My Take on “The Kids Are All Right”

July 21, 2010  |  essays

I spent almost a week on this after I saw the film. It turned out to be a bit of an opus, about six pages long, and AfterEllen.com graciously told me they would run it.

Here’s a little teaser of my thoughts:

What if this depiction of that trope, of that storyline of lesbian-sleeps-with-a-man, is actually a step forward? It’s actually a step away from the old versions of this story? It’s something new. We haven’t actually seen this before. What if it’s a sign that we’re actually getting farther from this trope, rather than recreating it yet again?

Untangling that trope means entering into some grey areas, unseeing the black-and-white of this issue and looking at some of the larger contexts and contents; reigning in our own projections a little bit to consider this with fresh eyes, from a place of a beginner’s mind, without quite so much anger directed at this trope. I know that sounds like you have to give up your very warranted anger, but that’s not quite what I mean. It’s just having enough looseness to be able to allow new information to be observed, even if we already think we know exactly what we’re looking at.

Because that’s really the problem here, isn’t it? We hear “a film in which a lesbian sleeps with a guy” and we roll our eyes and get that disappointed, sinking stomach feeling, and we pretend that we aren’t disappointed in yet another depiction of us, of me, of my life, my legitimate love, my legitimate orientation, in a mainstream film that had so much potential, so we squish that potential and we squish that disappointment and we try to sound so damn smart about the wrong that is this film that we might actually miss the film itself, what it’s saying, and what it’s doing.

Read the whole thing over on AfterEllen.com.

And go see this film. It is really beautiful.

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21 Comments


  1. Oh man. So much to comment on.

    1) Write more for AE. That place needs a butch touch. Did you see the article they did on 'butch' swimsuits? Tankinis. TANKINIS.

    2) Did they really make you censor 'shit', 'dick', and 'dicking'?

    3) "This was a film about upper-middle-class white lesbians, and I mean lesbians, not dykes or queers."

    That pretty much summed up why I never watched The L Word, and why I probably won't see this. Combine it with the 'all lesbians are secretly bisexual' thing and I'm done. It's almost more of a class thing. I'm more interested in seeing drama about the lives of working class and lower middle class women– or men– than wealthy suburbanites, because I relate more to them, sexuality notwithstanding.

    4) Dykes Doing Dicks trope

    Just another example of figures on the educated left hawking the 'all female sexuality is fluid' point of view. It's bad enough to get it from people who don't know any better, but every time Dan Savage says that "all the lesbians [he] knew in college are either dating men, or are men, or both," or Kevin Smith singlehandedly popularizes the phrase "you really just need a deep dicking" (in defense of Smith, it's often forgotten that the character from whom that quote originated was a closet case who himself probably could've used a deep dicking or two), or Lisa Cholodenko produces the closest thing we've had to an A-list lesbian film this decade and has one of the two dykes fuck a guy, I wonder if maybe I'm not actually gay. Because apparently being a gay woman means fucking men, or wanting to fuck men, and I don't. Haven't in the past. Don't want to in the future.

    Bisexuality is great, but I have a sexuality too, and it's not going anywhere. Maybe one day someone will make movies for me, about people like me, but the Kids are All Right isn't that movie. I'm not going to hate on it, but I'm not going to see it, either. In the meantime, I'll just meditate on the only film character that actually shares my economic bracket, gender presentation, and sexuality: Brandon Teena. Great role model, right?

    • Thanks Gold!

      1) Yes. Sigh. It's kind of like screaming into the void, but I've met one of the editors and she's cool. Still, it's a pop culture site, so not quite sure how to break into that. Pop culture is only peripherally my thing, usually after a week of analyzing and six pages of theory. Not sure that's exactly what they're after :) But still, will keep trying!

      2) Yeah, seems like. I'm so used to running my own space, it doesn't even occur to me!

      3) I watched the L Word, mostly because I wanted to know what people were referring to. I really know what you mean about class though. otoh, of COURSE it's the upper-middle/lower-upper class white folks who are becoming the image of what lesbianism is. Class can trump other things (like race), well, sometimes, when it's deemed possible to do so, so it can trump sexuality too I suppose. Anyway—L Word—is so horribly bad I don't even know where to start.

      4) I think you're right on. I do have *some* defense of Kevin Smith and Chasing Amy, for the reason you're saying—it's a character, (maybe) not what he really believes to be true for lesbians. And it so bugs me when Savage says that. Yet somehow it's so acceptable for that to be a thing! Even just tonight, a cis guy bartender told me he's slept with lots of lesbians. Me: "okay …" (mostly in terms of, so what? But also: there's something off here in how you're bragging about this.)

      But regardless: yes. "Bisexuality is great, but I have a sexuality too." You're right, it's not that movie. It doesn't reflect my life or my choices, but it is way WAY closer than shit like the L Word. At least this one had some emotional intelligence and relationship strength at times.

      (Every time I picture Julianne Moore in this film, though, I keep hearing her Boston accent from her character on 30 Rock! Argh!)

      Ooh, other possible film characters in at least a slightly more related economic bracket, gender, & sexuality: Corky, in Bound!

  2. Thank you Sinclair for writing this review- I dreaded seeing this movie and groaned very time the commercial popped on. Now… I think I'm going to see it (I also happen to become instantly weak in the knees when I see a redhead). I really appreciate you writing for afterellen- I read both of these sites every week and it could use some of your intellect and insight. Not that I'm responsible of course, but sorry for the reception you received on afterellen- it was a complete turn off. I look forward to seeing you write more for them and perhaps more movie reviews if we get the chance to see another wide release flick with dykes/lesbians/queer females/etc.

    Perhaps some women of color? Anyone got a magic marker?

    • Thanks for that. I try to keep my engagement with the commenters to a minimum when on huge sites like that one. I'm really willing to sit down and have a conversations with my friends, many of whom have differing opinions than my own, but it's increasingly hard to have those conversations on the net, especially via comment threads.

      I appreciate the support! I'm trying to write more then. I just have to keep thinking up pieces that are pop culture enough for them to publish it.

  3. Thank-you for writing this article. I think you've explained very clearly why this movie is worth seeing even if the "lesbian sleeps with a man" twist has everyone choosing sides.

    This movie is about relationships, not about sex. If you've been with your partner for 10+ years, you know how complicated things can be. Life is messy, jobs are stressful, child rearing is time consuming, and sometimes the person you care the most about can feel neglected. Infidelity happens. In gay, straight, or bi relationships, it happens.

    What I like most about this film is that it shows that infidelity can infect the best relationships. If that ends the relationship or not is particular to the relationship, not the sexual identity of the people involved.

  4. Another thank-you for writing what's been burning in my mind ever since I saw this movie.

    I had a middle-aged friend very vocally INSIST (in a mass-cc'ed email!) that she was NOT going to see this movie with me on principle. She missed out (and so did anyone who was swayed by her diatribe). It's a beautiful film that I thought was actually a lot more honest about lesbians than a lotta "GLBT" film-festival crap out there (and I can say that because I used to program one).

    Long ago I had a dyke chiropractor who told me that she had a surprising number of lesbian clients who were sleeping with men but didn't want anyone to know. I think we need to embrace the term "lesbians who sleep with men" like the HIV/AIDS community has coined the term "men who sleep with men" to capture those whose occasional behavior doesn't necessarily gibe with their sexual identity.

    (and, ya know, get over our damn selves. of course.) ;~)

    ~ hb33 ~

  5. I agree with so many of the different points you covered in this article. Yes, Hollywood ofter portrays lesbians as well-to-do types with careers that become high profile in one way or another throughout the course of the storyline. They severely neglect the majority of the lesbian population, whose daily lives are largely invisible to the rest of the world.

    The L word was a horrible show as a whole, but in my opinion, if you take out the sex scenes and take a look at how thoroughly the writers covered the range of relationship types from the serial one night stands, to long term commitment, to switching back and forth from women to men, they actually did a decent job. They also spent alot of time putting various characters through so many different relationship and identity crisis's and ways to deal with them. Overall it was very shallow, and never really got to the depths of any of the issues that they faced.

    The whole lesbian sleeping with a man thing is so overused and one of the last things that needs to be publicized on a massive level. Probably every lesbian out there either has been abandoned for a man or knows someone who has.

    On a whole other note, I've been reading your stuff for a while now, and I have to say that you, Sinclair, have provoked deep thought and explorations within myself over the past months. Thanks!

    –Tomboy

    • The last paragraph of Tomboys post mirrors my feelings, too. :-)

      Please Sinclair, don't be swayed by negative comments like the one from "lesbian"! I do NOT understand how anyone seriously reading your blog could call it "insensitive" or "uneducated". That is just absolutely ridiculous!

      • Hey Julia, thanks. It's pretty clear from that comment in particular that they *don't* read my blog and don't know what I do or how I work. Also clear that we really disagree about this film, but so what? I don't expect everyone to agree with me. That was just a piece about my own thoughts on the film. It continues to surprise me how asserting an opinion automatically is seen as prosthelytizing.

        • You're welcome! I just read that you find it a little difficult to deal with this sort of comment, which I understand. It would be extremely sad if that led you to changing you're frequency of posting/blogging or anything.

          P.S.: dict.cc (my favorite translation site) couldn't handle "prosthelytizing", had to find a description elsewhere. ;-)

  6. Thanks for helping me put my finger on what's been bothering me about the whole outrage. I haven't seen the film, so won't comment on it, except to say: I WILL see it, because everyone whose opinion I trust who HAS seen it (including but not limited to both lesbians and kids of lesbians) says it's great.

    Here's what I have seen, and will comment on: Upset lesbians ranting on the internet, and the trailer.

    I think I am (finally) unworried that this movie handles lesbian relationship disrespectfully.

    But the trailer? Clearly sells — to mainstream audiences — that a hot lesbian winds up in bed with a man. That her partner is apparently worried she'll be stolen away. That lesbians make cutesy flirtatious sexual innuendos to straight dudes.

    Even when good, entertaining, respectful movies are made with our real, authentic stories in them, it is assumed that mainstream audiences want to see the same old trope replayed again, and so the marketing backs that up. I suspect that many of the upset folks who haven't seen the movie are upset by the fact that audiences are being sold this bill of goods. People who do not see this movie, regardless of their orientation, have still had their weird stereotypes reinforced by commercials, trailers, even the posters.

    Thanks for your review. One more opinion of someone whose taste I trust.

  7. You got a terrible reception on AE because your blog is preachy and shows a complete lack of education and sensitivity. Firstly, you're a butch. No one exploits butches constantly in mainstream, so what do you care? Obviously – you don't. The reason AE posted this blog is because they are embarrassed they are pushing this garbage on their viewers and no one's buying, so they're posting random blogs with other people supporting their view of how lesbians shouldn't really be mad. Don't blame normal lesbians natural reaction to you preaching they should be happy instead of angry at this film and all of the media support it's getting, be mad at yourself for being arrogant enough write about something you clearly know nothing about.

    • Don’t blame normal lesbians natural reaction to you

      Wow. Way to other, little miss prejudiced. I'm actually impressed.

      FWIW, Sinclair, remember that all leaders are heretics. Continue your butch lesbian blasphemy. The world clearly needs more of it, and less "normalcy."

    • So butch lesbians are not "normal" lesbians? Pray tell, how would you define a "normal lesbian?" Inquiring minds want to know.

    • "Firstly, you’re a butch. No one exploits butches constantly in mainstream, so what do you care?"

      I'm confused as to how Sinclair's style of lesbianism is at all relevant. Even so, I thought that at least one of the misunderstanding stereotypes was that *all* lesbians were considered butch. Another makes butches invisible. I think Sinclair has just as much right to be counted among the "normal" lesbians as you do.

  8. So last year, when I had to write a pretty lengthy English paper on what I thought was a really contrived sex scene in Mulholland Drive, which has turned out to be one of my favorite movies, my professor directed me to an article written by Heather Love. Love is a professor of English at University of Pennsylvania. The article focuses on the end part of Mulholland Drive, not like I could spoil anything, where a lesbian couple is broken up and one woman starts dating, even flaunting, her relationship with a Hollywood producer in spite of her former girlfriend. Love argues that what David Lynch was producing was the incarnation of one of a few tropes that representations of lesbians fall into: the jilted lover or the tragic lesbian, and the "lesbian who sleeps with men," not portraying her passion, but rather her spite at either her former female partners or her current male partner.

    The Kids Are Alright, unlike Mulholland Drive, is mainstream and cohesive. What disturbs a lot of people, I think, about this and other representations of lesbians in mainstream media, is that they are relatable. TKAA presents a completely logical and probable situation. The problem with the coverage of other predominantly queer women's media outlet's coverage is that they care too much. The presumption that this movie, or any single media-related representation of straight women playing lesbians for that matter, is going to change the hearts and minds of our friends and foes is as preposterous as the assumption that because I played hours and hours of Golden Eye that I am predisposed to go on a shooting spree. Playing the identity politics game is like playing Monopoly when you keep lending money to people. It's fun at first and nobody gets hurt and then it starts to get really old and next thing you know you've got a metal top hat stuck up your nose.

  9. You know, Its hard when people begin using terms like "Normal" to describe anything cause it's all up to interpretation. (I am sure this is already obvious to some, if not most smart people)

    As an individual of defiant sexual nomenclature, I find that within the hetero and homo normative levels, fitting in among either of their ranks is semi-impossible when I have to claim one thing or another. Hats off to those that have a solid sexuality. "Normal" is what works for you and makes you happy and satisfied. That's "normal"-to not hide things about yourself to make others comfortable.

    I am not as good as some of these others. All I am saying is-Normal is a myth. You wrote a very amazing piece here, Mr. Sexsmith, and your points are valid and astute.

    Something like "Kids" seems like it's trying to make "Lesbian" relationships "Normal" for the movie going populace.

    As for the commenter….Well, maybe they didn't have enough friends in school, or their underwear is on too tight. They need to think before they type.

    And as for Butches- I kneel at the feet of Butches.

    Call me old fashioned, but it's how I show respect.

    Thanks

    Ace.

  10. Sinclair- I'm really glad to have your perspective on this, and especially glad for the discussion that's popped up here and on AE. I'm a bit confused, though, because everyone keeps talking about how tired the lesbian-sleeps-with-man thing is, but I can't really think of many examples of movies with that theme. In Chasing Amy, the lesbian does sleep with and have a relationship with a man, but in the end, she is back with women and happy. That film also clearly shows Alyssa's lesbian friends' not-so-comfortable reaction to her sojourn into het sex and love. In Imagine Me And You, Piper Perabo's character leaves a man for a woman. I think we way more often see straight or bi female characters kissing/sexing women for the enjoyment of straight men, than seeing actual depictions of actual lesbians.

    I don't think we (the lesbian hivemind) can expect that every film featuring lesbian characters will represent our lives. While I can't relate to a middle aged affluent couple with kids dealing with a sperm donor, I'm sure plenty of women can. This is one story, and I feel confident that tons and tons of lesbians are grateful to have a film they can relate to.

    Regarding the rude commenter above, while she was clearly awful and inarticulate, I do think some of the following comments misunderstood the rude person's point about butches. As a butch (and someone that has presented butch from adolescence on) I have never experienced the societal pressure that is forced on femmes. No one expects me to sleep with a man, (even though i've had more male sex partners than my straight older sister) and no one expects me to be confused or to have a fluid sexuality (even though i do!). I don't have to constantly face exploitation and fetishization from straight men. Femme women constantly deal with these pressures every single day, and I think that is a real issue that ought to be explored in film. I think that rude person was trying to say that butches can't fully understand those pressures, not that butches aren't normal lesbians. I'm not defending that super rude comment or the horrifying grammar it contained. I'm disappointed that commenter was so rude and inarticulate, because I think the central point there is worth discussing. It's such a shame to have an interesting discussion marred by such dumbassery.

    Basically, here's my takeaway from the discussion about this film: We (lesbian denizens of the internet) are having a discussion over the pros/cons of a particular lesbian storyline. Five or ten years ago, we would all just be sharing our collective boner over ANNETTE BENNING AND JULIANNE MOORE playing a lesbian couple. I'm just saying, I think it shows how far we've come in visibility that we are picking apart this stuff instead of just rejoicing that we're being portrayed at all. As always, Sinclair, so glad you're writing and sharing!

    • Hey Eli Deep,

      while I'm not really good with movies, one film I do remember is "Lost and Delirious". Granted, that's a teenager film, but still, it made me fucking angry to see Tori turn to a guy, plus the tragic ending. It's just annoying!

      And one more thing: "No one exploits butches constantly in mainstream" – I have to say, I went back and realised I had maybe misread it as a general statement of butchphobia. That half-sentence alone got my energy flowing and I neglected the context. After reading your post, I thought you maybe had a point: maybe no one expects you as a butch to be or behave feminine in particular ways.

      But then: aren't butches subject to a lot of stereotyping, homophobia, even more overtly, simply BECAUSE of their visibility as queer persons? Does it never happen to you someone tells you to put on some makeup in order to be much more good looking? Or that you maybe just needed a nice big dick for a cure? Do you always feel safe on the streets? I have heard stories enough and because of that I do NOT care to tolerate ANY such behaviour or speech. The ways of discrimination might be different, but the experience is equally awful. Therefore, I'm not sure about your argument.

      I do think though, it's really sweet the way you acknowledge the specific discrimination of femmes. Thank you so much for that! :-D

  11. Hey Julia,

    Of course we butches have our own set of trials and tribulations! While my girlfriend is never scared to walk into a bathroom or tell someone her name, I never have to come out to people (once they realize I have boobs) or explain that dating a butch is not the same thing as dating a man.

    I totally understand the blood boiling from that person's comment. The grammar alone was poor enough to allow for many interpretations of the intention of the comment writer.

    You're totally right about Lost and Delirious. I have blocked out that entire movie except the part where she cries to that Ani DiFranco song and all the scenes with Piper Perabo in the fencing gear, so I didn't even remember the ending.

    Also, I'm not sure about my argument, either! I don't think I really have one. I love the brain stimulation discussions like this give me!

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