NEW YORK – Between Madonna and Britney's kiss, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" lesbian sex scene and newspaper headlines about American high school girls experimenting with same-sex relationships, 2003 seemed like the year of girl-on-girl action.
Now, Showtime will bring the lives and loves of a whole cast of lesbian characters to the small screen in its new drama "The L Word (search)." The show hasn't even aired yet — it debuts Sunday night — but the recent display of lesbian activity in mainstream media is already the center of a moral and cultural firestorm.
Supporters of "The L Word" call the focus on gay women groundbreaking, but detractors say the show contributes to a culture that tells young women that being gay is cool and sexy.
Comparing itself to "Sex and the City (search)," with the ad campaign "Same sex, different city," "The L Word" stars Jennifer Beals of "Flashdance" fame, whose character is trying to have a child with her partner. Their circle of beautiful, stylish lesbian friends often meets at the coffee shop to dish about career, family, friends, and of course, sex.
The show doesn't shy away from steamy scenes, one of which takes place between Marina, who is a lesbian, and a "bi-curious" Midwestern woman who moves to Los Angeles to live with her boyfriend.
Robert Peters, president of the interfaith media watchdog group Morality in Media (search), said shows like "The L Word" and publicity stunts like the Madonna-Britney smooch make what was once "fringe" activity cool in the eyes of teen and pre-teen girls.
"Anyone with a grain of common sense will know that kids are influenced by culture," he said.
Peters said even though "The L Word" is on a pay cable channel, kids will discover the show just as they discovered "Sex and the City," which is very sexually explicit.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post and The Sun-Sentinel of Florida recently reported on the trend of "bisexual chic" among teen girls who date each other, or kiss in public and "freak-dance" at school functions, many times with their male classmates watching.
Georgia mom Michele Humphrey said she's disturbed by the direction entertainment is taking and would not allow her two teenage daughters to watch “The L Word.”
“It’s unfortunate that the culture in some areas is leaning to that type of lifestyle,” she said. “I believe my daughters would make a stand and say, ‘No, I’d rather watch something with good quality entertainment.’”
But Taylor (name changed), a lesbian who lives in Rochester, N.Y., can’t wait for Sunday’s premiere.
“I am hoping that it scratches the surface about the emotional complexities of the lesbian lifestyle and relationship,” she said.
"Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and Showtime’s “Queer as Folk" are examples of successful programs that revolve around gay male characters. But “The L Word” is the first series to bring an entire cast of female characters out of the closet — a fact that pleases gay advocates.
"We're glad to see a show that's central theme is around women," said Stephen Macias, entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (search) (GLAAD). "There have been very few lesbian characters on cable or the networks."
Peters, however, said the look of the cast, who could give the “Sex and the City” gals a run for their money, sends a message to teenage girls that sexual experimentation is cool. He said the show is part of a "propaganda campaign" to change public opinion about homosexuality.
"These women are all knockouts," Peters said. "This is for heterosexual men who want to watch women having sex."
But Taylor is unfazed by the "lipstick lesbian" look of the cast.
"Sex sells and I think it was a smart marketing strategy that they use that," she said. "Perhaps after they get people hooked they'll integrate some more realistic-looking lesbians."
Macias said he expects the show to draw a broad audience, since it deals with issues like having a family, balancing work and personal life and exploring sexuality.
"The good thing about the straight community watching these shows is that it educates them on a broader level," he said.
And if heterosexual men are initially drawn in by the titillation factor, that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Macias, who said just getting people to tune in is important.
But Humphrey said she and her daughters won't ever be tuning in.
"It’s disappointing that the network will feature a program of this nature," she said.
Jill Miressi, a 24-year-old “Sex and the City” fan from Kingston, N.Y., said she’ll switch over to Showtime on Sunday after her favorite show.
“I will probably check it out just to see what it’s all about,” said Miressi, who is heterosexual. “But straight girls are probably not going to say, ‘I’ve been in a similar situation,’ when they watch ‘The L Word.’”