their characters’ development, rather than throwing a sop to the show’s voyeuristic spectators (of all sexual persuasions).
Kit, meanwhile, flirts with the Planet’s drag queen disk jockey, a large African American man made up in high camp femininity, whose deep, laconic voice seems startling coming from such a package. Poor Kit (Pam Grier) always gets the most superficial treatment from the show’s writers, her relationships the most outlandish and fantastical. Once written as a recovering alcoholic with demons of her own to chase, Kit now serves as the other characters’ helpmeet, commenting from the sidelines on actions from which she’s always strangely excluded. Grier, though, has settled nicely into the role’s absurdities, delivering her Greek chorus commentaries with irony and sardonic attitude. But the writers waste the character’s—and Grier’s—potential.
More than halfway through this season’s eight episode arc, The L Word has maintained much of the sly self-referential satire it established in season five. In one episode, Shane tells Jenny that she’s running off to coif Eric Mabius’s hair, a sweet inside reference to the man who played Tim, Jenny’s swim coach husband, in the show’s first few seasons, who now stars as the clueless magazine entrepreneur on Ugly Betty. More of those moments would add to the show’s fun.
Fans who’ve stuck with The L Word over these last six years have become part of the extended sphere of references that have created community not only on screen but off. Our Chart, spun off from earlier seasons’ references to Alice’s dyke genealogy project, has become successful on line, and the show’s official web site shills for jewelry, curios, and other products that entice spectators to be part of its world. Relatively fewer criticisms of The L Word’s dyke exclusivity seem to float around lately, in part, I’d suggest, because most spectators know it’s all a fantasy anyway. Part of the fun has become to simply go with it, to enjoy its excesses of character and plot and to tolerate its rather sweetly absurd attempts at relevance and authenticity.
After all, a lesbian soap opera remains a gift to those of us still eager for dyke representations of any kind, who still thrill to mainstream references to what remain, for many of us, subaltern lives. Even if those “lives and loves”—as the show’s repulsive theme song repeats ad nauseam—are represented by a tiny portion of a very partially drawn lesbian “community,” The L Word gives fans public visibility to enjoy and contest, to affirm and critique. I have to admit that I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
The Feminist Spectator