The L Word and the B Word

by | April 15, 2012
filed under LGBT, Pop Culture

Bisexuality Symbolby Alicia Costa

When I read this article the other morning about the way bisexuality is represented in Showtime’s widely popular American version of Queer as Folk it immediately brought up some disturbing parallels to Showtime’s other ground-breaking gay show The L Word on the same topic.

I will start this by admitting I love The L Word and it’s one of the only television series I have watched several times through. Over six seasons aired between 2004- 2006. The L Word takes the viewer through a dramatic roller coaster of the lives of a close-knit group of woman (mostly lesbian-identified). While not perfect, the show tackles some progressive topics on female sexuality and continually dismantles the stereotypes surrounding relationships and sex between women.

At the beginning of the series two of the main characters emerge as self-identified bisexual women. Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey) the quirky and cute journalist who openly defends being bisexual to her friends. And Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) the sheltered girl from the mid-west who moves to LA with her boyfriend Tim and struggles with her new feelings towards women throughout the season.

Alice endures much ridicule from her lesbian friends who very openly disapprove of her attraction to men and women. In conversation with a lesbian character Dana Fairbanks (Erin Daniels) says, “Christ, Alice, when are you going to make up your mind between dick and pussy? And spare us the gory bisexual details, please.”

Here’s another example:

Unfortunately over the course of the series both Alice and Jenny’s bisexual identities dissolve and they both come to identify as lesbian, lending support to the stereotype that bisexuals end up on one side or the other.  

Much like Queer as Folk there is one long-term lesbian relationship in The L Word between Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) and Tina Kinard (Laurel Holloman). Like any relationship they take on a lot of realistic challenges and power struggles around money and child rearing. And much like Melanie and Lindsay in Queer as Folk they both commit infidelity; one with a woman and one with a man. The way these dalliances are dealt with within the circle of friends throughout the series is uncomfortably different.

Bette, who has a short-lived steamy affair with an attractive female carpenter, is eventually forgiven by her friends on the basis that she “just couldn’t keep it in her pants.” Bette is cast as a sexually dominant female character that has a solid lesbian identity. Tina, who despite only dating men before being involved with Bette doesn’t out rightly identify as bisexual. In later seasons she confesses to Bette that she is having confusing feelings about men. With Bette’s encouragement Tina explores her feelings with a single dad from their neighbourhood.

Tina’s relationship with the male character is outwardly met with disgust from her lesbian friends. Comments are continually made that Tina is with a man because it’s socially more acceptable. Jenny, who eventually comes to identify as a lesbian continually makes comments about Tina’s ‘choice’ to be with a man: “When you walk down the street with your boyfriend holding your boyfriend’s hands enjoying all the heterosexual privileges, you stopped being a lesbian,” said Jenny.

The message becomes clear throughout the series that bisexuality is not seen as a legitimate identity. Stereotypes are fed that bisexuals are really either gay or straight in the end when they come to their senses. Both Tina and Alice make references to men being ‘boring’ after they ‘choose’ to be lesbians. Relationships with men become a much needed ‘holiday’ from the drama and complications of being with women.

Dangerous double standards are set when expressions of interest in men are explored then that of interest in women. Bette’s sister, Kit Porter (Pam Grier) is a straight identified woman who has relationships with both men and women and never is met with the same ridicule. Ultimately she too makes a clear ‘choice’ to be with men. On the same note the notoriously promiscuous and mysterious Shane (Kate Moenning) has several relationships with women who previously had only been with men or were with men.

We are entering into troubling territory when we legitimize one identify over another.  While The L Word and Queer as Folk were ground-breaking in their representations of gays people on television (however problematic) they both really did a disservice to people who identify as bisexual. It isn’t progressive enough for me to force anyone into socially acceptable boxes of gay or straight. I do think both of these shows did a lot for the visibility of gay people in popular culture. However in the process they lost a huge opportunity to celebrate other identities.


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  • Frankinstein

    Thank you for this article – as a bisexual woman, this is the thing I hated about Queer as Folk and The L Word (which I loved for their otherwise fairly-balanced portrayals of gay people as … well, people!) The dismissal of bisexuality in the sexual minority community and the straight community, while not as overt and alienating as that experienced by trans* individuals, is nonetheless hurtful and exclusionary. Depicting bisexuals as people who eventually “choose” one sexual identity over another is just as stereotyping as the “effeminate queer” or the “butch lesbian.” It makes me nuts how Hollywood has begun introducing the regular, everyday nuances of relationships into their depictions of gay couples, but has continued to either engage in cliched, rigidly “flip-the-switch” portrayals of bisexuals or to ignore that each relationship a person engages in has its own complexities and negotiated boundaries.
    /rant
    Thank you, once again, for addressing this particular aspect of female sexuality as portrayed in television.

  • Amanda

    Thanks for the great post. Within the group of LGBTQ folk I hang out with, there is a superficial acceptance of us “B” types (though to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the term “bisexual” because it reinforces the false dichotomies of sex and gender binaries — “queer” is how I tend to identify instead). However, there was definitely some recent vitriol in a situation where a lesbian-identified woman who had recently started dating a man brought him out to an evening on the town that the group of us had planned as a queer bonding experience. Comments were made in a derogatory tone about her bringing her “boyfriend” along, despite the fact that he participated in the events of the evening good-naturedly and wasn’t too obtrusive. I find this kind of talk harmful and unpleasant because there is a definite chance that I will date a man or two over the coming years, and don’t want to end up being the target of such nasty attitudes. It’s off-putting, and quite frankly, inappropriate for the queer community, who are supposed to take pride in difference and celebrate it.

  • Joanna

    Thanks for this! Marginalization of bisexuals in queer communities aren’t talked bout enough.

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