Monthly Archives: August 2010

Accidental Lesbianism: Review: The Kids are All Right

by Kathy Miriam

I was surprised by how rich the issue of representation and cinema was for thinking at multiple levels; the essay had me revisiting old themes about the meaning of lesbian theory, the symbolic meaning of lesbian, about the question of how to represent what is unrepresentable within the malestream–within a capitalist culture that ransacks and cannibalizes all means of visibility and sells it back to us, a la The Kids are All Right. I also thought about those days in the eighties when so much passion was invested (in my circles) in the vision of aesthetic and political experimentation–in a lesbian/feminist/radical key. Now *that* has been ransacked by queer theory.  In future blog entries  I’d like to give a play-list of favorite feminist and/or radical movies that push against the malestream and capitalist framework of thought–that open up beyond a one-dimensional lesbian/feminism! and also to discuss some of the movies that I consider to be pushing in the direction of a utopian/critical vision. I also have not broached in any depth the issue of gay marriage except to focus on how it is framed within Hollywood and by mainstream gay politics. Although I do believe gay marriage is intrinsically part of an assimilationist model of politics, I am open to be convinced otherwise, and this certainly needs larger discussion than I’ve given it space for in this review.

A tip of the hat to Yael Yisrael for editing this piece.

This piece was partly inspired by two other writers: Carolyn Gage’s The Gage Gauge for lesbians in movies, which in turn was inspired by Allison Bechdel’s The Bechdel test for determining whether a movie was worth viewing or not.

Lesbian (In)Visibility

The Kids are All Right is the first mainstream Hollywood film projecting a “positive image” of lesbians and lesbian marriage?  The movie is the logical outcome of the quest for “gay visibility” and reflects the assimilationist model dominating gay politics today. This politics is defined almost solely by its claims for rightful insertion into two main bastions of capitalist patriarchy: marriage and the military! This is the general assimilationist political background against which lesbians appear in the “positive” light of mainstream cinema. However, assimilation is a pursuit that fails by virtue of its success. Gay visibility  is in-visiblity: To be visible, means to be in the dominant order of mainstream political, cultural and/or visual representation, thus to not exist except as seen from the mainstream point of view—a view which depends, in turn, on the naturalization (thus invisibility) of capitalism and other structures of exploitation. What does not appear as in-visibility is any vantage point that is critical and other to the mainstream. Lesbian in-visibility means that nothing appears that is different, much less uncivilized (wild, undomesticated, critical) about a lesbian or lesbian feminist point of view.

The Kids are Alright directed by Cholodenko (High Art; Laurel Canyon) tells the story of two married, middle-aged, middle class lesbians Nic (Annette Bening), Jules (Julianne Moore) and their sperm donor progeny, a son, Laser and daughter Joni. The premise of this “serious comedy” (Village Voice) reads like the proposal for another “wacky” sitcom: What happens when said sperm donor is summoned by curious pair of progeny out of anonymity and into the flesh and blood person of tall, dark and handsome stranger (Marc Ruffalo)?

With its high production values, witty repartee, and impeccable acting it’s hard not to welcome Kids given the steaming pile of dreck preceding it: Claire of the Moon, anyone? Moreover, Kids begs contrast to its descendents in Hollywood lesbian (melo)drama. Kids is not in the mold of the The-Lesbian-Must-Die genre (The Children’s Hour; The Fox (based on a story by D.H. Lawrence); Boys Don’t Cry); neither of the two lesbian characters fall into the classic predatory spinster role (Notes on a Scandal, The Killing of Sister George)—they are middle-aged and attractive (what a concept!); and the femme partner does not choose the virile male interloper over her lesbian relationship (The Fox; The Bostonians).  No, no tragic, desperate lesbians here; Kids is all about its “positive-image” of a lesbian marriage.  So it’s positive. But is it good for the dykes?

In an interview on the pop culture lesbian site, After Ellen, Lisa Choldenko offers that her film is not really about lesbians, but about family, and she hopes its message is “universal.”  Sure, Hollywood always tells us that white, bourgeois existence is “universal” and any other “attributes” to a white, middle-class defined “personhood” are well, accidental. The accidental lesbianism in Kids is the property (in the sense of “owned” by; in the sense of “trait”) of a solidly middle class white world.  The two-mommy household, one a doctor, the other a landscape designer, is nestled in the sun-splattered, shiny suburbs of Los Angeles. The glossy bourgeois whiteness of this world is punctuated by two minute-sized roles for people of color—a black woman, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) who is the sometimes sex-buddy of Paul and who works for his restaurant, and what do you know it, but a sombrero-doffing Mexican laborer, Luis (Joaquin Garrido), hired to assist Jules’s work in landscape design on Paul’s property. Luis is given about one line to play, a persistently bewildered , “But Senora, Senora!” and then is fired summarily by Jules without explanation–for laughs!

The comic character of the naïve Mexican-immigrant is particularly irksome given the setting of Kids in California, a myth made concrete through centuries’ exploitation of immigrant labor. Just as the desert was forced to bloom with imported/pillaged waters (see Chinatown for this story about mob/government water-wars), so its affluence also flowers on ground and labor snatched from/through the bodies of others.  Here we have an LA set, lesbian-themed film replaying the myth by exploiting the clichéd dark-skinned servant role to shore up its white gaze—and worse, as we shall see, the heteronormativity of that gaze. Both the token black character and the stereotyped brown-skinned character exist to prove that there is no subject-position beyond the white, bourgeois and hetero-gaze. But, ironically or perhaps not ironically, the same must be said for the characters that function as token lesbians within Kids.

Liberalism as Bigotry by Other Means

The figure of the Lesbian as imagined in Kids, like the characters of color, is a staple of a myth of universality bound to implode on its own political fault-lines unless measures are taken to renew the myth. Outright bigotry will not do, for that would make these lines too clear.  In the wake of former political movements, new methods are need for sealing over any points of potential fracture where class-antagonisms (gender, race, class) might erupt. “Union-busting” is key here: not only literally but figuratively in terms of destroying (eliminating through erasure, demonization, and/or ridicule) any vestiges of solidarity clinging to former symbols of resistance like “lesbian” (or black power, etc). Give me a person of color and that person, like Tanya in Kids, must exist alone of all her kind in a sea of whiteness. Any time that people of color are configured as groups in the movies it is tinged with savagery, thuggery, and/or the myth of the underclass. And if lesbians are grouped together? L-Word soft porn, or hard, heaped up around the mens again. Kids takes the tokenist approach: Here we have a lesbian or lesbian couple in a world without other lesbians. In Kids the only outside friendship depicted is with a heterosexual couple.

A film like Kids is perfectly designed for a neoliberal era whose crowning moment was the election of a first black president, Barack Obama. As a neoliberal creation, Kids is “not about” lesbianism the way that Obama’s election was “not about race.” Brand-Obama, the movie, like Kids, results from the ingenuity of marketers who were and are able to promote their brand of “universality” by exploiting markers of former political identities and movements. We saw this in the presidential election: through the marketing of public figures like Obama and Clinton, race and gender identity-markers were reinvented as the ideal emissaries of empire. What Kids shows is the degree to which the figure of “lesbian” has been reinvented in recent years to stand as the ideal emissary of an order it once stood as a symbol of rebellion against, namely compulsory heterosexuality.

This is why liberals fawn over Kids—with the same elation—and relief—they greeted the figure of Obama—they can have their black cake and consume it too, meaning they can have their black as long as he or she (but especially he) is a black who distances himself from blacks as a social and political group and who allies himself with the neoliberal white elite. Kids allows liberals to have their lesbians and consume them too (sexually, commercially, and otherwise) as a new bar-coded objects of masculine and/or Amerikkan desire. Despite or because of its lesbian identified director, Kids is a movie without a lesbian point of view.

The Killing of Sister Gorgon

The notion of a “lesbian point of view” seems chimerical to the same extent that Hollywood-fantasy appears more Real than ever, but it was once an idea that reeked of a body that could not be consumed by mass culture. In 1977, Bertha Harris wrote of lesbian literature that it should be monstrous, meaning “outrageous, unassimilable, awesome, dangerous, outrageous: distinguished.” The same can apply to a lesbian aesthetic and political point of view in general.  Harris said, “Lesbian literature is the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable. It is also the pursuit of the unspeakable by the inedible; and it is this particularly” (Heresies, Vol. 3, No. 1). The pursuit of “lesbian visibility” represented by Kids is the pursuit of the edible by the speakable, the cinematic equivalent of fast-food.

The lesbian point of view in its monstrousness transcends silly devices of measurement like “positive” or “negative.” This can be seen when contrasting the pabulum positivity of Kids with two other lesbian-themed films, each of which projects an arguably “negative” image of lesbians. While Notes on a Scandal’s “negative image” reinforces fears of the desperate, predatory lesbian spinster, The Killing of Sister George turns these fears on its head, by representing a fierce, fat and middle-aged butch as its main subject-position and point of view.  The Scandal is a modern day Rapunzel re-playing the grim(m) tale of a crone (Judi Dench’s Sheba) so possessive of the peaches and cream maiden (Barbara played by Cate Blanchett) she would keep her locked away from male suitors. The film’s denouement locks the lesbian into position as permanent object of derision.

In George a similar stereotype of the lesbian predator seems to emerge in the (un)erotic dynamic between George and her lover; middle-aged butch, George (Beryl Reid) is sadistic to her young, conventionally pretty, feminine lover (Susanna York). But the representation of the sadism also allegorizes the cruelty of a system that George refuses to conform to. George is a soap opera star whose character is the cheery, humming, bicycling nun, namely, Sister George (hence the title character’s nick-name). The actress George refuses to assimilate to the rules of the big-studio, capitalist machinery of image-production thus the decision of the managers to “kill off” her character. Thus she who will not be digested by the ruling order of representation is imagined as a butch lesbian. The director Robert Aldrich’s vision is none too hurt by Beryl Reid’s magnificent performance either—she is no caricature (despite the bleak, satirical comedy of the film and her performance) or even icon but fully fleshed out in her complex, flawed, humanity.  Unlike  Scandal’s use of the lesbian figure to manipulate audience fears/hatreds of lesbianism, the lesbian George, a veritable Gorgon, calls for our identification with her. By identification I do not mean in the banal sense of “relating to” a character, for the latter boils down to “relating to” the fantasies that the culture sells us of our selves. I mean, instead, a process of opening up new spaces of identification altogether.  Lesbians might very well “relate to” the characters in Kids: In my view, this is only evidence that there is no longer any need to slay the monster (as in Scandal) when a positive image does the job. Better than slayage, lesbian in-visibility expunges any trace of lesbian as (again quoting Harris) “distinguished.” No longer distinguished from the norm, the lesbian of Hollywood is now so positive in its portrayal that men like it too.

It’s still the patriarchy, stupid

But no effort to assimilate lesbianism will deflect the wing-nuts from suspecting that behind any positive image of lesbians lurks a nefarious sub-plot to overthrow patriarchy. Thus we have the review of Kids by one Dan Gifford on the infamous Breitbart web-site—the site renowned of late for its vicious libeling of Shirley Sherrod. According to Gifford (who in bizarre of all bizarre twists happens to be the great nephew of path-breaking lesbian author, Del Martin!) the “normalcy” projected by the film is little more than a façade thinly disguising a leftist fantasy of a feminist utopian view of a world that rejects fathers and rejects patriarchy.If only.

To be sure, Cholodenko makes short work of paternity as a family-value and by the film’s conclusion has the lesbian family ousting  sperm-donor-daddy from its nest. But father-right is dead-beat; if you’re looking for patriarchy follow the money-shots which are not about father knows best, but man gets girl. The affirmative projection of the lesbian marital unit, follows on the heels of a steamy affair between Paul and Jules. The gymnastics of the boy-girl couple’s liaison teeters on the farcical but is no less “hot” for that depiction. In contrast, the single sex-scene between the two lesbian partners is all farce, and without any heat or steam. To add insult to injury, the comedy turns in part on the fact that gay male pornography is a staple of the couple’s sex life. I think of a line from one of Alix Dobkin’s odes to lesbian love: “no penis comes between us” (“View from GayHead”) How times have changed!

Kids displays the fact that when it comes to the Hollywood cinematic point of view, lesbian director or not, the male gaze is still the only sheriff in town ensuring that a “penis” will always come between women. What comes between us is a phallic view of women, including lesbians, as the objects of male (sexual and other) appropriation. Cholodenko uses stock, if not clichéd, visual codes of this phallic gaze to set up the first clinch between Paul and Jules. The stock phallic or male gaze refers to the voyeuristic perspective of a male character who peeps on a female character in a state of partial (or full) undress without the female character’s awareness. In the case of the scene in Kids, Paul stands on a balcony surveying Jules’s half-exposed derriere while she’s working, bent over, bikini panties peeking out, potting a bougainvillea or cactus or whatever on the ground below. At the same time that Paul sees Jules, he is also seeing Luis, the Mexican laborer, also on the ground below, also peeping at Jules’ butt. Cholodenko’s choices in setting up and shooting the scene the way she does uncritically reiterates a masculine gaze that is both shared among men and hierarchically structured along race lines. In fact, as if to underscore the man of color’s inferior and outsider status, Luis seems flustered and bewildered as if trapped rather than caught looking. We can see how the use of the token or stereotypical character of color is fundamental to the film’s mise-en-scene, establishing both the whiteness and heteronormativity of the world it projects.

So, no, Dan Gifford, a rejection of biological fatherhood does not the end of patriarchy make. Fraternal bonds, hierarchically organized around racial and class lines, displace father-right as the glue of contemporary patriarchy (See Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract): patriarchy in its inextricable structural overlaps with capitalism, demands new forms through which men gain access to women’s bodies.  In the visual order of representation, the male gaze is usually hidden in plain sight of the “girls gone wild” phenomenon as attributed to women’s and girls’ own “choices.” Women and girls are empowered to “self-objectify” but the grammar of the male gaze remains intact: Man fucks woman; subject verb object, as Catharine MacKinnon once put it.  It’s a coup for capitalist patriarchal mass culture when “lesbian” is inserted into the woman/object position.

The Futile Pursuit of being Normal

Dan Gifford’s condemnation of Kids is more than ironic, since historically, those who are outside the status quo who are forced or desire to assimilate are sniffed out as imposters, often at the apogee of their success. The most frightening example is that of German Jews during the era of Nazism; Jews’ successful assimilation as Germans—and their strong identification with national, German culture—was fuel for Nazi charges of a Zionist conspiracy and indictments of the Jew as fraudulent German. A similar charge, “imposter!,”  has been written in the blood of anyone who dares to successfully assimilate, successfully “pass”, and/or even attempt to assimilateor be perceived as attempting to assimilate. Thus the nativist drums of Fox News, Arizona legislature, Minute Men, beat their hymns to the whiteness at the specter of the “brown hordes” clamoring to cross the magical boundaries of “their” ever-so-pure Amerikka.  In the case of passing–for example the case of lesbians passing (or perceived as passing) as men, vitriol is piqued among the “real men” who would drag to their death any woman daring to take “their” women away. This is the story told by Kimberle Pierce in Boys Don’t Cry, her lesbian-feminist interpretation of the real life story of Brandon Teena. The film, and its contrast with the representation of lesbians in Kids, returns us to the point about the monstrous in lesbian suppressed by the latter film, and explored critically by Boys. Boys shows the fault-line where passing implodes on its own impossibility. Brandon Teena (in Pierce’s vision) is depicted as longing to fit in, to be a real boy, and “get the girls” and in Boys, Brandon exceeds the “real men” in this pursuit. Brandon is shown as the dream boyfriend for the female characters and her/his ability to attract Lana in particular proves fatal once s/he is “found out” to be a woman. When the thugs Tom and John discover the reality of Brandon’s female embodiment, the first thing they do is rape her. In punishment for her almost-successful endeavors to pass as a boy, Brandon must be proven to be rape-able, thus a real woman. Tom and John’s fury at Brandon’s success at passing is inextricable from their fury at Brandon for taking away their (in particular John’s) woman.  Women “belong” to men, as America “belongs” to whites.

Ultimately Brandon is murdered by the rapists. Between rape and murder, however, and after the murder in the film’s final shot, the director makes her lesbian feminist subject-position clear. It seems clear to me that the last love-making scene between Lana and Brandon—which comes after Brandon is discovered to be Teena Brandon—is explicitly constructed within lesbian feminist visual and narrative codes. The two characters are seated close to one another and Teena says something like “I won’t know what to do,” while Lana gently encourages her, “Yes you will.” (Not exact quotes). The lines and scene seem directly and lovingly lifted from lesbian-feminist lore, with its cache of stories about sexual discovery without a penis between-us and the newness and risk of it all.

Further the film does not end with the murder but with a lyrical shot of the open road, a night highway driven by Lana. She drives under a blurred streak of neon and stars, the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” entering the sound-track. It is as if she’s riding into the “off-space” of the screen into what remains inassimilable and unrepresentable, certainly within the confines of the world she is fleeing. This last shot of Boys resonates with another feminist film, a road movie, one that also ends with a lyrical vision of a moving car. I’m talking about Thelma and Louise and the two feminist outlaws who arrive at lip of a vast canyon at the end of a long, cop-led car chase. After a romantic kiss the two female outlaws extraordinaire drive off the cliff together, but the very last shot is of their car frozen mid-air.

I don’t read this as suicide. The shot of the car suspended mid-space suggests flight into a space of the unknown which is the only space where re-invention of a feminist/lesbian point of view can happen. I’m not arguing that a representation of death—Brandon’s murder; Thelma and Louise’s leap off a cliff—are the only representations of the boundaries of patriarchy—and hardly the ideal. I’m saying that these representations point to the lesbian utopia that strikes fear into the heart of men like Gifford; this is because unlike Kids, these two other movies visualize—cast into cinematic vision—the boundary-edge of patriarchy. Without a glimpse of this edge we are swallowed into the self-contained insularity of a bourgeois, male whiteness that is one-dimensional, establishing itself as the only possible dimension of reality.

So is it coincidence that Kids also ends with a shot of a car? In a parked car, a suburban mini-van of course, our lead lesbian characters reach across the gear stick, and there they clasp hands signifying their embrace, not of female solidarity but of the privatized marital unit and nuclear family, and private virtues of interpersonal fidelity which have all but displaced female solidarity within the neoliberal field of lesbian visibility. As a vehicle of Hollywood’s one-dimensional vision of reality this car is not moving, let alone flying across a canyon or shimmery highway; there is no elsewhere for women or lesbians here beyond the cul-de-sacs of a futile pursuit of normality. Lesbian outlaws don’t live here anymore; only “material evidence” of lesbian existence as measured by “laws” of visibility “we can believe in.”

Against Lesbian in-visibility

What liberals fear and deny at our (lesbians’) peril and right-wing bigots know for sure is that lesbian is threatening for one reason alone—that it still haunts neoliberal patriarchal America with the specter of a feminist challenge to the social order as heterosexual. Liberals would like nothing better than to see lesbianism as an accidental trait like hair-color, one life-style choice as good as any other, or as sexual objects of male desire, in a world white-washed of any trace of the menace once heralded by radical, political lesbians and feminists.  But the figure of the lesbian remains threatening for the very reason bigots hate openly, and liberals hate implicitly, namely because what “lesbian” represents is not a life-style attribute but a whole other world view, and, as the Lesbian Avengers once quipped, We recruit. Lesbianism will never be a mere life-style for either liberal defenders or right-wing detractors; for both sides, it is felt (rather than “known”) as an essence with dread-inspiring contagious properties. Once we peel back the self-deceptions at the heart of liberalisms’—and Kid’s—projection of a lesbian in-visibility, it becomes clear that in a social order still organized as heterosexual, lesbianism will always remain monstrous. We who are still desperately seeking a (albeit multiple, not unitary) lesbian point of view, can take some cold comfort in that fact and move from there.

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