“The Kids Are All Right” (photo credit: focus/everett/rex features)
Five or six years ago, towards the end of a summer graduate course that I was teaching, a student in the class came to my office. She said she was going through a very painful breakup and as a result, she wondered if she could have a few extra days to complete her final project–she was moving out, which meant driving back and forth to the house they were selling, several hours outside the city.
Okay, usually I’m a suspicious bitch of a teacher and my standard response is “uh, no,” but it was summer and the student was easily the best in the class, so I said “sure,” and we talked a bit about how hard it was to end a relationship. In the course of our conversation I said, “what does he do,” meaning the other party in the breakup.
There was a pause, the woman looked at me, smiled, and said, “well, I’m gay, so it’s a she, actually, and she’s a lawyer.”
Now, I spend a lot of time in class talking about the need for students to examine the assumptions that they bring to reading and interpretation–I sometimes tell them it’s the “baggage theory” of reading, as in, whatever your own baggage is, it will provide the basis for your interpretations, so you’d better figure out the nature of those spoken and unspoken assumptions.
So right there, in my office, there I was: BAM! Smacked in the face with my own assumptions about heterosexuality–a sort of straight suitcase of assumption, as it were.
I was mortified, apologized profusely, made a (lame) joke about heteronormativity, and that was that. I doubt the woman has given it a second thought.
Earlier this week, I played hooky from my desk (I think the desk understood) and went to the movies with a friend, who showed up wearing the same shorts I was wearing, so that was also mortifying, but in a slightly different contexts. Sartorially twinned, we hiked to the top floor of the theater to watch “The Kids Are All Right,” the new movie by Lisa Cholodenko about two kids and their lesbian moms, and what happens to the family as a result of the kids finding their sperm donor dad.
I thought the movie was great. Loved the image of an upper-middle-class marriage, those years way after “happily ever after,” when staying married has more to do with an act of will (and inertia?) than all the hot sex and romance of the early years; loved the way in which the kids love their “moms” and are driven crazy by them on an almost daily basis. (And okay, yes, the whole Mark Ruffalo with his shirt off thing made me pretty happy too.)
The movie sort of renders moot the whole idea of “gay marriage” by showing that gay marriage exists and is, more or less, a lot like straight marriage, particularly those marriages with kids (who according to New York Magazine, make us all miserable). There is a lot of unflashy and unromantic love in this movie; the kind of love that, as Julianne Moore says near the movie’s end, “endures” through the rough patches, even when things look hopeless. It seemed to me a sometimes funny, sometimes heart-tugging examination of women in mid-life, in mid-marriage, and of the ways that kids do (and do not) understand that their parents are, you know, human. You could say it’s the cinematic version of that Talking Heads song we all find ourselves humming from time to time: “this is not my beautiful life…how did I get here, anyway?”
I got home and started chatting about this remarkable thing called a “grown-up movie” in an actual movie theater! In July! A movie where nothing blows up but Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore get nekkid.
Then I started reading around the internet. Never do that, if you want to preserve your own opinion.
And BAM! It happened again: the hetero baggage whapping me in the face. Why, as Roxie’s World asks, should a lesbian marriage be “just like” a straight marriage? Why, as Dan Savage asks, shouldn’t a sperm donor (or surrogate mother, in the opposite context) become a part of the family? Why would a lesbian film-maker rely on the age-old plot device of a vaguely dissatisfied lesbian falling into the arms of a man?
Why hadn’t any of those questions occurred to me? I mean, among all my various relatives, you can find just about every permutation of “family” you can imagine, so why wouldn’t it occur to me that there might have been other possiblities available to Cholodenko in creating her story? Is it because my own marriage is a pretty straight-forward (oh yeah, totally intentional pun) hetero dyad?
Some of the negative commentary about the movie does seem, as Dan Savage points out, along the lines of “gosh why didn’t she make a different movie,” and there have been some vague implications that maybe Cholodenko was doing what she had to do to get the movie financed (greenlight a perfect lesbian family in which there are only happy kids and hot sex? never gonna happen). I don’t know what the financing politics were–nothing in Hollywood seems to make much sense to me (“Grownups,” “The Expendables,” or “Kitty Galore,” anyone?)
But after all was said and done, I remain convinced that it’s a really good movie, even if it’s not perfect. And one of the reasons it’s good, I think, is that it made me re-realize how easy it is to stay stuck in the ruts of my own assumptions about the world–and thus miss the oppportunity to see the world through the eyes of others. Would it be nice if the movie re-imagined family in a more capacious, less conservative way? Sure. But that’s not the movie that got written–and I think that, ironically, there may even be something positive about the fact that we live in a moment when we can say that a Hollywood representation of a lesbian marriage is “too conservative.”
I’m thinking hard about this post, in a good way. I haven’t seen this movie, but your post reminds me of once recommending Braveheart to a gay friend and only afterwards remembering its horrific homophobia. It’s not that I enjoyed that element–it made me sick even the first time through. But I also initially read it as a footnote to the movie, an element that didn’t work but wasn’t central. And so I sort of forgot it even happened. After my gaffe, I realized that a movie with so much homosociality was ripe for homophobia–that Gibson had to banish romantic love between men to preserve his idea of non-romantic love. (I wrote platonic but caught my irony in time.) So I not only remembered it was hateful, I understood that this was a central component and not just gratuitous.
I suppose I’m agreeing that it feels weird to get caught out in one’s heteronormativity. Even when I say the “right” thing (this generation of students gives you plenty of practice), I can still get that eggshell feeling while I strive to use the exact same tone of voice for a comment about gay or straight characters/couples in a text. I teach a course about masculinity and femininity, and I have similar moments of being caught out when discussing non-white norms (e.g. that brown men can be dressier without violating expectations).
One way I might read Cholodenko’s text differently than other critics (and remember, I didn’t see it!) is to say that narratives must invoke conventional expectations. A story where every element is changed is much harder to process and enjoy. I suppose people can argue that 10% surprise is too conservative, but 90% surprise doesn’t just narrow your audience, but also makes your movie unwatchable. I’m trying to distinguish between commercial considerations and aesthetic ones. Ulysses is thrilling and Finnegan’s Wake is impossible.