Pop Theory: Demystifying “The Real L Word”

Greetings, Gentle Reader. I’ve returned from my holiday — a three hour tour week jaunt through Spain and Turkey — to the land of lesbian social media.

I want to deviate from my obsession with love to discuss, ironically as it may seem, The Real L Word. I have watched every episode of the show with both intrigue and trepidation. Oftentimes I have reveled in the garden variety of cultural commentaries (usually vapid, usually saturated with bad lesbian punnage, and frequently dripping with malicious humor (what Millennials take for “irony”) and sometimes even bitterness, but this season feels a bit different.

As an arguably indifferent viewer with an investment in the lesbian community at large, this season feels different in the sense that it feels slightly more nuanced in its storylines. I want to, on behalf of the more “serious” New Yorkers, puff out my chest and attribute this gravity to the addition of the all-black-clad queers who comprise the New York cast. Although, in all honesty, I feel it’s a combination of the Kacy and Cori storyline (the heartbreaking loss of their baby, Charlie, during their fifth month of pregnancy), and the atypical (and therefore extremely “queer”) storyline of Whitney being happily monogamous (which I applaud), in addition to the east coast addition of the punk rock band Hunter Valentine and their sometimes-maybe girlfriends. (OK — just Kiyomi. Grrrl, what is your deal?)

But, before I dip into a quasi-anthropological piece about the NYC cast, I want to address the aforementioned garden variety of cultural commentaries on this series. With the show’s demographic being sizably male (nearly 40%), my intuition, as well as my attention to the lesbo-webs, tells me that many lesbians have checked-out from watching the show, and that, in lieu of viewing it themselves, they turn to the online commentaries to keep abreast of any seismic changes that may happen within the lesbian cultural imaginary and the community itself from the events that unfold in the show itself.

I think one reason why the Real L is not able to, and can never function as, a unifying force within the L community as much as its dramatic predecessor, The L Word, did is evident in these commentaries-as-symptom: negativity cannot undergird a community. Period. Our community was unified through the dramatic twists and turns of The L Word’s storylines. There was a marginal albeit vocal faction of queer critics who still supported the show—their participation in the community consisted of their socio-political critiques of the show’s representation (of ethnic and sexual minorities). The commentaries about the Real L are substantively and substantially different, particularly in tone. Your shit’s negative, ladies. How am I supposed to bond over that? Mean Girls is so 2004.

That said, how can lesbebloggers and other social media types within our community not be miffed by the fact that this show has been crafted with the straight (male) viewer in mind more so than the lesbian viewer? (Another effect of the fact that the Gay Dollar, and “Pink Purchasing Power,” lies in men’s hands.)

In this regard, The Real L Word could perhaps be personified as the closeted celebrity — you know, the one who wants our support but then doesn’t respect (or represent) us at the same time?

But it seems I’ve digressed from the primary desired task at hand: to present to you my “real” anthro-inspired research of the Brooklyn featured in The Real L Word.

The NYC casts spends some time in Williamsburg (at the Metropolitan bar, for instance) but practices in East Williamsburg aka “Morgantown” (because it’s off the Morgan L train stop) aka Bushwick. Bushwick is a neighborhood I know well because I, for the most part, have lived here throughout 2012. My girlfriend has lived in the neighborhood almost 11 years, seeing it transform from a barren, industrial area to a haven for crusty hipsters. The “loft” buildings people live in are converted factory and commercial buildings — these lofts can run $3500/mo for 1000sq ft. Typically, hipsters cram themselves, sometimes 6-8 to a loft liked stacked critters in a puppy mill, in order to deem themselves residents of the ‘Wick. (I’m not kidding. One time I was checking out a room to sublet in Bushwick and the room was actually an elevator that the two roommates had fixed in place on their floor. Keeping it legal and classy, Bushwick. Legal and classy.)

Rents are not controlled in these loft buildings because they are still under code as commercial buildings; i.e. tenants have no rights (but residents are in the process of fighting for them).

At any rate, I can’t describe the level of squee I expressed when I watched the first episode of The Real L Word and saw Hunter Valentine enter a building on Bogart Street that I know so well.

Bogart is arguably the main drag of Bushwick. The L train stop is there, near the intersection with Siegel. There are a few coffee shops, restaurants (including Roberta’s, which usually has a three hour wait time; no reservations), a terribly pricey “green” gym (which isn’t technically “green” at all), a bike shop, a hostel (yes, a hostel), and a very pricey “natural” grocery store all within a 25 meter radius.

New York City can seem glamorous to those who live outside it. But for all its multiculturalism offered through its art, music, and food, there’s a lot of shit. And it’s kind of a shithole as in it’s really filthy. In episode 4, when Hunter Valentine’s bandmates (literally) fall out of their van upon their return from SXSW and proclaim “ughhh, it smells like fish,” well, yeah. Yeah, it does.

Perhaps one reason why we wear so much black here is that it’s easier to hide the filth (both real and figurative) that inflicts us on a daily basis.

The New York portrayed on The Real L Word is definitely a generational one — specifically, the Millennial Generation that lives in the quickly gentrifying, “hipster” parts of Brooklyn. I mean, Lena Dunham even had a Bushwick warehouse party on Girls. It’s, like, coolness dramatized. And I’m not being not-ironic — or something like that.

Soon there will be Girls tour buses that troll through Bushwick, just like the SATC tour buses that navigate all of Samantha’s, Carrie’s, Miranda’s and Charlotte’s haunts in Manhattan.

The thing about the Millennial Generation that also hinders the Chaiken’s second L endeavor from being able to unify the community in the same way The L Word did is that a lot of these youngins’ have had a cursory training in women’s and gender studies, which annoyingly means that these young ones have moved proudly beyond identity.

Identities — “lesbian,” “feminist,” etc — are, like, so Gen X.

The thing that post-identity identifiers (faceplant) don’t understand in all their eyeroll-inducing irony is that identities are the primary factors that build communities.

That is, how we identify determines the communities we participate in. Communities are defined and demarcated by identities.

In the end, The Real L Word might just be plagued by its realness. From the (television) corporation’s perspective, a show about lesbians is really just a soft-core porn show for straight men. (Romi seems nice, but I’m kinda-sorta-so-over seeing her have sex every episode.) The spectator’s gaze produced by the cameras (and the edited footage) does not pique the lesbian eye, especially the older lesbian eye. From the Gen. Millen. perspective, the show seemingly lacks a referent. Older lesbians understand the referent to be the original L Word and are disappointed by the qualitative difference between the fictitious world of lesbians in Chaiken’s fabricated Los Angeles and the “real” Los Angeles (and now New York) of The Real L Word.

For the younger, post-identity generation, the referent is actually themselves.

But, on a super-meta-level of irony, they just don’t seem to get it.