Writer, producer and director Ilene Chaiken is best known and beloved for gifting the world with "The L Word."
The wildly popular, groundbreaking lesbian drama premiered on Showtime in 2004 and ran for six seasons. In 2010 Chaiken returned to Showtime -- and familiar turf -- with "The Real L Word," a reality series which follows the lives of lesbian and bisexual women living in Los Angeles.
As "The Real L Word" prepares to wrap its third season -- the finale airs on Thursday, September 6 at 10pm ET on Showtime -- The Huffington Post Gay Voices chatted with Chaiken about the one thing she wishes she'd been able to do differently with "The Real L Word," her thoughts on marriage equality, the topic on "The L Word" that caused her to "buckle under" fan pressure and more.
The Huffington Post: Where were you when the idea for "The L Word" first came to you?
Ilene Chaiken: I have 17-year-old twin daughters and the initial inspiration came when they were two. We went to visit some friends in Spaulding Square and I was sitting on the doorstep with some friends and I realized there was this community of gay people -- mostly women but some men even then -- who were having children. It struck me as a phenomenon at the time and I wanted to write about it but I knew I would never be able to sell a movie idea. I was writing movies at the time -- I had never written television before -- and I told my then agent and he said "Let's do a magazine article." I actually pitched it and sold it to Los Angeles magazine. They did a cover story on the gay baby boom. I think it was like 1999. I had never written a magazine article before. And about that time I was writing a movie for Showtime and when the article was published I went to Showtime and said, "What do you think about doing a TV show about lesbians in Los Angeles?" I was pretty much laughed out of the room. They said, "Cool idea but even for our progressive network, it's not happening." Then a year later they did "Queer As Folk." So I went back to them and I said, "You're doing one about boys, why not one about girls?" And they decided it was a cool idea whose time had come.
That was only 10 years ago. It's crazy to think how far we've come since then.
Do you feel that "The L Word" and "The Real L Word" are partly to thank for the progress that's been made in terms of queer visibility?
I would never deign to say that "The L Word" or "The Real L Word" changed the culture. I think that we rode the culture wave. It was time. It was bound to happen. I was lucky enough to step into the path and catch the wave. We got to do something that no one had gotten to do because the time was right and I'm sure in some small way we also moved the conversation forward.
How much pressure did you feel to accurately represent lesbian lives? Was that overwhelming?
Even then I knew I would never be able to represent lesbians or lesbian lives. I knew that my only responsibility was to make the best TV show I could and to entertain people and to talk about a small group of fictional characters and create a world for them to exist in. I didn't anticipate the success of the show but even without knowing that it would be successful I knew that I would get criticized for not representing everybody and I just would have to be able to handle that because there was no way that I could.
I hear the same thing every day about HuffPost Gay Voices. It's a huge challenge to try and represent everyone. You just have to be mindful and try to be as inclusive as possible.
I follow your site and there are a lot of different points of view -- you certainly get to represent a lot more points of view than one TV show can. And it's so difficult because there's one point of view that's going to upset a whole lot of other people and you have to put it out there and it's interesting to put it out there and it's what it's all about.
You once said of your work with "The L Word": "I rail against the idea that pop television is a political medium. I'm not a cultural missionary." Do you feel differently about "The Real L Word"?
I feel even more that way because it's less in my control. I don't control the stories. I play a large role but I'm certainly not the sole determiner in casting the show and choosing the people who agree to share their lives with us. There are loads of people that I might really want to represent who aren't interested in being on "The Real L Word" for any number of reasons. Once we make those choices and once they come forward and say, "We're in! Let's do this!" -- I'm out. They're living their lives and speaking their truths and whatever they have to say, it's not within my control and it's not my mission or my message. I'm extremely grateful to them and proud of the show -- especially this year. But I'm also well aware that we're only representing a very small swath of the lesbian community. And that the people who agree to be on a reality show are part of an even smaller swath.
Is there one particular storyline or demographic or group that you wish you could have represented but you just couldn't find the right person or people to cast?
This is a really tricky question to answer and I'm leery of even addressing it, but I will by saying that I absolutely wish that there was more diversity on the show -- and I'm not just talking about racial diversity, though that's certainly part of it. But I wish we could represent a more diverse group of gay women and it's proven difficult.
Did you realize how groundbreaking "The L Word" was going to be? Or were you taken by surprise?
I knew that these stories weren't getting told on television. I don't think that I anticipated that it would have the kind of power or meaning to a large of people that it did. That was absolutely the most gratifying thing about doing the show. It was loads of fun -- but that was amazing.
10 years later, is it easier to pitch a queer show and have it be greenlit or just as hard?
It's just as hard. I would say this and it's very specific and it's an entertainment industry specificity: There are some great comedies on television with gay characters but show me a drama.
I can't think of any.
There isn't one. It's barely changed and since "The L Word" and "Queer As Folk" went off the air, we are back where we are before they came on the air -- unrepresented and occasionally represented as ancillary characters like best friends or fifth year members of an ensemble cast. You know, in the fifth year of a show that's very solid and secure they can decide to let a character "go gay." Other otherwise it's guest stars who get murdered.
You're behind the scenes, you're in these conversations with executives. Why, even though we're seeing more progress in terms of LGBT visibility overall, do you think it's still so difficult to get a show like that on the air?
I think for all the same reasons that I won't enumerate because it's not in my best [professional] interest to do so [laughs]. I think there's a genuine wish to be inclusive on the part of pretty much every entertainment company. But when it comes to all the decisions that have to be made and everything that has to be factored into those decisions, it just still is a huge, huge uphill battle for us.
Speaking about the issue of marriage equality, the New York Times said of the last season of "The L Word," "The series has never aligned itself with the traditionalist ambitions of a large faction of the gay rights movement. " Whether or not you agree with that, that statement obviously isn't true for "The Real L Word." How important do you see marriage equality being for the LGBT rights movement and talk about how it's played out on the show.
It's obviously hugely important for our movement. It's central. It's become the issue by which we're defining our struggle for equality. I can remember a time not that long ago when we said "Marriage? That's low down on our list. There are so many other things that are more important to us." I know not everybody felt that way, but a lot of activists felt like this is not the thing we are going to lay ourselves down for. And yet, I think that a lot of folks were stunned when it became the galvanizing issue and it seemed to be within our grasp. Now it is and now it represents so much and it's so clear and whether or not you want to get married or I want to get married -- I do, by the way -- it's undeniable, it's unifying and it represents everything that we clearly need to accomplish in order to simply have equality.
It's become symbolic.
Exactly. It's still a choice -- no one is compelling anyone to get married but it's just absurd to think that it's a choice that any group of people wouldn't or shouldn't have. It's become the central issue of our movement and it's been embraced not just by activists but by a large part of the mainstream as incontrovertible. To that end, I think it's been great that on our little reality show we've had the chance to tell that story in so many different ways. What I love about this subject on the show is that it's not just one couple getting married, we have a bunch of married people. It makes the point that we're just like everybody else -- that we're so much like the mainstream, that we have all kinds of different marriages and that this is what people do as they grow and evolve in their relationships.
Another topic that the show unflinchingly featured was Kacy and Cori's struggle to start a family and the trauma that unfolded when they lost the baby girl approximately five months into Cori's pregnancy.
Kacy and Cori -- more than anybody else -- I'm just so grateful to them for being on the show because what they've gone through is painful and private and they've incredibly, generously shared it with us -- and therefore the world -- and I know it wasn't easy for them and I know they had reservations about it. When they first came onto the show last season they were just a young, married couple who wanted to start a family and we were just going to follow them and see how that all played out. Instead, they've been through something that has nothing to do with being gay. It has only to do with things that are so important to so many people and are rarely talked about and rarely shared in such an intimate way. I think it's an important story for gay people because it brings us into a conversation in a way that just has nothing to do with our sexual orientation. And it's an important story for couples dealing with fertility issues, for people who have been through comparable things. One of the things that we love about making television is that we get to give comfort to people by sharing experience.
Someone that I was thinking about when I was preparing to talk to you was Bryan Fischer, an anti-gay radio show host, who recently said -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that it is the duty of Christian people to kidnap the children of gay parents and liberate them from their destructive gay families. So I think about your show and how it puts faces on LGBT families and how important that is and how, despite what you've said about not making a political statement, that is political -- and much needed.
Firstly, life is political. So, these women are making important political points simply by living their lives. The makers of the show aren't doing it. The fact that we're providing a forum for them to live their lives openly -- I readily admit has impact and political meaning.
Is that important to you personally?
I'm also curious about your feelings on bisexuality and how it plays into the show and into the lesbian community. We recently had a blogger write a blog where she stated, "If bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men." And we got a lot of really angry responses to that. But I think it's an interesting perspective. And I'm wondering what you've encountered -- because to have a show that's about lesbian women and to also talk about bisexuality -- I feel like some viewers might bristle at that.
Some people clearly have bristled at it. I find that blogger's point of fascinating and provocative -- I'm not sure I agree with it, however I would never challenge anyone's right to express an opinion. I've wanted since I did "The L Word" to talk about bisexuality because it seems -- clearly -- a big part of our story. I think for all gay people -- I suspect for women even a little more than men, although I have no empirical information about that -- firstly, we all had to come out. There was a presumption on most of us at some point that we were heterosexual and we had to realize that we weren't and grapple with it in every possible way. We are all aware that there is a sliding scale of sexual orientation in some sense. Some people are explicitly, devoutly -- or however you want to characterize it -- gay and some people are more inclined to bisexuality in one way or another.
One of the big lesbian stories has always been women who come out, are with women for a while and then go back to men -- for any number of reasons and there are a huge number or reasons why that happens. I wanted to tell that story on "The L Word" because I was I wanted to tell as many of our stories as I could. But I had a hard time doing it because the fans of "The L Word" were so dedicated to the Bette/Tina relationship -- they loved the character of Tina so much. I got so much anger for letting the Tina go back to men. Because I was in control of it, I buckled under the pressure. When I had originally envisioned that story I had just thought of Tina as a person who would have a relationship with Bette and then when that relationship broke up, her next relationship would be with a man and I thought I'd get to tell that story. And I didn't get to really explore it in that way. But in "The Real L Word" -- because it's real life -- it just came to us and I was pleased to be able to represent that experience.
What are reactions to bisexuality being featured on the show now like versus during "The L Word"?
I have mostly heard from Romi [the bisexual cast member of "The Real L World"] directly. I haven't been that engaged with the fan reactions -- they aren't, for some reason, as easy for me to track as they once were -- the conversations take place in so many different forums. But Romi has gotten a lot of hate. It could be for all kinds of reasons but certainly some of it has just been that reaction that you're talking about from a community that feels if you're not with them, you're against them.
It's fascinating and nuanced and there's so much in it. We all recognize that discriminating against someone because of whom they love is a bizarre thing for a gay person to do, and yet, there's still a great many people just feel like "She betrayed us, she's not one of us anymore, we don't love her anymore."
As this season comes to an end, what closing thoughts do you have about "The Real L Word"?
After watching the most recent episode of the show, I really felt like for the first time the show has come together in a way that makes me really proud. The people who are participating in it are leading these very rich lives and they're leading them in front of the camera and they're doing things that I feel are really enlightening the conversation and it's very cool to see that the show and our lives have evolved in such a way.
The finale of the third season of "The Real L Word" airs Thursday, September 6 at 10:00pm ET on Showtime. For more info, visit the show's official website. For more from Ilene Chaiken, follow her on Twitter.
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