Does anyone really identify with the word lesbian anymore?
It's difficult to overstate the importance that The L Word held for the lesbian community after it originally premiered in 2004.
Never before had there been a show featuring a full cast of lesbian and bisexual characters. In fact, there'd been very few gay women (in this article the word "woman/women" denotes anyone who identifies with the term) on TV at all. In 2004, America had barely become comfortable with the "gay best friend," which, as problematic as that trope is, at least worked to familiarize the public with the concept of homosexuality in men. But female-on-female sex and romantic relationships, though sometimes culturally less maligned than male-on-male relationships, were still firmly taboo, seen as a mere waypoint on the road to settling down with a man or fetishized by the male gaze. Then, at last, The L Word showed a mainstream audience a community of women who loved women without shame. It also helped define a vocabulary of words for LGBTQ+ people. It was important, but it certainly wasn't perfect.
Many of the cast members were notably feminine and played by straight women, which in and of itself isn't necessarily an issue, but it did often serve to make the frequent sex scenes feel absolutely sodden with the male gaze. Between the lacy lingerie, liberally applied makeup, and pornographic noises, a lot of gay women felt that the show didn't reflect the less picturesque realities of lesbian identity and sexuality. Even worse, the endless dramatics of the soap opera-esque show sometimes seemed to imply that lesbians are compulsively promiscuous, prone to extreme drama in their relationships, and even likely to come unhinged (as seen in the truly bonkers storyline of Jenny Shecter). And while we're at it, it's worth mentioning that the characters were almost exclusively upper-middle class, white cis-gendered women (not to mention the deeply problematic portrayal of transgender individuals when they did try to broach that topic). Still, flawed representation is often better than no representation, and despite all the show's faults, a generation of both budding and seasoned gay women watched The L Word with devotion and gratitude.
Now, the beloved show is getting a 2019 style makeover in the form of eight new episodes called The L Word: Generation Q. A lot has changed in the gay community since The L Word's final episode premiered in 2009—perhaps most notably, the language LGBTQ+ people use to describe themselves. While many wonder if this new reboot can atone for the sins of the original series while still capturing its particular magic, one thing is clear after the first two episodes: Things are a lot less black and white than they were in the early aughts of Dana and Alice drama.
Already, the series has introduced two openly transgender characters played by actual trans actors, Leo Sheng as Micah Lee and Brian Michael Smith as Pierce Williams, a refreshing change from the at times downright offensive transgender character of Max from the original. Additionally, while we have a femme gay couple (Dani and Sophia) at the center of the story, we also have Finley, a self-described "traditional lesbian when it comes to tools," complete with an affinity for short sleeve button ups and using the word "dude."
But even with these more inclusive identities, we get much less anxiety over labeling, which the original series could never escape. Within the first few episodes, the 2004 series made it clear who saw themselves as a butch lesbian, a femme lesbian, a top, a bottom, bisexual, and who was still on their way to one of these concrete identities. Besides Finley's single mention of being a "traditional lesbian," we see less of this need for definition in the new series. Instead, we simply see who each character is attracted to in a given situation, placing them all in a vague space of queerness—which is a much more realistic depiction of fluid sexual identity.
Indeed, regardless of what your feelings about the show are, comparing the reboot with the original is a fascinating study in the changing nature of LGBTQ+ language. We learn that Micah is Dani's ex, making it clear that, despite his amorous connection to a gay man in the first two episodes, he does not exclusively date men. This plot point is never harped on but merely accepted, something that would have been an impossibility in the original series, which spent ample time parsing out the exact nature of each character's sexuality. Even the adjusted title, "Generation Q," obviously denotes this major difference, as today's gay community is composed of people who feel less pressure than their forebearers did to claim a single term to define their sexuality. Instead they reclaim previously derogatory terms like "queer," which Merriam Webster defines as, "Use of the word queer as referring and relating to sexual orientation, and, more recently, to gender identity, has changed dramatically since the 1980s. Formerly used only as a strongly pejorative term, queer is now commonly used by some as a positive self-descriptor. The word is also prominent as a neutral term in academic contexts that deal with gender and sexuality."
But reclaiming previously derogatory words isn't actually new. The reboot highlights the changing nature of the titular "L" word itself. As Lit Hub points out, "Lesbian and tribad and invert and sapphist were all still being used relatively interchangeably at the turn of the twentieth century; in some literature, lesbian was the female equivalent of sodomite, itself a negatively charged legal term." So in the same way that "queer" is no longer a slur, the word "lesbian" was reclaimed by previous generations of women who loved women. As such, the original series took the word to mean women who loved and slept with other women, regardless of the strictness of this preference.
But now, LGBTQ+ individuals have a much larger vocabulary at hand to describe their sexuality. While one might think this means that labeling is becoming even more important for this generation, it actually has the exact opposite effect. In fact, there is so much language available to define one's sexual identity that words are actually becoming less important and more inclusive. Words like "queer," "pansexual," "bisexual," "asexual," "aromantic," and "fluid" all offer a sense of validity to those who may identify with them, but they also offer an openness to interperpretation, which is highlighted by the fact that the new generation of The L Word isn't harping on terminology at all. While characters like Dana, Alice, Shane, and Jenny all clung to "lesbian" as an identifier of their sexual preference and often as a sort of membership card in a counterculture, the new cast of Generation Q exists in a much more amorphous, queer space. It's just understood that the characters are not exclusively attracted to cis-gender people of the opposite gender, and beyond that distinction, they are all comfortable existing in the malleable, ever-changing, identifier of "non-straight," each presumably ascribing to various words within the LGBTQ+ identifier.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that few LGBTQ+ femme individuals who are attracted to other female-identifying individuals use the term "lesbian" anymore. As Christina Cauterucci puts it in Slate, "In other words, we shared a common sexual orientation [with lesbians], but little, if any, cultural affiliation. In the space between "lesbian" and "queer," my friend and I located a world of difference in politics, gender presentation, and cosmopolitanism." In fact, Cauterucci isn't the only one who feels this way, and the use of the word "lesbian" online has decreased notably since 2015, as shown in the graph from Nexis Unis below.
In many ways, the term is becoming antiquated, particularly as our perception of gender changes. And isn't that a good thing? Isn't the ultimate goal of expanding our understanding and acceptance of various sexualities to make specifying language obsolete, leaving people to love who they love, without question or stipulation? For all of the ways The L Word has let us down in the past and may continue to do so in the future, at least it serves as an accurate portrait of the changing language of LGBTQ+ people.
- Jennifer Beals on The L Word, Jenny's Death, Her Sexuality ›
- The L Word: Generation Q Trailer: “Time's Up, Bitch!” | Vanity Fair ›
- 'The L Word' Is Back With Sex, Glamour and a Wider Lens - The New ... ›
- The L Word: Generation Q (2019) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME ... ›
- The L Word: Generation Q - Wikipedia ›
- The L Word: Generation Q (TV Series 2019– ) - IMDb ›
- The L Word: Generation Q: Seasons, Episodes, Cast, Characters ... ›