Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The L Word and The T Word

by | April 27, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

by Alicia Costa

Based on some very interesting discussion about my last post on the way bisexual identity is represented on Showtime’s The L Word I am writing this post about another misrepresented and misinterpreted identity on the show.

In season 3 audiences were introduced to Moira Sweeny (Daniela Sea) a butch lesbian identified woman who transitions over the seasons into a male-identified Max. Moira/ Max was unfortunately the product of some disastrous character development and was highly criticized as a huge misrepresentation of trans men. Additionally, over the seasons Max was the subject of some hugely offensive trans-phobic comments by the lesbian characters of the show. AfterEllen.com has a great piece about gender trouble on The L Word.

Over the entire 6 seasons of The L Word there was only one other character introduced who played with gender norms. This was the brief appearance of Ivan Aycock (Kelly Lynch) who was originally introduced during a Drag King show. However, it becomes known that Ivan passes for male in everyday life and he starts to court straight Kit Porter (Pam Grier).

Although it was never really discussed  I believe Ivan was more genderqueer then trans. Kit and Ivan’s relationship is quite sweet as Ivan courts her in a gentlemanly fashion. However, their relationship is cut short because Kit can’t seem to get over the fact that Ivan is really female and her straight identity can’t be changed! Remember those pesky bisexuals? We don’t want one of those on our hands.

In the beginning of season 3 we are discover Jenny has been back in her small town doing some self-care after her breakdown at the end of season 2. In the process she meets Moira, an IT wizard and they start a relationship. When Jenny decides she is ready to return to LA Moira joins her.  However, it doesn’t take long for Moira to feel like she does not fit in with this tight knit group of glamorous ‘lipstick’ LA lesbians. She is thrown off by androgynous Shane who does identify as butch.  Moira flounders a lot in the storyline and the groups of lesbians make little effort to make Moira feel welcome or comfortable.

Shortly after her arrival Moira goes for a job interview at a large tech company dressed in men’s clothes but presenting herself as Moira. The dialogue between the interviewer and Moira is as follows:

“So Moira, that’s a girl’s name isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’m a girl.”

“I wasn’t saying I didn’t know if you were a girl, I was just asking about the name. (Pause) Great letter of recommendation from Shaldean. How did you get on with the folks there?”

“Really well.”

“Hmph, so no problems with you being (pause), you know, hard to peg?”

“Hard to peg?”

“You’re kinda neither fish nor fowl Moira, if you know what I mean, and I’m not saying we would discriminate against you because that is one thing we don’t do here at Intecmode, but we’re looking for someone who is a team player. We’re team players here.”

“Yeah, I’m a team player.”

“What side do you bat for Moira?” (chuckles)

Moira doesn’t get the job and leaves feeling more confused about how she fits into LA as a butch lesbian. As the storylines move along Jenny also begins to feel uncomfortable about the fact Moira is obviously not fitting in well. So much so that when they attend a party thrown by notorious flamboyant party boy Billy Blakely (Alan Cumming) Jenny presents Moira as Max. It is there that Billy offers to hook Moira up with a connection who sells illegal testosterone without a prescription.

Moira’s butch identity gets completely lost and she decides to transition into Max. She begins to inject illegal testosterone and asks her friends now to only refer to her at Max and use only male pronouns. The group of lesbians struggle with this a lot and for many episodes they continue to refers to Max as Moira and use she/ her. Max almost immediately starts to grow facial hair and exhibit extreme aggression.  This was widely criticized by trans groups as a gross misrepresentation of the physical transformation that occurs while transitioning from female to male over the course of years. And The L Word didn’t get into just how dangerous it is to inject unsupervised amounts of testosterone.

While Max is transitioning (and passing as male) he gets another job with the same company that rejected Moira. After a failed relationship with the boss’s daughter and a real fear he would be outed Max dates another woman named Grace (Simone Bailly). Grace immediately challenges Max’s transition by stating how sad she is that the lesbian community is losing so many of its butch women [who transition to men]. This relationship really derails Max’s ambition to fully physically transition to male. Max decides not to have top surgery (a double mastectomy and male chest contouring).

I think the most transphobic exchange happens in the series happens between Max and Alice. Shortly after leaving his job after outing himself as trans to stand up for a female colleague Max begins to work for Alice as the IT person for her website Our Chart. Our Chart is a fictional social networking site for lesbians created by Alice.  Max decides to write a blog post about his transitioning journey and his decision not to have top surgery at this time. When Alice finds out Max posted it on Our Chart she accuses Max of invading lesbian (read: biologically born women only) space.

“Max, you invaded my space to put our your own agenda and it wasn’t cool at all. But here is what I will do you can blog once a week I’ll put you in your own little box on the homepage- not with the guestbians [quest lesbians bloggers].”

“Why not with the guestbians?”

“Because it’s a lesbian site Max. And I just don’t want to get bombarded by a bunch of dykes flipping out about this transgender thing.”

“You can’t segregate trans people out of the lesbian community.”

Alice is making a clear stand that she does not feel that Max has a place within lesbian space. Whether the writers intended this or not this exchange highlights a very real challenge for trans men and women. They are often segregated and pushed out of gay and lesbian communities’ they once belonged to and/ or struggle to fit into new ones.

In the next episode Alice makes a half-assed forced apology to Max about her transphobia. You can watch it here:

Where the The L Word seemed to really struggle was to successful incorporate characters with identities that couldn’t easily be defined or labelled. It was as though the writers and producers and creator Ilene Chaiken embraced the acceptance that society was ready for a show about lesbians but anything outside of gay or straight was pushing too far.

And this is where I think the show got problematic. By jamming everyone into rigid and prescribed gender binaries in order to make the show more palatable for the masses there was a huge missed opportunity to educate about other identities.  As well as give butch, bisexual, genderqueer, or trans men and women a realistic characters who they could relate and connect with.

It was an entertaining and sexy and drama/ soap opera about lesbians played by mostly straight actresses. Out of the entire main cast only Leisha Hailey (Alice) is openly lesbian. Laurel Holloman (Tina) and Mia Kirschner (Jenny) have both stated they are bisexual and Katherine Moennig (Shane) prefers not to disclose.  The women cast into these roles were highly attractive by mainstream societal standards. By doing this they painted The L Word with the 90210/ the OC/ Gossip Girl brush of mainstream appeal

The L Word was what it was.  And what it was flawed and great at the same time.  How many other TV shows talk about female masturbation, ejaculation, homophobia, polyamory, gay parenting and adoption, racial and biracial identity, and the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy over the course of one series?


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  • Lisa

    I totally agree. It was hard to watch how horribly they treated Max. They were okay with genderqueer and trans at the club, but not to join their little clique. How is it they could accept Jenny, but not Max? Max was infinitely friendlier and genuine than Jenny…and yet we have this “alienation” factor that comes out of nowhere. They also are jerks to the bisexual Tina, saying she can’t join their “lesbian” basketball team and Jenny tells her she can’t even identify as a “lesbian”. The awful truth is, when I was out as a bisexual, I had the same experience in gay/lesbian clubs, and heard very horrid things from gay men concerning their thoughts on bisexuals (when they assumed I was just a lesbian) or even horrid things about lesbians (when people thought I was straight). Hate comes from everywhere – even from gay and lesbian communities…