Queer as The L Word
When I tell people that I love Queer as Folk, it’s usually followed with an apology. I get it. It’s a niche show that places Gen X cis gay identities into clumsy archetypes and has them perform some truly tortured puns. It’s basically Sex and the City except the city is America’s armpit (Pittsburgh) and the gay writers didn’t have to use straight women as stand-ins anymore. Another indication of quality is that the show is softcore porn, a point which is meant to be a thumb-in-the-eye of respectability politics, but ends up being an arduous stream of soft butt-grinding to fill time.
While the show fails to capture a realistic portrayal of gay urban life, it succeeds as a politicized piece of television—a drama in which homophobia is wrestled with in all its benevolent, internal, or external forms. Characters often have sophisticatedly evergreen conversations about topics like media representation and the heterosexual gaze, heteronormativity in queer relationships, and the efficacy of bashing back. It’s the kind of peek into a potential queer life that was waiting for me as I stared down the precipice of young adulthood in the late 2000s.
Yes, the late aughts, several years after the show ended. I remember feeling more of a sense of finality from watching the finale episode than I had during my high school graduation ceremony just earlier that day. If you know how QAF ends, you know it’s a non-ending, a love letter to gay life and a send-off to viewers that time marches on. It felt strangely on the nose, as if their target demo for it were gayboys about to put down their 30GB iPod Video which played the transcoded avi to mp4 format episodes and go experience their own damn life for once.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is The L Word, a show that I felt almost dared to watch after Nancy Podcast tore it to loving shreds a few months before. I hate to say it, but all of the rare redeeming qualities of Queer as Folk are markedly absent from The L Word. In one way, it’s a nice to see a carefree (read: free from homophobia as a driving plot point), queer-centric dramedy. It’s a lens which wears thin, especially during the increasingly strange moments of the show.
On paper, it seems like absurdist fiction. In practice, the show has a hypnotic quality that lulls the viewer into a suggestibility that makes things like, oh I don’t know, killing a dog to get closer to your enemy’s girlfriend totally chill. Or even a mind-numbing series of affairs and romantic betrayals. Or maybe even how the gratingly bad theme song becomes an absolute bop after repeated listening.
I honestly can’t recommend anyone watch The L Word (or maybe even Queer as Folk) without an ego-preserving layer of irony to wrap it in. If you do, you might notice strange similarities between the series which might point to universal tropes of the genre or just lazy writing. Either way, here’s a rundown of just how easily the shows fit into each other.
michael / jenny
Michael Novotny is the keystone character Queer as Folk. He’s the everyman character whose nondescriptness is matched only to his relatability.
Jenny Schector is the clear central character of The L Word—do not fight me on this. The series begins with her entrance and ends with her exit. She’s less of an everyman and more of a Universally Hated Character™, so maybe this isn’t the most fitting match. Regardless, her anti-hero status makes her strangely more enjoyable.
They both have an unspoken obsession/thing for The Player/Slut of the show, start off by working in grocery stores, and eventually become successful writers.
Justin / Jenny
On second thought, Justin is a power-twink whose entrance into the show bares a more striking resemblance to Jenny’s. Both Justin and Jenny get introduced to their new queer sexual identity by much older and much more experienced gays and get burned hard by getting in too deep, too fast. They’re both the biggest stunt queens of their series and experiment with homosexual haircuts (as if you forgot Justin’s armed militia moment).
Also, Michael’s comic book is half Justin’s, so the writer comparison still stands. They both eventually sell the rights to their writing to a movie studio with absolutely 0 experience in the industry and, you know, struggle with PTSD.
Brian / Shane
Winner of the most obvious comparison. They’re both studs with nihilistic outlooks and drug habits that seem to never incur any real consequences. They can act like hoover vacuums for any white powder and be fine while characters like Ted have 0.3 hits of crystal and hit rock bottom instantly. They both have shitty parents and chic, shaggy haircuts. The L in The L Word stands for layered haircuts. They are repulsed by monogamy and have both left someone right before marriage. While The entire cast of The L Word can’t make monogamy work, Shane is a standout. Or as Alice puts it, a hub.
They’re also effortlessly successful. While Brian is portrayed as inconceivably wealthy, Shane is more humble, but has opportunities falling into her lap as often as she falls into someone else’s (*takes sip of Cosmo and types on my Apple laptop while adjusting a pashmina*).
Teddy / Dana
The writers put the most shit onto these characters. Like, holy shit. They’re wildly insecure but undeniably talented. Their naïve approach to love is unnervingly earnest and played for laughs. They’re also both secretly gorgeous in a way that a She’s All That-style minimal effort makeover scene could bring out. It’s almost maddening how many times Teddy is said to be ugly or fat. Perhaps it was a different era where Sean Cody models (don’t google that, hets) were preferable to yung zaddies. Either way, justice for Teddy and Dana.
In just a handful of seasons, Teddy survives being disgraced and fired from his job for being gay, has his porn business shut down as a right-wing political power-move, becomes a crystal meth addict, and then miraculously (as in the show treats it as such) avoids a chem-sex related HIV-positive diagnosis.
And then we have Dana who dies of breast cancer because nothing pure can last. It’s a sore subject and possibly one of the most controversial moments of the series. It also contributes to Dead Lesbian Syndrome for the first of two times (Jenny dies at the beginning of S6).
Ted’s UK counterpart also dies. I’m honestly so done. It’s not canon, but it still stings.
Emmett / Alice
Emmett and Alice are both witty femme queens with penchants for dating famous athletes and emotionally distant butches. Most importantly, the Emmet/Ted and Alice/Dana dynamic is right there. They’re played off as the naturally inclined couple that nobody actually sees coming. Really, it just feels like the writers shrugged and said “fuck it”. After it’s over, they have a half-season long downward spiral. Alice chooses a cardboard cut-out, Emmett chooses being a frigid bitch. Somehow, this leads to them having vivid hallucinations of the dead. I’m not kidding. It’s kind of a spirit guide moment. These shows didn’t even try to be different.
While Emmett is a shopgirl turned party planner and Alice is a journalist, They both strangely fall into ill-fated careers as a professional homosexuals on tv. Once they get tired of being tokenized and desexualized for the comfort of a straight audience, they get fired.
Debbie / Kit
The Diner/Liberty Avenue = The Planet. They’re both straight girl matriarchs who’ve fucked drag queens. You might not remember, but Michael’s biological father is none other than Divina Devore, resident Really Scary Drag Queen. As for Kit, the season ends so abruptly that absolutely nothing is resolved, but a relationship is clearly budding between her and Sonny/Sunset, her coworker and resident straight guy drag queen DJ of The Planet. That’s actually the second drag performer that Kit is involved with. She has a type.
Hunter / Max
I 100% know that I’m big-time trolling with this, but it still stands. They’re both lost boys who show up mid-series with annoying haircuts and get adopted into the family. Notably, their sexualities both get flipped from how we, the audience, are introduced to them. Hunter, the underrage street hustler whose clientele is all men, pulls the pag and turns out to be straight. And then everyone stood up and cheered, truly. Max, the trans man character comes to his male-centric sexuality after transitioning, describing his sexuality as more of a “same sex attraction” conditional to his own, instead of a static-gender attraction. At some point, they also both work at the café and are unsurprisingly terrible at it.
Melanie and Lindsay / Bette and Tina
We get it, they’re both lesbians! Okay, deeper than that, they’re both the on-again, off-again couple whose litigious and romantic drama become so repetitive that their storylines become a blur. They both have 2 kids by the end of their story. At the end of the series, Mel and Linds move to Canada while Bette and Tina plan to move to NYC. That is, before the incident…
Melanie (QAF) is a high-powered lawyer. Tina (L) returns to her career a high-powered movie producer.
Bette (L) and Lindsay (QAF) are both arts administrators and successful gallerists.
Lindsay and Tina are both mothers who temporarily lose themselves in their relationship to their partner and in the shift into motherhood. It should be noted that both are bisexual-ish and have relationships with their coworkers, although that’s super common in The L Word.
Justin / Tina
Chaotic evil. Do not like these characters or I’ll judge you. They have the personalities of non-fat yogurt, I DARE you to disagree.
In The L Word, homophobia is a whisper. Characters either interface with the straight world with an eerie ease or have their queer bubble extend conveniently into their professional life. With Queer as Folk, homophobia is the main adversary, roadblocking nearly every plot or character advancement. Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between. This key difference highlights the overall intent of each narrative. As mentioned earlier, The L Word is less interested in politics and more interested in representing queerness without adversity narratives. Beyond good intention, it casts the show in a gossamer of unreality and lands it firmly in the Uncanny Valley.
Nonmonogamy/Open Relationships/Fucking Around
In Queer as Folk, nonmonogamy is largely default. It’s a hair flip. Inversely, every character in The L Word has the intention of monogamy, but ultimately fails. Not kidding. Every relationship ends in infidelity. It gets really boring. Late in the series, Bette even calls out her cursed affliction as being able to love two at once, but can’t utter the word “polyamorous”. Once a cheater, always a cheater, Bette. Stop being gross.
The L-Word has i-fucking-conic cameos and guest stars. Marlee Matlin, Alan Cumming, Elizabeth Berkeley (from Showgirls, she was robbed of an Oscar due to anti-camp heterosensibilities), Cybill Shepherd, the actress from Flashdance plays Bette, Peaches, Tegan and Sara, Sleater-Kinney, Lucy Lawless, Gloria Steinem, Melissa Rivers, Sandra Bernhard, Snoop Dogg, Ariana Huffington, Jane Lynch, and fucking PAM GRIER.
Queer as Folk had Rosie O’Donnell and Cyndi Lauper, I guess. Cyndi Lauper got blown up by a bomb.
You already know this is gonna be a shit-show. Queer as Folk is whiter than Friends. If you did a Dylan Marron-style “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color”-style recap of the series, you’d get 30 seconds of dialogue over 5 seasons. That’s a generous estimate. There are also several trans women caricatures who can’t exist without cis characters referring to them as the t-slur.
In The L Word, you have a slightly more racially diverse cast, but many of them fall into stereotypes. Papi, aka Eva Torres, is an oversexualized Latina who is, strangely, played by Janina Gavankar, an actress of Indian descent. There’s nothing really wrong with Carmen’s character, she’s just played by Sarah Shahi who is of Iranian descent, not Mexican-American as the show makes abundantly clear. Tasha, Alice’s girlfriend near the end of the season, is Black and falls into the stoic survivor role as a way to not develop her character fully.
As far as the inclusion of trans characters, you have Max, a trans man character who is played by a cis actress. Max’s main flaw is that he gets roid-rage as a result of testosterone injections which is… shitty and a bit scaremongering. Other than that, he gets to advocate for himself and call out shitty transphobic behavior more than any character on that era of television. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but I do have to note that The L Word mentioned gender-neutral pronouns on tv in 2007, which is fairly impressive.
Before Max is Ivan, a questionably genderqueer/trans-male drag king who courts Kit in season 1. I say questionable because Ivan doesn’t yet have the words to define himself. You end up really feeling for this character and his unabashed self-exploration. This character’s main controversy is the conflation of drag and transhood. While sometimes these identities can be mutually informing and validating, there’s a feeling that Ivan out-of-drag is a sight gag, no matter how hard Kit fights for him.
Oh, and also famous deaf actress Marlee Matlin’s character is deaf. Watching the hearing characters virtue signal their way through mediocre signing is INCREDIBLE television.
In conclusion, Queer as Folk gets 3/5 stars with 50 bonus nostalgia stars, and The L Word gets 1 for trying with 1000 bonus stars for being possibly the only tv show ever about lesbians (Orange is the New Black doesn’t count). What makes these two shows endure, beyond being instantly available on Netflix, is fairly simple. They were the first of their kind and, even more importantly, they weren’t ashamed to be the first. They were deeply imperfect, possibly even bad, but somehow still more deeply resembled queer lives and queer-centric friendship bubbles than any heterocentric/mainstream drama with an inclusive streak would.
There’s a secret, queer version of the Bechdel test that exists. If two queer characters talk to each other outside the context of a sexual relationship, it passes as the very base for good representation. It also seems to qualify it as a guilty pleasure—a piece of media that is too pandering for an identity group that has had to find themselves hidden in metaphors or projected onto divas or stereotypes. What makes Queer as Folk and The L Word truly impressive is just how successful they were at making the first crack in the rhinestone ceiling.