By Jack Halberstam
We all know that Hollywood movies emerge out of a, shall we say, limited gene pool of ideas; and when that pool runs dry, the stumped screenplay writers just shuffle the jigsaw puzzle pieces of accepted story lines around until they come up with apparently new narratives. This is clearly what happened with the recent Jennifer Westfeldt film Friends With Kids. Touted as an independent, edgy ‘ensemble comedy,’ this film actually shows what happens when very straight, very sheltered straight people get a hold of a few strands of rather radical queer ideas about love, intimacy and reproduction!
Touted by David Edelstein in a feature in the New York Magazine as “the best breeder movie in years” (we might also dub it the only breeder movie in years and hey, when did “breeder” become a part of the hetero lexicon?), Friends With Kids asks a question that queer people have asked often and with much more curiosity for years: namely, do people have to be married to have kids or are marriage and child rearing actually like oil and water, a recipe for a greasy mess with the capacity to neither lubricate nor hydrate!
This film comes up with a solution to the separation of sex and reproduction problem by offering us Julie (played by Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), good friends who enjoy a wide-ranging and affectionate friendship with each other while dating others and watching their friendship circle drift off into marriage and child rearing. When neither Julie nor Jason falls in love with an appropriate partner at the designated time of life for such things, they watch with horror as their friends’ relationships fall apart and their sex lives wither on the vine under the pressure of child rearing.
One night, after a particularly unpleasant dinner party with their coupled and bickering pals, Julie and Jason ask whether it could be possible to have babies together without the intimacy, marriage and bickering. An idea is born and since they have affirmed many times that while they love each other, they are not attracted to one another, what could possibly get in the way of this perfect arrangement? They will get to date promiscuously but still have some stability in their lives; they will get the baby and the chance at parenthood without dragging the diapers and the spit up into their sex lives; they will get to have their cake and eat it too.
While this idea strikes Julie and Jason and their rather humdrum friendship circle as wild, original, evil and impossible, in actual fact the notion of the companionate marriage is as old as the hills. The reason it is on no one’s radar is because it is one of those many under-studied forms of lesbian sociality where we will find it under the heading of the Boston marriage.
The Boston marriage, which is essentially what Jason and Julie propose to have – was a term used in the late 19th century to describe households made up of women living together independently of men. Whether or not these relationships were sexual has been a topic of much debate, but they were certainly long lasting, amicable and they allowed women financial, emotional and practical independence at a time when middle class women were defined by their relationships to their husbands.
Because of the ways in which heteronormativity assigns credit for all things good to heterosexuality and blame for all things bad to the gays and lesbians and trannies, heterosexual marriage has been cast as unquestionably right and good, even when it lacks sex and includes physical violence, and lesbian companionate relations have been cast as unquestionably wrong even when they are sexual and stable. Also, as we saw in The Kids Are All Right, one of the formulaic films that provides plot pieces for this mash up of rom coms and social issues movies, when lesbian long term relationships lose their libidinal energy we talk of “lesbian bed death” (not just bed death notice, lesbian bed death), but when hetero couples run out of steam, as the Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig couple do in Friends With Kids, this is simply a failed marriage – leaving us with the impression that most marriages succeed!
Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig as Ben and Missy are actually the most convincing couple in the film – they enter the movie panting from mid-dinner coital exertions and they exit alone and bitter. Sounds like a Tennessee Williams play except that when queer relationships fail, even in dramas penned by queers, it affirms the essential corruption of the queers. When straight people fail, they are just not trying hard enough. And so, Ben and Missy, whose relationship falls apart with as many sparks as it initially came together (so to speak), are represented as a bad combination of the bitchy woman and the resentful male partner – that this combination is actually the foundation of most forms of domestic white heterosexuality is never confirmed by the film which wants to desperately hold on to the idea of a perfect union of man and woman, good and bad, black and white, domestic and wild.
And so, to that end, we are offered an ideal couple in this not so romantic and not so funny rom com: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). Leslie may be a tad bitchy and naggy but Alex absorbs all darts and arrows that she flings his way and does the manly thing – he fights fire with love and compassion. Because he yields and bends to her need to blame and nitpick, and because she accepts his limitations, ineptitudes and laziness, they are the perfect couple and they even have sex!
So, if Friends With Kids steals one set of narrative arcs from The Kids Are All Right – alternative domesticity, Boston marriage, the separation of child rearing from heterosexual domesticity—it steals another from Friends With Benefits. Another gay film masquerading as a straight film, Friends With Benefits asked whether two hot young things could have sex but not intimacy, a good time at night and beat a hasty retreat in the morning, blow jobs without blow backs…? The answer of course was…sure they can…for a while… and then guess what? Mother nature takes over and what man and woman has put asunder, nature will reunite – and so if Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis just want to roll around in their undies looking hot for and hour and 20 minutes, that is all well and good, but a rom com demands a marriage and so sex leads to intimacy leads to love leads to….
And so it goes in Friends With Kids – the couple with no chemistry, no interest in each other sexually, no grounds for love or marriage, the couple who were so cold on each other sexually that they knew they could raise a kid together without any complications…guess what…they fall in love! Despite having subjected the audience to one of the most awkward and therefore actually interesting sex scenes in cinema during their insemination romp, the couple who couldn’t suddenly become hot for one another, just like that! For the viewer who has suffered through long spans of dialogue offering up one watered down queer critique after another of domesticity, heterosexuality, long term relationships and nuclear parenthood, the resulting romance is offensive, insincere and totally unbelievable. And this, ultimately, is why straight people should leave the queer theory to the queers – once they have boarded the runaway train of alternative desire, they realize that they desperately want to go home and leave everything exactly the way it was.
Ok, so in a perfect world, where I had a sabbatical, time to spare, no deadlines, I would pen the perfect masterpieces: The Friends Are All Right and Kids With Benefits. In the first, a queer culture of friendship replaces domestic marriage and nuclear families and new experiments in social world-making pop up everywhere. Friends share space, homes, kids, resources, health care access and probably sex…And in the second, kids cease to be the precious and pampered pets that this society demands and produces and they fight for their independence from families! Or else we could just settle for Kids Are Ok, Friends Are All Right and Go Get Your Own Benefits, a rom com involving space aliens who settle on earth and try to date lesbians…actually that IS the plot of an awesome film I just saw titled Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same by Madeline Olnek…try coopting that Hollywood!! Watch this space for a quick take on lesbian space alien films…coming soon. Peace out.