Tuesday, March 10, 2009

End of an Era

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I haven't seen this much vitriol on the internet since I last visited Ann Coulter's website! I am talking about fan reactions to last night's L Word finale. It reminds me of Louis CK's assertion that "Everything's amazing, nobody's happy," as he lambasts a spoiled generation for taking today's technological innovations for granted and complaining about petty inconveniences.

I can understand why L Word viewers are not happy about the vague ending to the 'Who Killed Jenny Shecter" saga. But the fact that for the past six years there has been a successful show on television about fashionably hip lesbians is historic. A quarter century ago (YIKES!) when I was attending high school there were no lesbian portrayals on television. It wasn't until 1991 that the first onscreen kiss between two women was televised. I am one of the first people to complain about the dearth of lesbian storylines on network TV in the U.S. compared to Europe, but even I can appreciate how much advancement there has been in subsequent years. For instance, we have an openly gay daytime talk show host at the top of the ratings, at least two out lesbian anchors on cable news, and scores of lesbians on reality TV shows.

One of the things I appreciated about the L Word was the extent to which it crossed over into the mainstream, so that a conversation with a heterosexual woman might easily turn into a discussion of Shane's antics. A straight couple delighted in hearing me take a barhopping logistics call from one of my lesbian friends one Saturday evening, exclaiming "This is so L Word!" Far from being a stigma it was now hip to be lesbian--"L Word" became the new adjective for stylish clothes and trendy hair. Goodbye mullet! Farewell granola! This was a blessing to those of us who thought we might be alone forever because we don't play to type.

My favorite actress on the L Word was Jennifer Beals. Even though after seeing Flashdance and 1985's Bride I thought she couldn't act her way out of a paper bag, she sizzled as the glamorous, artsy, albeit uptight Bette. I was touched during the finale pre-show when Beals' eyes welled up as she recounted receiving a note, delivered via her husband, from a fan describing how meaningful the series was to her coming out. Beals' presence lent gravitas to the lineup based on her role in popularizing torn work-out clothing in the 80's. It is astounding to think just 20 years later she was an ambassador for the millennial iteration of lesbian chic.

A film that was released the same year as Flashdance provided my first sighting of a lesbian character--and I saw it with my parents. Silkwood was based on the true story of a whistleblower at a nuclear plant who dies under mysterious circumstances. Karen Silkwood was played by Meryl Streep and her roomate Dolly, an attractive blue-collar lesbian, was played by Cher. Despite being in middle America, Karen was totally cool about Dolly's orientation, and even gives her a shoulder to cry on without being uncomfortable. The fact that I remember this film so many years later attests to the influence and significance of lesbian onscreen visibility to young minds. Hopefully the advances of the last 25 years have made the coming out process less isolating for today's youth. I just hope they don't take it for granted!

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