Who actually likes Jenny Schecter?
In the past few seasons of The L Word, Jenny, the queer/femme/Jewish/writer character played by Mia Kirshner, became a shrewd, shrill, social-climbing hussy the likes of which most people imagine abound in Hollywood. She fucked over her friends, toted around a small poofy dog at inappropriate times and places, treated her assistant so rudely you could only hope that said assistant would someday take her revenge (done! See season five), and was generally extremely unpleasant and completely egomaniacal. How could we possibly like Jenny? While she’s easy to hate, I want to take a closer look at Jenny and what she has represented throughout the six seasons of Showtime’s The L Word, because no female character this widely disliked – in the context of a television show for and about women, no less – could have arrived at that place without engaging in that set of behaviors which defines unacceptable, and in this case specifically Jewish, femininity. First season Jenny was insecure and grating, to be sure, but she was also confused and sometimes complex, name-checking Anne Carson (can‘t mess with that), taking psychedelics while hitchhiking, traversing coming out, and an exploring an emerging queer consciousness. She was making all the messy, embarrassing and inappropriate mistakes that we all do so often during our formative adult years, but viewers didn’t seem to be offering her the empathy or forgiveness that other equally intense characters, such as Resident Player Shane or stereotypical Power-Hungry Art World Icon Bette, often received. It wasn’t until the second season that I actually began to care for Jenny. I can’t say that the love continued past that season, but it did leave a small kernel of affection that wilted as each character-degrading season came and went. Second season Jenny Schecter was unraveling, uncomfortably and melodramatically, before our very eyes: confronting childhood sexual trauma (which, in this season, is inextricably connected to her Jewishness through rape flashbacks accompanied by Jenny singing prayers in Hebrew), exploring her identity as a newly out woman, and learning how to get angry. The moment that sealed the love for me was when Jenny confronted her creepy straight, male housemate, who had been secretly taping all the lesbian-going-ons of the house for use in documentary about “real” lesbian life. Her speech – a sort of third wave, riot grrrl-tinged litany against heteropatriachy and misogyny – was ferocious. Still, if you measured Jenny against all the negative stereotypes surrounding Jewish women, they are all present: shrill hysteria, entitled arrogance, nagging, confused identity. But, in the second season, and occasionally in moments thereafter, she also embodies the positive qualities of Jewish womanhood which I was witness to growing up: strength, smarts, conviction and a fiercely loyal protectiveness of those she loves.
Jenny’s Jewishness appeared most acutely in the second season, during her trauma flashbacks and early forays into navigating her new queer selfhood. Making the connection between those things was confusing at first, but started to make more sense as I realized that Jenny’s quiet singing reminded me so much of childhood. I remembered all the time spent singing those prayers in classrooms smelling like apple juice, full of boys in yarmulkes and abounding with concerns about fitting into a small, gossipy, JAP-y Jewish community. Jenny’s rape happened when she was a child, and those raised in even a conservative Jewish fashion know childhood is indeed often fraught with more religion than adulthood, when we often begin to rework or alter so much of the traditional faith and culture with which we’re raised. The writers of The L Word presented us with a story about the anxieties of Jewish sexuality and femininity which entwines the two rather than separating them, asking the viewers to integrate the different facets of Jenny’s experience and identity into an uncomfortable but realistic whole. After the second season, Jenny fell off the wagon of likeability entirely. We saw a brief bit of her family home in season three: Jewish parents who were unwilling to recognize their daughter’s childhood abuse, an unhappy, tense, and stilted relationship rife with – what else – guilt. We saw Jenny become a bestselling author, and from there, witnessed her ego and neuroses overtake and erase any of the previously explored positive qualities she had developed. Fame, money, and power sent Jenny spinning into a world where her self-centeredness eventually resulted in her dating the actress who played the character based on Jenny which she’d written in a manuscript which is turned into a film. (Very confusing and post-modern, I know; like most of The L Word the thought of expounding on that one makes me feel tired and frustrated.) I was surprised when the writers of this show – many of whom are lesbians themselves – decided to take the deeply moralistic path of killing Jenny in the sixth and final season. Though it makes sense dramatically (rumors of her impending death had been circulating the internet since season four aired), for The L Word to kill Jenny off was a distinctly un-feminist move. It plays into the very tired notion that the “bad” girl deserves punishment, must die for her sins and therefore remain fixed in time as a damned femme fatale, a warning lesson for wayward girls everywhere. Like Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Pandora’s Box or Mischa Barton’s Marissa on The O.C., Jenny was made to die because her transgressions were made to seem entirely unforgivable and two dimensional. In real life, very few – if any – people are quite so easy to pass off as completely unsalvageable, having a much more complex set of qualifiers than just “bitch.” Past season two, the writers gave us none of the depth or complexity of identity that Jenny had begun to explore in the first two seasons. Eventually, there was nothing likeable left to her; all we had was shrewish, self-obsessed Jenny, seemingly intent on making misery of her own life and everyone else’s around her. I want to end this post with some analysis from my friend Kate, one of the few people I know who doesn’t hate the character of Jenny Schecter. I emailed her asking what it was the made Jenny interesting to her, and not completely loathsome, and she responded with this critical and empathetic take on Jenny:
When The L Word began, Jenny was the character I felt closest to. She appeared to me to be the most sensitive, human representation of our community… I think that people hate Jenny because she is difficult to watch. Her struggles are visceral, embarrassing and painful: through her we see ignorance (lesbians can have babies?!), coming out, guilt-riddled deception, indecision, self-mutilation, sexual abuse and its aftermath. We watch her fall in love with someone who is clearly in love with someone else. We watch her trust people she shouldn’t, hurt people she doesn’t mean to hurt and hurt people she has every intention of hurting. We watch her experiment with a number of people who are obviously wrong for her simply because she is Trying to Figure Herself Out. We, the audience, SQUIRM every time we reach a scene involving Jenny. To me, that’s what makes Jenny believable and worth analysis. It’s what made her the deepest, most multi-faceted of the pack. The fact that she elicits such strong reactions from us (which are typically not sexual in nature or based on attraction, like the interest viewers might have in Shane or Bette) only proves, to me, that she was an indispensable part of making the otherwise ridiculous and ill-representative L Word worth watching. We squirm because we identify with her, even if we hate her. It’s like the writers dreamed up a cast of stereotypes and then decided to riddle one of them (the sexually confused one) with every single one of the hangups anyone in the community might experience. It may make her storylines difficult to watch, but I’ll take sympathetic discomfort over sex scenes designed to appeal to the hetero male gaze anyday. These comments refer to seasons 1-3. I can’t speak for her beyond Season 3, as I think that the writers/producers murdered her long before one of the characters was actually made to do so.”
In the end, Jenny was a terrible 2-dimensional rendering of her original self, but some of us still fondly remember the woman who delivered one of the best feminist monologues of the show’s history, who made mistakes and pissed people off and worked so desperately and uncool-y at figuring out her new queer self in the smoggy dreamscape of Los Angeles while also coming to terms with the scared, shy Jewish schoolgirl of her childhood. R.I.P. Jenny Schecter.