Visi(bi)lity: The L Word’s Messy Exploration of Straight Privilege

(Note: This post contains spoilers for The L Word.)

In the comments of Wednesday's post, Anita pointed out that Queer As Folk is not the only Showtime program that struggles in its depiction of bisexuality. When discussing depictions of biphobia in the gay community, one can't avoid The L Word. The difference between the shows as I see it, however, is that if Queer As Folk suffers from bi invisibility, The L Word suffers from straight-up bi loathing. Rather than giving you a play-by-play of every epic bi fail (if you're interested in that, After Ellen has a comprehensive list), I want to focus on one particular episode—one that deals with bisexuality and straight privilege.

I use the phrase "deals with" lightly, because what could have been an interesting and worthwhile topic to explore is summed up in one brief, clumsy scene. In the Season Four episode "Layup," Tina, a main character who is on the outs with her friends after leaving her partner for a man, shows up to a pick-up basketball game in which her friends are playing. Her friends, unaware she was going to show up, inform her that she can't play because the game is only for lesbians. (Which makes no sense, because Kit, a straight woman, and Alice, a bi woman, are playing.) Tina replies that she still identifies as a lesbian, so it's okay. But this upsets Jenny (a character who was bi-identified during the show's first season, if I'm not mistaken), who informs Tina, "Yeah, but when you walk down the street with your boyfriend, holding your boyfriend's hands and enjoying all the heterosexual privileges, you stopped being a lesbian." Tina explains that she's a political lesbian, and then there's some more arguing, until finally the other team tells Tina that they don't care who she sleeps with and invites her to play. In a karmic twist, the inclusive team wins and Tina's friends, if she can even call them that after this, lose. (Though this ultimately has far more to do with the fact that Tina's friends are terrible at basketball.)

Four women dressed in athletic-wear stand on an outdoor basketball court. The woman on the far left, wearing sunglasses, looks defiantly at the blonde woman on the far right. The blonde woman wears a grey sweatshirt while the other women wear purple pinnies.

The way the scene is written and structured into the episode lacks critique. It plays like a weird, queer version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," in which Tina isn't allowed to play in any lesbian games. There's cattiness and meanness, but it isn't condemned. There's no attempt to teach Jenny that it's okay for a woman to sleep with a man and still call herself a lesbian. Nor is there any attempt to teach Tina the reasons why calling herself a lesbian may bother some lesbians who don't sleep with men. The scene exists for tension and drama, not character growth for either party.

And that's too bad, because this is a scene that I think could have been powerful and effective. Rather than making both Jenny and Tina look bad, it could have been a thoughtful conversation about the reasons why using a label for political reasons is important, but why recognizing privilege is also important. Does sleeping with men actually mean that a queer-identified woman can't call herself a lesbian? What are the implications behind Tina's decision to continue calling herself a lesbian, rather than bisexual or queer? Rather than both appearing to be out of line, is it possible that both of them are actually right, for different reasons? These are questions I would have liked seeing explored. Because this issue is actually really important.

Personally, I don't think straight privilege should be enough to prevent a queer woman from joining a lesbian basketball team, but the fact is, this is a story that plays out in the real world. Bi people (or, in the case of Tina, people who don't fit neatly into the boxes of Kinsey 0 heterosexuality and Kinsey 6 homosexuality) are sometimes excluded from gay communities, just like they are from straight communities, and for The L Word to address that reality is critical. However, it would have been more effective if they had placed an emphasis on challenging beliefs and perspectives, rather than solely creating dramatic tension for the sake of dramatic tension.

The struggle to still remain a part of a community to which you feel connected while actively benefiting from privilege that oppresses others is an important one to explore. It's one that I think about often and have written about before. I'm glad The L Word made an attempt to address it, but it deserved far better treatment than it got.

Related: "The L Word" Reinforces Negative Bisexual Stereotypes

Previously: Queer As Folk Broke My Heart, John Irving Tackles Biphobia in New Novel

Comments

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Unfair.

First of all, this is a little dated no? This episode was aired in 2007, maybe half a decade should be the limit on analyzing a television show on a blog…

More to the point, I think it’s really problematic when women who have sex with men say they’d like to identify with a lesbian as a political identity. It’s a totally denial of privilege (and definitions). No one would put up with this bullshit in any other community. You would be all over this if someone who was white said they identified as black politically so they feel like they should get to hang out in POC spaces. Please explain the difference to me without noting that “sexuality is fluid” because I’m down to have someone who is an actual lesbian (a woman who is involved exclusively with other women) in lesbian spaces even if she hasn’t always identified as such. I understand the fluidity. But once you stop being a lesbian maybe it’s time to respectfully bow out of lesbian only spaces without throwing tantrum.

Anonymous, I've been covering

Anonymous,

I've been covering a wide variety of media in this series, some of it recent and some of it older. The L Word got a lot of flack for its depictions of non-monosexuality (and transgender identities, too) while it was on, so I felt it was relevant to write about. Especially since lots of people watch television shows after they've finished airing -- some readers may be watching The L Word for the first time now.

I understand why you feel it's problematic for women who have sex with men to identify as lesbians. You aren't wrong. The point I was trying to make is that the issue is complex, and it's one that a lot of people in the queer community have a lot of opinions about. Personally, I do think sexuality is different than race, because I don't think sexuality is always 100% biological for everyone. But I know not everyone agrees with that, and that's okay. But my point in writing this was to show how The L Word avoided showing the complexities, and why I wish they hadn't.

Thank you for the comment -- I hope this clarifies the issue.

Hi Anonymous, Carrie's series

Hi Anonymous,

Carrie's series focuses on bisexuality in pop culture, and as she explains, The L Word is a prime example. There's not "limit" when it comes to analyzing TV shows on this blog, especially when the topics are relevant (and when examples of bi characters are few and far between).

As far as identity politics go, no one is obligated to explain anything to you (and sexuality is in fact fluid, despite what you are and aren't willing to hear). I will point out, however, that the situation outlined in this post involves a non-heterosexual woman (Tina was in a lesbian relationship for several years) trying to play in a basketball game with her close friends. Getting upset when she's excluded from the game is hardly "throwing [a] tantrum" about not being allowed in a lesbian-only space.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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hetero-privilege and gender binaries?

As a queer woman who grew up identifying as a lesbian, that scene in the L word stood out for me (yes, in 2007). While hetero-privilege is very real, it feels like an erasure of identity to be suddenly "straight" when with a male-identified person. It's as if all of those years of discrimination, all the self-policing, and all the dismissal of my sexuality I faced as a younger adult somehow were pushed aside. I identified politically as a lesbian for years, despite dating men as well. Only recently, after facing exclusion from the gay community where I live, have I begun to identify as queer. And honestly, it's a lonely space: I feel misunderstood and exoticized in the straight community and almost as the abject in queer spaces.
Obviously there is a difference, and that difference manifests itself in overt and covert ways that significantly privileges heterosexual appearing folks. And when talking about expanding and opening up groups that are discriminated against, people often forget how threatened these communities (and individuals) feel. After all, discrimination is very real and every day I feel threatened, that somehow my identity will be washed away, or that it will be policed and punished.

But if we as a queer community continue to exclude and police sexualities, how are we dismantling hetero-privilege? The binary representation of gender re-instills a patriarchal system of gender / gender difference / and gender opposition. If we shut down any alternative forms of sexuality, how do we begin a discussion on trans rights or genderqueer representations?

thank you

I liked your comment. Thank you. I present as a bi woman, I don't know how else to describe myself. I'm sure there is a better way. But I love who I love. I am prone to monogamy and have dated mostly men, but I have dated and fallen in love with self-identified women, lesbian or otherwise, as well. I don't feel like I belong to either the straight or queer communities. I fully understand the principle of straight-privilege, and have seen it from both sides.
The way you phrased your comment, I felt a kinship to you and I just wanted to thank you.

Kelsey, You sound pretty

Kelsey,

You sound pretty defensive here. I think there is a place for "only" space... women-only, people-of-color-only, trans-only and I think the people that are members of that community should get to set the rules of inclusion. Your response reeks of privilege and self-entitlement and as the web editor, your a poor reflection of Bitch. They should be ashamed of you. I am.

This is a sensitive topic

This is a sensitive topic that polarizes many and even the most sensitive and aware people can lose their heads.

I don't think that Kelsey was saying that there shouldn't be spaces that are lesbian-only, trans-only, etc. Most of us can agree that those spaces are necessary for a whole number of reasons. The issue arises when the space itself, which is supposed to be a haven and a place for community and support, becomes decidedly not those things when its members decide to exclude someone because that person doesn't fit a cookie-cutter definition.

"Your response reeks of

"Your response reeks of privilege and self-entitlement and as the web editor, your a poor reflection of Bitch. They should be ashamed of you. I am." It's ok to disagree, but I think you could have used more polite, less confrontational language. I think Ms. Wallace stated her point in a respectful and appropriate manner.

I'm a fan of the L Word myself, but I was also pretty upset by the way this topic was handled. I will never understand how some lesbians can complain that they feel discriminated against and judged because of their sexual orientation, and then turn around and do the same thing to bisexual women. I believe Papi actually makes that point in a discussion with Alice later in the episode.

I personally don't understand the rationale behind women-only or lesbian-only spaces. As a lesbian, I've experienced what it feels like to be excluded. So I can't imagine wanting to make others feel excluded.

Just to respond to that last

Just to respond to that last point: Creating closed safe spaces isn't a way of making others "feel excluded." Those spaces can provide oases in an aggressively heteropatriarchal culture. While not all of us might feel the need for closed safe spaces, some of us do need them. Personally, I cherish such spaces because they provide a place where I can feel "normal" for a little while. In a lesbian-only space, I can actually forget that I'm a "lesbian" and just be a person. The presence of a cis man or a straight person would ruin that feeling.

But bisexuals aren't

But bisexuals aren't straight, so how would their presence be threatening that space? Being bisexual doesn't mean that your attraction to women is somehow "weaker" than a lesbian's is, it just means that you are also attracted to men.

I think the point was not

I think the point was not that there is no place for lesbian only spaces, but that the basketball game was not one. Rather Tina was being ostracized by her "friends" for daring to deviate from their idea of an acceptable relationship.

So what was Kit doing in a

So what was Kit doing in a lesbian-only space? It wasn't lesbian-only, it was a group of friends playing a game.

Personal Dig

Seeing as the group had no problem with Alice (who is bi) and Kit (who is straight) I think the problem that the friends REALLY had with Tina was not her bisexuality but the way that she hurt Bette when she left her for a man. This situation is the EXACT reason why bisexuals get such a bum rap. There is enough hurt and rejection for homosexuals out there in this hetero-centric society. Who wants to have to worry about losing the person they love to the oppressive hetero-majority?

The idea of being with someone in the same boat or oppressed group as you are holds a bit of comfort because it's easier to relate to them how you feel. When that person can step out and fit into the other group, enjoying that group's privilege while you can't it rehashes much of the rejection that mainstream society already directs toward homosexual individuals.

Girl Power & Spice up your life!!!!

Oh, L Word.

As much as the L-Word pretty much overplays EVERYTHING, I do think its attitude towards bisexuality is somewhat telling and indicative of how at least some lesbian groups are. Same goes for transphobia--the other day I was rewatching the ep where Max meets Tom, and I had forgotten just how cringe-worthy it was when the whole table full of lesbians are all "um, he's a trans man." Sort of the flip of the whole cotton ceiling thing, you have this assumption that gay guys wouldn't be interested in trans men... which is sadly true in a lot of gay male communities. I think it's getting better in some spaces, but slow progress.

Visi(bi)lity: The L Word’s Messy Exploration of Straight

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