A Modern Portrayal of Lesbian Motherhood in The L Word
Showtime's television show The L Word (2004-2009) follows a fictional group of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women living in Los Angeles, including Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) and Tina Kennard (Laurel Holloman), who decide to have a baby together after dating for seven years. Tina first has a miscarriage; she undergoes another insemination with sperm the couple stored at a cryobank, but she does not tell Bette in case she loses another baby. Tina then discovers that Bette has been cheating on her, and the couple breaks up. While single, Tina learns that her second pregnancy attempt was successful, and after a brief period of deliberation, she decides that Bette deserves equal custody rights over her baby, who she names Angelica. For a while, Bette and Tina parent their daughter together outside of a romantic relationship, but eventually they reconcile and try to adopt another baby, a boy.
Through this portrayal of lesbian parenting, the show challenges the conventional understanding of motherhood as a biological urge and an act that is properly performed within a heterosexual marriage. Although in some ways, Bette and Tina emulate a traditional, two-parent household model, they also allow their friends and family to care for their child, while demonstrating that lesbianism and (good) motherhood are not mutually exclusive. Through the show’s positive depiction of their mothering and then its portrayal of the social and legal opposition the couple faces, The L Word challenges its audience to reconsider their understandings of and their opinions about motherhood.
Reproductive technology has made many kinds of motherhood possible in modern times, but dominant ideologies of motherhood still center on the ‘natural’ love women feel for their biological babies. Even Alex Kuczynski, who wrote a New York Times Magazine article about her experience with a gestational surrogate, could not stop worrying about circumventing “the natural order of things” and “the circle of life.”1 After asking herself, “Would I really be his mother? Was the key to motherhood carrying the baby?” she decides that birthing a child isn’t necessary to be its mother, so long as a genetic connection exists.2 Her husband comforts her by affirming this biological bond, and she affirms, “Our child did come out of me, from us,” referring to the day that her eggs were removed from her ovaries.3
Although a biological relation is still largely seen as a necessary component of motherhood, Bette and Tina challenge this assumption. Bette has no biological connection to their baby, but she is still portrayed as a parent with equal rights and responsibilities. At first, Bette chose an artistic donor in hopes that their child will then share her love of art, but after he is found to be infertile, the couple attempts to seduce a straight man into unknowingly fathering their child. Tina asks Bette if she is okay with this new plan, and Bette assures her, “I want to have a baby with you. And if we make it together, then that’s enough for me to know that it’s our baby.”4
This attempt is unsuccessful, so the women find another donor – Bette chooses a friend who is black, so the baby will “reflect who they are” (Bette is biracial), yet she knows and is comfortable with the fact that her baby is not her blood relation.5 Motherhood does not necessitate a genetic connection, according to these women, but instead it comes from the act of planning and preparing for a pregnancy. Once Bette learns that Tina is pregnant, she tries to convince Tina to give her an equal role in the life of their child. “We conceived of this baby together, we searched for a donor together, in fact, you know what? I found the donor,” Bette argues. “Marcus Allenwood is a friend of mine. And if we were husband and wife, this would be my baby.”6 Tina tells Bette she needs more time to think, but then she goes to see Helena, the lesbian mother Tina began dating after breaking up with Bette, and a conversation they have about Helena’s own children helps Tina to make up her mind. “Winnie and I have always said that even though she gave birth to Wilson, we both equally conceived of him,” Helena says of her ex-partner and their son. “I mean, for years we talked about it – we planned it. I helped dream this family into existence.”7 After hearing Helena’s story, Tina decides that Bette should have equal rights over the baby in Tina’s body. Both women continue to date other people during Tina’s pregnancy, but Tina brings Bette to the hospital to see the birth and Bette cuts the umbilical cord.
Bette and Tina raise Angelica together, but they do so with the help of their friends, Bette’s half-sister and a “manny” (male nanny), Angus.8 Bette even says to the baby, when she first brings her out to the waiting room to meet the couple’s close friends, “This is your family,” although the women are not genetically related to Angelica.9 This shared parenting arrangement sounds like the progressive movement bell hooks described in her article, “Revolutionary Parenting.”10 Hooks asserts that community-based childcare would relieve the responsibility traditionally imposed upon mothers, improve the lives of children who would then have many caretakers to learn from and look up to, and allow non-parents to also participate in childrearing.11 Bette and Tina model this progressive parenting arrangement for The L Word’s audience, and they show that it can be successful.
Even as they allow other adults to parent their baby, though, Bette and Tina also emulate a heteronormative household model. Eventually, Bette loses her job and Tina returns to work, but for all of Seasons 1 and 2 and the seven years prior, Tina functions as a housewife while Bette is the breadwinner. Having a baby helps to further legitimate their relationship; when the couple splits up and each woman hires a lawyer, for example, Tina’s attorney uses their first attempt at pregnancy to argue that their relationship was serious enough to merit a legal separation.12
Certainly, some would say that by conforming to a traditional, two-parent household model, Bette and Tina are ‘sell-outs’ who merely “reproduc[e] the status quo,” but self-identified ‘lesbian soccer mom’ Marlene G. Fine argues that “it is precisely because we transgress the norms while simultaneously embodying them that we are able to participate in revolutionary change.”13 She says that activism can take many forms, and she believes her own, day-to-day actions can be just as effective as radical movements: “The paradoxical nature of our lives creates the power to change the social structure – not through sweeping political reforms or social movements, but through daily acts of resistance to established cultural norms.”14 In some ways, Bette and Tina do conform to societal norms, but this does not hurt – and perhaps it even helps – the show’s efforts to (gradually) expand conventional understandings. Bette and Tina’s characters push their audience to redefine marriage and motherhood in a way that is relatable, not radical.
Tina’s attorney recognizes their relationship, but even after Tina is pregnant, other characters on the show still refuse to acknowledge their love and their lifestyle. When Bette first tells her father she and Tina are having a baby, for example, he coldly replies, “I don’t understand.”15 He tells his daughter that he is “not familiar with the proper response” to such an announcement, and when Bette suggests that he should be excited to hear that he is going to have another grandchild, he says, “That is biologically impossible,” and then, “I cannot realistically be asked to participate in this fiction of your creation.”16 The audience sees Tina grow so uncomfortable that she leaves the restaurant where the three characters are having lunch, and later, stoic Bette tears up thinking of what her father said. All of the characters are complex (none are portrayed only positively and few are vilified), but opposition to lesbian love and parenting is always shown to be artificial and hurtful.
Bette’s father finally approves of her partnership and her plans to become a parent just before he passes away, but in addition to social stigmatization, the couple faces legal obstacles. Just like the lesbian mothers that Ellen Lewin writes about, Bette and Tina have to justify their personal choices to strangers, and jump through hoops to prove that lesbianism and motherhood are not mutually exclusive.17 In an effort to gain formal rights over Angelica, for example, Bette has to try to convince a conservative social worker to approve a second-parent adoption. The woman challenges the couple to prove that the baby will have a strong male figure in her life, because she believes all children should be raised in two-parent, male-female homes. Bette tries to rope her sister’s son into agreeing to – or at least, into pretending that he will – fill that role, but even he says he doesn't think Angelica will have a normal, healthy childhood without a father figure.
The audience has seen nothing but positive examples of Bette and Tina’s parenting, but Bette’s adoption is not approved. Without successfully satisfying the social worker – and society's – norms, Bette has no legal rights over Angelica, despite their strong bond and her love for the baby. Bette realizes that if she chooses to take a job in New York, Tina could stay in California and keep Angelica with her, and so she eventually kidnaps the child out of desperation. The couple soon reconciles and Tina agrees to give Bette shared custody, but the audience is made aware that if she had not voluntarily done so, Bette would have had no rights or legal recourse.
The L Word is clearly shaped by its contemporary context, and in many way critiques modern conservativism – as Kinser writes, “mothering in the third wave means we are living and writing from a climate of increasingly conservative and other problematic US policies.”18In some ways, Bette and Tina choose to challenge heteronormativity by raising their child in a lesbian relationship with a male nanny and their friends, but even as “definitions of mothering and motherhood modify to accommodate the changing cultural landscape of the family,” laws and lesbian motherhood often come in conflict.19 The positive portrayal of Bette and Tina's parenting begs the same kinds of questions that have surfaced in other popular representations of motherhood, such as the fictional story of Anna and her daughter Molly in Sue Miller’s novel, The Good Mother (1986). What kinds of parenting arrangements are ‘proper,’ and, more importantly, who gets to decide? Should the state and the courts sanction certain kinds of households and ignore, or actively inhibit, those that do not conform? What battles should third-wave feminists fight next? Can women work within our current system – can change be gradual, or are radical reforms needed? Bette and Tina's mothering comes at the intersections of modern culture and politics, and The L Word challenges its audience to reconsider their own positions on what mothering could and should be in both the public and private realms.
Fine, Marlene G. "My Life as a Transgressor: Memoir of a Lesbian Soccer Mom." Mothering in the Third Wave. By Amber E. Kinser. Toronto: Demeter, 2008. 84-86.
Hooks, Bell. "Revolutionary Parenting." Maternal Theory: Essential Readings. By Andrea O'Reilly. Toronto: Demeter, 2007. 145-56.
Kinser, Amber E. "Thinking About and Going About Mothering in the Third Wave." Introduction. Mothering in the Third Wave. Toronto: Demeter, 2008.
Kuczynski, Alex. "Her Body, My Baby: My Adventures With a Surrogate Mom." New York Times Magazine, 28 Nov. 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/magazine/30Surrogate-t.html.
Lewin, Ellen. “Negotiating Lesbian Motherhood.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings. By Andrea O'Reilly. Toronto: Demeter, 2007. 370-389.
1.) Alex Kuczynski, "Her Body, My Baby: My Adventures With a Surrogate Mom," New York Times Magazine, 28 Nov. 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/magazine/30Surrogate-t.html.
4.) “Pilot,” The L Word: Season 1, Dir. Rose Troche, Writ. Ilene Chaiken, Showtime, Broadcast January 18, 2004.
5.) “Lawfully,” The L Word: Season 1, Dir. Dan Minahan, Writ. Rose Troche, Showtime, Broadcast February 15, 2004.
6.) “Lagrimas de Oro,” The L Word: Season 2, Dir. Jeremy Podeswa, Writ. Guinevere Turner, Showtime, Broadcast March 27, 2005.
7.) “Luminous,” The L Word: Season 2, Dir. Ernest Dickerson, Writ. Ilene Chaiken, Showtime, Broadcast April 3, 2005.
8.) The women’s way of addressing Angus highlights that he works in a profession that has traditionally be considered “feminine,” but at the same time, his character is still portrayed as a sexy, straight male subject.
9.) “Lacuna,” The L Word: Season 2, Dir. Ilene Chaiken, Writ. Ilene Chaiken, Showtime, Broadcast May 15, 2005.
10.) Hooks, "Revolutionary Parenting," Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, By Andrea O'Reilly, (Toronto: Demeter, 2007) 145-56.
12.) Tina’s attorney claims, “This wasn’t a marriage,” to which Bette’s attorney replies, “It wasn’t? Well, let’s see, we’ve got a house, cars, vacations, love, commitment, a promise to be true? A baby that was lost. A trust that was broken. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a marriage to me.” She then asks Bette, “Does that sound like a marriage to you?” and Bette admits, “It was.”
13.) Marlene G. Fine, “My Life as a Transgressor: Memoir of a Lesbian Soccer Mom,” Mothering in the Third Wave, By Amber E. Kinser (Toronto: Demeter, 2008), 85.
14.) Fine 85.
17.) Ellen Lewin, “Negotiating Lesbian Motherhood,” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, By Andrea O'Reilly, (Toronto: Demeter, 2007) 370-389.
18.) Amber E. Kinser, “Thinking About and Going About Mothering in the Third Wave,” Introduction, Mothering in the Third Wave (Toronto: Demeter, 2008) 4.
19.) Kinser 9.