The Last Prejudice
The Kids are All Right is about a marriage threatened by an affair and a family threatened by a stranger from the outside. The only novelty, which is hardly a novelty, is that the couple is lesbian. My question is who is the audience for this film? I am sure that the people who think that being gay is a sin and a mental disease will boycott this film. I am sure that there are certain small towns that will refuse to show this film. The very audience that needs to be reached isn’t listening. Then there are the rest of us. The supposedly earthshaking revelation that gay people are just people makes the film feel dated, rather like looking at The Bill Cosby Show, which shocked, shocked the world in the Seventies with the news that black people were just people. For those of us in LA and in the OC, this movie is about people we know, our next-door neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends.
Indeed it was the goal of writer and director Lisa Cholodenko to tell the story of her life. She and her partner were shopping for a sperm donor and the process of selection of a candidate and, finally, of reproduction were on her mind. Teaming up with her literary partner, Stuart Blumberg, who, Cholodenko tells us, is straight, she wrote the story of her life, projected it into the future and asked “what if?” the sperm donor returned to the scene of the family? Much has been written about The Kids are All Right. The usual critical theme has been that a family is a family and a marriage is a marriage, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight. This is a nice film, well written and well acted by the excellent cast, amusing in parts, and totally good natured. Totally mainstream, this is a movie you warm to and you leave the theater, feeling good.
That said, once you get beyond the surface, there are some serious points to make here. Probably unintentionally, this film repeats the prejudices of mainstream straight society. Straight society, for centuries, has forced gay people to accept the strait jacket of straight life. Many gays and lesbians have written eloquently of the extent to which straight society “sells” the heterosexual couple as if it is the only proper way for people to love each other. Agreed. The social assumption that the straight couple is “normal” is a kind of cultural tyranny. But this film replicates that same tactic and reveals another prejudice. Marriage is celebrated as “normal” and is sold as the only proper way for adults to live. Single people are cast as second-class citizens, maladjusted and irresponsible.
In point of fact, there are more single people today than married people. Counting divorces, widowhood, celibates, the never marrieds, the too young to marry, single people outnumber couples. More and more people chose to never marry or, if they were once married, decide to not marry again (especially women). And yet the whole economic basis of society and tax system is geared to encourage and reward marriage and procreation. Popular culture and films routinely portray single people as loose cannons on the decks of the Good Ship Marriage and The Kids are All Right is no exception.
The couple in question, long married, is “Jules” (Julianne Moore) and “Nic” (Annette Bening) who have two lovely children, “Joanie” (Mia Wasiknoska) and “Laser” (Josh Hutcherson), courtesy of their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). This normal family of kind and conscientious parents and smart children with good sense is rocked when the “kids” invite “Paul,” the donor, into their family circle. Mayhem ensues. Here I thought that women who were lesbians did not like to have sex with men, but apparently I was wrong, because “Jules” has an affair with “Paul.” “Nic” finds out, the kids find out, and the marriage quakes and shakes, but, with astonishing ease, the firm foundations hold. Accusing him of being an “interloper,” “Nic” banishes the remorseful “Paul.” “Joanie” goes off the college and “Laser” stays home with his “moms.” The bad single person is left behind, his longing nose pressed to the window of marriage and the family he cannot be part of. The end.
But the central character is “Jules;” the film is really about her. She has played the housewife to the wage earning husband figure, “Nic.” “Jules” stayed home and took care of the children, but she resented “Nic’s” power of the purse over her and the fact that she could not get the career she wanted. The “kids” are leaving the nest, which in a few years will soon be completely empty. Once the children leave home, what should she do with the rest of her life? Society still does not provide a road map for the stay-at-home partner. How do you reengage with the real world outside the boundaries of the family? How do you catch up? How do you interact with adults who are not your partner? Very carefully.
Married people live a very sheltered life. They are able to find support and sustenance from each other. When a married person who has been the stay-at-home partner leaves the protective circle of the family, there will almost always be problems for this person, male or female. You tend to assume that the rest of the world is like your family where everyone is on your side. You don’t know that the world is full of self-interested people who are not like your family. You will make mistakes, because, like a young child, you have no experience and no judgment. Particularly when it comes to sex.
“Jules” is naïve and is totally unprepared for real people in the real world. She uses the unexpected offer from “Paul” to landscape his terraced garden behind his organic restaurant to start a new way of life, with herself as an achiever instead of a caretaker. In other words, she left the family and its protection. “Paul” is made out to be a predator, afraid to make a commitment. He very carefully selects an unavailable woman, one who is vulnerable and who does not understand that (single) men hit on women all them time. To be able to hit on all women all the time—that is why “Paul” has never married. “Jules” makes a mistake so typical of people who wander outside the familiar territory of marriage, she blunders into an ill-advised adventure. She is used to agreeing to sex, that is what marriage is all about, and “Jules” does not know that, outside of marriage, you get lots of offers, some you accept, some you don’t. So “Jules” says, “yes” to “Paul,” because that is what she does. The film does not address the very real question of why she was so unworldly and ignorant that she was left open to making such a mistake. “Jules” scrambles back to the family, not older, not wiser, not more grown up. She remains a child, protected by “Nic.”
The affable, free-wheeling, motor-cycle riding “Paul” is a minor character, the outsider, the disruptor. He is the catalyst that works against the grain of the story. This character deserves to be deconstructed. The entire plot is told from the vantage point that marriage is best and that being single is an unnatural condition. But “Paul” is exactly who and what he wants to be. And although self-actualization is supposed to be the goal of every individual, he is condemned for being “arrogant and full of himself.” The married people mock him, indicating just how threatening they find him. But “Paul,” like most single people, likes the freedom. Although “Nic” scorns him for having dropped out of college and for having done exactly what he wanted to, “Paul” has made a success of his restaurant business, a very real accomplishment, for which he gets no credit. Paul is condemned for doing what people do: taking advantage of an opportunity to enjoy himself. In contrast, “Jules,” who obviously has not done what she wanted, tested the waters of a new life by acting out with a man, of all people, gets off with an apology.
The “kids” have much more street smarts than their parents. They see “Paul” clearly, enjoy the new possibilities he offers, but, in the end, they loyally follow their ”moms” lead and reject him totally. Too bad, because the man had something to offer. He was responsible enough to apologize but no one in the family is willing to meet him halfway. He has committed the cardinal sin: he has attempted to break up a family and a marriage. Nowhere is it asked why the marriage and the family were so porous. For “Paul” to be able to enter in, the family had to be in some kind of crisis, if only one of a transition. “Paul” is not the problem. The marriage simply needed refreshing. One might ask why a lesbian couple could not create a more innovative form of marriage. Why would such a couple replicate a 1950s style heterosexual marriage in which the husband held all the power? That type of patriarchal alliance was bad for straight couples. Surely in the Twenty-first century, a more equality or a balanced partnership can be found for marriage.
“Paul” is portrayed as a man-child, a perennial Peter Pan who will not grow up, an attitude that assumes that single people are immature and that only married people are adult and only couples shoulder responsibility, because only couples have children. Even if we leave out the fact of courageous single parents, the attitude of this film is curious because single people have to be strong and independent. Single people are alone in the world, depending upon themselves and their own resources. The pay off for being alone, for a single person, is worth not having a partner as a backstop. It’s not just that you get to eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough at midnight, and no one will laugh at you. Although a single person can come and go without ever having to call home, being single is more than sheer self-indulgence. A single person is free and self-reliant. Without having to consult anyone else, single person can change jobs, make a new life, find a new identity. Strong character, self-reliance and the courage to take chances—-this is the goal of every mature adult, isn’t it? Society has overcome many long held prejudices. The bias against gay people and gay marriage is today largely a generational or regional concern. But the prejudice against single people is still alive and well and active in The Kids are All Right.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger