Gender Trouble on “The L Word”

Before the beginning of the third season of The L Word, series creator Ilene Chaiken said of new character Moira (Daniela Sea), “She’s our first real butch on the show—a fabulously attractive butch, but nonetheless a real butch.”

I, for one, was excited. Even though Chaiken’s statement revealed that she actually felt that few butches were attractive, at least she admitted that The L Word had never before had a “real” butch on the show. Nope, not even Shane counted. Could this mean that Chaiken and the producers of The L Word actually knew what a real butch was?

It’s too bad that as soon as that “real butch” sauntered onto the scene, she transitioned from female to male in a clumsy storyline that reduced the complexity of transgender issues to a stereotypical war between the sexes. To make matters worse, Moira’s transition into Max was written in a way that not only dismissed the possibility of butch identity, it ridiculed it.

In interviews prior to the start of Season 3, Chaiken noted that she wanted to “deal with the issue of gender. We wanted to tell that story, a big story in the gay community and, in the last couple years, a huge story in the lesbian community.” Chaiken is absolutely correct that transgender politics has become a flashpoint in the lesbian community. In San Francisco, where I live, so many formerly butch-identified lesbians have transitioned from female to male that one of the biggest open secrets in the lesbian community here is a concern that being trans has become the latest trend.

In episode 3.9, when Kit confronts Max about his transition, saying, “It just saddens me to see so many of our strong butch girls giving up their womanhood to be a man,” she voices a feeling that many lesbians are too politically correct to admit.

Unfortunately, The L Word‘s engagement with this complex issue suffers from being locked in a binary two-step. The fact that Moira can transition to Max should illustrate that gender is fluid, that it is not an either/or situation. Indeed, the character of bisexual, flamboyant, hypersexual Billie Blaikie (Alan Cumming), manager of the Planet, seems to be meant to symbolize this fluidity.

But Blaikie’s potential as a character is never fully developed, and he is little more than an absurd cross between a drag queen and a smarmy rent boy who exists only as a white rabbit to lead Moira down the path to becoming Max.

In a particularly disturbing aspect of this storyline, Blaikie encourages Moira to transition by using street drugs, even helping her to obtain testosterone under the table. Though this is reality for some transfolk, it is unfortunate that Max’s transition was painted in such shades of illegality, because it gave the whole storyline a sheen of criminality—as if it is only possible to transition if one does it under the table.

As Moira transitions into Max, she makes a quick, nonstop trip from point A (womanhood) to point B (manhood), leaving no room for that messy middle ground that makes up the majority of the concept of “gender.” Before Moira begins taking testosterone, she is depicted as a gentle, giving soul; after the testosterone begins to kick in, she changes into an aggressive, sexually driven, angry man with absurdly uneven facial hair.

Her transition into stereotypical masculinity is a tool by which the character of Jenny (Mia Kirshner) can act out her equally stereotypical feminist agenda. In episode 3.09, when Max becomes jealous of Jenny after she dances with another man and lashes out possessively, Jenny tells him, “When I realized that I might be gay, I didn’t rule out men. But if I’m going to be with a guy, I’m not going to be with some aggressive macho male pig who has different standards of behavior for himself than he does for me.”

To further underscore the dichotomy between men and women, Moira’s transition to Max is situated in comparison to a parade of male characters that illustrate a range of manliness, from the conservative bigotry of Kit’s son, David, to the sensitive New Age Guy that is Angus the “manny.” In a parallel storyline, the character of Tina undergoes her own education in masculinity through her heterosexual reawakening. She goes from a sordid cybersex experience about the imagined act of heterosexual fucking to a traditional relationship with the safely sexy single dad, Henry.

What is disappointing about this engagement with masculinity is that The L Word is alesbian show. By only allowing men—or women who are in the process of becoming men—to display or engage in masculine behaviors or attitudes, The L Word continues to deny a major part of what has made lesbian cultures so fascinating and so queer for hundreds of years.

But The L Word does more than only enable men to be masculine—it ridicules women who do possess masculine characteristics. Although Moira is accepted as a normal part of the lesbian scene in Illinois, where she is from, as she makes her physical journey from the Midwest to Los Angeles, she transgresses the boundaries of what is acceptable.

First she encounters the homophobic teens at the roadside rest stop, who call her a “faggot” after the teen girl sees her in the women’s restroom, and threaten violence when she refuses to engage with them.

Then, when Moira and Jenny run into friendly tourists along the way who mistake Moira for a man, she tells them her name is “Max,” thereby indicating that she knows it is better for her to pass as a man in this situation than to reveal that she is female. And when Moira and Jenny arrive at last in Los Angeles, Moira—finally feeling comfortable about being among other lesbians—identifies herself and Shane in a playful manner as butches, telling Carmen, “You girls just relax and let us butches unload the truck.”

But she is met with rolled eyes as Carmen scoffs to Shane, “You big butch, go unload the truck.” Carmen’s joking dismissal of butch identity is later revealed to be a deeper discomfort with masculinity in women and is likely tied to a tension between butch identity and class. Historically in lesbian communities, butch lesbians have typically been working-class women, partially because they were only able to hold down jobs usually reserved for men due to their physical appearance.

Upper class lesbians, in contrast, have historically been feminine in appearance, allowing them to blend in with heterosexual society. On The L Word, these women are clearly upper class or are at least aping an upper-class existence, and their discomfort with difference in gender expression is also a discomfort with class difference.

In episode 3.03, when Jenny’s friends welcome her back to Los Angeles with dinner at a very expensive restaurant, all of her friends are put off by Moira’s appearance as a working-class butch dyke. Bette offers, “She comes from a place where you know you have to define yourself as either/or; it’s probably just the only language that she has to describe herself.”

This reveals that Bette comes from a place where traditional feminine standards of beauty is the only acceptable language for lesbians, marking a curious lack of sophistication in her character, who is supposedly a nationally known art expert. If anyone at the dinner table that night should be expected to understand differences in gender expression, it should be Bette.

Alternatively, one would expect Shane, who is physically the least feminine of the group, to understand at a more emotional, personal level that Moira’s appearance is a kind of nontraditional gender expression. But Shane reacts to the group’s attempt to categorize Moira as butch by dismissing the notion of butch or femme: “What difference does it make whether someone’s butch or femme? We should just leave the labels alone and let people be who they are.”

Shane essentially contradicts herself in these statements, advocating a world free of labels while simultaneously insisting that people should be allowed to be who they are, eliding the fact that people often want to take on identities such as “butch” or “femme.” Speaking those words in a positive light and identifying on a personal level with those identities are ways that individuals act on a daily basis to resist gender norms.

But The L Word continues to conflate gender expression with “role playing.” In Season 1, Kit sarcastically dismissed “butch and femme role playing” when Bette warned her that Ivan the drag king was courting her “old school.” In Season 3, again at the same dinner scene, Tina muses wonderingly, “I’m just surprised that she wanted to role play like that, especially after everything that Jenny’s been through.”

This misunderstanding that butch and femme are roles that are played rather than identities that are lived situates The L Word in a world of 1970s lesbian feminism that denigrated such personal identities as unfeminist. It positions The L Word as mainstream, even conservative in its understanding of gender. It is increasingly understandable for men or women to want to change their sex, but it is still difficult for the mainstream to grasp the concept that within one sex, there can be many different gender expressions.

But to say that I was disappointed with the way that The L Word handled the question of gender is inaccurate, because that would imply that I had higher expectations.

The Showtime series, in its first two seasons, demonstrated that it is not particularly invested in telling complicated stories about complicated issues. The L Word is at its heart a soap opera, more Days of Our Lives than Six Feet Under. This is not unexpected, given the fact that series creator Ilene Chaiken spent five years of her pre-L Word career working as an executive at Aaron Spelling Television, the production company that brought us soapy hits such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Dynasty.

I expected the show to deal with these storylines in a well-meaning but ultimately poorly executed manner. I expected The L Word to further underline its commitment to traditional feminine gender norms. I expected butches to continue to be marginalized inThe L Word‘s fantasy of Los Angeles. And The L Word met all my expectations.