The Kids Are All Right: Marriage In the Bathroom Mirror

I reviewed the lesbian mom movie The Kids Are All Right when it first came out, a little over a week ago. At the risk of overdoing it, I want to write some more.

Many other lesbian bloggers have also turned their pens to reviews, including Dorothy Snarker at After Ellen, Julie Goldman and Brandy Howard at AutoStraddle, Lesbian Dad, Scribegrrrl, and Kathy Wolfe at SheWired. As is clear from some of the comments on Dorothy’s post at After Ellen, however, and Jill Bennett’s op-ed at She Wired, however, many people are feeling everything from concern to anger over the “lesbian sleeps with a man” part of the plot. I tried to address that in my review—the film is not “about” the opposite-sex relationship and it is clear the character isn’t “converted” to being straight. Yes, a lesbian sleeping with a man is an old film cliché—but as both Dorothy and LesbianDad have pointed out in the After Ellen comment thread, too, director Lisa Cholodenko turns the trope on its head. (If you’re interested in even more of the debate, check out the follow-up posts by Dorothy and Scribegrrrl.)

In this vein, I want to point out a review by Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly (not yet online). He gets that the film is about human relationships. He gets that it is not about a lesbian sleeping with a man—in fact, he doesn’t even mention the affair. Dana Stevens at Slate has a similar take, but Harris rightly stresses just how rare a look at marriage the film provides—and not because it involves two women. He writes:

I couldn’t remember the last time I saw such a good film about being married. . . . I was startled to realized that the best ones that occurred to me—The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, Kramer vs. Kramer, Shoot the Moon—were all (a) about divorce and (b) at least 30 years old.

He can recall movies where the protagonist’s marriage forms the end of the story, he says, but few films show what it is like to be married. In contrast:

The Kids Are All Right . . . celebrates the journey through marriage in a way that, for the movies, is quietly revolutionary. . . . Make what you will of the bitter irony that the first really great, believable married couple on screen in ages cannot legally marry. . . . This is marriage as you’ve rarely seen it, except perhaps in the bathroom mirror. . . .

[Director Lisa Cholodenko] doesn’t sanctify Nic and Jules as pioneers of social progress. . . . They’re not intended to be role models or billboards for gay coupledom. They and their marriage are, however, recognizably human, which this summer counts as one giant leap in the right direction.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the best recent film about marriage centers around a same-sex couple, though. We in the LGBT community have given an awful lot of thought to what marriage means, both as an institution and on a personal level. Redefining it? No. Reexamining it? Yes.

I know that not every LGBT person will want to watch this film. For many, the opposite-sex affair will remain too off-putting. Heck, even I didn’t like quite so much screen time devoted to Mark Ruffalo’s hirsute backside.

Let’s keep in mind, though, that no matter the reasons some in the LGBT community may not like it, they are far different from the reasons certain others do not like it—witness the virulent homophobia in the review by Andrea Peyser of the New York Post (described here by GLAAD).

The affair with a man seems designed to increase the film’s appeal among a straight audience. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be necessary. Either straight people would see it anyway, or Cholodenko could get the film funded even if it was targeted narrowly at lesbians. But because it’s not a perfect world, if adding the affair gets more people to hear the film’s broader message, then I, for one, am willing to let her play with the old cliché. I think that in the end, The Kids Are All Right takes us one step closer to dismantling it.