Loving The L Word as a bisexual woman betrays a certain kind of masochism and optimism. For its flaws, Ilene Chaiken’s soapy, melodramatic series about the loves and lives of lesbians in Los Angeles was groundbreaking, one of the first places (some) women who loved (some) women could see (some) parts of their lives represented onscreen. At its best, it was watchable, its characters sometimes likable in their chaos. At its worst, though, it was cruel to the communities it tried to represent, notably trans and bisexual people.
In the mid-’00s, it was the only place I could see women love and kiss one another onscreen, even if, in the next breath and with the same mouth, they talked about how greedy people like me were. I fell for Shane, I despised Jenny, I longed for Bette to give me a good telling-off. The only out bisexual character, however, was Alice. She’s a “dirty bisexual,” a greedy girl who can’t choose, mocked by her friends until her identity is all but scrubbed away. The only time she dates a man, it’s a man called Lisa who “identifies as a lesbian,” turning both Alice’s identity and trans identity into a cruel joke. When Tina briefly delves into her bisexuality, first flirting with a man online before taking up with a boring dude called Henry, Bette gets increasingly upset, eventually attempting to sue Tina for sole custody. It isn’t just that their bisexuality is looked down on within the show, but that they seem so intentionally to be paired with the worst men, as if to prove a point. Even Tim, the man Jenny is dating when she starts to discover that she likes women, is fine but dull before becoming borderline abusive.
Elsewhere, bisexual women seemed only to exist onscreen to stir up drama, their sensuality leveraged only to titillate teen boys. I longed for something that understood the nuances of my identity. The L Word fell short, but many shows since have not. It’s a long list: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Broad City, Schitt’s Creek, and many more have managed to portray bisexuality in a way that is neither dismissive nor sensational — it just is.
So why tune back in, with so much else out there? When the first season of The L Word: Generation Q dropped in 2019, it promised to be better, giving a new generation of actors well-rounded characters that didn’t lean on cruel stereotypes. The revival has been a pleasant surprise: Jacqueline Toboni (Finley) and Jillian Mercado (Maribel) gave us flawed, whole people to root for, while the joy of catching up with returning faces like Kate Moennig (Shane) and Leisha Hailey (Alice) could help you to forget its flaws. A highlight of the second season is Jamie Clayton as Tess, a love interest who can hold her own against Shane. The revival is sharper, funnier, tighter, more in line with the world we live in now. But a silence hung over the one wound I wanted to be healed: the B-word.
When we meet Alice again in Generation Q, she is a successful (presumed lesbian) talk-show host with a long-term girlfriend, a perfect blonde bob, and a series of alternating pastel suits. So far, so good: Her crimes against fashion in the first outing needed a redemption arc all their own. As the revival went on, it seemed that Alice had tossed aside the label that had caused her so much ostracization: that, with a committed relationship to Natalie, she had done as bi women on TV often do and “picked a side.” However — spoilers — partway through the second season, Alice meets Tom, a dorky editor-slash-ghostwriter assigned to work on her memoir.
Played by Donald Faison of Clueless fame, Tom is charming and goofy. Their banter unfolds into full-fledged romance, catalyzed by a catastrophic lobster dinner. I wondered if this was it — if, finally, we would see a bisexual woman keep her foot in her community while dating a — gasp — man. There are road bumps: Alice cheats on Tom with her ex, and it feels like a betrayal not just of Tom but of the audience at home, begging this show not to tread lazy stereotypes. Alice’s arc in season two is one of rediscovery; when called a lesbian talk-show host and a lesbian icon, she bristles but doesn’t correct, not wanting to lose her status. When she tells Tom about Natalie, he’s hurt, explaining to her that rules on cheating should apply the same for men as for women. She’s surprised, somehow — in agreement, but as if she’d never before considered that she owed a man the same faithfulness she owed women.
This conversation might have felt better had it been the other way around — the ignorant straight man expecting her to cheat, Alice educating him on the meaning of bisexuality. Instead, it just feels painful to see her still being so ignorant about her own identity. It’s as if she resents it, which maybe holds some truth. Maybe some of us, never feeling as if we fit into a community, wish that we could just pick a side, fit neatly into a box without having to justify ourselves.
Alice spends season two navigating her identity, and in the penultimate episode, she reckons with her bisexuality, joking, “I think I’m gonna have to come out as bisexual again.” She manages to tell an interviewer that her new girlfriend is a man named Tom, but finds herself on the receiving end of silence. At a party for Bette and Tina’s daughter Angie, she confronts Bette about the stereotypes, in a moment that should feel cathartic were The L Word not responsible for perpetuating so many of them, blaming “capital-L lesbians” for the complicated feelings inside her. “You just don’t believe bisexuals are real,” says Alice, and Bette rolls her eyes, reminding her: “That was 20 years ago.” Alice is still hurt by the hangover of that prejudice, still hurting others in the belief of it, saying, “I bring a man into this world, it changes everything.” It’s losing her community, the life she’s built with these women, that scares Alice, even as Angie tells her “nobody cares.” Angie is lucky to grow up in a world where, true, fewer people care — but many still do.
The season finale stirs up just as much shit as it wraps up, leaving behind a soap-opera train wreck that will have you begging for a renewal. As far as Alice’s relationship with her sexuality goes, it feels optimistic — before heading off on a 12-week book tour with Tom, they fall out and make up again. He’s learning how to fit into her life, enjoying his mention in a magazine article as “a cis guy named Tom.” At the book launch, Tom shows up at Dana’s, the bar Shane owns. It’s there that he seems to integrate into her life for the first time, high-fiving Shane, who mutters to Bette, “I’ve never liked a guy more in my life.” “Me neither,” Bette smiles, and it’s in her approval at the bar named for the love of Alice’s life (RIP) that it seems like her two lives might be able to mesh after all.
Alice’s journey is hard to watch because it reflects the worst fears of some bisexual women — that either side of them might not be accepted by any community at all. Alice is scared to enter into a relationship with Tom: It’s different. Seeing her feel out of step in what should be her own community, panicking that she’ll lose access to the tight bonds she’s built just because she’s now dating a man hurts, because maybe it’s the closest The L Word has ever come to representing our reality onscreen. To see that friction portrayed fairly, even with every painful stumbling block, feels like progress from the one place that so often struggles with it. It feels like some kind of retribution. Even if it weren’t, I would keep watching.