In September I wrote a piece about Debra Granik’s excellent Winter’s Bone (2010) examining the film through the prism of what the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls ‘Kyriarchy’. Kyriarchy is a concept designed to move discussions of prejudice and social dominance beyond the kind of simplistic oppositional dynamics that have for too long dominated this area of political discourse. According to Kyriarchy, dominance is not a question of GLBT vs. Straight, Black vs. White, Male vs. Female or Catholic vs. Protestant but rather a patchwork of ever-changing power relations between all kinds of different groups. According to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the face of human oppression takes myriad forms. It is always changing and yet always present. Winter’s Bone demonstrates not only that women can be complicit in the oppression of other women but that men can also find themselves forced into a particular social role that they may personally find oppressive and intolerable. In Granik’s Ozark mountains, men are violent and psychotic because that is what they are expected to be. If you are not violent and psychotic then you are not a real man and if you are not a real man then you might as well spend your time playing the banjo.
As it deals with the poorest of the poor, it is easy to characterise Winter’s Bone as a depiction of a life that is particularly and unusually hard and so to conclude that the patterns of social dominance represented in the film are somehow an exception to the more normal and healthy gender relations that characterise the rest of society. This is simply not the case. The Ozark mountains may well make social dominance a matter of life and death but the same patterns of social dominance present on those bleak mountainsides play out all across our society. Right up to the top. The universality of Kyriarchal rule is elegantly demonstrated by the sexual politics of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.
The Kids Are All Right is a film that is so emotionally mature one could easily be forgiven for thinking that it is French.
The action revolves around a lesbian couple and their pair of artificially inseminated kids. Together, these four people share a very nearly perfect family life. Tightly-wound Nic (Annette Bening) is a successful doctor and so has been able to support her family allowing the more laid-back and hippified Jules (Julianne Moore) to be a full time mother who has flirted with a number of possible careers over the years without ever successfully settling down into anything serious. The couple’s combination of money, engaged parenting and a loving home environment has produced a pair of near-perfect kids but as their intellectual eldest daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) finishes high-school and prepares to go off to college, cracks are beginning to appear in the family’s foundational routines and relationships.
Something needs to change. But how?
Change comes when the quietly sensitive younger son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) asks his sister to track down their biological father — the ‘Sperm Donor’ as Nic initially refers to him. Laser’s motivation is beautifully established in the film’s opening sequence in which Laser and his unpleasant best friend start play-fighting in front of the best friend’s father prompting the man to get up and wrestle his son to the ground. This act of aggressively male bonding is something that Laser could never hope to get from either of his mothers or his sister and the wistful smile on his face suggests that this kind of masculine bonhomie is something that is sorely lacking from his life.
Joni and Laser agree to meet ‘the sperm donor’ and find him to be a handsome and charismatic restauranteur who dropped out of university and now lives a glamorous but emotionally simple life of good food, good wine and guilt-free sex with his gorgeous female employees. Paul’s (Mark Ruffalo) effortless charm and success prove a little too much for the introverted Laser and so he shows little interest in having a further relationship with his biological father but Joni is another matter entirely. She instantly expresses a deep kinship with Paul. A kinship so deep that Laser is somewhat taken aback… he can’t remember his sister ever expressing so much passion about local produce. In fact, he can’t remember her ever expressing any kind of opinion about local produce.
After much sneaking about, Joni and Laser are forced to admit to their mothers that they have been meeting with Paul and so Paul is duly invited to dinner. Though Paul is his usual charming self, one can sense that his laid-back masculinity is utterly at odds with the painstakingly constructed moral universe that Nic and Jules have erected around their family. Paul works in the ‘food services industry’, he thinks that higher learning ‘universally blows’, he rides a motorcycle, he is not in a steady relationship. He is utterly Other.
As was the case with Joni, Jules forms a sudden and quite intense attachment to her ‘Sperm Donor’. Within a day of Paul encouraging her to come and do up his garden, Jules is flirtatiously fiddling with the tape-measure hanging by her crotch. She knows that Paul is something of a ladies’ man. She knows that he is attracted to her. She also knows that she wants to feel attractive because the spark has departed her sex life with Nic. Within a couple of days, Paul and Jules are lovers.
Both Joni and Jules pursue their relationships with Paul not out of any genuine interest or attraction to Paul but because Paul is a useful agent of change. Because Paul and his values are so utterly alien to Nic and Jules, Joni can use a growing relationship with her ‘biological father’ to challenge the boundaries laid down by her mothers. Not only can she sneak around behind their backs, she can also spend time with a sexually active man and ride a motorcycle. Similarly, laid back drop-out Paul is so diametrically opposed to the tightly wound, controlling professional Nic that Jules can fuck Paul as an act of protest and defiance against the rules and diktats imposed upon her by her wife. The sense that Paul is being ‘used’ by Jules is beautifully underlined in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes.
Having rooted through his Momses’ things, Laser and his friend Clay uncovered their porn stash. However, far from being Lesbian porn, it turns out that Nic and Jules watch gay male porn. When called upon to justify this mind-boggling revelation, Jules offers up a little speech that effectively articulates the film’s sexual dynamics: Jules explains that human sexuality is often counter-intuitive and that because female desire is both physiologically and emotionally internalised, lesbians can sometimes be turned on by a sexuality that is physically externalised. To whit : two men going at it hammer and tongs with great big bulging cocks. This idea is neatly demonstrated in the scene in which Paul and Jules seduce each other — Jules fumbles with Paul’s belt and zipper and pulls out his cock. Her response is immediate: She gasps with joy and surprise. Surprise at the fact that she is actually about to have sex with someone with a cock and joy at being presented with both the physical manifestation of Paul’s desire and his difference from Nic.
Nothing says ‘I’m not having sex with my lesbian wife’ like being nose-to-groin with a cock.
This idea of human sexuality frequently being counter-intuitive is then revisited in another speech given by Jules by way of apology for her affair. This speech, which again seeks to ‘explain’ what is going on — a concession to accessibility that would never appear in a real French film — lays out a theory whereby, after a long period together, people in a relationship can start to engage not with each other but with reflections of each other’s neuroses and hang-ups. So, when Jules was cheating on Nic, she was not cheating on Nic but on the dispassionate and disinterested control freak that Nic had come to symbolise in Jules’ mind. Of course, the same is also true of Joni’s relationship with Paul — Joni was not angry with her mothers but with her own hang-ups about growing up, moving away and generally coming of age. As in the first speech given by Jules, Paul is conspicuous by his absence.
Having served as a physical externalisation of Jules’ need to be desired and as means for Joni to challenge parental restrictions, Paul is effectively cast aside. He is not a person but a psychological place-holder for the family’s need for change. This sense of Paul’s value being primarily symbolic is neatly underlined in a scene in which Nic goes out of her way to fit in with the pro-Paul feelings that she has been destructively battling against. Instead of getting drunk and grumpy, Nic begins to sing Joni Mitchell songs at the dinner table. “I like this guy” Nic says contentedly, but it is not Paul she likes… it is the more laid back Nic that she is ‘trying on’ over dinner. It is the Nic that she was when she was younger. It is the Nic she was when she first met Jules.
The gender and sexual politics of The Kids Are All Right are complex and involved enough that they simply cannot be expressed in terms of traditional dualisms. It is not a film about Lesbianism taking precedence over Heterosexuality (though Jules does react angrily to Nic’s suggestion that she is now straight) or about Masculinity taking precedence over Femininity (Nic is outraged when Jules accuses her of blocking her career out of desire to have a ‘wife’ at home). Instead, it portrays gender and sexual power relations as an intricately co-dependent patchwork of alliances and symbolic gestures. Both Jules and Joni are unhappy with the status quo and yet instead of challenging Nic’s regime directly, they use the men in their lives as instruments of change: the decision to meet Paul comes at Laser’s request, Nic and Jules air their differences as a result of Paul’s involvement with Jules, Joni grows up as a result of using Paul to press against her mothers’ boundaries, Nic and Jules decide to stay together as a result of Laser opining that they are too old to break-up.
It is tempting to read the film’s protection of a male monopoly over action as a reflection of traditional power imbalances. ‘I’m a doer’ says Paul over dinner, suggesting that this is something unique to him. However, though change does come as a result of actions taken by Paul and Laser, it is worth looking beyond mere questions of apparent agency to the emotional arcs affecting the male characters. For example, at the beginning of the film, Paul is content. He has women, he has food, he has money, he has a home. He then receives a phone call from the sperm bank he donated to as a much younger man. This phone call results not only in his meeting his biological offspring but also being brought into a ready-made family environment. Paul gets on so well with his new family that he even drinks a toast to ‘an unconventional family’. A toast that could be read as a comment upon Nic and Jules’ sexuality but it could also be read as a comment on the fact that the family now includes not only two lesbian parents but also a sperm donor who fills a role somewhere between elder sibling, uncle and father. Paul is so besotted by this new set of relationships that he dumps his girlfriend and tries to convince Jules to take up with him. Needless to say, she turns him down. Not only does she turn him down but she then does nothing when Nic slams the door in his face and calls him an interloper.
Paul is an agent of change but this is all he is. He is ushered into the family by Jules and Joni in order to provoke change but, this change provoked, he is swiftly cast aside and made into a scapegoat for the family’s problems. Joni and Jules used Paul against Nic and, their challenge complete, they are quite content to have him exiled from the family for the sake of unity. Paul served as a symbolic agent of change, now he serves as a convenient Other around which the inner family can unite. By the time Joni goes off to school and the Momses have re-united, nobody is thinking of Paul. He is simply collateral damage arising from the family’s emotional conflicts.
If Winter’s Bone displayed the capacity for human lives to be shaped and even broken by social conventions and expectations then The Kids Are All Right is about humanity’s willingness to not only put up with these social conventions but to actively use them to further its own ends.
Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right can both be seen as coming-of-age films in which teenaged protagonists learn to navigate the complex sexual politics of the adult world. In Winter’s Bone, this learning curve is far more dangerous because life in the Ozark mountains is far more dangerous but Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly has to learn the ropes just as Joni does in The Kids Are All Right. This depiction of the adult world as a terrifying but ultimately learnable patchwork of power relations is reminiscent of the one that features in Valmont (1989), Milos Forman’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ immortal epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782).
Unlike Stephen Frears — whose adaptation Dangerous Liaisons (1988) starring John Malkovitch and Glenn Close remains the better known of the two — Forman realised that Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not, at heart, a moral piece of literature. Yes, some characters appear more virtuous than others and yes, the wicked get their comeuppance at the end of the book, but one could just as easily understand the book’s moralising as a question of spin on the part of the characters and socially-expedient hypocrisy on the part of an author writing at the time of the Ancien Regime. Indeed, rather than presenting the young characters Cecile and Dancenny as powerless victims of the machinations of their elders, Forman suggests that Cecile and Dancenny ultimately triumph at the end of the film because they have learned their world. With Valmont dead and Madame de Tourvel in disgrace, the young are ready to take centre stage. Cecile has a rich husband, a safe social position and an eager young lover.
The generations change.
The world renews itself.
To be an adult is to understand one’s place in the world and make the most of it.
To be an adult is to oppress and be oppressed.
To be an adult is to take one’s place in a Kyriarchical patchwork of power relations.
The Kids Are All Right is a wonderfully funny, unpretentiously grown-up and beautifully observed drama. It argues that the forces that make up our lives and loves do not stop or change at the arbitrary boundaries laid down by sexuality or gender. However, for all of its delicate beauty and humour, Lisa Cholodenko’s film never loses sight of the realities of human nature. It does not hide behind easy sentiment or melodramatic pretence. It shows you the bare face of human sexual relations in all of its terrifying beauty.