Glenn Bristol of FilmWonk talks the double-edged sword of LGBTQ+ pop culture representation (a.k.a. the “de-gaying of gayness”) through the lens of Lisa Cholodenko’s Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right.
“Each of my moms had a kid, you know, with your sperm…”
-“No, I didn’t know.”
-“Both of them?”
-“Like in two?”
“Uh huh. Like in gay.”
-“Oh. Right on. Right on! Yeah! Cool! I love lesbians!”
“Listen, when you’ve been a parent for 18 years, come talk to me.”
-“I was just making an observation.”
“Yeah? And I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!”
If I were to include a third quote above, it would be “I’m not looking for a pat on the head,” which is something I said in 2012 by way of endorsing Referendum 74, a ballot initiative which had the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in my home state of Washington—three years before the Supreme Court would rule in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage is a right guaranteed to all Americans (including LGBTQ Americans) under the Constitution, and must therefore become legal for same-sex couples throughout the United States. And I’m really not. Looking for a pat on the head. Washington only narrowly approved the measure, with 46.3% of the state, 1.4 million voters, voting against it. My fellow citizens cast their gaze upon marriages such as the one in this film, between Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules Allgood (Julianne Moore) and said, “No, I won’t call that marriage, and I won’t call that family.” I’m relieved in retrospect that I never got a chance to vote on other people’s marriages before I was quite ready to treat them as deserving of the same rights as me. 2012 was the year I got married, and it was my own impending walk down the aisle that finally kicked me across the lazy libertarian line to say that if civil marriage is to be something that the government is involved in, then it needs to be available for everyone.
A few years later, over a celebratory backyard scotch, a friend—himself in a long-term relationship—asked me why I’d gotten married, as opposed to just continuing with a long-term relationship. He and his girlfriend were willing to make such a commitment, but neither of them felt as if the designation would change anything. The punchline of this is that the two of them would end up marrying in secret and not telling the rest of us for months. To this day, he insists that I never sold him on it. But I sure did try. I yammered on for 20 minutes or so, offering variations on the same answer: “It’s institutional shorthand!” I could offer my insights on what I think marriage should be—a situation of confidence and trust, partnership, with mutual respect and support. As a practical matter, something that you’ll both have to work at with varying degrees of success for the rest of your life. A safe place.
But I was talking about what it is, to the rest of society, even if they know nothing about either of us. Shorthand. This. Is. My. Wife. She is the family I’ve chosen, and I am hers. Now give me her fucking prescriptions. Quote me for our next year of health insurance, oh wait, she has her own now, let me know how much I’ll save on health insurance. Let us file our taxes and manage our accounts. Call her if you can’t reach me and vice versa. Lemme change our broadband. Lemme consolidate our phone plans. Or let her. Depending which of us lost the coin flip. Let me know she’s okay. Tell me which room she’s in. Tell me what meds you’ve given her. Ship her my records. Ship her my effects. Tell her if I’m dying. Let her make choices for me, if I can’t make them for myself. Respect our personal, legal, and moral decision to belong to each other for the rest of our natural lives. And if it comes to it, let her claim and then decide where to scatter my ashes, or tell me where to do the same. I can’t tell anyone what marriage should be for themselves. Except, at minimum, a safe place. But marriage is a civil right guaranteed to all Americans precisely because we—the straight, white majority—afford it such power in our society. It makes everything smoother. Simpler. A common external rule set for all, even if the internal one may vary.
The only feedback I can find from my first viewing of The Kids Are All Right was from early 2011, where I said the film “didn’t quite do it for me” by way of backhandedly praising Bening’s performance as Nic, and I felt like I enjoyed it more this time around, even if my reservations have only increased. At the very least, I’ve aged and married into a slightly richer appreciation of it, even if I’m not quite old enough to have much to say about parenting teenagers. What began at least in part as an instructional tool to coach the hetero crowd about how ordinary and non-threatening same-sex marriage between a pair of upper-middle-class white people can be (which is itself conceding a great deal of power to define “ordinary” as “what most closely resembles the majority”), in truth, the film always contained a measure of substance and insight about marriage in general, while also positing concerns that are unique to a family with two mothers and two biological children who are technically half-siblings with the same sperm-donor, with one carried by each mother. When Nic criticizes the flightiness of their 15-year-old boy Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules (who carried Laser in her womb) regards it as criticism of her personally. Both of these women are clearly loving parents to both children (at least until the events of this film), but it definitely comes through in both performances that these women can’t simply turn off their feelings, and there are clearly moments in which they each feel more protective of the child they personally carried. Which is…kinda fucked up! But the film seems aware of that, and Cholodenko’s willingness to engage with these sorts of feelings is a mark in favor of the film’s emotional honesty.
Enter bio-dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who indirectly furnished sperm to this family for sixty bucks a pop when he was 19, and had no idea these children existed until they reached out to him. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who has just turned 18, only reaches out to the sperm bank because her brother (who is too young to legally make this request) begs her to do it. She doesn’t have any particular interest in meeting Paul, and is far more concerned about hurting their mothers’ feelings. Once the pair of them meet Paul, they basically flip positions. Joni finds herself charmed by Paul in spite of herself, and Laser thinks he’s a bit of a loser. Wasikowska and Hutcherson give fine performances here, but there’s not a lot of detail to these teenagers beyond the arc of their feelings for Paul, and I really don’t have much else to say about them. As for Paul, I think we’re initially just meant to find him a bit dopey (that is very much the vibe with his “I love lesbians!” quoted above). He is presented as a layabout who is somehow also running a successful organic foods restaurant and sportfucking with one of his employees. Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) isn’t an elaborate character, starting off as a comic foil to make sperm jokes with Paul between rounds of casual sex and even more casual restaurant bookkeeping, but she is 15 years younger, and also transparent about her desire to have a more serious relationship with him. I remain mixed on this subplot. The completely unexamined power dynamics of this boss-employee relationship notwithstanding, I think this character pretty much only exists to help Paul seem like a dope who was already kinda dopey prior to the events of the film. While he more or less confirms that judgment by turning down a woman willingly offering to make a family with him—the very thing he claims to want by the end of the film—it really does feel like putting a hat on a hat at that point.
So Paul and Jules have a fling. And if I might share another area of personal growth in the past decade, my mind is substantially less blown by the idea of lesbian women recreationally watching gay male pornography, or a lesbian woman having sex with a man and continuing to speak and think of herself as Kinsey-6 gay. People are what they are, and they do what they do, and the extent to which their behavior informs what labels they apply to themselves is both a product of their own decision-making and self-awareness, as well as a huge, heaping spoonful of societal pressure. In this film, real-life lesbian Lisa Cholodenko posits that, eh, this particular fictitious lesbian might decide to have sex with a man, but that’s less a byproduct of any identity-shattering change to her sexuality than of the dysfunction within her marriage and her simple desire to feel something outside of her wife’s web of control. That’s to say, the film posits that people in same-sex marriages cheat for the same reasons as people in heterosexual marriages, and the specific other [person] is less important, and by the way, human sexuality is fluid. I’ll admit, I think I’m reaching a bit in giving this film credit for self-awareness on the fluidity of human sexuality. I tend to give films credit for perceived good intentions—I even have fond memories of Chasing Amy, no matter how poorly that film and director Kevin Smith‘s contemporaneous explanations of it have aged. And yet, such stories exist in a world in which gay conversion therapy is a very real (pseudo-scientific) thing that has resulted in very real harm to thousands of children, which makes the legacy of films that suggest, but do not say anything terribly specific or insightful about, the fluidity of sexuality (which tends to most frequently come in the form of men “curing” women of their silly lack of attraction to men) rather tricky to evaluate.
This is what makes representation such a double-edged sword. I do believe that a film featuring a same-sex couple raising two happy and healthy and relatively well-adjusted children—even amid their own mistakes—will gradually help society acclimate to the existence of such families, and gradually expand their mental picture of what a family can look like. And yet, it is also true that any attempt to over-universalize depictions of a minority group will run the risk of stereotyping and maintaining a limited understanding of them, and reinforcing blind spots that the film either lacks the time or inclination to address. Which leaves the poor hapless critic, seeing yet another underrepresented group finally represented in film, shooting their privileged mouth off with the memory and context of a goldfish when it comes to evaluating the authenticity of such depictions, and forgetting their prior praise just as quickly whenever the next one comes out, whether it really manages to push some new boundary or not.
Professor Suzanna Danuta Walters discusses this film at some length in her 2014 book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality. After appropriately excoriating mainstream critics for their tendency to universalize the film’s characters, she offers this withering feedback:
“No, my problem is much more with the reliance on universality, which entails—almost always—a de-gaying of gayness, which gets to the heart of the tolerance trap. This tolerant de-gaying relies on stereotyped gender paradigms so that the women are depicted as—really—just like our neighbors down the street, where daddy goes out to work and mommy stays at home. Lesbian culture and lesbian friends are invisible, and the film erases the extended queer kinship networks that most of us do construct out of both need and desire. This last issue remains—for me at least—the most persistently troubling. If invisibility and sad stereotypes were the problems of the past, then a new glib tokenism and erasure of community seem to be the signs of the difficult present. Gayness is the motivation for these plots, but is emptied of any specific (gay) meaning. Instead, these stories offer up a liberal universalism that acts as a cultural pat on the back for tolerant heterosexuals and an accepting hug for assimilated gays.”
I don’t have a good answer for this, except that Walters isn’t wrong. As someone who has built a family over the last decade, I can speak to how I identify with Nic when she calls Paul a “fucking interloper,” and tells him to go out and make his own family. But I can’t speak to whether that desire to assert control and possession over one’s family, a societally coded trait of traditional masculinity, is A) something that the film regards as essential even in a household run by lesbian women, and B) is a position that the film is advocating for as a positive good, or is simply presenting as the capstone of Nic’s most persistent character flaws throughout the film: her desire to control every situation even when her family is warily eyeing each other like, “Mom, you’re doing it again.” To attempt to answer this question makes me feel, frankly, like a fucking interloper. But one thing I have learned in the past decade is that as film critics, we need to do better than just, “This story made me feel feelings, and also made me realize that people who lead different lives from me also feel feelings.” I can express at some length what marriage and family mean to me, and attempted to do so above. I can try to both reinforce and challenge those beliefs in the culture that I consume, and I did find some of that to latch onto while watching The Kids Are All Right. But if I really, truly want to know how a community feels about the quality of their limited representation in media, that’s not a question I should need to open my mouth too wide or too frequently to answer.
FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10
— Glenn Bristol