The Ugly Truth about why The Kids ARE All Right
On opposite coasts, KT and JKP diligently turned their attention from World Cup fever to an important mission: sussing all the hoo-haa about the latest “lesbian film,” Lisa Cholodenkos highly-anticipated The Kids Are All Right. KT saw TKAAR on a Friday night at the Arclight in Los Angeles, a well-appointed Hollywood multiplex with assigned seating and other bourgie accoutrements like Italian mineral water, chicken sausage baguettes, and a full-service bar and restaurant in the lobby. To put the setting in perspective, Nic and Jules–the lesbian couple played by Annette Benning and Julianne Moore in the film–would probably go to the Arclight to see something like TKAAR for a “date night.” (Admittedly, KT was there for that same purpose).
Lesbeaux pairs were neatly dispersed across the stadium-style seats, and a collective clutching of hands could be felt as the movie started, as if everyone was steeling themselves for yet another “dick intervenes” narrative about dyke couples. Despite what KT only half-jokingly refers to as her lesbian fundamentalism, she actually didnt leave the theater hating the film, but felt provoked in ways both reparative and hostile.
On the East coast, in the heart of Chelseas gay male homo-ville, JKP went to see The Kids are All Right the weekend it opened, a few hours after a tepid, snooze-fest World Cup finale between Spain and the Netherlands. She too was on “date night,” and her beaux, being thoroughly nonplussed by the merits of watching football at the local BBQ joint while downing greasy pork ribs and cheap cuba libres, was more than happy to have something interesting to mull over. While JKP left the theater feeling more than a little uneasy with the liberal depiction of gay family, A.O. Scott’s ringing endorsement finally making sense, the movie was a relief: entertaining, fury-rousing, thought-provoking and head-scratching.
We can see why the film has been pretty much reviled by many of our friends and colleagues. We felt compelled to nod vigorously along when reading Jack Halberstam’s and Claire Potter’s lively critiques of TKAAR. Weve also been wowed by Daisy Hernandezs bravado dissection of the films race politics inColorlines. We definitely laughed out loud and hard upon reading Lisa Duggan’sproclamation–undoubtedly true–that TKAAR has the worst lesbian sex scene in the history of cinema (Claire of the Moon be damned).
Within the reception spaces of these reviews, however, the film had gone from questionable to bad. Really bad. In fact, consensus has seemed to build among queer academics in particular that TKAAR is the worst movie of this summer, if not this year, if not EVER. How is this so? How is it that TKAAR can be trashed for not transcending the racial, sexual and gender stereotypes that dominate all of Hollywood filmmaking? Neither of us can remember the last time we saw a mainstream release that didn’t have shitty race politics, gender politics, sexual politics, class politics or all of the above.
Maybe weve approached TKAAR with too much earnestness and not enough salt. What if everything thats wrong with the movie is actually what’s right about the movie?
Lisa Cholodenkos major films, from High Art to Laurel Canyon, have never featured what anyone would call “likeable” characters. All of her films protagonists have been white, privileged, pretentious and undeniably fucked up. Viewed in triptych””to extend Kathryn Bond Stocktons suggestion that TKA be read in diptych with High Art“”Cholodenko has been building a formidable body of work that softly, but also scathingly satirizes the denizens of queer(ish) urbanity, primarily in Los Angeles. (Lest we forget, Frances McDormands character in Laurel Canyonseduces her sons obnoxious, aspirational girlfriend, played by Kate Beckinsale.)
|McDormand and Beckinsale, Pool-Smooching in Laurel Canyon|
Cholodenko relies on the repulsive registers of her actors repertoires of gesture as a vehicle for her satire, one keyed to a lo-fi quotidian discomfort. Nics icy severity surfaces in Bennings annoying facial tics, in a face that will not hold despite all the strain to do so. Jules casual but destructive indecisiveness is captured in Moores goofy, muppet-like head-nodding, the repetitive reflex of assent in lieu of her own ability to assert. Pauls creative class douchery and hetero male narcissism is perfectly embodied by Ruffalo, the prototypical “sexy schlub” adored by many women (and quite a few gay men) because he seems “real,” a little soft, just a notch below “hot”””in short, because he reads a little like some butch dykes. Because many of us like these actors, maybe we wanted too badly to transpose our affection for them and their star texts to their fundamentally unlikable characters on-screen?
Don’t get us wrong: we appreciate all the agro around this film and we each have our share of complaints. But what would happen if we could think of TKAAR beyond its designation as a “lesbian film,” made by the inevitably essentialized figure of the “lesbian director,” Lisa Cholodenko? Through this mainstream marketing lens, Cholodenko invariably carries the burden of lesbian representation, and “realistic” if not positive representation at that. What if we instead construe the film as a potentially astute political and social satire about the possibilities and pitfalls of family formations? If we switch to this register of interpretation””a stubbornly reparative one””we could look closer at the ugliness the film is conveying to broader, mainstream audiences about the costs and horrors of normativity in all its expressions.
In the spirit of wrongs turned right, here are some of the truly ugly things about queers that drew us in to The Kids are All Right:
1. Lesbians can have really boring sex, just like anyone else.
Alas, it’s true: sometimes all the sex toys and props in the world just can’t jazz up the long-term mojo. We too would be more than happy to see “the best lesbian sex” on screen. But what would that be? For whom would it be?
As one of KTs friends joked, most lesbian sex scenes, especially in indie films seem to require rolling around in chocolate, then on a canvas or some other artsy surface, before strummy guiar music fades in and gauze flits between two dewey-eyed girls giggling and kissing tenderly.
In TKAAR, Cholodenko actually makes an incredibly smart intertextual intervention that references the mired history of representations of lesbian sex on screen. When explaining why lesbian porn is unappealing to their son Laser, who finds gay male porn in their bedroom (not to mention a pyrotechnic dildo–was it the classic Beaver from the early 90s?), Jules and Nic summarize the problem neatly: two straight women are hired to depict lesbian sex for straight men. Two straight women like Benning and Moore, for example.
The disparate sex scenes in TKAAR are also about contrasting “married-couple sex” with extramarital sex. Maybe the sex between Jules and Nic is rendered terribly not because its lesbian sex, but because its married sex? The long-termers encounter looks more conjugal and perfunctory, whereas sex outside the couple appears more spontaneous, urgent, even desperate. What if the depiction of extramarital sex were between Jules and another woman? Might it contain the same kind of desperation, improvisation and even hints of violence as her assignations with Paul?
Ultimately who knows what kind of choices Cholodenko could and didn’t make, but perhaps the non-sexy lesbian/married couple sex scene, contrasted with the hyper-phallic straight/extra or non-marital sex scene, is also Cholodenko’s way of saying F*ck You to Hollywood: you aint gettin any. Who winds up being hyper-spectacularized? Not the lesbians. Withholding (visibility) can be a powerful political act. Whether this is a satisfactory move is no doubt endlessly up for debate. But in any case, our point is simply that in the dialogue between Moms and Laser, Cholodenko makes it clear that she is acutely aware of audiences’ desires for representations of hot lesbian sex, as well as the history of lesbian sex in pornography, and the pitfalls of repeating that history in mainstream cinema.
2. Just like anyone else, lesbians can look like shit when theyre depressed.
Of course it’s always great to see Julianne Moore glammed up. But wouldn’t that have seemed a bit weird given how utterly abject her character is? Ok she didn’t have to be a granola-hippy-washed-up love child. (But ouch. How many of us””especially those of us on the west coast””know at least one lesbian like her?) More importantly, Cholodenko’s trenchant point about the fantasies of reproductive coupling””the difficulty of maintaining a relationship where both (where all) people are equally happy with their own lives, as well as equally happy with each other””can, but should not be lost. Are lesbians superheroes who are naturally better at coupling? Surely Nic and Jules were once a hot-to-trot lesbian success story, and we all love those.
But in the scene at the bar where Jules finally asserts to Nic that she relinquished her ambition for Nic’s paternalistic security, we are offered a crushing sense of what has been eroded over years and years through the trials of domesticity and the dynamics that stabilize in that form. It’s not a zero-sum game exactly. More like: what is gained is divided by what is lost, and what is kept owes something to what is added, and so on. In other words: It’s complicated, folks! And TKAAR reminds us that the couple form, especially the reproductive couple form, is often not malleable enough to admit these other algebras of affect, attachment and even ambition.
3. Families suck. Even queer families suck, despite their best intentions.
“Families We Choose” can be the worst families of all, because we choose them thinking they will be better, yet they often turn out to be the same and quite violently so. The family in TKAAR is the most queer when it is porous to Pauls presence, the lines of affiliation arising and dissipating””an assemblage of alliances uncertain and open to changes, unexpected, convivial encounters and sudden, random intimacies. Daughter Joni prepares to hate Paul but finds herself curiously charmed upon meeting him. Meanwhile the eagerness of the son, Laser, is dampened by confronting a heretofore unknown masculinity. His potentially self-undermining disdain towards Paul is most effectively communicated in a scene when he accusingly asks his biological father, “Why did you donate sperm?”
Nic’s resistance to Paul eases as they share a cringe-worthy Joni Mitchell duet (the song in question is, not insignificantly, “All I Want”*””a devastating song about romantic ruin as addition) at a long overdue dinner just moments before Jules and Pauls betrayal becomes evident to her. (*We originally misidentified the song as “Case of You.” Just for fun we’ve appended both songs here to listen and read along with):
What ensues next is nothing less than a classic re-emboldening of the couple form in the face of triangulation, but this time, homonationalist style. Jules tosses the phone–as if flinging a technological phallus–when Paul calls to exhort his passion for her, yelling “Im a DYKE!” before hanging up. And in this sense TKAAR admirably departs from what KT has dubbed the “dick intervenes” genre by discarding the notion that hetero-sex will always turn a good dyke to a steady diet of cock once and for all. She was, in the end, fucking him not because of some latent heterosexual desire or need to exit her relationship, but because of an awakened, reproductive narcissism: she sees her kids in Paul’s face, her family, her inner circle. He is biology, pure matter, as is his penis, the source of the sperm that fathered her children. He reflects back to her the possibilities and achievements deferred by her reproductive choices.
4. Yours, mine, ours?
As Nic refuses Paul entry into the house, she yells, “You’re an interloper. This is my family. If you want a family, get your own.” (Not once does Nic refer to “our family” even when talking to Jules). Despite her anger at “moms,” Joni is similarly unable to see Paul as anything but a threat to her admittedly imperfect but still precious family unit. Lasers already-disaffected stance is, in the end, unflappable. The full-family-shut-out of the very biological matter that made this family possible in the first place is complete. The kids are more than just all right: they fulfill their function perfectly, normatively. They complete the frayed lesbian coupling and provide it an alibi by acting in self-protection, justifying their parents choices. This homonationalist family self-defense is a bio-racial formation with dense social ramifications.
In fact, hardly the heteronormative conquerer or a symbol of the power of heteronormativity, Paul is a clumsy version of heterosexual masculinity. Let’s say it out loud: hes a doofus, and not-so-bright. Unlike the wholesome white family of which he seeks to become a part, he is of the earth, of mere matter, of bios; he is semen and smells “ripe.” He is an outsider, a foreigner, an interloper, someone who needs to “get his own family,” as if family is something we can purchase, acquire, own. In the case of Nic and Jules, it is. They bought the sperm and they “own” the kids legally.
Despite the queerpotential of Pauls status as an interloper and his disposability which could ally him with the racial others in this film, his white, masculine, creative class privilege rescues him. His lack of education and rough-trade skills are converted from liabilities into cultural capital. This positioning actually serves as a foil for Jules own quashed, hippie-dippy ambitions to be, at once, a free spirit and a success””a someone (with a difference), rather than a nobody. White masculinity is what has enabled Paul, someone who is (on paper at least), pretty much a loser, to become a success amongst the hipster locavores on L.A.s eastside, the same ones oblivious of their taste cultures impact on the shape of the neighborhood.
We believe that in the end Cholodenko makes it clear through Pauls interruption that she is not endorsing Nic and Jules particular version of the lesbian family, but simply exposing its instability. The trope of the interloper is neither intrusive nor residual, but rather supplementary””indeed foundational””to the capacity of the homonationalist family to reconsolidate and securitize its boundaries.
Cholodenko thus does not sanction, but instead offers a stinging critique of the racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized costs of excluding others in the name of “my family.” In finalizing Pauls status as an interloper, Cholodenko exposes family for being what postcolonial and transnational feminist thinkers have described it as for a least half a century: a unit of national security, a formation of hierarchical unequals that naturalizes the exclusions and border patrolling of nationhood.
Pauls disposability is trumped only by the dismissal of the three people of color in the film. Jules fires the gardener because she wants to get her fuck on in secret (“protect the family”) with little regard for what it will mean to the gardener economically. Rather than being read as solely an abject caricature of flexible, Chicano migratory labor, we note that the gardener must be expelled because he has too much power to expose the homonationalist family for the unstable entity that it is. Paul dumps Tanya, his African-American hostess/fuck-buddy because he needs to “start thinking about having a family.” In this scene, Tanya figures as the antithesis of family””she is literally not “family material,” her biological matter, her racial coordinates unable to compete with the lure of the white homonationalist family unit. Joni cant bring herself to express her tingles for her South Asian boy pal, Jai, until she sees another white girl try to mack on him at a party. But its also at that moment that Jai becomes used as the figure with whom Joni acts out against “moms.” She couldve kissed any boy and driven home drunk, but we find it striking that casting choice was made to have her love interest be a boy of color (and presumably, one of equal economic privilege).
6. Yes, Hollywood is still butch-phobic.
But a lot of queers seem to be femme-on-femme phobic. Or whatever-on-whatever phobic. Or we-don’t-know-what on we don’t-know-what phobic. To read Nic and Jules within a failed butch-femme configuration is to reassert the centrality of their whiteness, and to uphold the standards of masculinity and femininity that adhere to whiteness and its particular aesthetics of gender presentation. Butch-femme is of course a multiply racialized gender formation with varied histories, but it is often in service, if not indebted to, whiteness. Perhaps Cholodenko shirked from a certain responsibility to redress a lack of variety in butch representation, but in the case of TKAAR it might have worked to good effect to underscore her critique of masculinity. Part of what may feel unsatisfying, uncomfortable or not toothsome enough about TKAAR is that it critiques masculinity while letting “actual” men get away with too much (especially the interloping bio-man embodied by Paul). TKAAR critiques masculinity regardless of its (un)successful embodiments””e.g. Nics/Bennings “failed” butch aesthetics””by reminding us how much the power and coercive force of masculinity, even female masculinity, can have very little to do with hair, clothes, make-up or a lack thereof, but everything to do with money, career, ambition and the performance of paternity.
The Kids are All Right is, as we said at the outset, an ugly film. Or rather, it reveals the ugliness at the heart of queer and bourgeois-boheme fantasies about being different””and yet not. Nic and Jules may have formed an “alternative” family, but it still functions to securitize, protect and police the very notion of “family” itself. Paul may be a quirky guy, an “alterna-dude” who grows organic veggies and runs a green, locally-sourced restaurant””but none of this means he isnt a douche. Hes still a white guy who benefits from all the accommodations the world makes for “creative” guys like him, from the discarded people of color in the film with whom he professes to be “down,” to the lesbians who never quite banished the power of masculinity from their own lived structure. In the end, we arent supposed to like these people or by extension and implication, ourselves, very much.
And yet Cholodenko dwells on all of this damage in a way that forces us to look long and hard, and maybe even laugh at ourselves as we confront the terrible realization of how fucked up we queer (neo)liberals can truly be. We may not always see ourselves, or even see what we want to see about ourselves in her films. Those of us who arent moneyed and/or white would be especially hard pressed to do so. But what makes The Kids Are All Right compelling for us, if not consonant with our views of life, love and the world, is how uncomfortable it makes us feel when we actually do experience the tiniest moments of self-recognition through these characters, their words, their failures and their actions; when we catch glimpses of ourselves doing terrible things in order to exert a tighter grasp on the people, places and things we imagine belong to us alone. – (JKP & KT)