By Lisa Duggan
(with Kathryn Bond Stockton)
I saw The Kids Are All Right here in Salt Lake City, Utah with my pal Kathryn Bond Stockton. We expected it to be bad, given Jack Halberstam’s review here and other reports. But we had no idea how bad. As Stockton quickly quipped, “Congratulations to Lisa Cholodenko for this entry in the lesbian horror genre!”
My revulsion was visceral and immediate. I already knew the plot was going to annoy me–that cliched Threat to the Marriage, Overcome story. The old disruption by outside sexual desire, and restoration of the marital bond thing, this time featuring a couple of privileged white lesbians. I knew the racial representations were going to be offensive. Yet I was inclined to accept the view that Hollywood movie making required this kind of plot, and that the director would have had to negotiate the plot points to get the film made and mass distributed. I came with low expectations, expecting to be basically curious but indifferent. I thought the director would work counter to the lame plot in ways I was hoping to observe. But I was shocked, shocked at the terrible direction of this film. Not just the script, but Lisa Cholodenko’s direction was, I can only say, absolutely vile.
OK, so vile how? Annette Benning’s Nic was a cartoon andro dyke (they clearly didn’t try for butch). Not just her scripted role as a priggish, controlling, condescending asshole, but……her gestures, her facial expressions and the way she held her mouth, her stance, her movements. These, one may argue, are questions of acting–perhaps Annette Benning just tried too hard and turned herself into a caricature? But she had a lesbian director (!) who finally guided her gestures and expressions and movements and decided which versions and edits would make it into the film. But if Benning’s Nic was bad, Julianne Moore’s Jules was horrifying, offensive and repulsive (I could add more adjectives, but maybe that’s enough?). As the somewhat more femme partner, she nonetheless manufactured the same cartoon mouth thing that was supposed to look “dykey,” similar gestures and movements and….they made her look really bad in order to make her lesbian. (My pal Stockton began to fear coming home to her lovely girlfriend Shelley White in overalls and a bad sun hat.) Has Cholodenko never seen Wanda Sykes move or Portia de Rossi smile? Every dyke in the audience, wherever located on a butch-andro-femme scale, should consider throwing drinks at the screen.
These screen lesbos made me long for the ridiculously over glamorized L-Word!! And they truly made me appreciate Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound–straight actresses as utterly persuasive dykes, with the styling and directing assistance of Susie Bright. Hollywood–next time you want to make a lesbo film, call Susie Bright!!
But if the two lesbians were a kind of dyke-face minstrel show, they were far more nuanced than the representation of the Chicano gardner. The director went beyond the offensive script, and guided the actor to play that character broadly for laughs, exactly minstrel style. The big eyes, the broad grin, the stance, the whole gestural thing….absolutely crudely racist. And note that the only two characters of color were both employees of the white folks who dumped them one way or another–Paul dumps his gorgeous black employee/mistress, as Jules fires the gardner. Another round of drinks at the screen, please!
Here I would like to interrupt this regular blog post to share the insights of KB Stockton, who noted that:
1) The only good thing about the movie–though it’s big–is the utter liberation of Julianne Moore’s oft-closeted freckles.
2) The film demonstrates that heroin addiction and the inescapable attraction to an addict (as depicted in Cholodenko’s earlier “High Art”) is fun, sexy, and interesting compared to the relations in “The Kids Are All Right”; this is obviously Cholodenko’s message, and the two films clearly
work as a diptych.
3) The movie shows the problem for women with men: as indicated by meathead Clay (Laser’s friend), inevitably men want to pee on your head.
Finally, I would like to invite all readers to send your entries for Worst Lesbian Sex Scene in Cinema History, because I nominate the one in this movie. If I thought that was what I had to look forward to, I’d exit lesbiana and start sucking dick tomorrow. Please enlighten me if there are worse dyke “sexual” scenarios in film history.