American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

The L Word Menace: Envisioning Popular Culture as Political Tool

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Ethnic Studies

First Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Bill Albertini (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Jonathan Chambers (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Susan Peet (Committee Member)


This dissertation interrogates the intersections that may occur between media, culture, and politics through a case study of the audiences surrounding the popular television drama The L Word. While much of the press discourse related to the series is positive, often labeling it as groundbreaking television, the viewer response is much more diverse. Many individuals are deeply invested in the show and the ability to witness visual images of queer women in mainstream popular culture. However, other viewers are unsatisfied, if not angered, by The L Word's representations and storylines. I investigated these varied responses and the ways in which audiences have made use of the series. My methodology was mainly comprised of participatory ethnography, but was also complimented by an online survey, which generated over 100 responses. These were placed in conversation with a historical narrative of queer women's social and political interactions with popular culture, the economic framework that has been labeled the gay marketplace, and a theoretical framework comprised of several scholars. Employing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theories of the closet, I argued that queer individuals may have deep investments in visual representations because of the unique nature of their oppression, which is centered on invisibility. José Esteban Muñoz's work on disidentification presented a possible rationale for audiences that continue to interact with the show, despite its unsatisfactory aspects. Finally, Henry Jenkins' theories of convergence culture provided an understanding of how the Internet and new media influences audience interaction and use value, and his theories on fan communities' extensions into political arenas helped support my contention that the actions of The L Word's viewers may even hold implications for the wider queer women's social and political movements. These ethnographic, historical, economic, and theoretical frameworks, when taken together, helped explain audience reaction to, interaction with, and use value of The L Word. Finally, this project has illustrated that the consumption of media and popular culture is an increasingly complex terrain, and as scholars, it is necessary for us to examine not only cultural texts but also the audiences interacting with these in order to gain a stronger understanding of a cultural production's significance.