Ideological Criticism Showtime's Drama Series Essay

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Thus, one must begin by noting that ideology reveals itself in rhetoric through certain words or phrases, which are frequently called "ideographs," after a term coined by Michael McGee in his 1988 essay "The Ideograph: A link between Rhetoric and Ideology" (McGee 1). Though in his essay McGee limits ideographs to single words, this study need not adhere to such a strict standard, especially because the essential function and effect of ideographs do not change whether one considers only single words or certain repeated phrases. McGee argues that ideology is expressed through rhetoric in the form of ideographs, discrete units of ideology in the form of certain words (or phrases) that work together to maintain "diachronic' and 'synchronic' patterns of political consciousness which have the capacity both to control 'power' and to influence (if not determine) the shape and texture of each individual's 'reality,'" (McGee 5).

In other words, ideographs are the visible points of larger ideologies, and these points, through their complex of historical and contemporaneous meanings, are the language through which ideology is expressed and perpetuated. McGee uses the examples of "law, 'liberty,' 'tyranny,' or 'trial by jury'" to demonstrate what he means by ideograph, because each of these words or phrases, while having multifarious meanings in general, nevertheless purport to "have an obvious meaning, a behaviorally directive self-evidence" when deployed in rhetoric (McGee 6). Thus, the self-cloaking tendency of ideology in general is reflected in a fractal way on the level of the ideograph itself, demonstrating just how pernicious this tendency is.

In the context of the L Word, then, the most important ideographs to consider are those words or concepts which concern themselves with differences of gender, sex, and sexuality, and furthermore, that purport to have consistent, self-evident definitions. As would be expected, then, the most importance ideographs for this study are precisely those that deal with these topics, such as "man," "woman," "bisexual," and "transgender." In addition, the title of the show itself forces one to include "lesbian" in this list, if only because by calling it "the L word" the show imbues it with some special importance.

In fact, the choice to call the show the L Word actually serves as the first clue as to its ideology, because although it purports to consider homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people equally, focusing on the term "lesbian" automatically implies that the show is primarily concerned with homosexual women above and beyond anyone who finds themselves elsewhere on the broad spectrum of human sexuality. This reveals an important assumption on the part of the show, and demonstrates some of the roots of its problematic representation of bisexuality and transgenderism. In short, the show assumes from the get-go that its focus, and its audience's expectations, will revolve predominantly around strictly homosexual women, because this is the subjectivity with the most authority. This makes sense, considering the fact that bisexuality was not even recognized as a distinct form of sexual expression until relatively recently, but it also highlights how the show, rather than pushing forward towards more expansive representations of different subjectivities, seems intent on taking the "safe" route by proclaiming itself to be primarily interested in that form of female sexuality deemed most acceptable in contemporary society (Herek 264, Schneider 73). (One can quite reasonably argue that the L Word's representation of lesbians is not substantially better than its treatment of bisexuals, because it depends so much on patriarchal conceptions of female homosexuality, but that is a topic for another study).

This focus on lesbian women specifically has been noted by previous critics, although without the attendant recognition that this focus comes at the expense of other characters (Moore 3). This focus on lesbian women specifically comes to the fore when considering the character of Alice, because she is the only self-identified bisexual on the show, even though other characters maintain romantic relationships with members of the opposite sex at various times. In "Losing it," Alice meets Lisa, a man who self-identifies as a lesbian in a man's body. While Alice is talking to her mother on the phone, Lisa talks with their mutual friend Shane, who tells him that Alice "doesn't want to be a lesbian anymore." He responds by saying "maybe I can change her mind," and in this moment the L Word reveals an underlying ideology that stands in stark contrast to its supposedly neoliberal focus on inclusion and equality.

While the introduction of Lisa, a "lesbian-identified man" seems intended to broaden the show's representation of different sexualities, the way it does this actually only serves to alienate bisexuals and reiterate, albeit in a modified form, some of the more atrocious assumptions previously used to diminish the identity and subjectivity of lesbians. When Lisa says "maybe I can change her mind," he is effectively reiterating a common misogynist trope regarding lesbianism, except in this case being a lesbianism is used to alienate and condemn bisexuality, whereas in the past, heterosexuality was used to alienate and condemn lesbianism. In short, the original version of this trope depended upon the assumption that female homosexuality was not actually a genuine phenomenon, but rather that lesbians were merely women who had not yet had sex with the "right" man. Thus, when Lisa says "maybe I can change her mind," he is repeating verbatim the same rhetoric which was previously used to deny lesbian women their sexual identities. The only difference is that the L Word changes the target of the slur; instead of denying female homosexuality, it implicitly denies and alienates female bisexuality by suggesting that Alice is in reality a lesbian, except she just has not been with the right one yet. That Lisa is actually a man matters very little, because within the rhetorical boundaries of the show, their relationship is considered a homosexual one, due to the fact that Lisa self-identifies as a lesbian. Thus, the L Word effectively discounts the possibility of genuine bisexuality, but manages to do it in such as way as to appear to be celebrating sexual diversity.

If the L Word's treatment of bisexuality is lacking, then its treatment of transgenderism is outright appalling. Moira's story begins relatively hopefully, with Jenny helping her in her transition to Max, as seen in the episode "Lonestar," but by the final season, Max has effectively turned into the show's token transgendered character, present only inasmuch as he can be used to make the show feel relevant to its immediate historical context. While more friendly responses to Moira/Max's transition have described her "as a stone butch who becomes a queer trans boi, moves through a female to male transgender identity that seems committed to binary gender identity and hegemonic masculinity, and finally, settles in to a more ambivalent relationship to masculinity and queerness," this gives Moira/Max far more agency than the show actually grants her, because it pretends that the various transitions in his/her life are indicative of a complex characterization, rather than a relatively blatant deployment of stereotype (Reed 170). Transgendered individuals lead lives just as complex and multifarious as anyone else, but rather than demonstrate this complexity, the L Word essentially relies on gimmicks and stereotypes in its representation of transgenderism (even if it does make some efforts to discuss the difficulty faced by transgendered individuals in the workplace) (Barclay and Scott 499).

To see how fully this is the case, one need only consider Max's eventual pregnancy, revealed in the episode "Leaving Los Angeles," in its immediate historical context. The episode aired in February 2009, just a few months after Thomas Beatie, "a transgender man who had had 'top' surgery and been on hormone therapy but had stopped taking testosterone in anticipation of getting pregnant," actually did become pregnant (Currah 330). Although the particulars of Max's pregnancy were somewhat different, the fact that the L Word had its sole transgender character get pregnant just a few months after a transgendered pregnant man became one of the hottest news topics reveals the extent to which it considers transgendered people as individuals, with lives as complex and varied as anyone else. In a show ostensibly concerned with representing the varied lives of women with different sexual preferences and identities, one must question what it means for said show to dramatically change the course of its only transgendered character's narrative in order for it to fit in with the most recent, well-known representation of a transgendered person in the media, regardless of how much of an outlier that representation is.

After examining how the L Word treats its bisexual and transgendered characters, it will now be possible to organize these representations into a coherent ideology. Firstly, it seems clear that the show considers bisexuals and transgendered people as somehow lesser, or at least less relevant, than strictly homosexual women. This is evidenced by the name the L Word, but also by the way the identities of its bisexual and transgendered characters are seemingly denied or alienated. Furthermore, the…[continue]

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