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

I kept thinking. I read some reviews from folks whose brains I am all crushed out on, like Lesbian Dad and Dorothy Snarker, and I kept talking to my girlfriend about my thoughts and her thoughts as they evolved.

What if this depiction of that trope, of that storyline of lesbian-sleeps-with-a-man, is actually a step forward? It’s actually a step away from the old versions of this story? It’s something new. We haven’t actually seen this before. What if it’s a sign that we’re actually getting farther from this trope, rather than recreating it yet again?

Untangling that trope means entering into some grey areas, unseeing the black-and-white of this issue and looking at some of the larger contexts and contents; reigning in our own projections a little bit to consider this with fresh eyes, from a place of a beginner’s mind, without quite so much anger directed at this trope. I know that sounds like you have to give up your very warranted anger, but that’s not quite what I mean. It’s just having enough looseness to be able to allow new information to be observed, even if we already think we know exactly what we’re looking at.

Because that’s really the problem here, isn’t it? We hear “a film in which a lesbian sleeps with a guy” and we roll our eyes and get that disappointed, sinking stomach feeling, and we pretend that we aren’t disappointed in yet another depiction of us, of me, of my life, my legitimate love, my legitimate orientation, in a mainstream film that had so much potential, so we squish that potential and we squish that disappointment and we try to sound so damn smart about the wrong that is this film that we might actually miss the film itself, what it’s saying, and what it’s doing.

Warning: spoilers and analysis follows. See it for yourself first, or not.

It was Lesbian Dad’s write-up that first really got to me. In talking about The Trope, the lesbian-sleeps-with-a-guy part, she explains:

Suffice to say that, because this is a story, by definition requiring tension and conflict to exist, stuff happens. Stuff which, because this is a story, has no obligation to be completely plausible, least of all statistically significant — it just has to be plausible enough, and work within the confines of the characters’ journeys in the film.

So then my question became, “Can I do that?” Can I see this as “just a plot device,” just a conflict by which to drive the story? If we just squint a little, blur out some of the stuff, it is a beautiful, loving film about characters I adored and a real conflict.

But you know what? I can’t. I can’t just blur it out as this one little “insignificant” part. Because it’s not insignificant. Because that trope is too strong. That trope is too prevalent in lesbian depictions, and it is too painful as part of lesbian culture. It has left us with wounds, as a community, and it has left me with wounds. Memories of men who hit on our girlfriends right in front of us because we aren’t a “real threat.” Memories of women who really did leave us to date men. The ongoing permission to hetero men that lesbians and lesbianism are unthreatening, done as a performance for men, or perhaps isn’t even real.

That s–t hurts. That trope hurts, and has real consequences in our real lesbian lives. All of those blog posts about how insulting it is, and how boring this old trope is, and how unfair it is, and how ridiculous it is, are totally right. I think we have a right to be mad when it show up again, especially in a beautifully done, mainstream, well-acted film — possibly the most mainstream lesbian film ever made.

But that’s not what’s happening here. You think it includes that trope, because of the way it’s marketed, and because one of the lesbian characters does, in fact, sleep with a man, but this film takes that trope and twists its little nipples ‘til they cry uncle.

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