Reclaiming The L Word’s Jenny Schecter as a Writerly Anti-Hero
Amy Zimmerman Thinks We Ought to Take the Much-Maligned Character More Seriously
The first time The L Word’s Jenny Schecter sees lesbians cavorting in the pool next door, her perpetual wide-eyed stare somehow manages to get even bigger. Soon, she is having an affair with a woman and lying to her boyfriend, staying up late in the studio he built her to write bad sapphic poetry.
One manic morning, she gushes to her old writing professor about a recent bout of writing productivity. Her boyfriend, standing next to her in the kitchen, rolls his eyes as she flirts through the phone. “I killed Sarah Schuster last night,” Jenny says slyly, referring to her own alter ego, who is also the protagonist of her short stories.
It’s an unappealing moment. As The L Word went on, viewers were given plenty of reasons to dislike Schecter; faced with some small amount of career success, she becomes fame-hungry, status-obsessed, and terrible to be around. Still, over the years of L Word fandom, there have been many attempts to reclaim Jenny Schecter from ignominy: to meaningfully engage with this high-femme Frankenstein, abandoned by her own creators. Critics have defended Jenny against the flattening of her character in later seasons of the show, which felt incongruous with how she had first been framed; they also pointed out the problematic implications of turning Jenny, a traumatized character, into a villain.
Jenny deserves all of this: to be avenged and reclaimed as an anti-hero, a queer Jewish woman in all of her complexities, a survivor and a truth-teller, a fearless dresser—and a pioneer of primetime piss play. Above all, though, Jenny deserves to be recognized as a writer. Acknowledging Jenny as a writer first and foremost isn’t just what the character herself would have wanted; it’s also the only way that her life (and, in season 6, her death) begin to make sense.
As a writer, Jenny Schecter is recognizable, even relatable, but never aspirational. Unlike other television characters who write, Jenny doesn’t make it look fun or easy. She’s not an Ivy League grad who sleeps with her sources or a staff reporter who gets away with writing one short personal essay a week. Laboring over a blank computer screen in her boyfriend’s remodeled shed, drafting yet another short story about her childhood trauma, Jenny is basically a cautionary tale for would-be writers. But for those of us who are already resigned to the life, Jenny offers plenty of lessons. Throughout the series, she plays out a number of writer-specific archetypes, from the over-exposed young personal essayist to the bad art friend who exploits relationships for content. Like a rebellious older sister, Jenny makes mistakes so the rest of us don’t have to.
If there’s a main takeaway from Jenny’s writing journey, it’s not to fuck up your life for creative fodder. Jenny turns this common, juvenile instinct into an art form. She suffers stupidly, throws herself headfirst into triggering situations, and hurts herself over and over again in the hopes of putting something on the page. When her boyfriend abandons her in a hotel room hours from home, Jenny hitchhikes with teenagers and takes their drugs, then goes off alone to climb a mountain. Throughout this experience, she is writing a series of letters to her ex in which she offers to give him all that she has left: her rotting organs, carved out one by one. Jenny sees these letters, her writing, as an extension of her own being. But she doesn’t yet know how to make the work without killing herself; she is more focused on creating something that feels alive than she is on surviving.
Jenny’s instinct to mine her life for material is learned and encouraged by others in the field. A beloved writing instructor describes her as a “compulsive excavator of [her] own emotional navel lint,” likening her literary self-examination to self-harm. Over and over, characters imply that Jenny’s darkness, her willingness to revisit and explore past traumas, is her sole artistic strength.
No wonder her approach to escalating flashbacks is not to seek support or treatment, but to lock herself in her room and try to recover these memories through writing. As Jenny spends more and more time with her pain, the line between self-discovery and self-harm continues to blur. These unsupervised plunges into her own subconscious have disastrous effects on Jenny’s mental health. It’s an understandable mistake for many young artists, who are constantly encouraged to commodify their trauma. Here, The L Word contends with aspects of the first-person industrial complex; questions of how much a writer should be expected to reveal, and how they can do so safely and sustainably.
Driven by this cycle, and her growing inability to separate herself from her writing, her actions become increasingly absurd. When another writer pans Jenny’s book, she adopts an old dog so that she can have it put down by her reviewer’s girlfriend, who she goes on to befriend and seduce. Cartoonishly evil revenge plot aside, Jenny’s outsized hurt over the bad review is in keeping with her character. An attack against Jenny’s work is no surface wound; it’s a threat to her hard-won survival. No wonder, then, that Jenny’s revenge is as violent and personal as she can muster.
Eventually, Jenny graduates from rewriting her own trauma to fictionalizing the lives of her friends. Now, instead of making herself miserable so she can write about it, a visibly cheerier Jenny is exploiting her community for content and making them all miserable in the process. It’s an inspired storyline by The L Word writers, as well as a prescient one: Jenny Schecter is the original bad art friend. Her fictional portrayals of friends are as unflattering as they are unobscured; she barely even bothers to change their names. The lightly libelous, fully auto-biographical short story “Lez Girls” cements Jenny’s literary status.
Soon, it’s being adapted into a movie, with Jenny writing and directing. In a show full of alter egos, this is the ultimate meta-move: from inside The L Word, Jenny duplicates it, casting lookalike actors to recreate the series’ most iconic scenes. As director, Jenny now fully inhabits the role of series creator Ilene Chaiken, who has claimed in interviews to have modeled Jenny on her younger self.
As the director of Lez Girls, Jenny enters her final era, despotic and deranged. But while Jenny’s bad behavior is woefully under-explained, many of the character choices around her work continue to ring true. Jenny remains surprisingly principled when it comes to her film and insistent on an honest, non-salacious depiction of queer life—one that doesn’t end with the protagonist running back to her boyfriend. In a previous season, Jenny’s predatory roommate once filmed her and her friends without their permission for an exploitative documentary. Lez Girls is Jenny’s creative revenge, successfully elevating herself from sexualized object to powerful auteur. While Jenny might appear to have lost herself in these later seasons, her artistic growth is consistent, her arc complete.
When Jenny drowned under mysterious circumstances at the beginning of season six, many fans celebrated. The L Word reboot, Generation Q, has honored the tradition of treating Jenny cruelly. While other dead characters are eulogized and mourned, Jenny is only mentioned via the flippant revelation that her death was ruled a suicide. I wonder at the franchise’s consistent refusal to treat this complicated, beautifully rendered character with care. By the end, Jenny was an art monster who had lost it all: her friendships, her relationships, and even her once-promising career. Jenny had already suffered the consequences of her actions—did the series really have to kill her off?
Perhaps, as Autostraddle CEO and L Word expert Riese Bernard has previously proposed, Jenny’s death was Chaiken’s attempt at personal closure. Ilene and her writers made Jenny painfully real: her narcissism and her insecurity, the way she’d sacrifice anyone, herself included, for the sake of her art. The writer builds a deeply flawed effigy of her younger self, made up of her own rotting organs, her worst parts. And then she sets it on fire. More than anyone, Jenny Schecter would understand this exercise in self-construction and destruction.
Maybe this was Chaiken’s plan all along; maybe she needed to kill Jenny off in order to keep living. Remember season one Jenny in her boyfriend’s kitchen, flirting with her old professor through the phone. “I killed Sarah Schuster last night.” How lucky we are to be able to re-write our lives; to edit, erase, and endlessly start over.