Showtime's 'The Real L Word' puts a gloss on lipstick lesbians in Los Angeles

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010

"The Real L Word," a new reality series premiering Sunday night on Showtime, hatches from a horrifying alien egg laid by the network's defunct scripted series "The L Word," which in six seasons journeyed from lipstick-lesbian plausibility into lipstick-lesbian melodrama.

You may ask: What the heck is a "lipstick" lesbian? Well, what do you think it is -- it's a lesbian who doesn't want to look like a lesbian. Then you ask: Well, what's a lesbian supposed to look like?

Regrettably, "The Real L Word" is not your show, then, because it clings to stereotypes of its own invention and self-regard, relying on codespeak about "pumps" vs. "pants," and "femmes" and "futches" and the like. It's a bunch of adult women who never got to act like 12-year-olds when they were 12, so they're going to do it now.

It's odd how mainstream America (and lesbian America) cannot resist the notion of the Sapphic glamazon and the idea that a "pretty" lesbian is the gold standard. "The Real L Word" has been conjured up as a way of insisting that the imaginary world of the original series is, in fact, true.

Or, at least, the producers discovered six lipstick lesbians in Los Angeles who are willing to be followed around with a camera. (Well, four, plus one named Mikey, who looks like Jon Bon Jovi's kid brother, and a dreadlocked/tattooed lesbian named Whitney, who seems to have left her brain at a Burning Man festival several years back.)

The cameras accompany them even into the bedroom, where microphones and cameras pick up their earth-shattering ecstasies. Other than the R rating, "The Real L World" adheres to the narrative protocols of any show with "real" in the title. ("L.A." is also an operative L-word here: This is another show that fails to solve the mystery of how so many people with so little to do can afford the full-on L.A. lifestyle.)

We follow the lesbians through their boring days and nights, guided only by the fact that they are each lesbians, who cannot stop talking about the lesbianness of being lesbian. "The thing about lesbians," one of the women will say, prefacing a thought; "This is what lesbians do," another declares. "Lesbians are all . . . " and "Lesbians always . . . "

But don't you dare stereotype them. "Do you ever ask a straight person what 'kind' of straight person they are?" asks one of the women, Jill, who has only recently become comfortable with applying the L word to her incredibly unique (she thinks) sense of "sexual fluidity," even as she plans her wedding day with Nikki. (I'm sure "soccer moms" and "frat boys" and all sorts of straight people would tell Jill that there are infinite labels tossed around on the hetero side, too.)

Dreadlock Whitney, meanwhile, has more girlfriends than she can count. She drops one off at the LAX departures terminal, only to circle around and pick up the next at baggage claim -- a coinkydink I'm sure the producers had nothing to do with. Then there is Rose, a hard-drinking Latina loudmouth who lives to mistreat her live-in girlfriend. Viewers are given all the insidious little cues (class, decor, petty spats) to be tempted to despise who we're seeing on-screen, and not enough of each woman's history -- except to learn that a number of them aren't on good speaking terms with their mothers. (Gee, no kidding.)

In 2010, everyone should know better than to look to reality television for social validation, but "The Real L Word" is particularly heartbreaking in this regard. The similarly unctuous reality show "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," for example, nastily chips away at a lifetime of hetero-normative TV fantasies such as "Ozzie and Harriet" and "The Brady Bunch." Gays and lesbians never got to see that sort of happy home on television, at least not about themselves. But here they leap ahead to fully participate in the worst kind of TV there is.

It reminds me of a particularly pugnacious argument for same-sex marriage rights that comes from the likes of Chris Rock, Eminem and other smart alecks, using a variation on the ancient "Take my wife -- please": Go ahead, let gay people get married -- that way they can be as miserable as the rest of us! (Har-har.)

"The Real L Word" seems to be working from that premise: Lesbians have just as much right to be miserably narcissistic on miserably stupid reality shows. Equal misery for all!

The Real L Word

(one hour) debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.

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