Representations of the Phallus within “The L Word”

Sitting in class on Thursday I realized that there was some sort of, cosmic, significant reason for my recent obsession with the Showtime series The L Word (I’ve watched five seasons in two weeks). It was to my surprise and excitement that, as part of a discussion regarding the universal unstable nature of the phallus as so eloquently (difficultly) put by Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter, we began analyzing a set of photographs by the artist Catherine Opie entitled “Being and Having.” I quickly realized that selections of the collection of photographs were highlighted during the intro to every episode of The L Word. I, however, had never known the significance or thought behind this collection of portraits.

“Being and Having”

I would have never known the extensive meaning and specific significance of the title of Opie’s collection had I not been well versed in class regarding Freudian psychoanalytic theory. According to Freud, men “have” the phallus, and because women can not obtain the phallus, they can only “be” the phallus. This is the analytical point where Judith Butler, and Catherine Opie, interject with their theory collapsing reconfigurations of Freudian psychoanalysis. Butler states in chapter two of Bodies that Matter entitled “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary” that, “…from the metonymic trajectory of Freud’s own text, the ambivalence at the center of any construction of the phallus belongs to no body part, but is fundamentally transferable…” (Butler 32).

Because the phallus is not materialized as the penis has been and can be recognized as purely discourse, which Butler articulately (mind bogglingly) has explained, its origins are transferable and can be realized through the performance of certain attainable actions and/or characteristics. Opie clearly demonstrates this phenomena regarding the phallus’ assignable or negotiable quality within “Being and Having,” in that the sex/gender of her subjects is ambivalent. As an observer, one is quick to assume the “phallic nature” of Opie’s subjects, however the observer is left in the dark when it comes to the actual details that define that nature. For instance, we, as mere observers, do not know weather the subject “has” or “is” a phallus, in Freudian terms, but we know they exude the phallus because of their physical apperance. The conclusion Catherine Opie helps bring those analyzing gender through art come to, is that the proper Freudian psychoanalysis is arbitrary once one realizes that the phallus is a transferable phenomena defined through discourse.

Opie’s work, however, is not the only place in which the non-stagnant nature of the phallus comes to the surface on The L Word.

In season three, we are introduced to Moira Sweeney, whom we learn soon there after, will come to identify as the transitioning FTM, Max. At first, Moira identifies as a butch lesbian, but learns through a process of self examination and growth (condensed down to one or two episodes) that she feels more herself as Max, and chooses to identify as male. It is through top and bottom surgery, changes to the supposed “material” body, that Max is assuming he will obtain the phallus. Max is surprised to find during one of the many sex scenes systematically sprinkled throughout each episode, however, that he is able to feel comfortable being intimate with a woman without the traditional, Freudian marker of “having” the phallus, a penis.

It is through his personality, assertiveness, dress, and typically masculine characteristics that allow him to, otherwise, attain the phallus.

OK, I’ll admit it; The L Word has systematically sexed up what it portrays as the every-day lives of (extremely wealthy) queers, and lesbians living in LA. And while I know its many misrepresentations have come under fire by those who feel it inadequately typifies anyone who identifies as non-hetero normative, it does seem to attempt to dismantle the material nature of the sexed body in regards to what it means to uphold and obtain the phallus, as seen through Max’s character development, as well as the art and artist portrayed at the very beginning of each and every episode.

And who’s to say its not entertaining, huh?

Jake, 1991

-Sally Stempler


2 thoughts on “Representations of the Phallus within “The L Word”

  1. Very interesting.. I never thought of the phallus as a psychological construction or something to work to obtain. Great writing too!! Is that a picture of Max?

  2. Thanks for the comment rae beanz!!! The picture is actually one of the portraits from Catherine Opie’s collection, “Being and Having.”

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