Tuesday, April 14, 2009

An Ode to The L Word

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There was a lesbian conference this weekend in Toulouse, France. The theme: lesbians and the weapon of laughter. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to have the Lesbian Avengers, and I appeared with Ana Simo on a panel of activists including the Paris feminist group, La Barbe, and Madrid's Toxic Lesbians.

We showed video snippets of Avengers taking over Fifth Avenue to protest the murders of Hattie Mae Cohen and Brian Mock, the vast Dyke March in DC in '93, and fire-eaters in front of the White House. We even showed Avengers giving schoolchildren balloons that said, "Ask about lesbian lives."

Everyone was generally happy with the documentary images, but you could tell a minority were irritated at our activist message: the Avengers were a response to the invisibility and irrelevance that were still a big problem today.

A few actually seemed pissed off at the idea I missed the Avengers. One lesbian described a demo in her city, implying lesbians weren't that invisible. Another woman seemed to come out against activism, "Shouldn't we stop and think about our goals first...? Do we really want to spend our time changing the existing structure of society? Maybe we should focus our efforts on developing an entirely new one..."

I wondered what it would take to wake them up, and create a longing for more than the useful, but hermetically sealed, conference that had welcomed me. Laughter certainly wasn't enough. Maybe a small explosion...

Another New Yorker was the answer. In her presentation about "The L Word" and her film "Go Fish," dyke writer and director Rose Troche managed to incite finger-pointing, threats, and a near fist-fight, at least in the back of the room where I was.

Is "The L Word" a sell-out or not? Is something better than nothing? Would you really sleep with Shane? Is "Go Fish" truly an embarrassment? These questions cut to the quick, roused tempers as only television can. It comes right into your home, establishes an intimacy as you watch those characters you identify with, or just as intimately hate.

The surprise for me was such an avowed adoration for "Go Fish." It was filmed in the first years of the Avengers, and came out in '94 at our height. And like the Avengers it stemmed from a desire for lesbian visibility. After working with Queer Nation and ACT-UP on issues all about men, Rose and Guinevere Turner were feeling the need to do a project by, for, and about dykes.

When Rose went online recently to get a sense of the film, she said the overwhelming response was pure embarrassment. She said she herself was embarrassed by some of the filmmaking -- it was her first attempt, after all. But the embarrassment in lesbian viewers was about how they looked on film. "The characters are too real, too ugly, too butch."

Lesbians nowadays, Rose said, much prefer to be represented by "The L Word," even if it gets criticized, too, this time for being too slick, the girls too femme, too pretty. Still, she got letters from young girls saying it saved their lives. She went to a season opening once and saw a line of Shane wanabees curving around the block. The show, she said, made them feel pretty and desirable.

Which is where the muttering started. "Not me. I much prefer "Go Fish." That's what represents me. Don't they ever go to work?" They would rather be invisible than have an image they didn't like.

It's a TV show for chrissake, I wanted to scream. I suppose they also thought Hattie McDaniel should have passed up the Mammy role in 1940 leaving Halle Berry to be born fully formed from the head of Zeus. Martin Luther King should have skipped the lunch counter demonstrations in 1960 and demanded the White House. In 2000, Vermont queers should've turned down civil unions and held out for marriage.

I'm glad Rose wasn't apologetic about it. The lesbian writers and producers knew going in they'd have to make compromises if they wanted to get the first lesbian TV show on the air. To make money they had to be provocative. "Sex was a mandate." They fought certain battles with the producers, but "When a lesbian project goes through a male filter you get The L Word," Rose said matter-of-factly.

I should confess I've barely watched the show. What I do know is that we have to be out there. In the street, in politics, and in the shared imaginations of our cultures. We need movies, books, TV shows, soap operas, melodramas, tennis games. We need to be everywhere. Not as special cases, or in disproportionate numbers, but as ourselves.

Right now, we could disappear, slaughtered all at once, and the joke is nobody would notice we'd gone.

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