As articles praising the return of “The L Word” saturate my Twitter timeline, I question how the show will frame the intersectional issues women of color face in the LGBTQ community.
By Leslie Whitmire
“The L Word” first aired during my sophomore year of high school–the same year I came out to my family and friends. I remember reading MySpace pages of older black women in the LGBTQ community in my city in awe of the stories they shared of the show, particularly because I grew up in a place where it was taboo to live openly as a lesbian.
For many, “The L Word” was not a show but an event–there were weekly viewing parties planned, and, of course, everyone wanted to be Shane (Katherine Moennig). Feminine woman wanted Shane and masculine presenting woman wanted to be Shane. When I finally searched for an image of her, I remember thinking that I wanted to be that smooth and mysterious. I did not need to watch the show to know why women wanted her. In my teenage mind, her image was literally the embodiment of lesbianism: skinny, cool, and white. Without even realizing it, I associated lesbianism with whiteness.
I was blown away when I finally watched “The L Word” for the first time during my freshman year of college. I wanted to be these women, they were beautiful, cultured, and affluent. I was particularly fond of Bette (Jennifer Beals) and like many women of color, I was also intrigued by her story as a biracial, white-passing woman.
Without even realizing it, I associated lesbianism with whiteness.
“The L Word” seemed to embrace issues of race by way of Bette’s story and it dawned on me that all discussions about race on “The L Word” centered Bette’s experience while seemingly ignoring her half-sister, Kit Porter (Pam Grier), who moved through the world much differently as a visibly black woman. The writers failed to consider how Kit moved through the world as a black woman unless her blackness was juxtaposed with Bette’s. Her blackness did not exist on its own.
During the summer before my senior year of college, I re-watched the whole show. I was taking African-American studies which gave me a better grasp of race and racism in the United States. My perspective of the series changed drastically–the characters’ experiences, while interesting, felt so inaccessible to me as a black lesbian from the South. How did these women maintain such high levels of drama while experiencing little to no financial stress whilst the majority of the lesbians of color that I knew were poor?
Even Bette had the privilege of moving through the world as a white-passing woman and maintained a high socioeconomic status throughout the series. Biracial women constantly face scrutiny and possible alienation in addition to their struggles with belonging, but Bette moved through the world with ease and general acceptance.
The writers failed to consider how Kit moved through the world as a black woman unless her blackness was juxtaposed with Bette’s. Her blackness did not exist on its own.
The first time I watched the series, I thought of Kit as more of the straight sidekick to this group of lesbians. She was an aimless, careless woman who needed Bette to maintain any amount of normalcy in her life. My connection to Kit’s character changed during the second viewing. I began to question why Kit’s character always found herself in compromising situations. Why did Kit have so many issues throughout the series, and why didn’t she ever occupy a healthy space for longer periods of time?
I interrogated Tasha’s (Rose Rollins) character with the same questions. While on the surface Tasha was an intelligent and successful military woman, her character was also struggling with her identity as a lesbian. She was awkward and at times uncomfortable to watch, but I did not have the language to explain why I was uncomfortable with her character.
When I started my graduate program in 2016, I worked on a certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies while I worked on my Ph.D in history. My first class was Feminist Theory, which gave me the knowledge to better understand and articulate my placement in the world as a Black, lesbian woman. I decided to watch the last season of “The L Word” again through a black feminist lens to see if my feelings about the show changed at all.
Why did Kit have so many issues throughout the series, and why didn’t she ever occupy a healthy space for longer periods of time?
The storyline framed Kit and Tasha as women who needed guidance, and the white and white-passing women in their lives were their saviors. Tasha’s relationship with Alice (Leisha Hailey) liberated her and allowed her to be her true self. Kit constantly turned to white women to help guide her through life despite being older than the lead characters. Interestingly, she also performed the emotional labor of attending to these women in all of their drama – she was a mother and a child; she was troubled and needed saving; she was lonely and unsatisfied; she was angry and emotionally immature – Kit was the stereotypical single black woman.
As articles praising the return of “The L Word” saturate my Twitter timeline, I question how the show will address the framing of black womanhood as well as the intersectional issues women of color face in the LGBTQ community. As a black woman, I need to see Kit’s character framed in a much healthier light. I need to see black women loving other black women. I need to see black women who are comfortable and confident within their identities.
I need to see black women whose struggles are truly indicative of the struggles black women, and specifically black lesbians, face that many white women take for granted. I hope that this reboot will include the hiring queer black women and trans folks to tell their own stories. Kit and any future black women characters on the show deserve complex stories of their own rather than stories that consistently attach their experiences to white womanhood and reinforce homosexuality as attached to whiteness.
Author Bio: Leslie Whitmire is a graduate student a Georgia State University studying African History, women, gender, and sexuality. Her current research project is a historical analysis of the changes in gender performance in East Africa during colonization. Twitter: @Les_The_Great