Movie Review: The Kids Are Alright
This post was submitted by TNG contributor, Duke Marine
The kids may be alright—although I fail to see how that was the message of this movie—but the film itself is certainly not. I wanted to see this film, in fact I was excited to see it, after reading media surrounding it. The primarily self-congratulatory interviews with the stars, producers and writers claimed the movie organically illustrates, in the words of one blogger, how “‘gay’ and ‘straight’ have more in common than most people on all sides of the issue are used to admitting.” In perfect retrospect, I should have been wary of the heavy-handed insistence that the movie is “mainstream” and not “political.” I had hoped the fact that the personal is undeniably political would mean that a movie purporting to honestly portray the lives of a gay family would be a sorely needed gay-positive statement. Again, such stars of the film as Mark Ruffalo pretty much ubiquitously made this argument in the press.
So I went to one of the three or four theatres in the entire Los Angeles area in which the movie is playing two weeks after its initial, limited release—a situation that I initially found offensive, but, in light of what I then saw of the movie, now think is a blessing in disguise. I should make it known right away that I’m about to review a movie that I walked out of approximately halfway through the runtime. If that discredits my opinion in somebody’s eyes, then so be it. I hope that I am able to explain my reasons for cutting my (painful) experience short sufficiently to show that I don’t believe there is a single way possible for the movie to end that could redeem what it subjects the audience to by the halfway point.
The premise of the movie is, of course, itself a sensitive issue. I’m not talking about the lesbian family, per se, but the fact that the plot centers around their eighteen and fifteen-year-old children hunting down and seeking contact with their biological father (sperm donor). Obviously, children brought about through IVF or adoption seeking their biological parents–– especially in the context of marginalized, misunderstood, and criticized gay families––is a touchy subject for many. However, I firmly believe that it is an “organic” issue that, dealt with in an appropriately sensitive manner, can be portrayed in a constructive way. Also, from my own limited experience with gay people who have started families, I think that while tricky, most gay parents are aware of these issues inherent in their decision to parent and are prepared to deal with whatever may arise—so are the majority of straight families who adopt or utilize IVF for various reasons. I go off on this tangent only to ensure that it is clear I am not disparaging the movie solely for dealing with a potentially difficult subject.
However, the movie begins going off-track as soon as the sexuality of the lesbian mothers is explored. Despite the insistence of the interviews I read that sexual issues are mere subtext in the movie, sexuality is a prominent theme in the film, complete with graphic, pornographic portrayals. Here’s the kicker, though: the film contains graphic, pornographic portrayals only of sexuality involving men, especially heterosexual activity. The first scene of “sexuality” we see is the lesbian couple in bed, fully clothed and covered by heavy blankets, deciding rather awkwardly and tenuously that they will engage in sex by watching a gay male porn movie. Now, I know Rosie O’Donnell made comments a while ago about she and her then-partner watching gay male pornography. I know the arguments justifying this practice. Women’s sexuality tends to be more fluid than men’s, with arousal occurring from diverse stimuli, and of course there is the anti-pornography feminist argument (which in my opinion should be extended to gay male pornography as well, but I digress) that women in pornography are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual abuse.
Despite these arguments, however, I want to focus on the scene in the movie itself, where the lesbian women’s sexuality is portrayed by a fully clothed Annette Benning wearily regarding the explicitly shown gay men on the television while her partner, Julianne Moore, is completely hidden under blankets. The only way we know they are engaged in some kind of sex is the very audible whirring of a vibrator. After a few seconds composed primarily of shots of nude men on the television and Benning’s complaining about the temperature in the room, the scene ends as a slapstick gag about the T.V. remote being lost. Mere minutes later, during a scene involving sperm donor “dad” Mark Ruffalo, we are given a prolonged, graphic scene of he and his girlfriend-of-the-moment engaged in blatant, pornographic hardcore sex.
Now, I am well aware that in anything labeled “mainstream,” it is considered shocking to see two gay people even kiss, while heterosexuals can be fully nude and openly simulating (or performing) intercourse even on television or in “family” films. I think we all remember Will & Grace. So, I wasn’t that shocked by that double standard, except that it contained the addition of the fact that gay male sexuality was openly displayed and exploited as the focus of a scene that was supposed to be about women’s sexuality. Apparently, in this film, it is not the gay-ness or homosexuality of lesbians’ lives that is shocking or inappropriate, but the thought that they might be woman-identified women whose private lives do not involve the presence of men—or, at least, male genitalia. Again, I am aware that there may be some gay women who view gay male pornography. However, this film did not even try to explain this phenomenon to its “mainstream” audience—an audience that still misunderstands the diversity of human sexuality. In a scene that occurs a little later in the film, the women’s teenage son is snooping in their room and discovers a gay male porn movie and a vibrator. Again, the center of these women’s sexuality is male eroticism and a substitute phallus. When their son asks his mothers why they are watching gay men, we are given an awkward, rushed explanation that sometimes human sexuality is “counterintuitive” and women, whose sexual response is internal, must see sexual arousal “externalized.” This is followed by a quick aside that begins to mention the sexual exploitation of women in pornography before being cut short and the whole subject being dropped.
I don’t really feel the need to analyze the choice of the wording in this explanation. I mean, can human sexuality—in this context gay women’s sexuality—being defined as “counterintuitive” really be misinterpreted? Can the insistence that women—even gay women—somehow benefit from viewing men’s erections really be a pro-gay, pro-woman statement? It was at this point in the movie when I began looking at the time and hoping this torture would end soon. Little did I know that this was only the beginning.
In the next few scenes, the biological father Ruffalo is introduced into the family’s lives. The women’s reaction to him can only be described as bitchy, bitter, and defensive. Again, I reiterate that in my experience, parents of any orientation who choose parenting through IVF or adoption are well aware that issues of biological parentage will arise and are prepared to deal with it—especially gay and lesbian parents who know from the start that these issues must arise in order to produce biological children. Instead of seeing a mature couple deal with this inevitable situation, the movie gives us two women bickering about a man invading their lives. And do they take this man-hating streak out on the man in question? Of course not. Instead we suddenly see the women begin to bicker with each other. The next time we see them attempt to engage in sexuality, all we are given is a voyeuristic scene of a nude Julianne Moore in a tub while her partner lights candles and rubs her feet before being distracted by a phone call. It has also become clear by this point that she is an alcoholic and slightly verbally abusive and controlling.
Now I come to the penultimate degradation of women and gay sexuality that I witnessed before exiting. Julianne Moore’s character becomes Ruffalo’s landscaper, and during a consultation, she passionately begins kissing him. Now, I want to make it clear again that I am not against the subject of adultery in gay relationships being treated in general just because it is a sensitive issue. Obviously, lesbians cheating on their longtime partners with men has been portrayed in film and television before—most notably in gay productions like The L Word and Queer As Folk. However, again, there is a sensitive, “organic” way to deal with this issue. In the two instances I just cited, the affairs were part of long-running series and part of well-established characters’ storylines. In both instances, the women were embroiled in explicitly collapsing relationships yet still expressed immediate guilt and inner conflict over their actions. Usually alcohol was quite “organically” involved, and the psychology of the action was thoroughly probed.
This is not the situation in the film at issue. After prolonged making-out, Julianne Moore merely giggles and awkwardly exits, a demure schoolgirl act if ever there was one. She is never shown at any level of unease with this act, nor, despite hints that her partner is somewhat controlling and drinks too much wine, are we given any psychological explanation as to why this woman would cheat on her partner of at least twenty years or why she would cheat with a man, let alone this particular man. As a character, Mark Ruffalo is given no psychological depth, nor is his apparent animal attractiveness to women explained. He is about as stereotypically masculine as you can get in modern film—hairy, perpetually disheveled and scantily clad, underachieving, promiscuous and riding a motorcycle (the “danger” of which is constantly remarked on, and which is anathema to the controlling, bitter lesbians).
Within minutes, the movie returns to Moore and Ruffalo working together on his property, where Moore—again, bubbly and awkward—apologizes for the kiss with the vague explanation, “I don’t do that.” This is of course not met with any kind of respect from Ruffalo, who merely advances, followed by Moore responding, rushing to passionately kiss and grope at him like a hungry animal.
This is where the movie became clearly, unambiguously offensive to women’s and gay sexuality. The kiss instantly leads to eager intercourse. Julianne Moore sinks to Ruffalo’s crotch and eagerly strips open his pants to reveal his penis. At this her eyes widen in worshipful amazement as she gasps like a starving person presented with a buffet. We are then given graphic, fully nude, explicit scenes of the “lesbian” being penetrated in various positions while screaming and moaning in satisfied ecstasy.
And this is when I walked out. After being told that children of lesbian or gay parents apparently need to find and form a relationship with their opposite-sex biological “parent” (who has the right to dispense parenting and parental advice), after being told that gay or lesbian parents respond to this invasion of the opposite sex by become defensive and bitter and attacking each other, after being told that lesbian sexuality is dependent upon there being visual representations and substitutes for male erection present (and is still an awkward, rigged-together exercise in futility), and finally after being told that it is inevitable that a woman will instinctually leap on the first man to successfully invade her life and worship his real erection and achieve ultimate fulfillment from being penetrated by it (no matter if the woman has a partner of twenty years and the man in question is a passing acquaintance at best), I got up and walked out.
This movie is nothing but a misrepresentation of women’s sexuality—indeed, a misappropriation of it, as the movie claims to represent an “organic” women’s reality and the modern family. Again in the perfect vision of hindsight, I realize I should have been wary of the insistence that the film would show that gay and straight families are so similar as to be nearly identical. Well, of course gay families will seem exactly like straight families if you make us into straight families. This movie is about as gay-positive or woman-identified as the heterosexual man’s girl-on-girl pornographic fantasy that it almost condemned before demurring. What bothers me the most, though, is that this is still to this day considered groundbreaking “mainstream” presence of the gay and lesbian community. The other instances of tenuously similar plots that I mentioned previously (in The L Word and Queer As Folk, respectively) occurred in niche shows, targeted directly at a gay audience who understood (hopefully) that they were soap-operatic dramas. To portray what this movie portrayed to a world that continues to misinterpret and vilify human sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality, based on the very phallocentric, heterosexist assumptions this movie both subconsciously and overtly presented is criminal. It is the opposite of gay-positive, it is the opposite of woman-identified, and it should be the opposite of everything for which the gay and feminist community stands. Hopefully, I am not in the minority in this viewpoint and other gays, lesbians, allies, and feminists come together to counter this “mainstream” degradation of our lives.
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