Sugarbutch Says: The “Lesbian Who Sleeps With a Man” Trope in “The Kids Are All Right”

Sinclair Sexsmith is the kinky queer butch top behind Sugarbutch Chronicles at sugarbutch.net, which is a personal sex, gender, and relationship adventure writing project. She is a gender and cultural theorist, Buddhist, feminist, and lover of literature.

All the lesbian blogs are abuzz with the new Lisa Cholodenko film The Kids Are All Right. It’s been on my radar — on many people’s radars — since it was first announced. A lesbian film? With Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a long term couple with two kids? And Lisa Cholodenko is directing it? Hell yes.

But of course, when the plot started trickling out and the trailer showed up, that’s where trouble came into paradise. You probably already know all about it, but in case you don’t, you saw that part, right? Where Julianne Moore’s lesbian character, Jules, sleeps with a guy?

Yeah. I know. Sigh.

And this is where the teams start forming, because some people — many people, for very legitimate reasons — see that one key plot device as completely ruining the film. But other people stand firm, saying it’s phenomenal despite it.

I tried not to read too many of the reviews. I knew enough about the film, and have seen enough of Cholodenko’s other films (High Art, Laurel Canyon) to know that I respect her as a filmmaker. How many female film directors can you name, off the top of your head? And how many of those are lesbians? And how many of those are sexy masculine-ish lesbians with kids? So of course I was going to see it, especially when people I respect started saying that the film deals with that key sleeping-with-a-man component very well. And since I didn’t want to have anybody else’s opinions in my head when I saw it, I tried to avoid the reviews as they came tumbling in.

My girlfriend and I made the trek to see it on what turned out to be opening night. That was kind of accidental — I thought it was long out by now, given the hype and conversations happening on the blogs, but of course all of those folks either a) haven’t seen it yet (more on that later) or b) were fancy enough to go to premieres. Ooh la la.

This film is beautiful. Their relationship is real and touching. And yes, one of the women in a long-term relationship with another woman sleeps with a man. This is an old, old trope, a cliché, and overused theme in mainstream depictions of lesbians and lesbian relationships, especially in mainstream films. See: Chasing Amy and Kissing Jessica Stein. People are jumping to critique this film, and explain just how wrong it is to use that theme. Yep, it is.

Kissing Jessica Stein

I went away from the film liking it, a little bleary-eyed from the end, touched by the emotional portrayal of the relationship, relating very strongly to the challenges of communication and every day work of being in intimate relation with another person.

The next day, my defenses were back up. How dare yet another film depict a lesbian sleeping with a guy? And of course, it has to be the more feminine one of the couple, doesn’t it? This is going to continue to enforce the idea that lesbians are “just waiting for the right guy to come along.”

Or maybe it isn’t.

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