As an academic researcher I (like the rest of academia) am always looking for ways to get my work ‘out there’. With a call for papers for a book solely focused on The L Word I found an ideal and exciting opportunity. My doctoral thesis focuses on the seminal lesbian TV drama and its surrounding discourses. In effect the PhD looks at the public discursive reasoning given for production choices (via publically available material and interviews), resultant textual discourses and also the audience reaction to various aspects of the show throughout its run from 2004 to 2009.
The aim of my doctoral thesis is to map the development, meaning and reception of the production. In order to make sense of my results in my overall thesis I have interpreted my findings through queer theory perspectives and assess whether meanings made and reactions formed can be related to assessing whether The L Word constitutes a political challenge through an opposition to or integration into mainstream societal ideas; a key area of debate in queer theory.
My forthcoming chapter in Loving The L Word: The Complete Series in Focus (Heller, 2013) is a small reworked part of my overall thesis and explores the audience reaction to the narrative of the show in the final series.
My initial focus on The L Word came from it being the first television series which focused solely on lesbian lives and culture. This wasn’t a show which merely focused on homosexuality, bisexuality and trans-sexuality as a ‘problem’ as in many television shows which had been broadcast throughout television history. Neither were the characters involved in narratives which focused only on their sexuality. Instead we saw characters that lived their lives: drinking coffee, having relationships, having families and developing careers. Although the women involved in the narrative just happened to be glamorous residents of Los Angeles, The L Word was still a key moment in LGBT television history.
However, my chapter in The L Word: The Complete Series in Focus doesn’t focus on this celebratory moment in lesbian culture. Instead it addresses the final sixth season of the show and the rather negative fan reaction to the lack of narrative closure. Season six involved a ‘whodunit’ plot, with the narrative promise of resolution, a promise which remained unfulfilled. The research was a vast undertaking as I had chosen the Showtime fan forum as my primary source, this was a site which was shared in a crossover with Facebook and involved me analysing over 11,000 forum postings. This was evidently challenging and involved the organisation of data into thematic strands in order to make any sense of the fan reaction and to proved evidential quotations that could be used to formulate a key argument about fan considerations and the context of cultural frameworks in media reception.
There were also vehement audience reactions to a selection of ‘Interrogation Tapes’ which were not part of the broadcast series but offered ‘extra’ narrative material (although this didn’t close the narrative referred to in the promo above). For example, in the character Tina Kennard’s Interrogation Tape we learn that one particular character’s first lesbian relationship was an incestuous one with her sister, potentially reverting to lesbianism as a social problem and linking it with ideologically perverse actions; seemingly a return to television lesbians as a moral and social problem. Viewers reacted angrily to feeling used and betrayed; in terms of their fandom and their lesbian identity.
Those viewers who enjoyed the finale chose to ignore the lack of narrative closure or ‘promise’ of answers. Others also ignored the lack of conventional televisual resolution, or labelled it ‘creative’ and defended against any issues with the fact that The L Word was the ‘first’ lesbian drama; this was something which should never be forgotten. Yet these perspectives were few in number compared to those who felt betrayed and, on occasion, insulted.
Overall, the research evidenced and reiterated the perspective that audience and fan cultures are diverse in nature. Cultural frameworks have an enormous impact on our ability to read and make meaning about television narratives. Politically marginalised audiences are particularly affected by messages which involve their personal identities and have the potential to challenge oppressive political ideologies. These factors can impact on the emotional response from viewers to both media texts and the producers’ justifications and defences for production choices.
Loving The L Word: The Complete Series in Focus is edited by Dana Heller and published by IB Tauris. It is available from March 30th 2013.