Gender Trouble on “The L Word”

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 a lesbian 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.