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There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to representation on Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q. But one conversation arguably caught the most attention during season two: the sex scene involving Leo Sheng’s Micah Lee and Jillian Mercado’s Maribel Suarez.
The sequence is the perfect amount of silly, sensual and sensitive. It’s the kind of moment hardly seen on TV, and not just because of who it features: a Chinese-American trans man and an Afro-Latina with a physical disability. It’s a rare moment because it’s more than a sex scene.
It’s an intimacy scene, one that bares both flesh and emotion; that displays body diversity as an affirming reality of human sexuality and desire (and not just a social statement); that echoes both in its sultry shots and playful dialogue moments between other characters, like Sophie and Finley or Shane and Tess. It’s the kind of sex real-life people, and not just characters on a screen, have.
And while the moment has been celebrated since it aired, its power lies in the larger storyline it’s tucked into. Micah, a social worker and supportive friend, and Maribel, an outspoken sister and immigration attorney, go on a season two journey that exists like a pocket universe of The L Word — an adorably complicated rom-com love story that offers viewers a chance to see themselves in a genre they’ve been historically excluded from.
Following the season two finale, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Sheng and Mercado about their season arcs and the (sometimes history-making) significance of some of its biggest moments.
How early did you know that a romance was going to play into Micah and Mirabel’s individual arcs this season?
Jillian Mercado: I knew before Leo did. (Laughs.)
Leo Sheng: I didn’t know if you were going to admit that. (Laughs.)
Mercado: Well, the reason why I admitted it is because of how important it was for the writers, and for Marja [-Lewis Ryan], to make us feel as safe and comfortable as possible. This was, at least for me, a new adventure to be in. So I knew. I think I knew two months after we wrapped the first season. So about a year, maybe a year and a couple months, before.
Sheng: The writers reconvened and met with us right before quarantine happened, so we were talking to them in February or March of 2020. That’s when I found out. Jillian hinted stuff at me and I guessed, but she wouldn’t tell me anything. I had to really sit patiently. I tried so hard to get her to spill. Even though I guessed a little bit, I had no idea how far they were going to go, so that was a fun surprise.
This season saw many of the characters living in or playing out romantic tropes. This was especially true for Micah and Maribel who were friends-to-lovers and who really entered rom-com territory. Was it meant to read so heavily and did you have any say in what tropes your characters had?
Mercado: My acting coach and I definitely refer to it as a rom-com, with us doing all the checked boxes of what makes a perfect one. She definitely got me to that mindset of what’s the cheesiest rom-com you can think of — but make it cute. So, that’s how I rehearsed it. But it was honestly a collaboration. The writers definitely wrote such a cute narrative and then we just brought it to life. It seemed so natural for us, if I can speak for both of us.
Sheng: I remember Allie [Romano] one of our writers and producers on episode nine where Micah tells Maribel he loves her. We did this so many times because she’s like, “Think of it as a rom-com, and play that.” So I’m like, “What are the thousands of ways the love interest tells the main character they love them?” I really did look at it as a rom-com in some ways — obviously not the entire love story — because it is very heartfelt and it’s very tender.
Ok, let’s talk Love & Basketball. Was there somebody in the writers room who was really into that movie or was that more of a random selection?
Sheng: Jillian, you have a really good theory of why Love & Basketball.
Mercado: Let’s be honest. Love & Basketball is kind of messy. I watched it a very long time ago, probably when it first came out and I was just like, “Oh, this is so cute!” Then I watched it as an adult because we had to film it and I was like, “Oh, girl, this is a mess. There are too many things that could have been different here.” But I think they chose that because it was these two friends who now have feelings for each other and don’t want to ruin it. But they also can’t help that they both love each other at the same time and they’ll do anything to keep that alive. Wait, what was my theory, Leo?
Sheng: That was it. You thought it was supposed to represent this idea of friendships being messy and love being messy, and not having it all figured out. I think I agree with that. I watched it too when I saw it in the script. I’m sure it’s also that the communication was not great and Micah this season is not always great at asking for what he wants and being outright. And Maribel is all about grabbing life by the horns.
Mercado: I also know that Marja, I and Katrelle [N. Kindred], who directed that specific episode, talked about how Maribel is very strong-minded. She’s a no-bullshit kind of a person. She really takes Sophie by the hair and drags her all the time. (Laughs.) And she just found herself in the most vulnerable position and was not ready for it. She didn’t see that it was happening. She’s like, “Oh shit. Now, what am I supposed to do? I’ve never shown anybody my vulnerability except for Micah.” I think Love & Basketball was the same, where both of them had very tough skin and then all of a sudden, they found themselves in a very vulnerable place.
The strength and vulnerability of these characters is apparent in episode two, where Micah shares his frustration with Nat only assigning him trans clients and Maribel talks about someone lifting her out of her chair without her consent. Why was this relational experience important for your characters and their arc?
Sheng: When I think about Micah and strength, vulnerability and opening up, we saw in season one that he’s not great at that. He’s great at being there for his friends or at least he thinks he can be there better for them than he can be for himself. He’s stronger than he realizes and part of being with Maribel is that she helps him realize that. She helps him realize that he has a voice that he can use. I think this moment is, like you said, relational and similar in the sense that they’re both experiencing ways that people see them, treat them and interact with them, but differently for obvious reasons. And I think Maribel helps him realize that he can take a shitty thing and use his voice to create change; it’s a pivotal moment in the way Micah sees Maribel.
Mercado: In this world of The L Word, there can be someone who’s disabled that’s an immigration attorney and lives her best life and there could be a social worker who’s trans living their best life. But I think that moment for me was a reality check of, even though we’re in this amazing, inclusive world, there’s still a lot of stereotypes and stigmas. I think that’s why Maribel was like, you have to remember that the struggle still goes on. We’re still out here on a battlefield, and being a social worker who helps trans children is something that you should see as a privilege and a humbling moment. I think that’s what Maribel was trying to convey when she said, “If you want something you have to say it, because we’re out here still fighting our own battles.”
Sheng: I think it’s important to be able to share experiences you have, where people are obviously not treating you as a human or as a whole human, and consider: How do we do that in a way that also maybe doesn’t necessarily compare which one is better or worse in that binary system?
Your historic scene in episode five was affirming for many viewers, and also fits into this trend you see on the show where there are sex scenes more driven by intimacy than physicality. They also feature bodies that our media has often disqualified as being sexy but are, in fact, sexy. Why might it be important to show your bodies as they are in this intimate scene?
Mercado: Throughout the whole season, Leo and I really understood that authenticity and how important it was that we were not trying to fit into any stereotypical norm of what this perfect body is supposed to look like or do or wear because it’s not real. When I was younger, watching these “perfect” bodies, I was like: This is not who I am. So you’re saying that who I am is ugly or undesirable or just not wanted. It really messes up your mental health, severely.
I remember talking when we were rehearsing and figuring out the angles and what they were going to shoot exactly. I felt the need to put my scar on full display — literally full display — because I had body dysmorphia when I was younger. I didn’t see someone like myself on screen be represented in the way that my body looks. I remember posting a photo on Instagram three or four years ago in a bikini, and I got so many messages from people like, “Oh my god, we have the same scar. Oh my god, I’ve been so ashamed about my scar. Your scar’s exactly like my scar.” And I’m like, “Wait, what? Everyone has a scar, too? This is kind of awesome and now I don’t feel so alone anymore.” I’m able to embrace my scar. It’s a part of me. It’s who I am.
Mind you, I kept telling them, “Do we look hot? Do we look hot though?” And Marja kept saying, “Jillian if you don’t shut-up.” (Laughs.) And I’m like, “But do we look hot though?” She was like, “I promise you, you look hot.” Because that matters as well. If we’re going to do something that’s going to be historic or something that’s going to be watched as a guideline on how to do it, we want to make sure the bar is high. So as much as it was about being authentic, I also needed to make sure that our angles were in check. So, “You got my good side, you got Leo’s good side; the lighting is on point.” I want that moment for all trans kids and all disabled kids to see themselves and be like, “Damn, I can look that sexy?” And it’s like, “Hell, yeah.”
During the karaoke episode, there’s a miscommunication between Micah and Maribel. When she approached him it could have been this moment about people “trying out” being with someone with disabilities. But it ended up being about how one’s journey with gender and sexuality can be an ongoing process of discovery. What was behind your character’s moves here?
Mercado: I feel like Maribel has been hurt many times before and that’s why she’s so strong-minded and has 20,000 layers to her before you actually get to the center of the lollipop. And I agree with you, I think that the audience would have been so used to the narrative of, “Oh, you only slept with me to check the box of a disabled person,” and I was very conscious of that viewpoint. I think it was genius of the writers in how they portrayed it. Like, let’s not even satisfy the audience for that mindset and have it be something else, because I don’t think people would have expected that whatsoever. But I think that for Maribel, it was very much, “I can’t believe I’m in this position again. I really like this person and he just has to give me time to process it, because I don’t think I’m even allowing myself to process it.”
Sheng: I’m very aware of the storylines in which people are coming out in some way as queer or bi and we see this back and forth between a binary of men and women and this implicit, “Who are they choosing.” And how — when they do choose a person, depending on the gender — it is sometimes used to invalidate their identity. Micah tells Maribel he’s into women “as well,” and that he realized it only recently. Of course, he’s specifically talking about Maribel, though I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of Micah being attracted to other women. Still, we get to see him acknowledging his attraction to men and navigating what his feelings for Maribel mean in all of that.
We also know that in season one, he’s more into hookups. He did hookups before José, and I think both José and Maribel have had huge impacts on the way Micah goes about connecting with people — even if, by chance, only for a hookup. I don’t necessarily think there’s any sort of “he’s over Maribel” ever. He clearly still wants to be with her. Like 10 minutes before he was asking her out again. But I think and hope this kind of subverted some of the tropes I’ve seen around this idea of someone inherently having to choose a person, it being this broader implication of them choosing a gender and their sexuality not being believed. Also the growth of feeling bold enough to try and put yourself out there again even though you’ve been shut down by this person.
I just really enjoyed Micah’s arc — his journey with his identity — not being linear. I think it shows the messiness that it can encompass and that it’s OK not to have everything figured out. It’s OK to still be learning about yourself, and it’s important to be honest with yourself and with the people you care for about where you’re at and what you’re feeling, what you want or you don’t want. It’s also OK to choose you, which I think he did when he broke up with José.
So about that lunch scene. To start, Micah was in a partnership where he was hidden and kept secret at the start of the season and while Maribel’s hesitation to tell her family was made clear, it still seemed to echo what happened earlier. How is it different from what Micah already experienced?
Sheng: I hadn’t thought about the similarity in the idea of him being hidden or being kept secret. That’s a really great point. What made this different for me is Mirabel and Micah are in a place where they’re both learning. They’re both more open about learning things about each other and being a little bit more vulnerable. José seemed to have it all figured out and was a little bit more sure of himself and confident about how to be with Micah than Micah was with him. [Micah and Maribel are] really getting to know each other and fall in love with each other in a way that I don’t think José and Micah did because there was this huge secret José was keeping. So I think when he’s going to lunch, he’s probably feeling a little bit more secure until he finds out, “Oh, your family doesn’t know about us.” Micah also said that he loves Maribel and she didn’t actually say it back to him. And so there’s also that piece where he loves her, he thinks she loves him, and again, it kind of just goes to shit. But it does get redeemed a bit in the later scene when they’re watching TV and he realizes that she did say, “I love him.”
And then there is that moment when Nana is like, “Isn’t he a trans?” and then Micah gets up and goes, “Maybe I should go?” To be honest, it was also hard to watch Micah. I know it’s funny because it’s me on screen, but it was still hard to watch Micah sit in that knowing that something’s not right and feeling like he shouldn’t be there. It was also not just about [Micah and Maribel]. It was about Sophie and Finley and it was really about the family and the way they communicate or don’t communicate. Sophie and Maribel are sisters and Micah was there witnessing this and he probably hasn’t seen this side of Sophie before. They’re roommates, but he was really out of his depth.
Jillian, about the decision to do parts of this scene entirely in Spanish.
Mercado: In Español, yes.
I thought, “Oh, we’re going to do this.” It was a very specific choice.
Mercado: We went there. It was actually a very specific decision to not put subtitles, too. I wish they did for people who are hard of hearing to have the subtitles at least in Spanish, you know. But it was very much a choice to not have the audience know what I was saying, to the point that Twitter has blown up trying to figure out what the captions are. And again, half of me is disappointed because I thought there should have been captions for people who are hard of hearing. But then the other half of me is like, ‘”It’s like a secret society of Spanish-speaking people and only the Latin community is gonna understand why I chose to say it in Spanish.” I come from a Dominican family and when we get frustrated and mad, we stop speaking in English and go straight to Spanish. Even if everyone knows how to speak English. It just brings in an extra layer of pissed-off and spiciness to it.
I relate to this personally. It was very hard for me to bring my own family to my understanding of my world. I understand the thought of, “I don’t want anyone to harm you, I’m only doing this because I love you,” but sometimes you hinder without knowing. [You] are ableist without knowing how it can affect someone in the disability community to say or to think that someone else is going to hurt us physically or mentally compared to anybody else. Or, our hurt is an extra layer to what the “normal” person goes through just because you have a disability. It was important for me to convey that message to my mom that I’ve had it. This is someone that I’m willing to fight for and you have no idea what I went through — the walls that I have crushed — to tell myself how much I love this guy. But it was very much a very true Dominican setting. Rosanny and I, who are Dominican, made sure that even the food we were eating was authentic.
Sheng: I ate so much of it. It was like the biggest rookie mistake. They always tell you not to eat in the first master shot, and then I did eat some rice and beans. Every take I had to eat some of the rice and beans and when I got home I was so sick.
Mercado: We all looked at Leo like, “Honey.” (Laughs.)
Sheng: It was good, though. It was good.
Mercado: It was important for the Dominican community, too. For me, when I go back to the Dominican Republic, it’s a whole different kind of ignorance and ableist mindset that I have to keep reminding [people] about.
Leo, you brought up Finley. By the end of the season, it was easy to wonder if Finley and Sophie’s relationship issues might become a thing for Micah and Maribel. The first hunch was at the beginning of the season when Mirabel is telling Micah, “you’re the Finley” about his relationship with José. It was like “Is Maribel going to be the Solange to Sophie’s Beyoncé?”
Mercado: Solange in the elevator, though. (Laughs.)
That’s exactly it. (Laughs.) I feel that hunch was confirmed in the lunch scene. Then there’s Micah, who started out close with Dani but in season two became more of a friend — or at least a support — to Finely. Do you think this will become an issue for these two going forward?
Sheng: Micah still lives with Finley and Sophie, and I think he is in such a challenging position. He wants to be there for Dani and for Sophie and [is] trying to be there for everybody but he can’t. He ultimately is going to have to take a side whether or not he realizes he’s doing it. I think that he sees Finley struggling, he knows something’s going on with her and Sophie. Again, they live together, there’s no way he’s not seeing and hearing things. That’s why that scene especially when Sophie goes to Ojai and he doesn’t realize that she didn’t tell Finley, we see him again caught in it.
It’s messy, but with the best intentions. Dani moved out so he’s not seeing her as much. Season two really did shake up the dynamic and I think ultimately, he really just wants people to be happy and feel safe and feel cared for. It might be too broad of an answer, but I really do think he just wants the best for everybody and he’s trying too hard to make that happen.
Mercado: I agree. In my personal experience, I’m like “save-a-hoe.” (Laughs.) I think that Finley and Micah both want to be the best versions of themselves for everybody, but are running away from their own problems. They’re not facing it. I think that Maribel was very cheeky about that because she’s like, “You both run away from your problems, even though you know you need to figure that shit out asap.”
Sheng: I don’t know if Micah is running away.
Mercado: I mean… I mean.
Sheng: This is gonna derail us. (Laughs.)
Mercado: (Laughs.) I mean, José was still in season two… even though you knew that he was [married]…
Sheng: OK, I mean, I agree that Micah does not deal with conflict well, as we have seen. But I also think in season two, he really is trying to put himself first more, which again, we saw with José and eventually with Maribel. He’s also trying to help his friends — maybe sometimes more than he should — but he can’t put an equal amount of energy into both. So, sometimes, he focuses on himself less and his friends more, and vice versa. But I don’t think it’s a conscious act of running away from this problem. I think that he’s trying to solve too many problems and just not prioritizing well. He just wants so badly to try and be there for everyone, he isn’t always great at being there for himself.
Mercado: I think that is a good way of saying it.
Sheng: Finley, though, is definitely not dealing with her stuff.
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