Relationships

On Its 15th Anniversary, Remembering The L Word’s Most Enduring Legacy: The Chart

The iconic soap famously showed its lesbian characters’ connections through love and sex. Turns out that network extends far into the real world.

L Word characters behind THE CHART.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Showtime.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When it premiered 15 years ago this week, The L Word was a cutting-edge, if confused, lesbian drama that aired on the kind of cable that you have to pay extra for. Its legacy today, a decade out from the 2009 finale, is a magical mix of sex positivity, lesbian visibility, and dear christ, who is the showrunner?-level melodrama. Its cultural brows were delightfully uneven: Think Catherine Opie portraits and “Sunny Came Home” on an Olivia Cruise. Think Gloria Steinem cameos, Kathleen Hanna name-dropping, and Betty lyrics like “fighting, fucking, crying, drinking.” It was wonderful, and it was ridiculous. And it was the first and (geez) latest scripted television show to focus exclusively on the lives of two or more lesbians.

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Created by writer/producer Ilene Chaiken (Barb Wire, Empire), The L Word was the early aughts’ lesbionic answer to Showtime’s gay male drama, Queer as Folk. The cast featured a combination of film icons like Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier, alongside all-star indie artists who had written, directed, or starred in small, lesbian projects. The show clearly took itself very seriously—see its 95-minute pilot—and differentiated itself from the jump with an almost entirely female cast and crew, which included several out women. This aforementioned army of lesbian tastemakers came out of the gate strong, with the debut season receiving heaps of media attention and a degree of critical acclaim. But over the course of six seasons, The L Word unapologetically became an almost surreally bizarre Melrose Place with lesbians.

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Look, it’s no secret the thing went off the rails by the time Xena came in to solve the Who Shot J.R.? murder mystery of Season 6. But this queer sudser ultimately broke ground by giving us more than the classic lesbian-meets-turkey-baster-quest-for-a-baby plotline. It gave us fucking for fucking’s sake. And none of this Sex and the City hand-holding lesbian shit. The L Word gave us horny, cheating, masturbating, strap-on packing, libidinous women. No character better exemplified this than Shane McCutcheon (Kate Moennig). This swaggery, andro, hairdressing, slip-of-a-thing lothario (supposedly based on Sally Hershberger, hairdresser to the stars and creator of Meg Ryan’s shag) loved to fuck women. Shane became the heart and conscience of the show because she was a great, loyal friend, and also because she was the best lay in a three-mile radius. This representation of unabashed female sexuality still feels groundbreaking 15 years later.

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But while the show was interested in exploring the complex relationships within a chosen queer family, it was from a decidedly cisgender, femme, and mostly white perspective.

In the mid-2000s, before the present language was codified, The L Word dabbled, somewhat clumsily, with butch, trans, and gender-nonconforming characters. Ivan (Kelly Lynch) a rockabilly “drag king” wooed the mostly straight Kit (Grier) until Ivan’s gender presentation freaked Kit out and derailed the relationship. Daniela Sea arrives in Season 3 as butch bumpkin Moira about whom Chaiken said, “She’s our first real butch on the show—a fabulously attractive butch, but nonetheless a real butch.” Oof. The show quickly shifts the butch storyline to a trans one, and Moira became the first ever series regular to transition on television. The show followed Moira’s transition to Max: from taking black-market hormones, to exploring his attraction to men, to becoming pregnant as a trans man, to ultimately getting left by his partner. The show shits and shits on Max, and he is never fully incorporated into the core group. It is sloppy treatment from a program that prided itself on breaking new ground.

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The L Word also miraculously failed in representing nonwhite women. The literal handful of attempts at diversifying its lily-white crew often fizzled out: Though Beals advocated for her character Bette to be written as biracial and have Grier’s character rewritten as her half-sister, the show dropped Bette’s racial identity thread by Season 3. There was Shane’s Chicana girlfriend and fan favorite, Carmen (Sarah Shahi), who lasted two seasons before getting left at the altar. Season 4 saw the addition of Army Capt. Tasha Williams (Rose Rollins) who plays foil and unlikely lover to Alice. Tasha is black, but her love story with Alice never dips its toe into the politics of their interracial relationship, keeping the focus on Tasha’s ripped-from-the-headlines “don’t ask, don’t tell” story. And then there is Papi, a lady-killing Latina caricature who comes and goes in 12 episodes and is, oh yes, played by Indian-American actress Janina Gavankar.

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Yet despite all these hiccups, for our money, the show deserves praise on a number of fronts. It featured a bevy of out actors and queer celeb guests the likes of which haven’t been seen since: Jane Lynch, Holland Taylor, Heather Matarazzo, Toshi Reagon, Tegan and Sara, Billie Jean King, Nona Hendryx, Peaches, and Kate Pierson all co-signed Chaiken’s lesbian circus. It also employed lesbian directors and female auteurs behind the camera including Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader), Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.), Rose Troche (Go Fish), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), Mary Harron (American Psycho), and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right).

But above all this, beyond its firsts in representation and employment, The L Word’s greatest gift to us is unquestionably THE CHART. You remember it: In the show’s inaugural season, when its resident bisexual journalist, Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey), plotted all of the lesbian relationships and one-night stands she knew of, both within her network of friends and beyond, on a white board. Think six-degrees of lesbian sex meets Myspace. Similar to Sex and the City’s “New York is the fifth woman,” THE CHART became its own character in the L-universe (Chaiken and Showtime even tried to capitalize on THE CHART’s moment by building it into some sort of online platform?). In one relatable gesture, The L Word boiled down the unique, interconnected essence of queer social networks: that whether by dalliance or LTR, by fellow hometown gay or elusive IG follow—everybody knows everybody.

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Call us what you will (lesbian pop culture savants? mid-’90s message board truthers?), recalling THE CHART got us wondering how it could be applied to real-world Hollywood lesbians and queer women. After all, even given the incestuous nature of small communities, many A-List, tip-of-your-tongue celesbians were conspicuously absent from the six-season run of Ilene Chaiken’s lesbian hit parade. In honor of The L Word’s birthday, we thought there was no better way to celebrate the show than by using the Pieszecki method (who allegedly dated, who allegedly fucked) to connect the stars of The L Word to famous queer women, from the ’90s gay underground to the lesbian power players of today. Oh baby, gear up because this is gonna take two hands.

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They are all present and accounted for, with show participants marked in yellow: Music icon K.D. Lang finds herself on our chart through her five-year relationship with chart creator and series star Hailey. Fellow dykon, Melissa Etheridge puts herself on The L Word map by way of her marriage to actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, who, ironically, played the crazy ex to Moennig’s Shane.

Emmy and Oscar winners? We got ’em. Ellen Degeneres’ ex (post–Anne Heche), Alexandra Hedison, appeared on The L Word as Dylan Moreland, but Hedison is now married to Oscar winner Jodie Foster (who allegedly had a thing with Kelly McGillis, who maybe had a thing with Whitney Houston). Ellen’s current wife, Portia de Rossi was not only involved with L Word writer and sometime star, Guinevere Turner, but also with Bond girl Barbara Bach’s daughter, Francesca Gregorini. And Gregorini is doubly connected by way of her short-lived relationship with Moennig. Turner, herself, was speculated to be in a relationship with the very private Tracy Chapman, and Chapman was previously in a relationship with Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker who has described their relationship as “delicious and lovely and wonderful.”

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Comedian Sandra Bernhard appeared on The L Word as a writing teacher to the world’s worst, Jenny Schecter. With Bernhard comes a tidal wave of ’90s lesbians and bisexuals: Bernhard has allegedly been linked to Married With Children actress Amanda Bearse, model (and fellow guest star) Patricia Velásquez, and a maybe they did, maybe they didn’t thing with Madonna. Madge also allegedly had a relationship with model Jenny Shimizu. Shimizu had a brief relationship with actress Ione Skye and most famously with her Foxfire co-star, Angelina Jolie.

Kristanna Loken had a Season 4 arc that saw her entangled with Moennig’s Shane. In real life, Loken becomes The L Word’s connection to what we’ll call “Instagram lesbians.” Loken was reportedly linked to Michelle Rodriguez, who allegedly dated Cara Delevingne. Delevingne is what we call a “super connector” and has been reportedly involved with Annie Clark, Ashley Benson, and Paris Jackson. Clark has also been rumored to be in an on-again, off-again relationship with Carrie Brownstein and out as fuck with Kristen Stewart. Brownstein also guested on The L Word and has been rumored to be in relationships with Taylor Schilling and Abbi Jacobson.

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Whew! From Oscar winners to Grammy winners, from Pulitzer Prize winners to Michelle Rodriguez, you can see The L Word really was the breeding ground for A-list celesbian relationships. But one notable exception slipped through a cutie patootie–sized crack during The L Word’s six season run.

Of course, that cutie patootie is Koosh Ball launcher, Taboo producer, and one and only Betty Rubble, Rosie O’Donnell. The stand-up comedian, actress, talk show icon, and mental health advocate is the only high-profile lesbian we couldn’t connect to OUR CHART. What would the ladies of The L Word say? What would Shane McCutcheon do? Obviously, lure Rosie to The Planet and get it in. But alas, we’ll have to wait for that rumored reboot (Chaiken, we are technically available. Please hire us!) to see if Ro will close the book on Sarah Schuster, commission a Jodi Lerner original, or come to blows with Lisa the male-identified lesbian. Until then, we remain: talking, laughing, loving, breathing.

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