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Essay: But Why Are The Kids All Right?

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by LJ Slovin
March 24, 2014 12:23 PM
8 Comments
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"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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8 Comments

  • marianne | March 26, 2014 7:08 PMReply

    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.

  • Regretta Garbo | March 27, 2014 4:48 AM

    Marianne, I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you say this film is not political. Are you suggesting that visual media is political only when producers of media have explicit political intentions? Suppose Cholodenko consciously decided to make a "lesbian film" that was "not political"--would that not in itself be a political choice on part of the director?

    I'm also intrigued to learn more about what you think is realistic about this film. The author has made their case about what they feel is not realistic in the film to the lives of queer women. If you're comfortable explaining further, maybe you could provide a different way of viewing this movie that indicates how the film is realistic to certain lesbian life experiences.

    XO

  • opie ever | March 26, 2014 11:43 AMReply

    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 | March 25, 2014 5:50 AMReply

    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 | March 24, 2014 2:42 PMReply

    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 | March 24, 2014 1:49 PMReply

    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.

  • Marianne | March 26, 2014 7:10 PM

    Exactly what Kris and Brad said. Yup.

  • Brad | March 25, 2014 12:54 AM

    Agreed, Kris. I see what LJ is arguing for and against here. While The Kids Are All Right might not be an NC-17 art house shock film to wake-up and force hetero normative America to change to the other extreme, that doesn't mean it doesn't represent a slice of Americans who are somewhere inbetween full queer and full hetero life. My own personal experience with my queer/lesbian friends is that some of them are like Nic & Jules. And some are not. I personally feel like too many film critics put too much burden on filmmakers to tell their stories to fight huge societal causes, when the filmmakers really just wanna tell a small story that contributes to the worldwide conversation, but it doesn't have to be the definitive and only film for that cause. This year we got the fantastic film Blue is the Warmest Color, providing another and different look at queer/lesbian life. I'm thankful for both movies and their quite different stories and characters.

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