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Culture Warrior: Modern Families

By  · Published on August 3rd, 2010

Amongst the universal critical applause currently being bestowed upon Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, one bit of praise seems to connect them all: that the film isn’t didactic or preachy regarding the same-sex couple at its center. In other words, it’s a film about a gay couple but doesn’t overtly shout that it’s about a gay couple; the premise isn’t addressed as if it were unique, exceptional, or odd – nor is it, arguably, a major source of the film’s comedy – rather the film proceeds without seeming intent on making a statement on gay couples or gay child-raising in contemporary society.

In a sense, this is something of an obvious achievement for a film with this type of mainstream crossover appeal (yes, it’s technically an indie, but the caliber of the cast and its sleeper success prove the connection its making beyond LGBT audiences). After all, one couldn’t imagine a film like this being released as recently as fifteen years ago to a reception this widely embraced. But it’s also something of a refreshing change of pace from how homosexuals are typically portrayed in mainstream film, as The Kids Are All Right is neither a “message movie” on the subject, nor does it use a presumption of homosexuality as ‘unusual’ for easy laughs (a sign, which can be evidenced in a parallel transition in the arena of standup comedy from Eddie Murphy’s Delerious-era homophobic jokes to the subject of homophobia itself as the source of comedy as explored by modern standups like Zach Galifianakis, of a total move away from homosexuality itself as the punchline). In The Kids Are All Right, we laugh more at Mark Ruffalo’s reaction to the lesbian couple (his awkward, “I love lesbians”) rather than at the couple itself. It is possibly the first portrayal of a homosexual couple on the big screen in a mainstream film as normal.

But what is the price, in this case, of normalcy? And what do we mean when we say we see this couple as normal? In a sense, it’s the couple’s banality that is, in essence, their sign of achievement. Critics (our very own Rob Hunter, for one) have seen The Kids Are All Right as accessible to a wider audience than your typical limited release metropolitan haven (that, by and large, contains audiences with a politically liberal disposition) because of how relatable and universal the couple is at the center – Julianne Moore and Annette Bening’s characters suffer through the exact same trials and triumphs of any long-term relationship that produces children, whether that relationship be gay or straight, and The Kids are All Right indeed deserves due credit for making an unromantic (in both senses of the word) relationship comedy about the difficulty of maintaining any functional relationship. But what does it mean when we give a film merit for portraying its homosexual characters as “normal,” as if saying they could be any straight couple if you closed your eyes?

The Kids Are All Right clearly intends to tell a story about relationships at large, not (with the exception of a heated confrontation between Mia Wasikowska’s Joni and her parents late in the film) specifically addressing the difficulties of gay relationships or gay parenting. The film is, indeed, refreshingly unpretentious. But there is a message in not making a message movie – that is, not making the film about a gay couple is just as deliberate in intent, in this case to display a universality and shared humanity in the relationship struggles between people of any sexuality, as making something like Milk. So the means toward this end is to show, in effect, how boring and, thus, normal this couple is.

But to give the impression of normalcy, an invisible quality is required in the portrayal of the couple’s sexuality. The couple here imbues the archetypes of straightness in order to meet the banal requirements of normalcy, as each female embodies the traditionally expected gender roles of the straight couple: Moore’s Jules being the partially-employed homebody and Bening’s Nic being the family’s commanding disciplinarian and breadwinner (Bening’s short hair and her character’s masculine name further emphasize the paternal complexion of her character, especially in contrast with Moore). In order for the gay couple of this film to be perceived as normal (both in the world of the film and, implicitly, for the film’s audience), they must embody a rather straight, heteronormative definition of homosexuality. (Had the film not actually been made by a lesbian filmmaker, this aspect of The Kids Are All Right would encounter further potential problems with Jules’s straight affair, her lack of satisfaction when engaging in sex with Nic, and her affection for gay male porn, all of which would otherwise suggest a strictly phallocentric standard for all female sexuality.)

The apparent heteronormative character of the couple’s homosexuality is further exercised through the couple’s interaction with a surrounding culture of cosmopolitan liberalism. One of the biggest laughs the film received in my screening was Nic’s rejection of conversations surrounding heirloom tomatoes, a sign of her larger fed-up-edness with the invasion of Ruffalo’s Paul in their life. Paul represents a disorienting force for Nic not only in his decentering of their established nuclear family, but also the threat to normalcy at large that he represents. Paul, though straight, is, in contrast to the family at the center of the film, rather unconventional in his embrace of free love (and a thoughtlessness towards sex (as evidenced by his affair with Jules), which may have been part of his decision to become a sperm donor in the first place), his unique career path, his outspoken – albeit arguably superficial – environmental concerns, his rejection of higher education, and his reckless personality (signified by the almost stereotypical movie-parent fear of the motorcycle). So the rejection of Paul by the end of the film becomes a rejection of all the very lack of normalcy that he represents (Nic literally shuts the door on the threat to her family’s stability). One could say The Kids Are All Right ultimately becomes a film about preserving traditional family values.

I say this not to chip away at one of the few summer movies that I really enjoyed, but to bring up questions that I don’t really know the answer to. What does it mean when we say a straight couple in a film is “just like any other couple”? Is that really a good thing? Is normalcy or invisibility simply another way of saying straightness? Is invisible sexuality a rejection of sexuality? Heirloom tomatoes?

I see The Kids Are All Right as relevant also because as we see more gay families in mainstream media, the idea of the a typical or modern family (these words are hardly synonymous as “modern” is so very loaded a term) becomes increasingly conflated with perceptions of normalcy, which is why ABC’s Modern Family (which I love) is also pertinent to this subject, possibly more so as a widely received network sitcom. While the show goes to great lengths to justify its title (the gay couple, Cam and Mitchell, and their adopted Vietnamese child, the elderly male and his interracial marriage to a much younger woman (also, wouldn’t it be more aggressively “modern” for a young man to date an older woman?)), its premise functions only within the normal, traditional sitcom format with heterosexual parents at its center, complete with the bumbling doofus dad (sound familiar?) and mother-as-counterpoint. So with the mainstream successes of both The Kids Are All Right and Modern Family, the untraditional is metered only by the mandates of normalcy.

I wish I could’ve found a clip of it online, but there’s a scene from Modern Family’s pilot episode that would’ve been a perfect way to cap this article. Cam and Mitchell are on a plane back from Vietnam, adopted baby in tow, while a woman walks by and says “look at that baby with those cream puffs,” to which Mitchell stands up and gives a speech about the boundlessness of love and the ignorance of anybody staring at their same-sex union and so on, only to be interrupted by Cam that the baby is, in fact, literally holding cream puffs. And this is the anticlimactic, perceptually post-homophobic (as Obama is misleadingly perceived as post-racial in the realm of politics, or Tina Fey as post-sexism in television comedy writing) place we find ourselves in with the intersection of what is queer and what is normal: dadacticism now speaks to nobody, as standing up against adversity in the faces of those that perceive the subject as, in fact, exactly the same as the rest of us boring folks.

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