(Editor’s Note: Remember a time when lesbian films were all the rage in Hollywood?
(Editor’s Note: Remember a time when lesbian films were all the rage in Hollywood? Since it’s awards season, I asked queer scholars Karen Tongson and Jasbir K Puar to revisit their fantastic review of that critical darling of yesteryear, The Kids Are All Right. Below is their piece, “The Ugly Truth…,” revised from the original—posted at Oh! Industry—for Velvetpark.)
Upon its release in the summer of 2010, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right received rapturous reviews from the mainstream media. A.O. Scott of the New York Times famously praised the film for its originality and the “thrilling, vertiginous sense of never having seen anything like it before.” The venerable Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times found Cholodenko’s depiction of marriage “universal,” and “toyed with the idea of not even using the word ‘lesbian’” in his review, instead leaving it up to his readers to discern that the triangulated couple at the heart of the film happened to be female.
Meanwhile, the response within our milieu of queer studies scholars, and queer academic bloggers in particular, couldn’t have been more to the contrary; The Kids are All Right was pretty much reviled by our friends and colleagues. At first, we too felt compelled to nod vigorously along when Jack Halberstam and Claire Potter offered lively critiques of Cholodenko’s film. We were wowed by Daisy Hernandez’s incisive look at the film’s race politics in Colorlines, and we laughed loud and hard upon reading Lisa Duggan’s proclamation (undoubtedly true) that The Kids are All Right showcases the worst lesbian sex scene in the history of cinema, Claire of the Moon be damned.
Within the reception spaces of the queer academy’s semi-public sphere, within the confines of our quasi-counterpublics, the film went from questionable to bad. Really bad. In fact, as summer 2010 drew to a close and careened into what those of us in Los Angeles (the setting for many of Cholodenko’s films) call “awards season,” consensus seemed to build among queer academics that The Kids are All Right was not only the worst movie of the summer, or of 2010, but EVER. We were left wondering how this could be? Could the Kids are All Right be all that wrong? How could our friends and colleagues pan the film for not transcending the racial, sexual and gender stereotypes that dominate all of Hollywood filmmaking? Neither of us could remember the last time we saw a widely distributed release, either mainstream or “independent” that didn’t in some way lapse into shitty race politics, gender politics, sexual politics, class politics, and often all of the above.
Nevertheless—to resurrect an earworm from 90s one-hit-wonders, Deep Blue Something—we both kinda liked it. In different viewing environments on opposite coasts, each of us found The Kids are All Right entertaining, fury-rousing, even thought-provoking. We got to thinking that maybe queer scholars approached The Kids are All Right with too much earnestness and not enough salt. What if everything that was wrong with the movie was actually what was right about it?
Lisa Cholodenko’s major films, from High Art to Laurel Canyon, never featured who 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 Stockton’s suggestion that The Kids are All Right should 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 McDormand’s character in Laurel Canyon seduces her son’s obnoxious aspirational girlfriend, played by Kate Beckinsale.)
Cholodenko likes to draw upon the repulsive registers of her actors’ gestural repertoires. She pitches her satire to a quotidian lo-fi for maximum discomfort. In The Kids are All Right, Nic’s icy severity surfaces in Annette Benning’s annoying facial tics: in a face that will not hold despite tremendous strain to do so. Jules’ casual, but destructive indecisiveness is perfectly captured by Moore’s goofy, muppet-like head-nodding; a reflex of assent for her lack of ability to assert. Paul’s creative class douchery and hetero male narcissism is perfectly embodied by Ruffalo, a prototypically “sexy schlub” adored by many women—and quite a few gay men—because he seems “real,” accessible, a little soft, just a notch below “hot”; in short, because his masculinity reads a lot like a butch dyke’s. Because many of us like these actors, maybe we’ve wanted too badly to transfer our affection for them and their star texts onto their fundamentally unlikable on-screen characters?
Don’t get us wrong: we appreciate all the agro generated by this film and we each have our share of complaints. But what would happen if we thought of The Kids are All Right 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 over to this interpretative path—a stubbornly reparative one—we could look closer at the ugliness the film conveys to broader, mainstream audiences about the costs and horrors of normativity in all its guises.
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?
In The Kids are All Right, Cholodenko actually makes an incredibly smart intertextual intervention that references the vexed representational history of lesbian sex on screen. When explaining why lesbian porn is unappealing to their son Laser after he finds gay male porn in their bedroom (not to mention a pyrotechnic dildo), Jules and Nic summarize the problem neatly: two straight women are hired to depict lesbian sex for straight men.
Two straight women like Bening and Moore, for example.
Many of our colleagues lamented the disparate degrees of purported “hotness” in the homo and hetero sex scenes in The Kids are All Right. Yet in our view, these scenes are less about contrasting “lesbian” with “straight” sex as they are about comparing “married sex” with extramarital sex. The long-termers’ encounter looks more conjugal and perfunctory, whereas sex outside the couple appears more spontaneous, urgent, even desperate. Mostly because extramarital sex often is. What if the depiction of extramarital sex were between Jules and another woman? Might it not contain the same desperation, improvisation and even hints of violence as her assignations with Paul?
Ultimately, who knows what choices Cholodenko could and didn’t make; but perhaps the unsexy lesbian/married couple sex, contrasted with the hyper-phallic straight/extra or extra-marital sex scene, is also Cholodenko’s way of saying F*ck You to Hollywood: you ain’t 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 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 the audience’s desire 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. Lesbians, like anyone, can look like shit when they’re 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 washed up, granola-hippy love child. (But ouch. How many of us—especially those of you 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 wine 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 in an effort to stabilize the couple form. It’s not a zero-sum game exactly. It’s 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 The Kids are All Right 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 (especially) 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. One could say that the family in The Kids are All Right is most queer when it is porous to Paul’s 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 son, Laser’s eagerness 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 dinner just moments before Jules’ and Paul’s betrayal becomes evident to Nic.
What ensues 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 “I’m a DYKE!” before hanging up. And in this sense The Kids are All Right 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.” (Incidentally, Nic never refers to “our family” even when she’s speaking 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. Laser’s already-disaffected stance is, in the end, unflappable. The full-family-lockdown against 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 parent’s 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: he’s 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 his sperm and “own” the kids legally.
Yet, despite the queer potential of Paul’s status as an interloper and his disposability (which could, in certain readings, 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 functions 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 gentrifying hordes oblivious of their taste culture’s impact on the shape of the neighborhood.
We believe that in the end Cholodenko makes it clear through Paul’s 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 Paul’s status as an interloper, Cholodenko exposes family for being what postcolonial and transnational feminist thinkers have described it for at least half a century: a unit of national security, a formation of hierarchical unequals that naturalizes the exclusions and border patrolling of nationhood.
5. To shore up the family, either gay or straight, people of color become collateral damage.
Paul’s disposability contrasts sharply with 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,” because her biological matter and her racial embodiment ensure she is unable to compete with the lure of the white homonationalist family unit. Joni can’t 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 it’s also at that moment that Jai becomes used as the figure with whom Joni acts out against “moms.” She could’ve 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 The Kids are All Right it might have actually worked to underscore her critique of masculinity. Part of what may feel unsatisfying, uncomfortable or not toothsome enough about The Kids are All Right is that it critiques masculinity while letting “actual” men get away with too much (especially the interloping bio-man embodied by Paul). The Kids are All Right critiques masculinity regardless of its (un)successful embodiments—e.g. Nic’s/Benning’s “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 nice, quirky guy—an reconstituted, “alterna-dude” who grows organic veggies and runs a green, locally-sourced restaurant—but none of that means he isn’t a total douche. He’s still a bio-man 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 aren’t 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 aren’t moneyed and/or white Angelenos 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 within these characters, within their words, within their failures and their actions; when we catch a glimpse of ourselves doing terrible things in order to exert a tighter grasp on the people, places and things we imagine belong to us alone.