Before The L Word came into our lives in 2004, very few of us had seen the reality of lesbian life on television. In my particular case, I had never seen a lesbian portrayed as an ordinary human being, with struggles, joys, loves, and heartbreaks, in the same way that cis heterosexual couples were portrayed. For my 16-year-old self, the characters of Alice, Bette, and Shane changed my life forever.
In fact, it was because of Bette Porter that I decided to study art history.
However, it would be almost two decades before The L Word (Generation Q) would once again break barriers and put the lives of so many millions of others on the set.
In the fifth episode of the series’ second season, Micah (played by Leo Sheng), an Asian-American trans man and therapist, and Maribel (played by Jillian Mercado), a disabled Latina lawyer, made history performing the first intimate scene involving a disabled person.
After spending several episodes getting closer and extending their screen time, the actors lead the audience to the climactic moment when Micah takes Maribel in his arms and carries her upstairs.
A masterpiece in seconds
The scene between Micah and Maribel, directed by Sarah Pia Anderson, has undoubtedly become one of the best sex scenes on television, where an elegant shot pulls us into bed with the characters in an embrace full of tenderness and affection. Between kisses and caresses, Anderson’s eye shows us Maribel’s beautiful body and Micah’s delicate touch over a scar. Moreover, the vulnerability of the two shatters a historical taboo.
As Leo Sheng and Jillian Mercado told Out Magazine, they both wanted to make sure the scene was right, knowing it was a unique opportunity to do justice to the trans and disabled communities. They both knew that this could be the only chance many people would have to see someone like them having a positive sexual experience in the media.
“It was very important for our characters, and also us as human beings, to portray the story as humanized as possible and also kind of fill in the gap of that part of representation that people are very fearful of because you don’t see it,” Mercado said. “I mean, I never saw it growing up, to have someone like myself who’s physically disabled have a sex scene, period.”
Both Sheng and Mercado told the magazine they could barely imagine what it would’ve been like to see this scene as young people. “I know that if I saw that when I was 13 or 14, or an adult for that matter, I would have probably had less of an emo phase than I did, you know,” Mercado said. “And that would’ve helped a lot as far as trying to figure out my sexuality growing up, or even just the basics of how to date someone having a physical disability like myself.”
The problem of underrepresentation
In recent years, films and series such as “Black Panther” and “Pose” have brought once overlooked realities such as those of the Black and trans communities to the screen. However, the preeminence of the heteropatriarchal (ergo, white) vision has been behind the camera since the dawn of cinema.
In fact, people of color’s access to visual tools came with their respective historical backwardness guaranteed by systemic racism. Thus, narratives of and by people of color and other minorities came very late to the distribution of power in media.
Knowing that Hollywood is the world’s largest exporter of culture, its complete ignorance of diversity since its inception has perpetuated derogatory roles that make minorities victims of stale colonialist ideas.
Just as the audiovisual practices of the early 18th century presented African-Americans in inhuman frames as ignorant clowns and animals, 20th-century cinema linked the image of the Latino to that of the Native Americans, in a reductionist and discriminatory pastiche.
With the advent of the television set in every American home, the damage spread at an accelerated rate.
And if this was (and still is) the reality for communities of color, for people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community, the situation has been much worse.
Disability on Screen
Annie Segarra, a disability rights advocate who uses her social media to open dialogue around fair representation and respect, explained on the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You how the portrayal of disability in fiction characterization always revolves around tragedy, where people with disabilities are portrayed as depressed or just to further the main character’s narrative.
Films such as “Me Before You,” “The Ringer,” “Forrest Gump,” “Avatar,” and even “X-Men,” have been praised for their portrayal of disability, but always from the narrative of the obstacle, of the different life, and far from intimacy and normalization.
For Segarra, pop culture has been problematic in its representation beyond the fictional characters in films. In fact, disabled characters who are happy or successful are often excluded in literature because they seem implausible, the advocate explained.
Enter Jillian Mercado
Jilian Mercado is a 34-year-old actress and model born and raised in New York of Dominican descent. She was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child, requiring her to use a wheelchair.
However, for Mercado, disability has not been an obstacle.
Her passion for fashion, from the halls of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, led her to cover Fashion Week, work for society photographer Patrick McMullan’s PMc magazine, and star in her first campaign in 2014 for designer denim brand Diesel.
The campaign’s success, thanks to Jillian Mercado’s beauty and elegance, caught the attention of IMG Models president Ivan Bart, who offered her first modeling contract in August 2015.
Since then, Jillian Mercado has starred in several campaigns for Nordstrom, as well as former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book, where she was photographed by Michael Avedon. In 2016 she was announced as one of three models in Beyoncé’s official website campaign and appeared in Target campaigns, editorial features for Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Posture.
Her first acting role came with The L Word Generation Q, playing Maribel Suarez. After the first season, Mercado came out as queer on Instagram.
For her first intimate scene and the first intimate scene of a person with a disability on television, Mercado made sure Maribel looked her best in the scene, not just for selfish or vain reasons: she knew how important the scene was to people like her.
“I knew the gravity of the impact of this scene in particular,” Mercado told Out Magazine. “I mean, ask Leo. I wouldn’t shut up about it. If it’s not talking to the costume designer or meetings with Marja or meeting with Sandra and Moira, I was just like, ‘I just need this look as hot as possible.’ Which is obviously they’re like, ‘Yeah, we know how to do that. This is The L Word.'”
At first, Mercado was very reluctant for the camera to linger on her scars, as she didn’t want to fetishize them. But ultimately, she decided it was the right move. She told the magazine she didn’t want any shame associated with her scars or her body in the scene.
“It was important for me to have that really tight close-up where Micah is like embracing them and saying, ‘You’re safe with me. This is a safe situation. I love you for who you are, but damn, this fucking scar is hot too,'” she said.
“Jillian Mercado was contacted for this piece, but we are still waiting for her responses.