After I posted my own blog on the film, I read several other responses from queer bloggers and LGBTQ folks in mainstream internet outlets —Jack Halberstam on Bully Bloggers (www.bullybloggers.wordpress.com), Kate Clinton at The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kate-clinton/the-kids-are-so-so_b_666815.html), and Mark Harris at Entertainment Weekly (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20402032,00.html), for only several example—and wanted to add an addendum to my own post as a result.
I enjoyed Cholodenko’s movie and don’t feel at all ashamed to say it. I don’t go to mainstream Hollywood films expecting radical ideological positions; call me conservative, call me liberal, but I don’t expect that particular form to be the one in which we save the world. I’m happy for a mainstream film that depicts lesbian relationships at all—how many, after all, can we list?
Isn’t this why The Kids are All Right bears what Kobena Mercer called so long ago now “the burden of representation”? Because there are so few representations of lesbians in the mainstream, everyone brings to them their own investments and standards, and it goes without saying how impossible it is to please everyone.
Yes, as Kate Clinton notes, the movie is in some ways the same-old same-old, and there’s no good lesbian sex “with skin.” But as Mark Harris says, Cholodenko seems more interested in what makes a long-term relationship than in sexy representations of lesbian moms. He thinks The Kids is one of the best films ever to describe what marriage means and how it looks. But some people think it didn’t do justice to long-term lesbian relationships, either.
Sure, the movie isn’t perfect. How could it be? As Sarah Schulman says on Bully Bloggers, it’s an achievement that it got made at all, a testament not only to Cholodenko’s skill as a filmmaker (given her track record with High Art and Laurel Canyon), but no doubt to her ability to move through Hollywood deal-making structures that of course will have some bearing on the final product. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.
But can’t we look at what this film does and acknowledge that while it doesn’t do everything, it makes a contribution to however liberal a discourse about lesbians—white, upper-middle class, LA lesbians, who co-parent in a committed relationship; in other words, a certain type of lesbians—in the mainstream imaginary?
I found the film funny, moving, and observant about what it means to work through the ups and downs of a long-term relationship. And despite my own choice not to parent, I admire women who buck the odds, adopt one another’s biological children in conservative states like Texas, for only one example (where, had the movie been set there, the story might have been utterly different), and use their daily lives as a site of their activism.
The relationship Cholodenko depicts isn’t mine, either. I’ve been with my partner for 21 years, but we don’t call one another “wife,” as they do in the film. In fact, we cringe at that language, and want no ceremony of any sort (marriage or commitment) to mark our relationship. But we live in New Jersey, where we did take advantage of civil union legislation, in large part because we want to be able to make health care decisions for one another should it become necessary (and it will).
Implicit in some negative discussion about The Kids is judgment against the kind of lesbian families or relationships the film represents. Calling the film’s central relationship only normative seems exaggerated. Lesbians (and gay men) who want to marry might be assimilationist, but are there so many lesbian and gay families that they’re already widely recognizable and accepted, especially outside the west coast urban context in which the story plays out?
Doesn’t the film at least add to the number of public, mainstream representations of a family form that might still be alien to many people who see this film? If Nic and Jules seem “just like us” to many of those viewers, is that a bad thing, really? Some lesbians aren’t just like the mainstream and don’t aspire to be. But some do; should they be judged badly for that?
It seems to me futile to prescribe what’s “truly” radical in a lesbian relationship, or to suggest that any mainstream representation is just bound to get it wrong.
The good thing about The Kids are All Right is that it gives us something to argue around the perennial question of how the margins should be represented in the mainstream.
I hope, in 2010, that lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer social movement activism can accommodate multiple efforts on multiple fronts. It’s desperately important that we keep reimagining different ways of being people, reconfiguring the relative value of sexual practice, and re-envisioning potentially new arrangements for domestic structures.
I’d hope there’s room for work like Cholodenko’s alongside work by more formally and ideologically radical artists, like, for only one instance, Holly Hughes, whose newest performance, The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), I just had the pleasure of seeing at Dixon Place in New York.
I’m personally eager to see both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, and to treat it all with the kind of critical generosity I think it deserves.
The Feminist Spectator