I don’t think I’ve blogged about this before, but I am currently working on a dissertation for my Film, Radio and TV course on the subject of third-wave feminism and the TV shows Sex and the City and The L Word. It’s fascinating – I’ve been working at it for months and haven’t once felt bored; lost, frustrated and overwhelmed, yes, but not bored.
So I’m currently working on a section about fashion (wherein I argue that the conventionally attractive characters of SATC and TLW actually espouse a very third-wave approach to fashion and beauty practises, for various reasons) and I’m having difficulty structuring/wording/generally getting my head round this whole big bit about TLW and fashion, partly because not many people have written about it before me from the perspective I’m going to take (SATC is dead easy because, well, everybody and their mother has written about SATC and fashion) . A book I read suggested trying to write the basic idea as a letter to a friend in order to clarify your thoughts, so I thought, stuff writing to a friend, I’m going to write to the blogosphere!
Anyway, the basic idea is that although many have dismissed TLW’s conventionally attractive characters for three main reasons, all very valid. Firstly, as with SATC, the show has been accused of promoting consumerism by depicting an enviable lifestyle –a ‘shop window’ for commodities. Secondly, it is “[d]efficient in definitive butch representations” (Moore & Schilt, 2006: 159), leaving some queer women feeling unrepresented. Thirdly, there has been some concern about what Jennifer Vanasco calls the “Fiji effect” – referring to a Harvard study linking the appearance of eating disorders in Fiji to television’s introduction to the country in 1995. The lesbian community, Vanasco claims, has largely managed to escape the beauty culture that plagues both straight women and gay men; she fears that “glamorous lesbians being broadcast into our living rooms” (2006: 185-186) might damage the lesbian community’s core values of “loyalty and inclusion”.
However, this should not be an indication that TLW has nothing to contribute to third-wave feminist discourse on fashion and beauty practise; I believe a more nuanced appreciation of the complexities of TLW’s exploration of this issue is possible.
Firstly, in validating queer female desire, TLW questions traditional feminist spectatorship theory, particularly its insistence on the inexistence of a valid female viewer position, by asserting the validity of a desiring queer female gaze.
Secondly, and this issue is a little more complex, some have posited that the series demonstrates “that sexual identity cannot always be read from the body or its ornaments” (Beirne, 2006: 5). However, Beirne argues that the series “undertakes a strange practice of simultaneously making feminine lesbians both hyper-visible and rendering them less authentic”.
The bit I’m having trouble with (mainly in the writing of, but also structuring into the actual essay) is I want to write about the character of Moira/Max Sweeney, a FTM transsexual introduced in season three. I believe that TLW’s treatment of this character demonstrates an attempt on the part of the series to engage with contemporary third-wave and queer discourses about fashion and beauty.
Max is initially introduced to us as Moira, ostensibly a butch lesbian but secretly struggling with his gender identity (as such I am going to use female pronouns to refer to him in his pre-transitional stage) who begins a complicated relationship with the unmistakably femme Jenny while Jenny is at home with her parents recovering from depression. Moira moves with Jenny to Los Angeles from the Mid-West, which is, of course, presented as politically regressive in comparison to California – and not as fashion-forward. Moira initially has difficulties integrating with the rest of the core group, in part due to what they interpret as her outmoded cultural politics. When Jenny introduces Moira to her friends Carmen and Shane in ‘Lobsters’ (3.3), Moira reads the androgynous Shane as butch and insists on chivalrous behaviour: “You ladies stay here, let us butches unload the truck.” Carmen raises a quizzical eyebrow and teases Shane “Big butch. Go unload the truck.”
However, although the series implicitly rejects Moira’s archaic gender politics in favour of the more contemporary queer ethos of the core group, the values and sincerity of the primary characters are also called into question by the end of the episode.
The group attend a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant in honour of Jenny’s return home. Whereas ordinarily the group’s penchant for trendy spots goes unquestioned (as it provides a great deal of viewing pleasure) this particular scene, through its set design and lighting as well as the action on-screen, queries both their bourgeois lifestyle and the viewer’s enjoyment of it. In contrast to The Planet – the group’s customary hangout, whose colour palate and decor is warm, hospitable and simultaniously connotes stylishness and inclusion – this restaurant is coldly lit with charcoal-grey walls and coded as pretentious and unwelcoming. Moira, wearing a baggy t-shirt and flannel gilet, arrives with a dressed-up Jenny to meet the rest of the immaculately-groomed group.
Although we are periodically reminded of Moira’s problematic world-view (when learning of Tina and Bette’s baby, she replies “You know, a bunch of women back in my dyke community, they’re doing that too” as though lesbians having babies were a novelty), the entire scene is geared towards aligning the viewer with her and portraying the main characters in a negative light. Situationally, the group’s dynamic is organised along multiple layers of awkwardness (in addition to Moira’s failure to integrate, the group handle the subject of Jenny’s self-harm with clumsiness, Alice reacts negatively to the attendance of ex-girlfriend Dana’s new lover and Bette and Tina inaudibly quarrel over finances). Moreover, rather than concentrate on the group’s conversation, the camera focuses on the newcomer and her discomfort.
Had the scene been set somewhere more inviting and had less screen time been given to Moira’s discomfort, the audience may be less inclined to empathise with her – she would interrupt our viewing pleasure by intruding on the intimacy of the group and disturbing the visual aspect. As it is, however, the ambience is geared towards absence rather than presence, thus nothing is disturbed. Moreover, the episode itself ends
What I believe this means in terms of the critique of the core group (apart from the implied classism) is that while the show upholds their contemporary, arguably third-wave approach to fashion (and it does: Moira eventually finds acceptance she would have never imagined in her old dyke community in order to transition to male), it questions the cliquishness of their PoMosexual, educated, liberal circle. This echoes similar self-critiquing that happens across third-wave feminism (is feminism accessible? Etc etc). But it kind of shows that the characters’ engagement with fashion and beauty practises is a sign of the type of feminism they espouse – a modern one that eschews second wave denunciations of these practises. They associate their fashion-forwardness with their up-to-date gender politics, as is evident in Bette’s remark “I just don’t see why Jenny feels she has to role-play like that” (echoing the tendancy among queers to shun labels such as ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ as dichotomous). I’m still working on this analysis, if it’s not obvious!
Anyway, thanks for listening to my ramblings, I’m going to discuss my ideas with my prof on Thursday and try and work it into a more mature, scholarly analysis…