I finally saw The Kids are All Right the other night, thanks to Netflix, and I thought it was a good, but not great movie: a nice evening’s entertainment for adults with a message to convey, but not necessarily a work of art. As usual, Annette Benning was wonderful—I have long thought her America’s best film actress. Including The Grifters, Mars Attacks, Guilty by Suspicion, American Beauty, Bugsy, Regarding Henry and Being Julia, among others, she is almost always only in good to great movies and she’s usually the most watchable person or thing on the screen. That was also the case in The Kids are All Right.
The politics of the movie is muddled, conveying a wonderfully positive message in favor of gay rights on the surface, but relying on a hoary and smarmy myth about gay women as the major device to move the plot along.
First the good news: the portrayal of the family of the two major characters really advanced the cause of gay marriage and gay adoption (even though the children are not adopted). The parents are middle-aged gay women with two teenaged children, one born to each by the same anonymous sperm donor (who turns out to be a California-dreamin’, happy-go-lucky, skirt-chasing guy who, against all personality traits he displays, runs a successful restaurant.) The family is completely normal and sane, upper middle class. The two solid (and straight) teens are doing a good but not perfect job of working out their problems. The two gay women project self-awareness and an understanding and acceptance of the other’s foibles, none of which is horrific or pathological. In other words, happy but challenged at times.
It’s not a perfect family, it’s a normal family, and it may mark the first time in the history of cinema that we have seen a normal family consisting of two lesbian parents. And it’s about time, because lots of these families exist. Besides creating some people that the audience can care about—an important factor in any domestic drama (unless the writer goes the other route and tries to make us hate everyone)—the writer/director is making an important message, especially to those ignorant and benighted people who are still opposed to gay marriage and gay adoption.
But why did the film have to make the central plot device a heterosexual affair that one of the women has with the sperm donor? Doesn’t the writer/director know that many men still believe that myth that lesbians are just women who have never found a man who can satisfy them sexually? I have heard many, many misguided men repeat this garbage to me—in locker rooms and bars, at card games and sporting events, hanging out listening to loud rock music, on the couch watching the World Series or Final Four.
I’m not saying that this plot twist is unrealistic. A 2002 National Center for Health Statistics survey found that about 2.8% of all women say they are bisexual and it’s therefore possible for there to be a long-term marriage between a gay woman and a bisexual woman. It’s also possible that a straight or gay man or woman could become curious about other options, for any number of reasons.
But why go there? Why play into the myths of ignorant homophobes? Couldn’t the plot have thickened just as easily if the woman had her affair with the girlfriend of the sperm donor? Or if the sperm donor had an affair with the daughter’s best friend, whose character definitely demonstrated she would be susceptible?
My point is that by selecting the plot device of an affair between the happily-married-if-stressed gay woman and her sperm donor, the writer/director plays into a stupid myth. The portrayal of the family is a major step forward. The portrayal of the stupid myth is at least a medium step backwards.