The Fem Spot

Farewell to The L Word: “this is the way that we live”

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television, Pop Culture, queer theory, Sexuality by femspotter on March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009

I have many topics to rant about these days (misogyny in the Watchmen movie, the debate over castration of sex offenders in Europe, Campbell Brown’s ludicrous claim that her opinion-based “news” broadcast on CNN contains neither bias nor bull, the Rihanna scandal, etc.). Isn’t it a lovely time to be a woman! (It’s raining out and I’m entitled to be grumpy!)

After last Sunday’s broadcast of the final episode of The L Word, it got less lovely, I’m afraid.

The show’s creators claim to be astonished that so many straight women have feverishly tuned in to watch the lives of Los Angeles lesbians unfold over the past six seasons. Why? What other television programs do we have that are devoted entirely (and seriously) to women? Other shows about women often depict lives that revolve around men. Not The L Word.

True: the show does have its schmaltzy moments. It’s gone out with a bang: the “Who Killed Jenny Schecter?” bang. But it has also given us a lot to chew on over the years when it comes to the difficult challenges that face all (or many) women, gay and straight. I’d like to pause for a moment of silence in memoriam, and then tell you what this heterosexual woman learned from The L Word, and why she will miss it.

the-l-word-cast

The L Word gained notoriety early on rather than being swept under the rug owing to some pretty impressive star power. Many actors worry that “playing gay” will land them in typecasting hell. But once the beautiful – and surprisingly soft spoken despite the often harsh tones employed by her character – Jennifer Beals signed on to play Yale-educated, interracial art connoisseur Bette Porter, all of the rest of the chips fell into place. Beals – perhaps best known for the movie Flashdance (1983) – brought poise and intelligence to this keystone role. I love that the creators adapted some of her most interesting attributes for the character: Beals is a Yale graduate with interracial heritage.

Before long, actresses like Margot Kidder (iconic for her role as scrappy reporter Lois Lane in the Superman films) and Kelly Lynch – and even cultural heroines like Gloria Steinem – were making cameo appearances on the show. And by the end of its six seasons, controversial, full-figured  comedy actress Cybill Shepherd, out and proud lesbian funny lady Jane Lynch, and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (playing the first deaf lesbian romantically involved with a hearing lesbian in television history) were regulars. Throughout, Bette, Tina, Shane, Alice, Tasha, Max, Helena and Jenny would meet and eat at The Planet, owned by Kit (Pam Grier – renowned tour de force black American actress). (If any of those descriptions sound insulting, I assure you that they are all reasons to be proud in my book!)

According to its before-the-finale special, The L Word challenged many of the stereotypes heterosexuals believe about lesbians: they hate men, they wear flannel shirts and Birkenstock sandals everyday, and they experience “lesbian bed death” the longer they sleep together. Because some of the sex scenes have been very explicit over the years, the show also lifted the veil over female same-sex sexuality. I confess that I often found the career and friendship exploits more enticing than the steamy love scenes, but it was definitely interesting to learn and understand the mechanics of a sexuality that I haven’t personally been privy to.

The L Word brought lesbians to a mainstream audience, and with “Les Girls” came some of the most important revelations for women in television history. I cried with Alice when her best friend Dana died from breast cancer. I looked with horror upon Dana’s amputated breast, clearly shown for all the world to see. We never get to look at breast cancer that way. We never get to see that butchery to women’s bodies.

Similarly, it’s also uncommon to spend time with a female character who identifies as a male and works toward transitioning from one sex to the other. Bravo to actress Daniela Sea (Moira/Max) for portraying this difficult life alteration with dignity and honesty. I cried for him every time he had to look in the mirror and see himself wearing a “costume,” the female body he was born with.

Kudos to the show for bringing smart alec Alice into our lives. I related to her desire to “figure out” the world we live in by creating “The (Sexual Connection) Chart,” forcing the issues, pushing people’s buttons and speaking her mind. Come to think of it, I need to get myself one of those “I Love Alice” tee shirts from the show’s online store so I can wear it with pride: gay pride and feminist pride. (That’s right! I’m a straight woman with lesbian pride.)

I cried with Bette and Tina when they took their daughter Angie to the hospital with a high fever and the receptionist demanded that they decide which parent would represent Angie because the receptionist couldn’t comprehend one child having two mommies. I sympathised with Jenny when she sliced open her skin on the bathroom floor (as she’s done since childhood) and Shane found and comforted her. I cheered for Kit when she and Helena bought back The Planet and threw that witch Dawn Denbo out on her butt! I’m cheering now even though I know it’s time to say “goodbye.”

But the most important moment I experienced while pondering The L Word was to finally understand the politics behind the lesbian identity. It used to bother me when people (children) would tease me for my feminist ideals saying, “You must be a lesbian!” Why must I be? Not all lesbians are feminists and not all feminists are lesbians.

In late 2007, while writing an MA English paper on warrior sex and gender in an epic poem, I realized that I actually am a lesbian: I am a metaphorical lesbian. It dawned on me that, just as lesbians fight to be taken seriously as individuals in a world that applauds beauty and simple-mindedness in women and validates strength only in women who stand behind their men, I too fight to be taken seriously as a woman: just me, not me in relation to my husband or father, not me in relation to femininity. I refuse to model myself after a feminine ideal that isn’t natural for me. As a queer theorist, I reject the notion that sex and gender must always go hand in hand.

I wrote:

The “metaphorical lesbian” has been established, first by Bonnie Zimmerman in her essay “Lesbians Like This and That: Some Notes on Lesbian Criticism for the Nineties,” and then again by Elizabeth LeBlanc in her essay “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” There is a political component to lesbianism that hasn’t always existed for gays. Historically, gay sex has been acceptable for free men, so long as they were in the active role of penetrator. This active role is associated with masculinity, while passivity is associated with femininity. According to Freud, it “is clear that in Greece, where the most masculine men were numbered among the inverts, what excited a man’s love was not the masculine character of a boy, but his physical resemblance to a woman as well as his feminine mental qualities – his shyness, his modesty and his need for instruction and assistance” (10). Kirk Ormand refers to some women of Ovid’s poetry as “impossible lesbians” because, with two female and thus passive participants, sexuality is at best limited and at worst unachievable. Lesbians therefore have something to prove: they must proclaim their active and yes, masculine, nature, and furthermore, they must convince the world that this nature is acceptable or even “normal.” “Because ancient Rome perceived sex as essentially predicated on an asymmetry of power, one of the two parties must be active and, if a woman, therefore monstrous” (Ormand 85). Lesbianism, as a political force, is thus parallel to feminism because both movements seek to achieve acceptance for socially unacceptable women: the active/masculine woman or metaphorical lesbian.

I never could think about lesbians without stereotypes until I got hooked on The L Word, and thus I certainly could not think about myself in relation to them. If someone accused me of being a lesbian today, I’d tell them, “Yes, I am.” Like “political lesbians,” I refuse to be defined by my relationship to men: daughter, wife, etc. I refuse to be compared to the feminine ideal and found lacking. I am a masculine woman. I wear dresses and boots. I’m pretty and tough. I’m not afraid to stand up for people and animals who can’t stand up for themselves…just like Alice!

I’ll miss the girls. I really liked them all…except for Jenny…but everybody is missing her these days anyway.

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Hillary Clinton supporters: stupid, or just plain emotional?

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Pop Culture by femspotter on September 4, 2008

September 4, 2008

The question has been asked on television news, commentary programs, talk radio and at the office water cooler. Does John McCain really think women in this country are stupid enough to vote for him just because his running mate is a woman?

When I first heard the news that McCain’s choice was made and freshman Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin was on his ticket, I experienced a burst of excitement. Gloria Steinem had said that men of all races will make history before women, and in this case the history was to be made by Democratic nominee Barack Obama, a black man. He’ll be the first black man to become president. Sorry ladies, you’ll have to wait your turn.

I’m not usually the kind of person who follows authority blindly, but it was the Gloria Steinem who had said it. Men will achieve historic milestones in each category before women. I felt a stab of injustice. I fumed and cried for the 80- and 90-year-old women out there who were hoping to see Hillary Clinton assume the presidency, meaning that herstory had been made when this country elected a woman to our highest executive office.

Sarah Palin. Who is that? I didn’t know her from Eve, but suddenly her name sounded really powerful. Maybe she would prove Steinem wrong and pass an historical landmark before a black man had become either president or vice president. Sarah Palin. How bad could she be?

Obama never told us why he didn’t consider Clinton as his running mate. I had thought her the most logical choice. She came in a close second in the primary. She’d been a gracious loser, throwing her support behind Obama. She has some diehard fans. Shouldn’t these qualities make her the runner up for the job, a heartbeat away from the big button? Hey! I demand to know why she wasn’t even considered!

But it’s not my choice. It’s up to the man who won the primary race. And apparently he doesn’t care if roughly 20 percent of Clinton’s voters have pledged to give their votes to McCain.

And now with this Palin upset… People are asking: Are liberal women stupid enough to vote for McCain/Palin just because Palin is a woman?

It’s the wrong question. The correct question is: Are liberal women angry enough to vote Republican?

I’m not stupid and neither are the ladies from the Rutgers University Women’s Studies department who were quoted in last weekend’s New York Times as saying they would write in Clinton’s name when the time comes. It’s not a rational, intellectual reaction that makes us think of betraying party loyalty, it’s an emotional one.

Several weeks ago, I blogged about crying at work. I got a nasty response from somebody out there in the blogosphere telling me that I must be totally insane to cry over a hurtful, misdirected email – somebody emailed me something negative about me instead of sending it to the appropriate (?) person. I should have posted the comment under the essay…but I had an emotional reaction to it and, just like when I cried at work, I acted hastily. I deleted the comment.

My emotions aren’t wrong or bad, but they often make life a bit difficult. Emotional people are the ones who give you the finger if you cut them off in traffic. Emotional people get scared at scary movies and huddle up to the person in the seat next to them. Emotional people take in stray animals. We donate blood. We’re always available to give you a hug. We’re not terrible people…we’re emotional.

Once I saw a woman weeping on a bench in the New York City subway system. I recognized her as a fellow emoter immediately. I thought that perhaps she’d just lost her 12 year-old Labrador Retriever. Maybe, she’d dropped all of her money irrevocably onto the subway tracks. Could it be that her tears were the result of too small underwear wedging into her ass crack? There was just no way to tell.

I wanted to go over to her and lay a hand on her shoulder. I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be okay. But because she was crying – for whatever reason – I couldn’t do it. Once emotional, always emotional. If she’s a crier, won’t she be a screamer too? This was New York City. If I offered her sympathy, would I be rewarded with a smack?

Emotion can get a bit unruly, but it’s also fleeting. My knee-jerk reaction to Palin’s nomination was enthusiasm. But I’m all for abortion rights, gay marriage and green initiatives. Palin is completely against abortion under any circumstances. She’s absolutely certain that the only viable “marriage” equation consists of one man and one woman. And she thinks global warming is the process by which flight attendants heat meals on an airplane.

I may have considered voting for McCain during the emotional haze that followed the Palin announcement. But when I do think about those issues, among others, I know that I will not vote Republican. That’s not to say that my Obama vote is etched in stone, however. Remember, I’m emotional. If Obama says or does anything disrespectful to Clinton or to female Democrats in the days just before the election, he’s risking another emotional outburst from us scorned women.

We’re not stupid. We’re just emotional. And emotion isn’t bad or wrong, it’s just impulsive.

The right thing would have been to offer assistance to the crying woman in the subway. I should have braved it. The wrong thing would have been to avoid even considering such a gesture.

The crying cat’s out of the bag

Posted in Feminist Theory, Politics, queer theory by femspotter on June 26, 2008

June 26, 2008

Now that Hillary Clinton has “suspended her campaign,” it’s safe for the media to release some of the feminist discourse that may have been held back. It’s safe because Clinton can’t use anybody’s words against them, and even if she tried, nobody would listen because the issue of her candidacy is moot.

I have a big mouth so I’m happy to do the job.

Gloria Steinem contributed an opinion piece to The New York Times: “Women Are Never Front-Runners.” She asks, “Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?” She answers, “(B)ecause sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was.”

This means that the qualities of gender – masculine and feminine – are identified as the nature of the corresponding sex. Therefore, women are feminine by their very nature and are expected to be sensitive, gentle criers. And because tears are anticipated, a woman becomes a cliché if/when she does cry. (“Is it that time of the month?” men ask.)

Most people would prefer that their leaders don’t cry. This preference has given birth to a “no-tears rule” according to Steinem who commends Clinton’s “courage to break” said rule. Some reacted with sympathy when Clinton choked up in a January question and answer session: the poor woman is overtired and needs to thaw. Others said that she’s a phony.

There’s a biological reason for tears and it has nothing to do with sex and gender. Strong emotion of any kind – from sadness to happiness and back – can cause humans to weep. The protein-based hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and leucine enkephalin build up causing psychic tears to well, and receptors in our tear glands read intense emotions and force these tears to flow. (How’s that for unisex science?)

The fear that Clinton’s crying when talking to a small group of women indicates that she will cry when talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, is irrational, but it exists nonetheless. It’s the giving in to intense emotions that bothers some people; they see it as a sign of weakness.

There is no evidence that can resolutely prove that women cry more than men do. Even people who criticize Clinton and her soppy display probably cry themselves, but they do so behind closed doors.

I like Steinem’s theory because it agrees with mine: we are confused about the difference between sex and gender. Not all females are feminine and not all males are masculine. The problem with the assumptions about sex is that they are often false, and only sometimes true. Clinton cried when a freelance photographer asked her a sympathetic question: “How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?” But just because she’s a woman who once happened to be somewhat overwhelmed by personal assurance, does not mean that she’ll have the same reaction to Raul Castro in the flesh. (I would cry at the sight of Castro, but I highly doubt that she would.)

People who believe that once a crier always a crier, in the case of women, are probably the same people who suspect and worry that Barack Obama is a Muslim. And if he’s a Muslim, then he must be a terrorist, right?

I’m surprised the press let this next one slip by and can only conclude that they ignored this comment because they have been walking on eggshells around the race topic. Michelle Obama had the following to say in a 60 Minutes interview with regard to her husband’s safety during the campaign: “I don’t lose sleep over it because the realities are that, you know, as a black man, you know. Barack can get shot going to the gas station, you know. So, you know, you can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen. We just weren’t raised that way.”

The statement begs the question: who does she think is going to shoot him? And she’d have to answer carefully because each potential answer has a built in crapshoot. If she were to say “a white person,” she’d be guilty of her own form of racism, perpetuating a stereotype that racist whites want to kill blacks. If she were to say “a black person,” that’s almost worse. She’d be perpetuating a stereotype that blacks are out there with guns shooting each other.

Michelle’s statement is problematic for Steinem’s theory because it still ascribes a nature to each race. In order for the two ideas to agree, Michelle’s answer would have to be either “a woman” or “a man will shoot my husband.” But somehow, I doubt that’s what she had in mind.

And she can’t simply respond “some crazy person.” Because that lunatic has a sex and a race, both of which are visible in her mind’s eye.

Finally, I’d like to turn to a June 6 commentary by Rebecca Walker, as posted on CNN.com. “It is time to turn the page on myopic gender-based Feminism and concede that while patriarchy is real, so is female greed, dishonesty and corruptibility,” she wrote. I wonder where she got the idea that humans generally uphold the notion that women are morally superior to men by their nature.

If we can’t say unequivocally that women cry more than men, then we can’t say that they are uniformly more sensitive, caring or generous. And we can’t take that another step and say that they deserved the right to vote in 1920 because they were angels and not citizens, or that Edith Wharton deserved a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 because she was a saint and not a talented writer, or that Hillary Clinton deserved the right to be president because she is a holy vessel and not a qualified leader. I can’t recall any legitimate argument for emancipation that was based on a sex moral foundation. It would lose all of its steam the minute an Erzebet Bathory draws blood or a Martha Stewart obstructs justice, etc.

The argument that Walker is disputing, however, is the same one Steinem has observed: people still think that effeminacy is the nature of all women. Effeminacy is the nature of some women…but there are others with a tougher stance. For us to evolve past the point of marginalizing men and women based on masculine and feminine expectations, we will have to do away with such terminology and the idea of gender entirely.

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