Social media and success The L Word way

The L Word ended on Showtime in March. For people like me who don’t have Showtime, the final season is just now coming out on DVD. We are finally getting to see season 6 and watch how the series ended.

I say “watch how the series ended” carefully, rather than “watch how everything turned out.” The series ends with a lot of unanswered questions. Even though I haven’t seen it yet, I know it made a lot of fans unhappy to be left with plot lines hanging and odd character developments. I remember leaving the theater after seeing John Sayles Limbo, so angry about the ending that I wanted to kick the walls. I’m hoping with the last L Word DVD has played and I’ve seen it all, I won’t contemplate kicking the walls. I’m hopeful, but I see how other fans have reacted. I might want to wear tough shoes when I roll the last episode, and stock up on sheetrock.

The wait for season 6 to arrive on DVD has given me some distance from the story lines and my interest in knowing what is going on in the lives of the characters. That distance has led to some reflection about the phenomena of The L Word and its rise to success.

The L Word started in 2004. It was a cast of mostly women–usually at least 8 or 9 major female characters in the story line at all times–and few men. That fact alone is big. BIG. The L Word wasn’t a series with 4 men and 1 woman who just tags along doing whatever the men do. Not 5 male cops and 1 female cop. Not 4 male lawyers and 2 female lawyers. Not 4 men friends and a couple of occasional female sidekicks. Not 6 male doctors and 2 female doctors. No, this was women’s stories, women’s lives.

Grant me that: a series about women is a big deal. As it would be if another one made it on air today.

These women were different from the usual stories about nurses or doctors or army wives that deal with women. That’s because all the main characters except one were some variation on not straight. That’s another BIG deal. Gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and several other points along the gender scale were depicted by major and minor characters in the course of the series.

@chookooloonks tweeted a TED Talks video by Chimamanda Adichie about “The Danger of the Single Story.” I hope you take 20 minutes to listen to this video, but I’ll summarize by saying that we form opinions and stereotypes about people, countries, cultures, religions, and many other things based on a single story, a single idea. That can include a single idea about gender or sexuality. My reply tweet was that the single story of most American television is white, male, and straight. To me, The L Word is important simply because it departs from that monovision.

Grant me that: a series about lesbians is a big deal. As it would be if another one made it on air today.

The dramatic hooks that come with stories about women who are not straight are both personal and political. You get stories about relationships and character development, work life and everyday life. You also get politically charged plot lines about things like:

  • dealing with family reactions to sexuality issues
  • dealing with the medical establishment when a loved one is ill
  • having children
  • adopting a child in a lesbian relationship
  • dealing with hate-related discrimination
  • dealing with work-related discrimination
  • dealing with don’t ask, don’t tell
  • wanting to marry a life partner
  • coming out to family, but also to the public when it may affect a career
  • changing gender identification
  • abortion decisions and services

The two big-name stars, Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier, play half-sisters. Women of color filled other major character roles as well. This allowed story lines around racial politics.

The political climate of the Bush adminstration factored into the show, too. It could hardly be avoided at a time when progressive thinking was gaining political traction and a majority of people were eager for change.

Gays and lesbians were in the news. From propositions on state ballots to famous lesbians getting married, sexual identity was on people’s radar and under discussion.

Creative Primetime Emmy Awards 2008 - Los Angeles, CA

Let’s narrow down the discussion to the star of The L Word–Jennifer Beals. Jennifer Beals was in something like 50 movies before The L Word started. Jennifer Beals has always been able to deliver her lines in a convincing manner. She’s always been able to show any emotion with her face, her posture, and those expressive eyes. She’s always looked fabulous in a tank top, a power suit, or a beautiful dress.

In The L Word, Jennifer Beals showed her talent while looking extremely good, every week, on TV. But, instead of playing opposite Campbell Scott or Denzel Washington, she played opposite Laurel Holloman or Marlee Maitlin. A weekly look at Jennifer Beals from the living room couch in a show that ran for 6 seasons adds up to a lot of visibility.

social media

Other things were going on in the world between 2004 and 2009. Call it Web 2.0 or the explosion of social media or the rise of community. Whatever you call it, it’s a BIG deal. There was now a place to discuss what you were watching each week with the world at large. There was the weekly deconstruction of every episode of The L Word on afterellen, where people could and did comment about all things Jennifer.

There were and are fan sites devoted to Jennifer Beals or to Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman (the players of Bette and Tina, a couple dubbed Tibette by fans). People can and do comment, visit and talk about their feelings regarding Tibette. The L Word stars were the subject of intense discussion. Check out, One More Lesbian or Dorothy Surrenders.

Showtime put Jennifer Beals in special features, podcasts, interviews, and every other type of promotion they could come up with to market the show.

For a while, there was even a site called Our Chart, a social community based on a key concept from The L Word called the chart. The chart is a visual map of relationships intended to show how connected we all are. Fans went to to talk about the show, and about Jennifer Beals. (Since the series ended, this site has moved back into the Showtime web space.)

Don’t forget YouTube. There are now over 3500 videos on YouTube related to Jennifer Beals, many of them clips from The L Word. With comments.

So. Fans are seeing Jennifer Beals in the living room once a week. They’re discussing her on a favorite social media site. They’re invested in Jennifer Beals. She’s an icon among fans of The L Word and has acquired a multitude of avidly loyal fans from around the world. Her fan base has expanded, dare I say it, dramatically.

I’m not saying Jennifer Beals doesn’t deserve to be an iconic figure with millions of fans worldwide. She’s talented, she’s gorgeous. But she’s been both talented and gorgeous for a long time. So what am I saying?

Take a look at this table at Evolution: The Eight Stages Of Listening from Web Strategy by Jeremiah Owyang. When I look at this table, I place what Showtime and The L Word accomplished in terms of interaction with their audience at about step 6 or 7. Do you agree with that placement? I think they got social media right, partly because of their own efforts, partly because the fans were so enthusiastic.

Have you read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell? The description at Amazon says,

Challenging our cherished belief of the “self-made man,” he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don’t arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: “they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, “some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.”

One of Gladwell’s theories in the book is that people who put in the time to master something (according to him, it takes 11,000 hours) are ready when the moment arrives to become superstars using what they’ve mastered.

Keynote panel

Ilene Chaiken, second from left, in a Keynote Panel at BlogHer09

Here’s part of what I’m saying—there were a “tide of advantages” that brought The L Word and its leading actress to the place where they are today. Let’s check them off:

  1. Ilene Chaiken, the creator and producer of The L Word spent years getting to the point of being ready to seize the opportunity of the moment with this show. She had the idea, the dream. She’d pitched it before—several times—with no luck. She knew the stories, knew the lives. She’d put in her 11,000 hours. She was ready.
  2. Jennifer Beals worked in 50+ movies and many TV shows since Flashdance in 1983. She was ready to be the lead character in a series that was bold and different.
  3. The topic was women. Millions of people were hungry for stories about women.
  4. The women were not straight. Millions of people were hungry for stories about lesbians and other non-straight characters.
  5. The politics surrounding this kind of content was accepting enough that Showtime was willing to give it a chance.
  6. Web 2.0. Social media. Community sites. Blogs. Millions of people were online every day seeking community and connection to others of a similar mind. They seized the opportunity to talk about every minute detail of The L Word with great passion.
  7. Conventions. Not Star Trek Conventions. L Word Conventions. Taking media into the real world on global stages in numerous locations.

And it came to pass that The L Word rode that tide of advantages to the top. It made an icon of Jennifer Beals. It made Ilene Chaiken an influential name in the creative community of TV and movies. It carried a slew of actresses, web sites, community sites, and discussion boards along with it.

I know I’m leaving out a great deal by tying the idea of The L Word up within loops of social media. I haven’t mentioned how sexy the show was, for example. Sex is factor in success—just look at True Blood. I haven’t mentioned any of the criticisms of the show, and there are many. But, hey, that’s what comments are for. Can you add something you think figures into this particular story?

Maybe you’re not blogging about lesbians, or running fan sites about TV stars, or pitching ideas to Showtime. But you do have a passion for something. Keep at it, keep putting in your time, develop mastery. Be ready to ride the wave of your own tide of advantages. Keep up with what’s changing and learn how to use those changes to achieve your own goals. Work it. That’s what I’m saying about success.

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

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