‘The Real L Word’ takes on a life of its own

There is so much drama going on in Romi Klinger’s life right now. Her ex-girlfriend Whitney is dating her friend Sara, who has brainwashed Whitney into thinking Romi is evil. And Romi is worried what her other friends will do when they find out about Romi’s new relationship — with a man.

“Lesbians can be really harsh toward women who sleep with men again. It’s like, ‘What is she doing? Is she a real lesbian?’” Romi asks the camera. It’s a question that has serious consequences for her personal and work life, since Romi is a star of “The Real L Word” — the Showtime reality TV series that entered its third season this past week. The show was originally inspired by Showtime’s scripted ensemble drama “The L Word,” which was in turn inspired by writer-producer Ilene Chaiken’s own experiences in the Hollywood dating scene — real lesbians inspired by fictionalized lesbians inspired by real lesbians.

“The Real L Word”: An earlier version of this article said that “The Real L Word” is Showtime’s top-performing unscripted show; it is actually Showtime’s top-performing unscripted show in prime time.

So what is a real lesbian? That’s a pointed question that’s been lobbed at Chaiken since she launched “The L Word” in 2004 with a cast of fictional characters — from androgynous wild child Shane to bisexual trans-man Moira (later, Max) — and carved out a rare televised space for lesbian narratives.

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“‘The L Word’ was in many ways inspired by my life, by people I knew, by a culture and a lifestyle I had experienced,” Chaiken said, speaking by phone from London. But since no one else was telling these stories, some expected Chaiken to tell all of them. Some critics deemed her Hollywood cast of characters “glamorized”; one reviewer called the relationships on the show “a Joey Tribbiani fantasy about girl-on-girl make-out sessions.”

When the series ended and Showtime picked up a reality version, Chaiken seized the opportunity to “make true my claim that it was real, that it was less a fantasy than a lot of people thought it was.”

Of course, reality television offers its own form of fantasy. The question is not whether “The Real L Word’s” shower sex sessions and vodka soda bar fights between lithe, long-haired lesbians are orchestrated by producers (for the record, Chaiken says that the series is “completely unscripted”). The question is whether the women tapped to be taped by Chaiken’s cameras represent the true breadth of the lesbian experience or just a carefully selected feedback loop of Chaiken’s own fictionalized archetypes.

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Chaiken says the reality show was never a serious effort to replicate the story lines of her scripted show; it was a “continuation of my desire to tell lesbian stories.” But she’s found that “reality as a genre is tricky, problematic, interesting, challenging” — and that reality television narratives can actually be more difficult to make “real” than scripted ones. Take Bette Porter, the scripted series’ fortysomething half-black art world dynamo, portrayed by Jennifer Beals. “The challenge is that a woman like Bette Porter is not going to be on a reality show,” Chaiken says.

The opportunity is more likely to attract younger, less established women willing to stake their careers on whatever personal image the reality TV machine churns out for them, like Whitney Mixter, the tattooed, dreadlocked ex-girlfriend to Romi and many of the show’s young stars. Once a Hollywood special effects artist and after-hours party girl, she is now a professional lesbian — attracting loyal fans to her paid club appearances, blasting the results to her 53,000-plus Twitter followers, and then talking all about it back on the show.

“Since last year, I’ve been traveling a lot, doing appearances, hosting parties, and things have changed,” she says in the Season 3 opener. Chaiken is now running a lesbian reality show about lesbian reality stars, many of whom grew up watching the original.

The result is that “The Real L Word” is even more Hollywood than its predecessor. Though the show has made efforts to diversify its cast by age (Cori and Kacy, a married couple struggling to conceive), race (Season 2’s Sajdah, a black anti-Prop 8 activist), and coast (Season 3 throws Brooklyn riot grrrls into the mix), it is largely younger, drunker, sexier and whiter than the original.

But it represents an enormous improvement on previous televised relationships between women, romantic and otherwise, according to Jennifer Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.” When the reality television genre exploded in 2000, it was “very much based on the worst of heteronormative stereotypes,” says Pozner. “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” launched “a decade’s worth of tropes of women as stupid, gold-digging, pathetic losers who can never be happy without husbands.”

And despite the narrowing of perspective, “The Real L Word” actually attracts a slightly broader, less female audience than the original show (61% to the scripted show’s 69%). Showtime says “The Real L Word” is its top-performing unscripted show in prime time, averaging more than a million viewers in its first two seasons. (It has not caught up to the scripted series, however, which averaged 1.8 million in its final season.)

Chaiken knows that “the community of ‘The Real L Word’ is much more representative” than the one she is able to show on the screen every week. She struggles within reality television’s confines to produce a show that is still “enlightening the conversation” around the lives of lesbian women, she says.

“Reality takes on its own reality. The show took a life unto itself. It’s become a very different show that portrays very different characters,” Chaiken says, before stopping herself. “They’re real people, so I’m not sure it’s right to call them characters.”


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