Originally published on AfterEllen.com, April 17th 2004
Wasn’t it just the other day that I was sitting in front of my television in that semi-vegetative state and across one of those sexy The L Word promos? Since then, the show has drawn legions of fans and detractors within its broad cross-section of straight, gay, male and female viewership. And with the burden of representing a very invisible and very diverse community on its shoulders, almost everyone is going to have an opinion about what does and does not work.
In the beginning, I refused to hear any nay-saying about the show, with its very existence being its biggest excuse. By and large, I liked the characters (and shall not engage in any character defamation of people fictional or otherwise), and was glad to see bisexual and lesbian women portrayed as something other than truck drivers, femme fatales, sociopaths, or criminals. I also found the acting very sensitive and engaging, particularly performances from Mia Kirshner as the conflicted Jenny, and Leisha Haley as the quick-witted and always-endearing Alice.
As a multiracial woman myself, I was also giving it many brownie points for featuring Jennifer Beals as biracial museum director Bette Porter, who is one of the most consistently captivating presences on the show. The articles and television interviews reflected Beals and Creator/Executive Producer Ilene Chaiken’s willingness to explore the tricky intersections of race and sexuality, and I was interested to see how they would address them.
I didn’t have to wait long. In the pilot, Bette and long-time white, blonde partner Tina (Laurel Holloman) are going to therapy in preparation for starting a family (and for a case of Lesbian Bed Death). They are desperately trying to find a perfect donor, and conflict arises when Bette selects a black donor, which unnerves Tina: “That’s a lot of otherness to put on one child”. Indeed. But it doesn’t make the reaction any less problematic. The couple seems to get over this speed bump and Tina becomes pregnant by the black donor.
They continue, however, to go to couple’s therapy, where Bette encounters Yolanda, Angry Black Woman extraordinaire. OK, so many of us had made allowances for the half-white sister being the successful one and the black sister being the deadbeat mom-alcoholic-entertainer (Pam Grier, who plays Bette’s sister, Kit). But Yolanda launching unprovoked attacks on Bette for passing and not “coming out” as a black woman seemed contrived at best, or the worst kind of stereotype reinforcement there is. The character was two-dimensional, disturbing, and even embarrassing, particularly to black viewers of the show who, up until this point, had not seen a black lesbian portrayed on the show. Granted, we all know a Yolanda – but did she need to be the first black lesbian presence on a show trying to make invisible communities visible and shatter stereotypes about them?
So we survive Yolanda, and can pretty much support Bette for advocating that she will not identify as exclusively black any more than she would choose to be exclusively white. But as Kit pointed out to her in the very first episode, she lets people see what they want to see, and by her lifestyle and her appearance, she most likely and conveniently will be seen as white. No wonder her girlfriend, Tina, sometimes forgets, and doesn’t understand why Bette gets so riled up about Yolanda’s attacks on her racial identification.
But therapy seems good for one thing (for those who, like me, yawn during Bette and Tina’s scenes together): Bette begins to wonder if she’s falling out of love. When they lose the baby, and Bette ends up at one of Kit’s shows solo while Tina grieves at home, the stage is set for infidelity. Bette runs into, of all people, Yolanda, whose ex-girlfriend, Candace Jewel (Ion Overman) catches her eye. Yet another stereotypical black character – the pimp/playa/entertainer Slim Daddy, played by Snoop Dogg – expresses to Bette how kind God would be to let him see her and Candace together, since they have that “basic instinct” together. Bette checks her out. She’s beautiful, and mysterious. Who is she? What does she do? Oh, we learn, she’s a carpenter…
Bette invites Candace to bid on installing an art show, Provocations, which has been landing her in hot water, and despite Candace being the most expensive, she gets hired (surprise, surprise). But Candace is picking up on the vibes Bette has been sending out, and is not only surprised to find out she has a girlfriend, but also finds that she won’t be able to sleep if she doesn’t tell Bette, “all I’ve wanted to do all day long is kiss you…please tell me if you don’t want me to.” Bette doesn’t say a word. She is overwhelmed, and continues to be as the two complete the Provocations job together. But there’s a protest at the gallery, and when Candace and Bette land up in jail – in the same jail cell – for getting into a scuffle with protesters, the audience is treated to one of the quirkiest and steamiest scenes of the season. The two women virtually consummate their relationship without even touching each other. For Bette, a wall is enough.
And thus comes the season finale. Racially, Ion Overman is difficult to read, adding to her being claimed and championed by bi/multiracial, Hispanic and African-American women alike. She also is the least “lipstick” of the cast, sporting androgynously sexy overalls at work, but appearing stunningly femme in her first and last encounters with Bette. She is also college educated, an entrepreneur, an activist (she has done abortion clinic defence, while Bette just funds it), is confident and articulate, and is the only member of the cast ever to “top” Bette, both verbally and physically. Bette becomes completely dismantled in Candace’s presence, and we get the sense that Candace is the one cast member (apart from the psychiatrist) who doesn’t buy into all of Bette’s endless verbal dances around what she is actually feeling. With a look, it seems, Candace sees to her core, and shuts Bette’s game down. In the absence of her game and her bravado lies diffidence and vulnerability, which Candace reaches without speaking a word.
And so the season ends. Candace and Bette share a couple of hasty flings, leaving “shippers” wanting, and women of colour wondering who on earth will be there to stand in for them if Candace does not return for Season 2. Candace seemed a writer and viewer’s dream: multi-layered, multi-faceted, and able to morph realistically and seamlessly into any number of things that the writers and viewers could savour. Indeed, one need only look to the Showtime message boards to hear the parade of questions from her fans, eager to know more about her background: her upbringing, her college, her coming out story, her sexual history, her own class, racial, sexual and gender identifications.
The L Word has had its hands full trying to tell a number of stories, and address a number of diverse issues. I applaud the writers for what they have accomplished under such pressure and scrutiny, the ground they have laid. The visibility of queer women of colour remains like space, however: the final frontier. With Ion Overman and the character of Candace, there is a possibility not only of fully developing a three-dimensional queer woman of colour on television, but really engaging the issues of race and class with the character of Bette and portraying, if only briefly (since Beals and Chaiken seem invested in Bette and Tina’s everlasting love), a relationship between two women of colour.
Los Angeles is a city with staggering Hispanic population, and a thriving black queer community, so there seem to be no credible excuses for not having one in the cast. And in the mind of this author and many of her like-minded peers, if there must be only one, let it be Candace Jewel.