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'The Real L Word' Is the Queer Adolescence I Never Had

Showtime's canceled reality show gives me a sense of queer community that I don't think I'll ever experience in real life.

Katie Heaney

In the summer of 2010, Showtime premiered the pilot of The Real L Word, a reality spinoff of The L Word, which had ended the year before. I didn't watch the spinoff at the time, but I was aware of it. Two years before, I'd binge-watched all of The L Word, streamed illegally, while I was studying abroad in Spain and essentially friendless. I was watching the show years too late to have any frenzied "Did you see last night's episode?" conversations with anyone, so I went in search of recaps (and their many ensuing comments).

I began a covert relationship with lesbian websites AfterEllen and then brand-new Autostraddle. I had nothing against either site, obviously—I just wasn't gay, and I worried that if people saw my screen they might get the wrong idea. I just liked The L Word. And Tegan and Sara. And I really wanted Lindsay Lohan and Sam Ronson to make it work. But it didn't mean anything.

For similar reasons, I considered entering the "reality" L Word universe a bridge too far. It was one thing to speed through six seasons of a lesbian-focused fictional drama in the dark of my tiny bedroom in my host mom's apartment in Madrid, but it was another to watch a show about actual lesbians while at home in Minnesota. Plus, I was too afraid to pirate television in my home country, so close to the police. So I forgot about it. Over the next few years, I kept reading what I self-consciously referred to as "my lesbian sites," feeling more like a voyeur than someone who belonged there.

Then, in 2015, I came out as gay. It felt startling and swift, like plunging into water. But when I thought about it, I'd been standing around on the diving board for seven or eight years.

In the nearly two years since, I have fallen in love and moved in with my girlfriend. I have made friends with several lesbian and queer-identified women and tried as hard as I can, without being too creepy, to make more. It's not enough. I'm greedy. I want a lesbian gang. I want a queer community so big and so messily intertwined we fill up a whole bar. I want my own "real" L Word. But the closest I've been able to get is watching the one on television.

In case you are interested, covertly or not, all three seasons of The Real L Word are currently available to stream on ShowtimeAnytime, which I discovered two months ago when I decided to rewatch The L Word. I abandoned the latter for the former, both because I wanted something new (to me), and because I wanted to watch real, actual queer women hang out and hook up. Make no mistake: The Real L Word is not "good"—it's heavily produced, certainly scripted in parts, outdated, and sometimes exploitative of its stars—but it is about real, actual queer women, talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking (etc.), and it's the only one we have.

Watching The Real L Word seven years after it first aired allows me to enjoy it for what it is—a cultural relic. I do not watch it with a critical eye because it is, in TV terms, old, and because I started it expecting very little. My girlfriend, in fact, refuses to watch the show again with me; she watched the first season in 2010, but gave up when the show aired a pornographic strap-on sex scene between Whitney and Romi. For her, a woman who's been out and craving representation since she was 14, The Real L Word is an embarrassment. It is every worst lesbian (and female) stereotype smashed together, wearing a fedora and a technicolor tattoo sleeve. 

But for me, a first-time consumer of the show in 2017, it is virtually all I could ask for. Watching The Real L Word gives me a sense of queer friendship and sex and drama—a surface-level exploration to be sure, but something I haven't yet found off-screen. When considered as a representation of the queer community at large, the show is inadequate and limited (the cast—though much improved upon the entirely femme and almost entirely white L Word cast—is fairly homogenous), but when viewed purely as a depiction of eight or ten lesbians' overlapping lives, it satisfies my desire to simply watch queer women exist.

I am 30 now, and while I would rather die than start going out to gay clubs and partying and getting myself mixed up in lesbian love triangles, I kind of wish that I already had. By the time I came out, I was ready to be settled, to go to bed at 10 (or 9:30) with the same person every night. My modest early-20s partier window has long since passed, and I can't help but feel that I wasted it on heterosexuality.

When I watch Whitney juggle Sada and Tor and Romi and Rachel and Jaq and then Sada again, I do not admire her, or wish I was her friend, but there is a part of me that wishes I knew her once, if only to have had access to that kind of gossip. I wish that I had once been part of a circle like theirs. When I watch Saj and Chanel declare their love for each other on their second date, I think how sweet, how 22-year-old of them. When I watch the "Pants vs. Pumps Throwdown" in season two (a sort of butch-vs-femme competition Whitney creates that incorporates relay races and wrestling in chocolate syrup), I think, sure, that classification is a little reductive. But I also think God, that looks fun. I wish I'd been there. Watching The Real L Word lets me pretend, for an hour at a time, that I was.

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