Panel Discusses Success of Lesbian TV Show

“The L Word” garners high ratings and strong reactions from viewers

Putting aside that its cast doesn’t fully represent the lesbian community, that it was marketed to titillate straight men fascinated with girl-on-girl action and that the storylines are sometimes unbelievable—the new Showtime series “The L Word” is this year’s runaway hit. Sex sells, and no price is too high to pay for a lesbian community hungry to see their stories come to life in a way that is both comical and respectful, sexy and savvy.

“I was seized with the urge to tell my stories,” said the show’s executive producer and writer Ilene Chaiken at the start of last Sunday’s New York Times panel at the Jacob Javits Center. Moderator Patricia Cohen of the Times brought Chaiken to the dais with Stephanie Gibbons, an advertising executive at Showtime, novelist Stacy D’Erasmo and “The L Word” stars Leisha Hailey and Mia Kirshner.

Chaiken, aware of criticism about the lack of diversity among her characters, noted preemptively, “I’m telling a story here; I’m not intending to represent everyone. The characters reflect a community of women I know well—it just happens to be a largely affluent, attractive and well-acquainted women.”

“The show is about L.A., and it reflects what people in L.A. care about— cars and stars…” added Hailey, who plays trendy, bisexual journalist Alice on the show. As the only out lesbian on the cast, Hailey’s level of comfort with discussing lesbian issues was apparent.

For example, she addressed her character’s bisexuality, saying she enjoyed the challenge of getting into another mind set, likening it to “before I came out as a lesbian, when I had a boyfriend in high school.”

Kirshner seemed less comfortable playing “gay for pay.” “The fact of Jenny’s sexuality was not the main issue when I started. It was the moral ambiguity,” said Kirshner of her character Jenny, who juggles her love for her longtime boyfriend Tim and lesbian café owner, Marina. “She can be so selfish in one moment, and so completely generous in the next… There is always turmoil when you fall in love with two people at the same time. It wreaks havoc on the self.”

When Cohen asked the actresses if performing sex scenes with a male character was different than with a female, the responses thrilled the mostly lesbian crowd.

“It’s much more fun with women, so silly and soft and sensual, and you are enveloped in a secret world, whereas with a guy it was more tense,” said Kirshner. “I find it is a lot easier to do love scenes with a woman.”

Hailey, whose character on the show just ended a relationship with a man, was more to the point.

“I know who I like to kiss—girls are better,” Hailey said, to wild applause. “But I had to learn about bisexuality… They are not just confused. I learned that it’s a real orientation, and that it’s just as important for bisexuals to be identified as for me as a lesbian to be identified. I like being seen as gay…”

“I don’t like categories, but I know they are very empowering for some people,” Kirshner said, cognizant of her audience.

Hailey has found success as a singer with the pop duo The Murmurs, as well as in a recent ad campaign by BMW. The actress credits being candid about her sexual orientation as essential to her professional success.

“I’ve really always lived openly, and have been rewarded professionally and personally for that,” said Hailey. “If people look up to me, it’s because of that honesty.”

Its gay, straight and bisexual fans have embraced the show so enthusiastically that according to Gibbons, “The L Word” was signed for a second season only 11 days after the first episode aired—a network record.

Gibbons attributes quality writing and great timing to the show’s high ratings and subsequent network support. “TV opens the doors that make it safe for us to walk through, to say this is what we felt all the time, and not feel ostracized or denigrated for it,” said Gibbons. She noted that the ratings numbers indicate that lesbians comprise only a portion of the viewing audience.

“People are more polymorphous than we think,” said novelist D’Erasamo about the show’s appeal. “Not everyone who sees ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a hobbit.”

“I always understood there would be straight men watching who were drawn by their fascination with lesbians. I thought if they came they would learn something and stay for another reason,” added Chaiken. But even she seemed surprised by the show’s success, saying that when she and fellow cast member Jennifer Beals appeared on the TV program “The O’Reilly Factor” earlier this month, the conservative host had toned down his rhetoric, and, “he was polite, not adversarial. In fact, he seemed a little unnerved.”

Is it the golden age of TV for gays, wondered Cohen? While there was definitely something that had taken root across the spectrum of TV, said D’Erasamo, it was actually the lack of quality gay programming that had caused “The L Word” to have such an impact.

For the packed house that came out to meet the sexy stars of their new favorite program, the consensus seemed to be that while more changes were welcome, “The L Word” had gotten things off to a great start.

We also publish:

More from Around NYC