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Essay: But Why Are The Kids All Right?

Essay: But Why Are The Kids All Right?

“The Kids Are All Right” recently landed itself on BFI’s list of top
ten great lesbian
 films. I’m not surprised, but I’m also not pleased. Since its debut “The Kids
Are All Right” has found its way on to many best of lists, winning many awards along the way (including 3 major Oscar nominations). Its wide success was a goal, not
a coincidence. In an interview on Autostraddle.com, the film’s director and
co-writer Lisa Cholodenko commented: “I was much more interested in reaching
out to the male population than I was about alienating a sector of the lesbian
population”. Well, she succeeded in reaching out not only to men but to
mainstream American society more generally by creating a story of lesbians that,
despite their Sapphic tendencies, are basically just like everyone else we see
in Hollywood. And what comes
of this type of depiction? Lesbianism gets painted as palatable,
non-threatening, and, ultimately, not that different. My question is: why is
that the goal?

The movie steps into the lives of
an affluent, white lesbian-led family of two as their eldest reaches the legal
age to request the contact information of their sperm donor. The sperm donor
then becomes implicated (and implicates himself) in the couple’s marital
strife. Nic, played by Annette Bening, is a high-powered, obviously successful, domineering surgeon and the
breadwinner of the family who sits at the head of the table. Jules, played by
Julianne Moore, is flaky, impulsive, established as more of a peer to the kids,
and initially presented as a stay-at-home mom – in a sense, the stereotypical
woman and wife.

In the movie, Nic and Jules expend considerable
effort distancing themselves from folks who are not like them (read: not white,
not rich). When Jules tries her hand at landscape design, she hires a Mexican
gardener. She makes fun of his accent, pretends not to understand him, and
accuses him of not speaking English. Finally, when it is obvious that he has
become privy to her affair, she fires him. When relaying the incident to Nic,
Jules accuses him of using cocaine. Since he is Mexican, this is just accepted.
What’s important in this interaction is that Jules is not an immigrant loving
queer – she is a white American.

The family is obviously wealthy, and they spend
a lot of the movie demonstrating their affluence, especially in contrast to
Paul, the donor dad. This comparison is strange since Paul owns an organic
restaurant and is clearly doing fine for himself. Still, Nic positions herself
above him using education: Paul dropped out of college; Nic went to medical
school. Obviously, that makes her superior.

Oddly, they do not spend time with anyone else
in the queer community, so no energy is spent distinguishing themselves from
straight people. Instead, Nic and Jules turn on each other. In the process,
they construct a heteronormative family dynamic based upon a breadwinner/not breadwinner model. This dynamic runs through the whole film and plays on tired butch/femme
stereotypes as well as ideas about gendered roles in love and parenting that
should just be put to bed already. Together, Nic and Jules create a hierarchy
within their family where Jules, who is presented as the more feminine of the
two, relies on Nic for financial stability. Nic, who was continuously
associated with more masculine traits and interests, exerted financial (and
otherwise) power over Jules. It is not surprising that of the two of them,
Jules is the one who has an affair with a man. I mean, after the way Nic’s
character was established, it would have been both awkward and unbelievable for
mainstream America to watch Nic’s character fuck Mark Ruffalo. However, that
choice is one of the important ways that the movie devalues femme queerness.

Since the title of the movie is “The Kids Are All Right,” it should come
as no surprise that their kids play a major role in their ability to seem just
like everyone else. But what does it mean for kids to be all right? Well, in
the case of this movie, it means they are both appropriately cisgendered and
definitively heterosexual. Maybe the most important message this movie sends
mainstream America is: don’t panic, even if the parents are gay, their kids
will still be straight! The movie neutralizes the fear that gay parents will
turn their kids gay by really focusing the kids’ plotlines on heterosexual
crushes or ‘coming out’ as straight stories. Phew!

Of course, as hard as one might work
to construct lesbians as just like everyone else (read: heterosexual people),
at the bare minimum, they fuck differently. However, while the main
protagonists are lesbians, the movie mostly features heterosexual sex. I have
constructed a simple table here contrasting the depiction of lesbian versus
heterosexual sex:

The
humourous element to their sex scene was a total let down. Had it been done
differently, the inclusion of gay male porn would have been progressive choice
for the movie. As it was, it made their sex seem slapstick. Nic and Jules watched
a campy gay male porno, and Nic accidentally hits the remote, sending the
volume way up. They are also using a vibrator that sounds reminiscent of a
lawnmower. The scene feels awkward. It plays off stereotypes about lesbian sex,
appealing to a male audience. Likewise, in the first sex scene between Jules
and Paul, she unzips his pants, views his penis and exclaims excitedly at the
sight. This also relies on stereotypical discourses related to lesbians from a
non-queer perspective, implying that what is missing from queer sex is a penis. Obviously?

“The
Kids Are All Right” focuses on presenting an image of lesbians as just like
everyone else. As the
review from AfterEllen.com commented, poignantly, “That they’re a gay family is
almost incidental, almost”.
Instead
of telling a story about queered parenting or a queered family, the movie seeks
to assure mainstream American society that queers can create the same families
as heterosexuals. The movie never questions whether or not that should be the
goal because it is too busy pleading normalcy



[1] A
quick note on language! I use lesbian when referencing the movie directly
because those are the terms from the film. I use queer when I’m speaking for
myself.

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Comments

Nomatter

U r stupid, if u think that i want to stay with a hetero "man" like u that just talk shit about homos, no tks most of them r better than u, u lost time to talk shit

marianne

I am a lesbian. I don't have kids but apart from that everything else in the movie rang true to my life. It's great because it's real.
Also: It's a story. I hate the fact that people think they can argue with writers about whether a story is appropriate or not. Some people will like it. It's not political although some people think it should be. It's just not. It's a very, very realistic story and it's not a step down from Hight Art, which I absolutely love. It's just different.

opie ever

The suggestion of all this being that it is a rare thing to find a white American lesbian couple with straight kids and a, after many years together, failing sex life? Well then, isn't it great that finally a movie depicts that "minority"? Isn't that also what is being requested always, that movies should depict minorities?

BR

What about the fact that it's quite a step down from Cholencheck's earlier work?
'High Art' didn't exactly get a wide release, nor did Laurel Canyon. And they both received high ratings… I think it's understandable that the material is tamed a little here, especially considering it is at least to me, a family drama. As for the nature of how many sex scenes are given per sexuality, maybe it has more to do with which perspective the film is taking, and the place that the characters are in their lives when the narrative occurs.

Armak

Isn't it enough that we hate the movie for being ham-fisted, badly written, smug, and pandering to the Whole Foods choir?

Kris Fullman

Oh, fabulous. Another indignant critique based on the notion that any movie that does not reflect the particular experience or worldview of the critic isn't worth anything to anyone.

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