Lesbians: the new smug marrieds?

The lesbo-mum comedy The Kids Are All Right implies that super-domesticated same-sex parents are the new normal.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

Comedian Susie Essman (of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame) has a great routine about soccer moms and gays: ‘Gay men used to be the most fabulous creatures in the world but now they all want to get married and move to Montclair fucking New Jersey and have babies. So lesbians are the new gay men, gay men are the new soccer moms and soccer moms are the new lesbians.’

But Essman’s routine is a couple of years old now and if she’s seen Lisa Cholodenko’s latest movie, The Kids Are All Right, she may want to update it. Because judging by this right-on Southern Californian tale, lesbians today are not so much the new fabulous gay men as the new co-op mummies. They, too, want to get married, have babies and a composter for their leftover organic veggies, ideally grown in the backyards of their own suburban villas decorated with family photos, clay pottery and big, fluffy cushions.

Considering the film’s storyline – a lesbian couple’s teenage kids find their sperm-donor dad, causing the near-idyllic family to unravel – The Kids Are All Right ought to be an extraordinary story. Yet it tries so painstakingly hard to communicate the message that hey, there’s nothing odd about two women raising a family together, man, that it ends up being a fairly ordinary film about, well, a married couple wrapped up in a middle-aged crisis with two teenaged kids wrapped up in a teenage crisis.

The film chronicles Joni’s (Mia Wasikowska) last summer at home before going off to college. She has just turned 18, which means she is legally entitled to try to contact her biological father. Her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) pushes her to call the sperm bank that their mothers Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) used. The sperm bank contacts the donor, the olive-skinned, super chilled-out Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who runs an organic restaurant and who composts.

At first, Nic, a somewhat uptight doctor, and Jules, a kooky landscape architect, are upset that Joni and Laser met up with Paul without telling them. But this is California and they are super-liberal parents so they invite Paul over for dinner. Jules even ends up fixing up his wild backyard, and a few Home Depot-runs later, Paul’s seeds are being planted all over the place. So to speak.

Paul’s presence causes various identity crises in the more or less harmonious, middle-class household. Now, any resentment or marital strife that may have been bubbling under the surface flows over. Like when Jules accuses Nic (whose doctor’s salary pays for the family’s upkeep) of not wanting her to have a career and of resenting the fact that she’s taking up landscape architecture (‘it’s not gardening’). She accuses Jules of being happier when she was just a stay-at-home mum. ‘You wanted a wife!’ she yells.

While there are certainly hints in the film of what happens when lesbians lead a typically heterosexual lifestyle, the motions that the characters go through could just as well have been experienced by a husband and wife and their kids dealing with married life, growing up, infidelity and composting.

Watching the film, I was reminded of a story I heard at a Thanksgiving weekend party in the Hamptons a few years back (la-di-da). The host couple’s seven-year-old son was friends with a black boy and girl who had been adopted by two white gay men. One day in school the seven-year-old asked his friend how come he had two dads. The friend shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Cos I do.’ The boy was apparently satisfied with this answer and that could have been the end of it, but the dads found out and called up the boy’s mother to discuss the matter.

The fact is, even in this day and age two white, gay men adopting two black children represents a pretty extraordinary cultural shift. Of course, normalcy is a fair enough aspiration for gays. They should have the choice, just like anybody else, to lead a conventional lifestyle or a non-mainstream lifestyle, to be single or married. But being curious about gay marriage, adoption and sperm donation – how it works, what is the impact on those involved, how they get treated by the rest of society – is perfectly acceptable, too.

These kinds of questions, this kind of curiosity, which one could reasonably expect The Kids Are All Right to deal with, are not really confronted. Instead, everyone is so right-on, so cool, so open-minded that their brains may spill out at any minute. Anyone who interacts with the family accepts them as they are and no one seems to think much of their fairly unusual set-up. This goes for Laser’s knucklehead mate, as well as Joni’s male and female friends, Nic and Jules’ straight friends, and Paul and his part-time mistress. Finding out that his sperm (donated when he was 19) had been inseminated into the wombs of a same-sex couple, he says something to the effect of ‘Oh, yeah, okay, I love lesbians’.

In short, the kids are all right, we’re all cool, everything is sunny-California-fine. I’ve not spent more than a couple of days in southern California, but for a realist comic drama, The Kids Are All Right seems pretty idealised, even post the overturning of Proposition 8.

Of course, a film about gay people doesn’t need to be a miserable drama about prejudice and discrimination. In fact, it’s actually refreshing that The Kids Are All Right is not that. But for all its right-on-ness, it has a distinct air of intolerance about it. Just like that gay dad in the Hamptons automatically thinking there was a problem about his son’s friend’s curiosity, it’s as if Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, who co-wrote the film, believe that to have any issue at all with, or indeed any curiosity about, two women raising a family is just not kosher. ‘We’re all cool with this’, the filmmakers and cast seem to be saying, ‘and if you think there’s something odd about this family, then there’s something wrong with YOU’.

Californians or not, we should be free to live with anyone we want, to raise kids, to grow our own organic vegetables and to compost our kitchen scraps – but we should also remember that it’s pretty intolerant to expect others not to criticise our lifestyles, or at least be curious about them.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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