Fear of a Pale 'Planet': Whiteness on The L Word

Curator's Note

Easily, the eponymous “l word” is “liberalism.”  Throughout The L Word’s six seasons, all the kooky plot twists and discarded plotlines, the radically uneven, at times incoherent character development and habitual character abandonment, two linked gestures that consistently operate in shaping the show’s narrative arc.  These gestures—strategies of depoliticization and the elision of “community” by consumerism—point to an entrenched normativity at the heart of the show’s underlying assumptions about lesbian identity and help to underscore the liberal terms of inclusion and visibility that constitute the only consistent vision of the political here.  Over the course of the series, consumerism comes to displace (while seeming to function as) queer community formation, as “lesbian culture” becomes indissoluble from the culture industry.  This displacement is echoed in the shift from the “The Planet” to “The Chart” as the diegetic locus of community and the privileged metaphor for imagining queer world-making on and through The L World.  Significantly, as The Chart emerges as a narrative and allegorical device, The Planet itself becomes aligned with the only central character (Kit) nowhere to be found in the former’s erotic constellations.  Of course, Kit’s straightness explains her exclusion.  However, with regard to how the show variously signifies—and manages—lesbian identity, Kit’s racialization is not incidental to this realignment of The Planet.

Plotlines frequently dramatize an issue of topical interest and presumed significance for the broader queer audience The L Word wants to address—such as conflicting attitudes toward transmen within lesbian communities—and then resolve the narrative in a way that depoliticizes it, stressing individualizing, privatized aspects of a given issue.  Characterizing this strategy, the video I've posted brings together two related scenes from the first episode, which deal with Tina's reaction to Bette's seemingly unilateral choice of an African American sperm donor.  In pairing these scenes, we see how the couple's fight, an exchange which gestures toward the political stakes of whether, as an interracial couple, they have a white or biracial baby, is countermanded by the ensuing conversation between Bette and her sister Kit, who counsels her to let go of her hurt over Tina’s racist statements, in the name of a “Love” that trumps political “realities”; moreover, Kit delegitimizes Bette's position by insinuating that her half-sister might have exploited her ability to pass as white in order to achieve professional success and material comfort.

Whiteness is not merely normative for lesbian identity on The L Word but constitutive for the show’s political address.  Critics who have explored this point previously tend to focus on the representation and marginalization of lesbians of color on the show.  I want to claim that the representation of Kit Porter has a more central role in mediating the racialization of lesbian identity here.  Kit is consistently placed beyond the gender norms this privileges.  Instrumental in this respect are her various romantic relationships, as well her ultimate role, in the show’s egregious final season, as a “mammy” to her lesbian “family”.  Kit’s crucial role in the dissimulation of the ideological displacements I refer to comes most directly into view in this video of counterposed scenes.  Here she is simultaneously positioned as a figure of racial authenticity and made to ventriloquize racial transcendence.



I love how succinctly you pegged the show's structuring gestures! It's telling that lesbian as a consumer/marketing category is such a consistent theme in our posts this week.


It would be interesting to talk more about how the management of race on the show is more pervasive than the handful of marginal lesbian-of-color characters (though Tasha, Carmen, Papi et al are certainly problematic). I agree with you about Kit's status, but the operation of Bette's biraciality seems equally crucial (Bette/Beals is arguably THE lead on the show). There's some truth to Kit's diagnosis that Bette's Blackness is held in reserve to be trotted out when the character/show requires a racial gesture, and otherwise comfortably assimilated into frictionless multiculturalism. Remember when Bette gets called out by the Black activist at the parenting group? I thought that was really interesting. As you point out, though, I think every indication of the political on this show could be followed through privatizing strategies to its ultimately depoliticing resolution.


The shift from Planet to Chart that you highlight is fascinating too. I wonder what the implications are of virtualizing the conception of community. Although the Planet is a business (a fact that's often easy to overlook in the show's portrayal), I imagine that relationships rendered as information are more adaptable to a capitalist apparatus of identity.




I was glad Julie brought up the exchange in the parenting group because I also remember finding that really intriguing. But looking back over it now I find that even this scene, which would seem to force a self-reflective moment for Bette (and for the show's racial politics in general), further affirms Eden's arguments about the show's depoliticization methods. Bette's racial ambiguity is “called out” by Yolanda, the Black activist, but Yolanda's characterization immediately detracts attention from the issues she raises. Aggressive and abrupt in her confrontation, she easily embodies the stereotype of the angry black woman, allowing Bette, and likely many viewers, to dismiss the validity of her criticism. Bette's response that, “You know nothing about me. You don't know how I grew up, you don't know how I live my life...” privatizes the issue, further destabilizing Yolanda's accusations. Her reply may be aimed to table the discussion for the viewers as well; since we know little about Bette's past, the implication is that we are no more entitled than Yolanda to judge her for passing as white. 


I am also struck by a kind of reverse symmetry between the first scene (Bette and Kit) that Eden posted and the later scene (Bette and Yolanda) that Julie brings up. In the first, a Black woman uses Bette's passing to “delegitimize” Bette's position, while in the second, a Black woman is used to legitimize Bette's position, and by extension, her passing. Not only are both women heavily stereotyped, they are also the only two Black women given a role on the show up to this point. 





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