The L Word – “Lesbians Move into the Spotlight”

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, the depiction of gay men in the U.S. media increased steadily starting in the 1950s with the “Perverts on the Potomac” newspaper articles (Streitmatter, 146). Even though the early depiction of gay men was very negative and certainly helped to foster negative stereotypes in society, gay visibility increased tremendously in the decades to come. In particular, in the past 15 years or so, the media shifted to a much more positive depiction of gay men. Certainly, this change didn’t come out of nowhere and was influenced by a variety of different factors, a very prominent one was certainly the profit that could be made with gay or gay-friendly content. As pointed out by Streitmatter, the media started to realize that homosexuals men have in general a higher-than-average expendable incomce. Hence, by trying to target the gay audience specifically with the content of their programs, the opportunity for more profit was seen. Nevertheless, at the same time, lesbians didn’t receive as much media attention. According to Streitmatter, it is not easy to determine why that was the case, as a variety of complex factors come into play here. “One powerful concept that’s played a role in this phenomenon is stereotyping” (Streitmatter, 147). According to Streitmatter, a lot of the common stereotypes in society depicted homosexual women as “manly”, “unattrative” and “angry women”, this might be one of the explanations for the gap in  the media’s attention between gays and lesbians.  “Gay men are more likely to be embraced by the media, by contrast, because they’re often perceived as charming, witty, and fun-loving guys who know how to have a good time – and make sure the people around them do as well” (Streitmatter, 147).


A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the TV sitcom “Ellen” which feautured the first lesbian lead character, after Ellen DeGeneres came out on screen and off. Unfortunately, the show was canceled shortly after because there was not big enough of an audience. In addition, leabian characters appeared in shows such as “Queer as Folk”, but certainly they didn’t play lead roles and “were overshadowed by all the boys” (Streitmatter, 149). Nevertheless, “gay women finally found a place in the spotlight in January 2004 when Showtime, after airing ‘Queer as Folk’ for four seasons, introduced ‘The L Word'” (Streitmatter, 148).  This show let us take part in the life of a group of lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders in Los Angeles, California, more specifically in the trendy neighborhood of West Hollywood. The show was very succesful right from the beginning, especially among homosexual women.  A total of 6 seasons were produced. No doubt, the show presented homosexual women in a completely different light than most of the commonly held stereotypes  did, which I mentioned above. “The two most prominent statements that ‘The L Word’  communicates are that lesbians can be stunningly beautiful and that they also can be obsessively sexual” (Streitmatter, 149). Similar to shows centered on gay men, ‘The L Word’ also emphasized that the lesbian community is racially diverse, inlcudes women from all walks of life and that not all lesbians fit into the negative stereotypes embedded in society. Nevertheless, the show also showed homosexual women in a negative light. For instance, one of the shows messages is “that lesbians have a tough time being sexually faithful” and are very promiscious(Streitmatter, 156). No doubt, the show certainly sent some very significant messages to the U.S. television audience, not only because it was the first popular show on U.S. televison that focused solely on the lifes of homosexual women.  

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many critics, the quality of  the show was not comparable to shows like “Queer as Folk” or “Will & Grace”. They consider the plot to be too shallow and too dramatic, almost like an early melodrama film (Streitmatte, 156- 158). In addition, they critique the fact that the show only seems to portray a certain type of homosexual women. The show focuses on the life of a group of women in West Hollywood who live a very glamorous life which certainly doesn’t represent the lifestyle of most homosexual women. Nevertheless, in my eyes, as being one of the first shows on U.S. television focusing solely on the life homosexual women, the show certainly had a certain social reponsibility. In particular for the heterosexual audience, the show certainly played an important role in forming their attitudes towards and ideas of the “lesbian lifestyle”.


About MaxMann

I am a Mass Media student at California State University San Marcos and this blog is part of an idependent study research project.
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