Fear of a Pale 'Planet': Whiteness on The L Word
by Eden Osucha — Bates College
September 24, 2009 – 06:46
Easily, the eponymous “l word” is “liberalism.” Throughout The L Word’s six seasons, all the kooky plot twists and discarded plotlines, the radically uneven, at times incoherent character development and habitual character abandonment, two linked gestures that consistently operate in shaping the show’s narrative arc. These gestures—strategies of depoliticization and the elision of “community” by consumerism—point to an entrenched normativity at the heart of the show’s underlying assumptions about lesbian identity and help to underscore the liberal terms of inclusion and visibility that constitute the only consistent vision of the political here. Over the course of the series, consumerism comes to displace (while seeming to function as) queer community formation, as “lesbian culture” becomes indissoluble from the culture industry. This displacement is echoed in the shift from the “The Planet” to “The Chart” as the diegetic locus of community and the privileged metaphor for imagining queer world-making on and through The L World. Significantly, as The Chart emerges as a narrative and allegorical device, The Planet itself becomes aligned with the only central character (Kit) nowhere to be found in the former’s erotic constellations. Of course, Kit’s straightness explains her exclusion. However, with regard to how the show variously signifies—and manages—lesbian identity, Kit’s racialization is not incidental to this realignment of The Planet.
Plotlines frequently dramatize an issue of topical interest and presumed significance for the broader queer audience The L Word wants to address—such as conflicting attitudes toward transmen within lesbian communities—and then resolve the narrative in a way that depoliticizes it, stressing individualizing, privatized aspects of a given issue. Characterizing this strategy, the video I’ve posted brings together two related scenes from the first episode, which deal with Tina’s reaction to Bette’s seemingly unilateral choice of an African American sperm donor. In pairing these scenes, we see how the couple’s fight, an exchange which gestures toward the political stakes of whether, as an interracial couple, they have a white or biracial baby, is countermanded by the ensuing conversation between Bette and her sister Kit, who counsels her to let go of her hurt over Tina’s racist statements, in the name of a “Love” that trumps political “realities”; moreover, Kit delegitimizes Bette’s position by insinuating that her half-sister might have exploited her ability to pass as white in order to achieve professional success and material comfort.
Whiteness is not merely normative for lesbian identity on The L Word but constitutive for the show’s political address. Critics who have explored this point previously tend to focus on the representation and marginalization of lesbians of color on the show. I want to claim that the representation of Kit Porter has a more central role in mediating the racialization of lesbian identity here. Kit is consistently placed beyond the gender norms this privileges. Instrumental in this respect are her various romantic relationships, as well her ultimate role, in the show’s egregious final season, as a “mammy” to her lesbian “family”. Kit’s crucial role in the dissimulation of the ideological displacements I refer to comes most directly into view in this video of counterposed scenes. Here she is simultaneously positioned as a figure of racial authenticity and made to ventriloquize racial transcendence.