"If You Can't Teach Yourself" is a biweekly series in which a young queer woman experiences a cultural artifact beloved by older members of the LGBTQ community, in furtherance of her own queer education. Think of it as a syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
Among queer women who came of age in the early 2000s, no TV show carries quite as much heft as Showtime's The L Word. I was 7 years old when it premiered in 2004, and even I get references to "The Chart," a graph developed by Alice (Leisha Hailey) to chart her friends' intertwining hookup history.
First, a confession: I've never actually watched The L Word all the way through. I tried once in college, egged on by a pushy dyke two years my senior who told me "absolutely had to watch it," but I found a few episodes of the first season unbearably cliché. The dialogue felt stilted, and the protagonist, Jenny (Mia Kirschner)—a fiction writer whose sizzling hot affair with femme barista Marina (Karina Lombard) sends her male fiancé spiraling—annoyed me immediately.
The show was written and developed by a lesbian (Ilene Chaiken), and ran from 2004–2009. We're talking pre-marriage equality, "don't ask, don't tell"-era America. Those tensions—and that growing sense of change on the horizon—are woven into the very fabric of The L Word's world. For many young queer people (like me), it's easy to lose sight of just how far our community has come in a relatively short period of time. Shows like The L Word are time capsules of an era of LGBTQ history I technically lived through, but was too young to experience in full.
From left: Actress Erin Daniels, who plays Dana, and the show's co-creator Ilene Chaiken.
In the interest of giving The L Word a fair shot, I called up Riese Bernard, co-founder and CEO of the GLAAD Award-winning queer women's blog Autostraddle. Bernard spent years recapping new episodes of The L Word for The L Word Online. (She even wrote a "gentle guide" for binge-watching The L Word for the first time—give it a read!) She tells me that even today—the show turns 15 in 2019, and it's getting a full-on sequel later this year—there's never been another lesbian show quite like The L Word.
Before The L Word, "I’d never seen a lesbian group of friends on TV, ever," Bernard says. "Even if there were a lesbian, it was just one character. They would maybe have a love interest for two episodes, but that was it. Or we’d have a little arc on The O.C., and that was it. So you never saw a vision of a very full life for queer women that involved almost exclusively other queer women."
Immediately upon streaming The L Word Season 1, I was struck by how these relationships—a web of clandestine affairs, romantic relationships, and super-close friendships that sometimes blur those lines—are the show's lifeblood. The bonds that get fleshed out over the course of the season, platonic or otherwise, ground the show in reality.
Plus, The L Word was undeniably ahead of its time. In just 14 episodes, viewers see a confident career woman run an art museum as an out-and-proud lesbian; a committed same-sex couple try (unsuccessfully, sadly) to conceive via IVF; a pro tennis player come out publicly; a "baby dyke" begin to come into her own as she explores her sexuality; and so much lesbian sex. Like, "almost too many sex scenes to count" levels of lesbian sex. (I lost count.)
Yes, the pop culture references are dated. Yes, lesbian culture has changed immensely since the early 2000s. And, yes, certain character arcs on the show didn't age well; there's Lisa (Devon Gummersall), a "lesbian-identified man" who Alice casually dates during Season 1. (Is Lisa a trans woman? What was the point of this B-plot?)
But by the time I finished Episode 14, the season finale—which, true to Bernard's word, is one of the most compelling, gut-wrenching episodes of television I can recall—I was invested in these characters. I'd even grown fond of Jenny, who I initially despised. It occurred to me as I sat in bed that night, mulling over the epic and emotional conclusion, that my strong dislike for Jenny was due to her mercurial nature. I loathed her inability to choose a label, a lover, an idea for a story, and stick with it.
I see myself and my queer friends in Jenny—in her fears, her worries, her identity crises. Being gay isn't easy, nor is it a clear-cut, linear journey; plenty of LGBTQ people come out twice as different identities under the queer umbrella. And watching Jenny grapple with the instability of her life—her relationships, her sexuality, her sense of self—strikes a chord in a way that's almost painful to acknowledge. Her adventures (and misadventures) are so uncomfortable to watch unfold because they're so relatable.
It's sort of mundane, but the moments I loved most during The L Word were enjoyable for that very reason: I could see myself and my friends (and our GFs, past and present) enmeshed in those same webs of love, heartbreak, and every feeling in between. Relatable "dyke drama," if you will. So, sure, maybe some things have changed. I met my first girlfriend on Tumblr, which wasn't even a thing in 2004. But clearly, there's still something here.
Will The L Word's 2019 sequel take the beloved series to new heights? I'm not sure—and neither is Bernard, who doesn't know what to expect. "I do feel like it’s this precious cultural artifact, and I don’t want to see it marred in any way," she admits. "But I imagine that it’s going to have mostly new characters, so I guess it’ll be fun to have another show that’s really just about lesbians."
Stream Season 1 of The L Word on Netflix.