Reality TV is a tricky medium. It claims to be a realistic portrayal of the people (“characters”) and themes (“storylines”) it pieces together in each episode, but viewers are often left wondering how much of it was all for the cameras. So when a show is supposed to be a “real” portrait of a subset of under-represented people, it can be a little dangerous. And I’m not talking about any Housewives, Kardashians or aspiring pop stars.
Last summer, Showtime premiered the first season of “The Real L Word.” Reviews and ratings were poor, but the president of the network and producers of the show believed they identified a diamond in the rough in one of its “real” lesbians named Whitney. The second season, which premiered last Sunday night, is a radically different show in that Whitney is the only returning cast member, and the rest of the new ones all appear to be just as willing as she is to get naked and intimate on screen.
Most reality shows are aired on network or basic cable television, not allowing for such “openness” of full-on sexual contact or non-blurred nudity. But premium cable channel Showtime decided that the “realness” it should be showing on “The Real L Word” had to do with the amount of lesbian bodies and sex acts it could show. Episode 1’s count: one long shot of a naked Romi about to get into the shower (completely gratuitous), one scene of a half-naked Whitney going down on another fully-naked Sara. And this doesn’t count the intro, which gives you an indication of how much more exploitation we can expect this season — it’s strap-on harnesses, girls falling into beds together, girls having sex in the shower, and boobs, boobs, boobs.
A large part of being a lesbian is sex. A large part of being a human is sex. But why does lesbian sex have to be the focus of the only reality show that’s on television claiming to be telling lesbian stories? When the women are not in the bedroom, they are discussing otherwise banal topics and quite obviously aren’t able to find a story that’s worth televising. Because what other successful TV series follows characters based on who they have sex with? And I am not counting Playboy TV, which, by the way, had a real lesbian couple on “Brooklyn Kinda Love,” and was more realistic than “The Real L Word.” Their conversations on the show ranged from being gay-bashed to familial relationships to frank discussions on their grooming habits.
So, what is real about “The Real L Word”? Season 2 has a married lesbian couple trying to have a baby (those exist), but honestly, they don’t appear to to be on the same show. The mom-bian segments would fit better on Lifetime — except for the really awkward moment when they decide to go to a sex toy shop and find a dildo that can excrete the sperm from the donor. (It doesn’t appear to exist.) Also, there is an attempt at diversity this season, with the addition of Sajdah, a newly out black woman, and Franny, an Asian lesbian whose ex moves in with her and instantly pisses her off. (That would happen with any broken up couple — straight or gay.)
“The Real L Word” is equal parts horrific and boring and that’s because it’s a show with no real premise.
We don’t need to be exploited to “enlighten” the general public, and that’s all that Showtime seems to be able to come up with. This show is perfect for you, male viewers.
Do we owe it to ourselves to have these lesbian depictions on television as some series of teachable moments for those who aren’t privy to our lives? Not under the guise that it is our reality, because I don’t know most of these people. We’re not one in the same, even though we all have the same naked parts.
Trish Bendix is the managing editor of AfterEllen.com.