Content Warning: Mentions of/implied rape, gender dysphoria, and implied transphobia.
Of all the characters who get significantly worse on a second viewing, Tina Kinnard from The L Word is maybe the least talked about outside of the show’s general audience. It makes sense: The L Word was aimed at a specific demographic and really only those within the demographic spend any huge amount of time poring over episodes and discussing just how terrible the show was. But there’s a lot to talk about in regards to what the show did wrong. In fact, you could literally write ten entire essays about all the particularly shitty missteps the show took during its six-season run. As far as representation goes, it definitely helped shape and grow the landscape of queer television. But as far as actual story, characters, etc.? Definitely a product of its time. Even most die-hard fans agree that the show was actually pretty terrible, especially compared to today’s queer television landscape. Arguably, the largest gripes everyone has with the show have to do with its soap opera portrayal of queer life. It’s not a good show. But amazing for a casual hate-watch if you don’t take anything seriously. A great way to burn some time if you want to binge something and you’re fully prepared to get pissed off at the characters.
Speaking of characters, does anyone remember Lisa? Lisa, a character from Season 1 who was Alice’s love interest for a while when she got sick of dating lesbians? Except Lisa turned out to be—in Alice’s words—just as bad as a lesbian. But while Lisa’s feminine behavior wasn’t really the focal point of Alice’s dislike for him, Lisa was definitely meant to be a “joke” character. We weren’t intended to take him seriously because he was just so “weird” and “bizarre”, what with his whole “male lesbian” thing. Right? Lisa’s gender identity is never discussed because the show wasn’t the least bit interested in exploring a “fringe” gender identity. And as proven with Max, the show was actually kind of dog-shit at it anyway. Lisa seems to be genderqueer in some way or another and he seems to also be suffering from some measure of gender dysphoria, as evidenced from that entire scene with Alice on the boat. And in case anyone wants to dredge up that horrible memory, here’s a rundown of that scene: Alice wants to have sex with Lisa. Lisa says he “has something” and pulls out a plastic phallus (probably a strap-on). Alice gets annoyed, pointing out that Lisa already has a penis. Lisa becomes upset and insists that they use the strap-on because he’s not comfortable using his penis. Alice ignores his protest and gets mad at him, causing a very uncomfortable scene in which she forces Lisa to have sex in a way he’s clearly uncomfortable with. Later when Lisa storms out of the room, Alice rolls her eyes at him and says that he “enjoyed himself”. Lisa is clearly mad at her and Alice doesn’t seem to understand what she did wrong. In a bubble, this isn’t necessarily a bad scene. Uncomfortable to watch and horrific when you think about it, but not necessarily bad. The problem is that Alice is clearly supposed to be in the right. Because Lisa isn’t a character we are meant to take seriously, so his behavior is framed as if he’s being unreasonable. Lisa is supposed to be a punchline, something for Alice to be exasperated about as she flails around in pursuit of a worthwhile relationship. That is Alice’s entire character, isn’t it? Flailing around for a worthwhile relationship while burning through a series of strange and eccentric people within the queer world. That’s the entire crux of her character. Even when the show pairs her with someone level-headed for once—like Tasha or Dana—Alice ends up finding some way to make her life more exciting. Lisa is one of the first examples of this: he exists for the audience to gawk and/or laugh at and then he’s quickly discarded after the plot is finished making fun of him. He’s just another weird person for Alice to date. The main problem with this is that—regardless of how the show frames him—Lisa is clearly the one we should sympathize with. He’s as much a character as anyone else in the show, even though he’s never a main character. And everything that happens to him is more tragic than funny. There are numerous problems with how Lisa is portrayed and how the show clearly wants us to see him.
Lisa’s experience is pretty much a light precursor to what happens with Max later, although Lisa’s entire storyline is more tragic because it’s never resolved or really addressed again. And unlike Max, Lisa literally never does anything wrong. Yet the writers clearly want us to think Lisa is “doing something wrong” simply by inconveniencing Alice with his existence. Lisa wants to live and exist in a way that Alice clearly doesn’t approve of and we—the audience—are meant to side with Alice. Or at the very least, we’re meant to have sympathy for Alice because of how frustrated she is. But how can we have sympathy for someone who ignores someone’s bodily autonomy, ignores consent, and feels she’s entitled to someone’s body just because it’s what she wants? Alice never had to force Lisa if she didn’t want to. She could have respected his boundaries, respected the fact that he didn’t want her to touch his genitals. But getting her way was more important than any of those things and we—the audience—are meant to think this is funny. This connects to a broader issue about how consent is often handled in fiction, especially consent that has to do with men. Pop Culture Detective actually has an excellent two-part series addressing this. But ignoring that for a moment because it’s a whole other topic, Lisa’s actual gender identity is casually danced around within the storyline. Is he genderqueer? Is he trans? Or is he just gender non-conforming? It’s seemingly left ambiguous on purpose, although Lisa’s obvious dysphoria about his own body, his insistence on being called a “lesbian”, etc. seems to suggest that it’s a little more than just “non-conforming”. And the show never even attempts to address this, using Lisa’s entire existence as the punchline to a joke that was never funny.
It’s a huge shame. Lisa’s entire storyline could have been an interesting way of introducing the whole concept of genderqueer to an audience who’d probably never heard of it before. This show did a lot for proving that queer-focused television is profitable—although at what cost?–and it helped introduce the general concept of queer lives and queer relationships to an audience in a time when queer-focused entertainment was just barely a thing. But it also committed several grave sins when it comes to representation. The show was never obligated to represent the entire queer community. But it seemed like the writers weren’t sure how to address anything that wasn’t heterosexual or lesbian-focused. They tried their best, but instead of decent representation there were characters like Lisa and Max. Max wasn’t the worst representation anyone could have asked for—especially at that point in time—but there are some glaring wrongs with his character that could have easily been prevented. At its core, the problem with the show was that it tried so hard to start drama at every turn. Surprise pregnancies, cheating, shameful secrets, etc. No character was free from pointless drama for the sake of it. No one was allowed to have a perfectly happy relationship without something going horribly wrong. Everyone—other than Dana and later Tasha—were completely toxic to one another. Not to mention the show swung wildly between wanting to be taken seriously and being ridiculously cheesy. That in itself isn’t bad, but the tonal shift often came out of nowhere.
It’s kind of doubly unfortunate, because The L Word had so many decent characters who would have worked well outside of the show (Jodi, Helena, etc.). Characters who could have carried a more interesting and nuanced portrayal of queer life all on their own. In other words, this show had oodles of spin-off material. That’s one of the largest problems with the show that never really gets talked about: it had a ton of good one-off and side characters who never got to spread their wings. If I had the choice, I would have watched an entire spin-off about Jodi, Papi, or even just Alan Cummings’ character. There was so much meat to this show, so many plot lines and characters. It’s difficult to hate this show because there was so much in it and not all of it was shitty. For example, Jenny’s whole character arc—upon review—is actually a very interesting look at mental health, self-hatred, toxic relationships, compulsive heterosexuality, and the effects of trauma. Jenny is overall a very tragic character worthy of study. But as the show goes on, the writers seemingly become less and less interested in portraying Jenny as anything other than a sad and broken shell of a woman whose actions trend towards malicious. Jenny becomes more and more unlikable, leading to the writers deciding to kill her off in the last season. While a hopeful or positive resolution to Jenny’s character arc was becoming less possible with every passing episode, it honestly feels like the writers just enjoyed making Jenny suffer and making everyone around her suffer for no good reason. And there’s no awareness to it, because we’re clearly supposed to feel sorry for her sometimes—like when her movie gets stolen by Adele—and yet it’s nearly impossible because Jenny has shown herself to be incapable of empathy. At the very least, Jenny is fun to watch. Her terrible behavior is actually really entertaining because she’s so over the top. That’s more than can be said for most of the characters. Jenny is so blatantly a soap opera character that it’s almost satire.