Generation Q Gives the Black Lesbian Representation L Word Never Did

(L-R) Jennifer Beals as Bette Porter and Arienne Mandi as Dani Nunez in THE L WORD: GENERATION Q, “Lose It All”. Photo Credit: Hilary B Gayle/SHOWTIME.

Does Generation Q live up to the original L Word? Like a great many fans of the original series, this was the question on my mind as I sat down to watch the reboot. Like the original, Generation Q is highly watchable. It’s a character-driven drama with fly outfits and tastefully lit sex scenes (hello, throuple!). Admittedly the almond milk, dating apps, and therapized language used in fights had me longing for the messy old days.

But there is one respect in which Generation Q far surpasses original L Word: Black lesbian representation.

Don’t get me wrong – I love The L Word. I have nothing but fond memories of furtively bingeing it every Sunday while my grandparents were at church. But there’s no way to get around it: having a single light-skinned, bi-racial character to represent the whole of Black lesbian kind was a real failing of the original series. However brilliant Jennifer Beals may be – and she’s pretty damned brilliant – her character was caught in the bind of tokenism.

Bette Porter was the only Black lesbian among the main characters of the original L Word. Therefore, the original show created the impression that she was a guest in a community that belonged to and was peopled almost exclusively by white women. And that simply isn’t true. Black lesbians have always existed – across centuries and continents.

 

(L-R): Arienne Mandi as Dani Nunez and Rosanny Zayas as Sophie Suarez in THE L WORD: GENERATION Q, “Labels”. Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/SHOWTIME.

In the original  L Word, there was a constant underlying tension between Bette’s race and her sexuality. Either she could play an active part in the lesbian world, surrounded by white women. Or she could connect with other Black people in the straight world. The original  L Word never really got to grips with Black lesbians as a demographic. Bette was very much the black sheep of her social circle.

It’s true that her sister Kit was a series regular, and their father Melvin featured more than once. But neither of those characters belonged in the lesbian world. They were not a part of the community. Melvin Porter was not accepting of his daughter’s sexuality or her partner, Tina – something that caused Bette a great deal of pain. And there were no other Black lesbians for Bette to turn to for support.

Back in the original series, Bette was constantly surrounded by white friends and lovers. She worked in white cultural spaces, with white colleagues. Even when Bette was looking to escape her troubles, she ended up on a silent retreat that was – predictably – a bunch of mostly white people in the woods. So, it’s refreshing to witness this new chapter in Bette’s life.

In Generation Q, Bette raising a dark-skinned daughter who is the center of her world. She’s running a political campaign with and for minority groups. And Felicity, her main love interest – the big ‘what if?’ of Bette’s character arc this season – is another Black woman.

Bette is no longer the show’s sole Black lesbian. And with the burden of being a token lifted from her shoulders, Bette’s character is free to move in interesting new directions. This growth is never more evident than when Bette is interacting with Generation Q. When she’s connecting with lesbian and gay youth on the campaign trail, comforting Dani in the wake of her father’s homophobia, or supporting her daughter Angie through the racism of the school system, we see Bette at her finest. She’s a pillar of the community, learning to embrace her role as an elder. And she’s an incredible mother.

What a daughter Bette has raised. Angie Porter-Kennard is arguably the most interesting addition to the reboot. The child of an iconic couple, Angie was already lesbian royalty. But as we get to know her it quickly becomes clear that this girl shines in her own right. Angie is empathetic, making sure Bette has a support system around her and giving her mother the much-needed space to be vulnerable. She’s also incredibly brave – watching Angie confess love to her best friend Jordi while a supportive Shane and her (ex?) wife cheered on their first kiss was the purest scene.

Bette is no longer the show’s sole Black lesbian. And with the burden of being a token lifted from her shoulders, Bette’s character is free to move in interesting new directions.

Speaking of Shane and her complicated marital status, her (ex?) wife Quiara is Black. At first glance, this might not seem like such a huge deal. But it is significant in terms of how Generation Q addresses the politics of desirability.

Rosanny Zayas as Sophie Suarez in THE L WORD: GENERATION Q, “Lapse In Judgement”. Photo Credit: Jessica Brooks/SHOWTIME.

 

Shane has always been something of a lesbian Lothario. Throughout the L Word, her soft butch aesthetic attracted a seemingly endless string of lovers. In the original series, it would have been impossible to picture Shane married and monogamous. But in Generation Q her main storyline revolves around divorce, reconciliation, and the possibility of building a family – all with a Black woman.

In the original series, it would have been impossible to picture Shane married and monogamous. But in Generation Q her main storyline revolves around divorce, reconciliation, and the possibility of building a family – all with a Black woman.

It feels meaningful that Generation Q made Quiara the long-term love interest of a notorious commitmentphobe. Bearing in mind how scant positive Black lesbian representation was in the L Word – and how rare it continues to be in so much of network television – it matters that Quiara is deliberately shown to be worthy of love, care, and kept promises.

And Quiara is not the only Black lesbian framed as wife goals. The main Millennial romance of Generation Q revolves around Sophie Suarez, a young Afro-Latina woman who works as a producer on Alice’s show, and Dani Núñez, who leaves her post as director of communications at her father’s company to work for Bette’s mayoral campaign. This relationship is exciting because of the chemistry between actresses Rosanny Zayas and Arienne Mandi. The precarious balance of attraction and tension between emotionally savvy Sophie and workaholic Dani makes their engagement a compelling plot.

Even in 2020, it’s still rare times two lesbians of color (Mandi is of Iranian and Chilean heritage) on network television partner with each other. Traditionally, they are written into romances with white characters to make them more palatable to white audiences – for example, Bette and Tina in the original L Word.

Whereas Bette’s father could never accept her as a lesbian, Sophie’s mother and sisters love her exactly as she is. They even want to cater her wedding to Dani. It is a mark of progress that in Generation Q Sophie’s culture and sexuality are shown to be complementary, compatible aspects of her identity.

(L-R) Arienne Mandi as Dani Nunez and Rosanny Zayas as Sophie Suarez in THE L WORD: GENERATION Q, “LA Times”. Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/SHOWTIME.

Yet Mr Núñez’s response to their engagement perfectly illustrates racism between minorities. The carefully coded anti-Blackness used by Dani’s father takes a toll on her relationship with Sophie. He looks down on Sophie’s family – an issue that reaches a boiling point when he has his lawyer draw up a prenup stipulating that any children Sophie gives birth to cannot inherit wealth from Dani’s side of the family. His paranoia that Sophie is looking for a handout and his fear of Blackness being grafted onto the Núñez family tree make it crystal clear what Sophie is getting at when she tells Dani “I know he doesn’t think I’m good enough for you.”

Generation Q tells nuanced, complicated Black lesbian stories. It achieves something the L Word never quite managed by showing Blackness as plural rather than monolithic, layered rather than one-dimensional.

Generation Q tells nuanced, complicated Black lesbian stories. It achieves something the L Word never quite managed by showing Blackness as plural rather than monolithic, layered rather than one-dimensional. In this reboot, Black characters have rich inner lives. Each one has her own kaleidoscope of hopes and fears. And none of them are defined by where she exists in relation to white characters.

Whether it’s Sophie sat in front of a mirror using a toothbrush to keep her edges in check, or Felicity mentioning that she went to Howard – the ultimate HBCU – these moments mean a great deal. They represent a big step for the L Word franchise. A step away from tokenism, and another big step towards meaningful representation.