Girl Talk With Ilene Chaiken

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Chaiken with Pam Grier and Marlee Matlin at The L-Word’s fifth season premiere.
AB: Did you imagine that The L-Word would become so big?

IC: No. Well, I can’t say that I didn’t imagine it, but I didn’t think it would happen. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would do something so successful. I never could have predicted or envisioned what’s happened with this particular show.

AB: What’s interesting isn’t just that The L-Word draws so many viewers and continues to grab headlines – you’re on the fifth season now?

IC: We’re on the fifth season and you’re exactly right: we’re still getting a lot of attention. The show’s actually building. The audience for the show particularly this season has grown immensely.

AB: Let’s talk about OurChart. Tell me about how this project came about – your reasoning.

IC: The story of how it came about as opposed to why it exists is slightly different. How it came about is that it was a story we started telling show – it wasn’t calculated, I didn’t say, “I have this business idea, let’s set it up in the show so that I can use the show to promote the idea”.

AB: That would have been very clever, though.

IC: It might have been clever, but it would have been…

AB: Disingenuous?

IC: Yeah, it would be, but I think you have to be true to your characters and the universe of your show and not exploit them in that way. It creates an inauthenticity. It doesn’t take away from the fact that after the fact a lot of people have accused me of doing that, which is fine. But, anyway, Alice had her chart from the very beginning. It’s the central motif of the show and we’ve always played with it. In every season we’ve talked about what’s going to happen with Alice’s chart, as if it’s a character and I think it was our third season, she put it online and it started to grow. She even said at one point, “Oh my God, it’s like a lesbian MySpace”. As we’re starting a new season, I always sit with the folks at Showtime and talk about business opportunities that are coming out of the show, where can we look to make deals this year, where might we do product placement… And I pitched really just casually the idea that, “You know what? This thing that Alice has done is kind of cool, maybe we should try a lesbian social network”. And at that moment in time I think the social networking phenomenon was just taking off and Showtime and CBS said, “Very interesting idea. Try it”. And so we did.

AB: And it’s been successful?

IC: It has been successful. It’s really growing. There’s this interesting synergy between our website and the show. Our web traffic spikes when The L-Word is on the air, as does the traffic of pretty much every other site where people talk about the show. But, I also think that the show’s fortune’s have been affected by the website. We kept it alive all year long, we talked to our audience, we did some things that they asked for and we had a dialogue with them and many more people came to the show this year than had the previous year. I think that has a lot to do with keeping this community alive and interactive.

AB: You were talking about how you sit down with the Showtime and chat about product placement. Does the business aspect of the show – does that sully your creative process at all?

IC: No, it doesn’t in the least. I think it’s interesting and I’m sure there are some writers who wouldn’t be interested, but I’m not one of those people. I don’t like business so much – I’m not a business woman – but I like the sociology of what we’re doing. I think it’s really important and it’s exciting. And it’s exciting that there are advertisers who now want to be in business with our community and have identified us as desirable and economically viable. It’s exciting to think about what other ways we can get our stories out there.

AB: Let’s switch gears and talk about politics. I know that you are involved in helping Hillary Clinton win the presidency.

IC: I’ve been a Clinton supporter for a longtime. I’m hopeful and excited about our Democratic nominee. Whether it’s Clinton or Obama, I think we’re going to have a great nominee and I’m going to work for whoever it is… I talk that way now as we’re getting closer. I’m not presuming that it’s over for Hillary Clinton, but I’m well aware of where it is right now and the fact that Obama is definitely looking more like a winner. You know, I just think that we have two candidates who are going to change the course of things in a powerful and positive way and I’m going to work hard.

AB: What’s the main attraction of Hillary Clinton for you?

IC: For me Hillary Clinton has always been a bold and smart and capable politician. I won’t say that it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that she’s a woman – for me, that’s really significant. I think that a lot of the things that have been said and a lot of the ways she’s been judged and characterized, particularly the negative, have had to do with the fact that she’s a woman and that galvanizes me even more.

AB: Last week, we published interviews with three gay Obama supporters – Tobias Wolff, Eric Stern and Stampp Corbin. Corbin talked about how he doesn’t agree with Hillary Clinton’s “strategic” position on DOMA. He thinks we’ve progressed so far and sees no reason to leave bits in place to prevent the passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment. What is your stance on DOMA and Hillary’s partial repeal?

IC: I wish that she had been bolder in her support of us and our issues. That’s just the state of our politics – we’ve been supporting candidates for years who take small steps and then really disappoint us. I’m not a single-issue voter. I have a hard time supporting anybody who doesn’t fully support us in our lives, but I’m pragmatic. I really think that all of America will respond to leadership. Even if there are people who vehemently disagree with us, who are bigots, who would like to see us oppressed, there is just no question that coming forward, leading and doing the bold thing is the better approach. So, I hope that either Clinton or Obama, when running for president, will be bold in their support of us and our issues.