“These girls are too pretty!”
“Where are the lesbians who look like me?”
“Where are the butches? This isn’t realistic!”
These are the kind of questions lesbian viewers shot at producer Ilene Chaiken once “The L Word” had its debut on Showtime five years ago, and has been renewed for a sixth and final season. The explicit primetime show has always mined the stories of everyday lesbian life, but some people didn’t find it so very everyday in the beginning.
Chaiken always defended her show’s depiction of lesbians. “We seek to entertain just as much as any other show does,” she says. “I wanted to make a television show about lesbians with the same values that are brought to any other really good TV show, which is to say, my characters are a little prettier.”
Lesbian fans were soon convinced. The viewers who did not see Jennifer Beals as looking like one of them came to understand that she was not only representing them but also representing them in a positive light. “I get a lot less of ‘Where are the people who look like me?’ feedback now. I get many more people interacting over the stories,” Chaiken explains.
And the scripts include tales of sexual relations. “I think stories about sex and sexuality are really fundamental,” she says. “It’s a big, big part of the human story, and it’s a story that I want to tell. It’s important to illuminating our lives.”
Chaiken works with each actress to understand the performer’s boundaries and comforts. “All I ask of anybody who comes to work with us is that she’s committed to telling these stories. We find a way to tell them that respects her boundaries but also embraces the storytelling,” Chaiken says. “I really try to do sex that’s not gratuitous.”
What do viewers look for in good television? Chaiken has a theory.
“People want reliability, but at the same time they want new information,” she says. “We want to see TV shows about people we don’t know well — to get insight into a sociology that’s unfamiliar to us and then be brought to the understanding that we’re all so connected anyway. I think that ‘The L Word’ does that. We are all so alike. We’re going though all the same things. A lot of people did not know the sociological details of lesbian life.”
Chaiken is being honored with the Davidson/Valentini Award on May 10 at the GLAAD ceremony in San Francisco. On that night, as in life, she will wear more than one hat.
“I consider myself a screenwriter and a TV producer for having written and produced ‘The L Word,'” she says. “I consider myself an activist because I am an activist.”