Where Are the Trans Women on “The L Word” Reboot?
When I came out almost a decade ago, watching The L Word was almost a rite of passage every baby gay had to endure. Once we’d learned about the Chart (the physical and then digital space where characters tracked who’d slept with whom), absorbed the bad poetry (there was lots of it), and basked in Shane McCutcheon’s (Katherine Moennig)s flawless swagger we’d finally be in on this special lesbian secret. But as I watched, I didn’t feel like I was in on any secret. There weren’t any lesbians who looked like me or reflected my own experience because there weren’t any trans lesbians.
When I heard that Showtime was rebooting the legendary show—which ran for six seasons from 2004 to 2009—with The L Word: Generation Q, I was excited about the prospect of a version of the show that could offer a more accurate representation of the LGBTQ community, one filled with lesbians of color and butches and disabled lesbians and nonbinary people—and hopefully, trans lesbians. Whether it wants to or not, queer media influences lesbian and queer culture with messages about who gets to be included, loved, and desired in lesbian and queer spaces, and The L World is one of the most visible examples of queer media. If the reboot (which is set 10 years after the original and brings back a few pivotal characters) repeats the original show’s erasure of trans lesbians, it could make things even harder for those of us trying to fight dangerous TERF ideology. And so far, things aren’t looking good.
The original L Word offered minimal trans representation, and when the show did attempt to tell trans stories it often failed. There was Max (Daniela Sea), a trans man whose existence condensed every stereotype and misconception about trans people into one storyline while also allowing surrounding characters to indulge transphobic tropes. When Max became pregnant in the show’s final season, for instance, his friends triggered his dysphoria by calling him a “mom” and trying to pressure him into breastfeeding.
For trans women it was even worse. We got nothing—unless you count Lisa, the Male Lesbian, who dated bisexual Alice (Leisha Hailey), was mostly treated as a joke, and lasted no longer than a few episodes in the show’s first season. And while the original L Word aired before the so-called trans tipping point in media, in 2004 there were plenty of trans lesbians, both in Los Angeles and beyond. The show’s exclusion of trans lesbians meant that trans lesbians and queer trans women like me didn’t get to see our experiences reflected and respected on a show that was arguably the standard-bearer of onscreen lesbian representation.
Ilene Chaiken, who created The L Word and is the executive producer of the reboot, has made clear that the intention of Generation Q is to show a more diverse queer community, raising my hopes that trans women might be included this time around. The show has announced the casting of two trans men in large roles, as well as transmasculine actor Leo Sheng, among the new faces alongside a returning cast that includes Jennifer Beals (as Bette Porter), Katherine Moennig (as Shane McCutcheon) and Leisha Hailey (as Alice Pieszecki). Surely they would also announce some trans women as core cast members too? Not exactly.
Earlier this month, news broke that 15-year-old Sophie Giannamore (Transparent, The Good Doctor) would join Generation Q’s cast as Jordi, a character that Autostraddle’s Riese guessed will play the friend of Bette and Tina’s now-teenaged daughter, Angelica (Jordan Hull). Giannamore is a wonderful actor, and I can’t wait to see what she brings to this role—but she’s not slated to be a part of the main cast, and it’s not clear yet if she’s going to be playing a trans character. Jamie Clayton (Sense8) was also announced recently as Tess, a recurring character who is slated to appear in a few episodes. Still, at this point, there are no trans women in the core cast, and no trans women who will be in all or most of the episodes; with such a minimal amount of trans women on the reboot, the show runs the risk of simply tokenizing Clayton and Giannamore.
There are two trans women on this show, or more accurately one trans woman and one trans girl, and both of them are white. I’m worried that they’ll both have most of their plots revolve around them being trans. I’m worried that Giannamore will have to represent trans women to a huge audience when she’s just a 15-year-old girl. I’m worried Clayton will become “The Face” for trans lesbians on this show, and we that won’t get a chance to see racially diverse trans stories and characters. When there are so few of us onscreen, each one has a lot more to carry.
Furthermore, The L Word is known for its romance, and even more for its sex scenes. For a decade and a half, queer women have been seeking out their Shanes, their Alices, their Papis. This show taught us that skinny, androgynous tops were sexy, that bisexuals were slutty (eyeroll), and that Latina lesbians were spicy and passionate (eyeroll in Spanish). Having one of the show’s two trans woman be a 15-year-old girl can’t help but seem like a way to desexualize trans women in queer communities. A lot of real life-queer women and lesbians have to figure out what kind of women they’re into and what kind of role the women in their communities may play based on shows like The L Word. Casting a child as one of two trans characters could effectively rob trans women of the experiences that most offer characters power and importance in the culture of The L Word. This is especially true for trans women of color.
What makes this especially egregious is that more shows are doing trans lesbian representation justice than ever before, so we’ve raised our standards and our expectations of trans characters we see onscreen. Netflix’s Sense8, which ran from 2015 to 2018, featured a wonderful coupling of a trans woman and a Black cis lesbian. HBO’s Euphoria, which debuted earlier in 2019, features a young trans woman in a romance with another woman. The Emmy-nominated 2016 webseries Her Story featured a romance between a trans lesbian and a cis lesbian as its main plot. These shows have been able to show nuanced, entertaining, and beautifully written and perfromed trans lesbian love stories—and if two of them could do it in 2016, surely The L Word can have multiple trans lesbians in 2019. If The L Word wants to depict modern queer women, they need to include trans women of color. Black trans women are the most vulnerable group among queer women and we need to uplift them. The L Word should be doing that.
Right now the lesbian community is at a crossroads. Despite an increasing cultural understanding of sexuality and gender as fluid and nebulous, a small but loud group of lesbians seem determined to do whatever they can to vilify trans lesbians and deny the legitimate humanity of transgender women in general. If it’s going to be truly relevant to contemporary queer lives, The L Word can’t ignore TERFs, and it definitely can’t give them the ammunition the original show did with its trans stereotyping. But without more characters who center trans lesbian existence, it will be all too easy for those who police gender to point to the show as validation. They can say, “Look, they don’t have any trans lesbians, why should we?” They’ll be able to point to the cast and say, “They’re fine with no trans women being in lesbian spaces.” They’ll crow that, “No one on The L Word has ever slept with a trans woman.”
When you see a large group of lesbians and none of them are trans women, that sends a signal that trans women aren’t welcome there. When you see a large group of lesbians and the only trans woman they hang out with is thin, white and passes, that sends a signal that most of us still aren’t welcome. For queer trans women like me, and for our cis and AFAB friends and allies, the group of queer women represented by The L Word: Generation Q cast is a group we’d stay away from. It’s not good enough to have one trans woman on the periphery of your social circles. For a show that takes place in LA, it’s shocking that there are no trans women of color. Go to the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center or LA Pride and you’ll see how many trans women of color there are here. You have to actively try to avoid us, and it feels like that’s what The L Word is doing.
The L Word itself is a lot of different things, but most importantly, it’s Lesbian, and if this show continues to push aside an entire population of lesbians, is it really representing us? Including one trans girl in your cast isn’t enough. Including one white trans woman isn’t enough either. We can’t act like 2016 representation is still good enough. The L Word is a show that should push boundaries and lead culture, but as long as it doesn’t include trans lesbians, it’s going to get left behind.