Carmen Redefines Family on “The L Word”

Shane and CarmenJenny and Carmen

In the world of The L Word, supporting characters–specially Shane’s love interests–come and go (though some, like Tonya, couldn’t possibly go quickly enough). So as the second season began, it was a relief to see new recurring character Carmen (Sarah Shahi) make such a positive contribution so quickly.

Carmen is even-keeled and, well, hot. But more importantly, as a Latina, Carmen inches the show ever closer to portraying the true diversity of lesbian identities. Southern California is largely Latino, so it’s especially encouraging to see this attempt to represent local demographics in a show about Los Angeles lesbians.

In her first episode Carmen reveals that she’s the daughter of “some kind of Mayan medicine man” who died in a motorcycle crash before her birth. Later episodes refer to her Latina heritage more indirectly: In Episode Six the wardrobe department gives her a T-shirt that reads “Everyone loves a Latin girl” while the sound department doctors the show’s theme song with Spanish lyrics and congas for one of her scenes.

Carmen’s heritage is also mentioned on the official L Word website, which proffers the character’s decidedly Latino last name–de la Pica–and, lest there be any confusion, refers to her as a “Latina beauty.” No other character’s ethnicity is referenced in their bio.

Sarah Shahi is CarmenIt is unreasonable to expect Carmen to represent all Latina lesbians, even if she bears that unfair burden in many viewers’ minds as the show’s only Latina character. Nevertheless, representing Carmen’s heritage without trivializing or fetishizing it is a serious responsibility, and the t-shirt and the modified theme song tread on very thin ice in this regard. We can only hope that if the show’s creators finally write in an Asian American character (currently a conspicuous absence considering the L.A. setting), they will have the sense to go about it thoughtfully rather than spicing up the theme song with a gong.

Despite a few gaps and missteps, the L Word succeeds in representing lesbian diversity, in terms of ethnicity at least, better than any other television series ever has. The addition of Carmen is a positive step, and viewers have reason to expect further improvement.

Shahi, the actor who plays Carmen, has hinted that her character’s ethnic background will be addressed more extensively in season three. On the show’s website Shahi explains, “In the second season, you really don’t get to know that much of Carmen’s story–her own personal background. My storyline is intermixed with those I’m in relationship to. It’s not until the next season that we’re actually going to go into Carmen’s life and explore what it’s like being a gay Latina, and get to see her own family.”