‘The L Word’ Gets Woke

After a 10-year hiatus, The L Word returns to reflect a changed world.

The cast of The L Word: Generation Q is more young and diverse than that of the original series, The L Word.
The cast of The L Word: Generation Q is more young and diverse than that of the original series, The L Word.

In 2009, when Showtime’s groundbreaking series The L Word concluded six seasons of storytelling about a group of lesbians living in West Hollywood, the U.S. Supreme Court case affirming same-sex marriage had yet to be decided. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s 2015 opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges upheld gay marriage not only by arguing equal protection issues but also by citing the impact of changing culture and public opinion. The years preceding this decision were marked with seesaw legal decisions at the ballot box and in the courts, as same-sex couples began to lead more open and public lives. American culture reflected this trend; popular sitcoms like Will and Grace and Ellen and TV dramas like The L Word and Queer As Folk were both indicators and influencers of this shifting cultural climate.

Showtime’s sequel to the original series, The L Word: Generation Q (the Q is for “queer”), which premiered in December, airs in a radically reshaped civic and cultural environment, and not only because same-sex marriage is now a constitutional right and violence against LGBTQ citizens is a federal hate crime.

Seen through today’s woke social media lens, the original series achieved milestones: lesbian storytelling that was sustained for 70 episodes; storytelling that integrated universal themes of life and death, marriage and divorce, parental relationships and raising children; and storytelling that catalyzed national conversations about identity. TV critics and books like Reading The L Word analyzed the show’s takes on femininity, masculinity, biracial visibility, hot sex, no sex, glamour, monogamy, racial justice, identity justice, how to get pregnant, transitioning gender, and home births. If, in the words of Justice Kennedy, the Constitution protects the right of all persons to “enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning,” The L Word taught a master class.

Showrunner Marja Lewis-Ryan (left) on set. Lewis-Ryan has hired two Latina writers for the show.
Showrunner Marja Lewis-Ryan (left) on set. Lewis-Ryan has hired two Latina writers for the show.

It also was marked by cringe-inducing stereotypes: characters Carmen and Papi depicted Latinas using the Madonna-whore trope and the tough-but-lovable-working-class-chola-spitfire-with-tattoos-to-prove-it trope, respectively. Carmen’s family was large and loud, and her mom made enough food to feed all of East L.A. Meanwhile, Papi was the most promiscuous lesbian in the L Word universe. To make matters worse, these characters were played by non-Latinas.

Since the conclusion of the original series, new conversations about cultural appropriation and Latino representation have rocked our civic culture. Fiery social media advocacy has resulted in consumer backlash against Hollywood studios and retail brands, harsh confrontations between faculty and students on campuses, and a new definition of privilege. This is insistent discourse.

But if The L Word ’s celebration of lesbian culture and biracial identity was thoughtful and informed by the experiences of show creator Ilene Chaiken and its lead actors, its failure to apply the same respect to Latinx culture is not surprising. The lack of Latino representation in Hollywood and opportunities for Mexican American professionals is nothing new. As Chris Rock said: “You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”

Showrunner Marja Lewis-Ryan’s writers’ room and casting for Generation Q address the original series’ all-purpose typecasting. Her goal is to reflect the communities where the show is now set—the Eastside of L.A. Lewis-Ryan, who is 34, grew up in Brooklyn. She’s logged time tutoring Latinx students and says she’s learned as much from them as they have from her, especially on the issue of representation. Moreover, she’s hired two Latina writers to prove it: Nancy Mejia and Tatiana Suarez-Pico. The series picks up 10 years after the original left off. The new cast is, as the title implies, young and diverse. Lewis-Ryan is also the writer-director of 6 Balloons, a 2018 film acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of a suburban family dealing with drug addiction. She hopes to continue in this vein and “portray the world as it is,” she says. “I want to tell the truth.”

The hope within the Obergefell decision is its acknowledgment that culture can influence the law to combat discrimination as we have known it. If Generation Q illuminates the meaning of that holding, it will be because Lewis-Ryan makes good on her vision and explores the world as we actually live it.


• Premieres Dec. 8
• Showtime


Other recent storytelling that illuminates the intersection of Latinx and LGBTQ culture

La Mission, directed by Peter Bratt (2009): Brothers Benjamin and Peter Bratt teamed up to produce, direct, and write this film about a macho ex-convict in San Francisco who can’t accept that his only son is gay.

Chavela, directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi (2017): Mexico has never before seen anything like the revolutionary gay singer Chavela Vargas and won’t again, but this documentary gets to the heart of her gut-wrenching talent, life, and loves.

Vida (premiered 2018 on Starz): TV showrunner Tanya Saracho (see “The Play’s Still the Thing,” page 38) delivers a powerful story of two estranged sisters—one gay, one straight—who reunite to save the family business after their mother dies and, in the process, discover the truth about their mother’s identity.

Marcela Davison Avilés is a prominent American essayist, independent producer, attorney, and Latino cultural dramaturge and adviser.
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