It' so butch and femme: Reexamining Gender Representation on "The L Word"
by Gina Mitchell — Bates College
September 21, 2009 – 19:43
The controversy surrounding gender representation on “The L Word” is often situated alongside broader questions of the show’s “progressiveness”- how radical or realistic can we expect a series reconciling straight and queer audiences, social agendas and entertainment value, to be? But viewing gender representation in relation to such general debates threatens to reduce the disputes it evokes to a matter of viewer politics and expectations. While viewer perspective is certainly a factor to be considered, I would suggest that the disagreements over gender portrayal stem primarily from oscillations and discrepancies within the characters, dialogue, and aesthetics of the show itself.
This scene from “Liberally” illustrates these patterns of contradiction and irresolution. The classically butch and femme lesbians shown provide an obvious launching point for issues of gender representation, and on a superficial level, we are presented with a clear critique of butch-femme performance. Jenny’s evident distain for the butch-femme couples and her embarrassment when she learns of the bar’s dated reputation captures the stigma surrounding gender performance within the lesbian community. Indeed, the contrast between “The Palms” and the hip lesbian night clubs on the show reinforce this obsoleteness, conveying the generational divide between the lesbians of the 1950’s and the modern women portrayed on the show.
At the same time, however, the show subtly challenges Jenny’s statements. Jenny’s and Dana’s lack of experience, their uneasiness and isolation at the bar, reminds us of the limitations of Jenny’s authority. Dana’s responses further challenges her sweeping critiques. By informing her that the venue is, in fact, the oldest lesbian bar in L.A., Dana acknowledges a lesbian history and community that Jenny remains oblivious to. This recognition echos arguments applied by theorists in 1980’s and 90’s who defended butch-femme gender performance by emphasizing its historical role in resisting homophobia and lesbian invisibility. Finally, as they enter Jenny’s apartment, the juxtaposition of Dana’s butch and Jenny’s femme attire becomes clear. The irony of the modern butch-femme aesthetic they perpetuate once again encourages a reconsideration of Jenny’s critique. (A similar paradox surrounds Bette, whose second-wave critique of gender performance is far more legitimized than Jenny’s, but who nevertheless participates in one of the show’s clearest and most problematic butch-femme couples.) Through subtle irony and allusions, as well as more obvious contradictions, “The L Word” continually challenges and reworks its stance on gender identification and expression.
While my first instinct is to be critical of the show’s inconsistencies, I feel the contradictions inherent in butch-femme performance must also be considered. The show grapples with a system of aesthetics and identifications that mimic heteronormativity in an effort to subvert it. Instead of signifying an essential disjointedness or hesitancy to engage with political controversy, its conflicting representations may reflect paradoxes embedded in the very substance of lesbian gender performance.