Kim Severson, Ilene Chaiken, and Jennifer Beals
After watching the series for six years with at most six or eight friends at a time, and more frequently just with my partner, first on video tapes that started fading with over-viewing and eventually on DVR and then “on demand,” as all our technology changed over those years, it was a revelation to sit in a live audience of hundreds of fans. The demographics surprised me—my unscientific assessment suggests that a third of the audience were squarely middle-aged white women; a third, women in their 20s and 30s; around a quarter women of color of various ages; and the rest illegible to me. When many of these spectators lined up at the open mike during the last segment of the evening, it also became clear they’d come from various parts of the tri-state area and even around the country to hear Chaiken and Beals speak. (I learned only later that various on-line sources, including www.afterellen.com, had revealed earlier that Beals would be Chaiken’s dialogue companion. Here's a YouTube clip--taken against the wishes of the ushers and security, no doubt, of Chaiken and Beals' entrance at the event: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkIZrJK7rpk.)
Kim Severson, a Times food writer and out lesbian, moderated the evening with casual wit, channeling a fan’s desire for dirt with a journalist’s sense of the well put, productive question. Chaiken and Beals answered graciously and seemed entirely forthcoming, especially Beals, whose obvious intelligence, fair-mindedness, and generosity lent the evening a great deal of dignity. Beals’ dedication to the larger project of the show was palpable in each of her remarks, and her overtly articulated feminist politics a real pleasure to hear. She described how much her work on the show changed her awareness of gender and sexuality issues in American (and Canadian, since the show was shot in Vancouver) culture, and the new-found confidence working on the series has brought to her own work as an actor on film sets she said are “usually monolithic, patriarchal structures.” She now feels comfortable challenging film and television directors and producers on casual (or explicit) sexism, refusing demeaning dialogue and character set ups.
Beals also related that her connection to her body was strengthened by her L Word work. She told a story about a recent film shoot for The Book of Eli, a movie she just wrapped with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, written and directed by the Hughes brothers (whom she noted with pleasure were terrific to work with because they’re biracial and were raised by a lesbian). The director of photography on the shoot explained apologetically that a shot that started at her feet and moved up her body wouldn’t “linger”; she reassured him that she’d just spent six years on The L Word, and wasn’t at all worried about how he’d film her body. Hearing her pride and pleasure in her own sexuality, and the obvious feminism through which she sees her work, was striking throughout the evening.
Apparently, the rumored spin-off starring Leisha Hailey (to be called The Farm) was put on indefinite hold, but Chaiken is pursuing plans for an L Word film. The Beals and Chaiken also have a new project they’re working on together that, they protested, is still germinating and too soon to reveal. But the pleasure they take in their own professional partnership was palpable. They told stories they’ve rehearsed many times elsewhere about how they started working together. Beals was the first person cast on the show; at the time, she was contemplating an offer to play a prostitute, and said she happily chose to play a lesbian instead.
Given the choice to play Bette or Tina, she choose Bette, and asked that Chaiken write her character as biracial, since in addition to the progressive work she knew the show would do for representations of lesbians, she said she also wanted to see her own identity on screen. Beals said she also loved Rose Troche, one of the show’s first directors, when they met. Since most of the episodes were directed by artists who, like Troche, were associated with independent film, Beals said shooting each episode was like doing a “little movie.”
Chaiken admitted that the most autobiographical characters on the show were Bette and Jenny (until, that is, Jenny “went crazy,” in Chaiken’s description). Bette connected to Chaiken’s life as a high powered professional woman trying to balance a relationship with someone slightly less socially visible, and the complications of being a woman in the arts and media. Chaiken didn’t say much about how Jenny reflected her own life, but one can surmise. She said that the two characters channeled “a lot of my issues” until they “became themselves.”
Severson asked how Chaiken secured so many terrific, high-profile female guest artists for the show. Chaiken explained that many women were taken enough with the series that they had their agents call to express their interest. Although she insists she didn’t write for any particular actors, she was pleased with the pool of people available from whom to cast. She and Beals agreed there are so few parts for women that are “interesting and different and not in the service of a man’s story,” that especially women actors into their 30s and beyond were eager to join the cast. Beals emphasized how different it was to perform a character whose life doesn’t revolve around a man.
Severson referred to the controversy that surrounded the show since its premiere, with some spectators complaining that the characters (and the actors who played them) were too beautiful, too thin, or too unrealistic. Chaiken responded that if no one were inflamed about the series, it wouldn’t have lasted for six years. She admitted that she got attacked because Jenny was Jewish, even though, Chaiken said, “I happen to be Jewish, too.” Beals seemed more distressed by some of the harsh, on-line responses to the twists and turns in Bette’s portrayal, and decided she needed to steer clear of fan site discussion boards.
Severson joked about the peculiar plot twists of the final season (referring casually to “the guy with the beard,” who killed Jenny, and the various other “what’s up with that?” moments of the season), and Beals quipped that Chaiken “went over to the dark side” for the show’s last episodes. Chaiken protested that the show reflected “life” and couldn’t always be sunny; likewise, when Severson, to the glee of much of the audience, accused her of “killing” Dana, Chaiken defended herself by saying that she thought it was a true, important depiction of lesbians with cancer.
Chaiken and Beals stressed throughout the evening that the show’s goal was to tell stories that hadn’t been told before. Beals, in particular, underlined that her work on the show always had a political quotient, while Chaiken side-stepped the politics, demurring that you can’t begin with the intent to make a political point and wind up with “good art.” I was more impressed by Beals’ attention to what it meant to American culture for a series about lesbians to persist for six good years.
She said as she was doing press, she remembered that the “personal is political,” using good old fashioned feminist language to mark the intersection of life and ideology. She said she was excited about the possibility of helping a “young girl in the middle of nowhere find herself represented,” and about “giving someone safety and the room to be authentic. Everyone needs to be heard,” she said.
Questions from the audience were sometimes sweet and moving, and sometimes astute. One middle-aged African American woman responded to Beals’ remark about the isolated young would-be lesbian, saying that even those of us who live and work in places like New York are empowered by seeing representations of ourselves on screen. The woman related how her co-workers, to whom she was already out, seemed to have a new appreciation for her life and her lesbian family, and that the show gave her an opportunity for a “second coming out” that obviously filled her with surprised pride.
A surprising number of straight women took the microphone to attest to how The L Word affected their own lives, prompting the audience to murmur with a rather affronted impatience. But Chaiken and Beals responded magnanimously, especially Beals, who took each question seriously, looked directly at the speaker, and answered precisely and carefully. Beals has the same gravitas she brought to Bette; I could feel the audience responding with a great deal of respect (and no small amount of pleasure and desire. She was clearly the icon of the moment).
Chaiken and Beals struck a mutually wistful tone through much of the evening, considering the show’s six year life-span and its recent end. Beals said she’s in frequent touch with Kate Moennig, who played Shane; she texted her recently to ask what she wouldn’t give for one more scene at the Planet, chatting over a cup of coffee. The nostalgia and longing was sweet, and reminded me that those scenes in the restaurant always seemed among the most authentic, full of real connections among the actors and the characters. Beals recalled how much she learned from doing the show. “My eyes were also opened,” she said. “I learned how connected we all are. All women are connected. Homophobia is a form of misogyny.”
Chaiken said she thought The L Word happened at a moment of “receptivity for gay characters on tv,” when “the culture was ready.” Now, she believes that if she were to pitch the series, producers would tell her that lesbians have “been done.” The pair said they thought they’d be “passing a baton,” but instead, they said, “there’s nothing” on television that will continue to till the ground The L Word broke.
At the end of the evening, Beals made a point of thanking the fans for their dedicated support of the show. She said she’s realized, by attending various fundraisers, that there’s a market for the photographs she took on set during the series (Beals has a solid reputation as a photographer, as well as an actor). She’s thinking of making an L Word photo book, for which she’d give the royalties to various charities.
I have to say I was proud to be among those fans that night, proud of Chaiken and Beals and Severson and how smart they all were, how feminist, how progressive, how positive and articulate about the need for the kind of work The L Word accomplished in the cultural imagination. A couple days later, I watched a clip online of Laurel Holloman accepting an award for “sexiest scene on television” at the Bravo A-List Awards show. She paraded her lovely self up to the mike, looking sexy and gorgeous, took hold of the vaguely phallic globe that served as the trophy, and joked, “This looks a prop from my show.” She went on to remark that she was accepting the award for a scene in which she “sat on Jennifer’s face.” She applauded how remarkable it is (“How cool is that?”) that such a scene could be televised, let alone awarded, and said, “I don’t know what’s with this Prop 8 business,” before she left the stage.
Maybe it’s politics lite, but it’s politics, just the same. The L Word girls are out there getting it said, getting it done, chipping away at those “patriarchal structures” and homophobia and misogyny, not just in the film and television industries, but in many of our lives.
How cool is that?
The Feminist Spectator