What’s the difference? How is it new? I started thinking about that when I read Dorothy Snarker’s take on the film:
It’s an infuriating cliché. The lesbian who leaves her partner for a man. The lesbian who was really just going through a phase. The lesbian who secretly craves d–k. … Yet you know what, it’s not about any of that here. Those portrayals come from a place of deep-seated homophobia. A belief that lesbianism doesn’t really exist, that all a gay lady needs is a good man. That is not where the infidelity in The Kids Are All Right comes from.
I think she is right on here, and it really got me thinking. The difference between this film and all those other films is intention. What is behind Jules’ action of cheating on her wife of 20 years with a man? What is behind all of those other characters, going back to their boyfriends or proclaiming that it was all “just for fun” and “didn’t mean anything”?
Jules does not sleep with Paul (Mark Ruffalo, and the kids’ sperm donor) because she is questioning her sexuality, because she was waiting for a man to come along, just needed a serious deep d—ing, or because her 20 plus year marriage was a phase. She sleeps with Paul, I would argue, because she is feeling neglected in her relationship, because he was readily available, because he was easy, and because he is already, in a way, part of her family.
Some of the write-ups I’ve seen for this film introduced the characters as a couple, “a bisexual woman and a lesbian,” and because of that I was half expecting an identity crisis for Jules in the second half of the film. But none ever comes: she doesn’t start questioning her sexuality because she was attracted to (in some form) and sleeps with Paul. Nic asks, “Are you straight now?” and Jules responds, emphatically, “No!” When Paul calls Jules and goes on about how they should now be together, Jules yells into the phone “I’m gay!”
So her orientation, her sexual identity, is never in crisis really. She doesn’t second-guess that she’s a lesbian and married to her partner. She needed attention, to see her self-worth reflected in another’s eyes. Some care, some fun, some play.
Is calling on the trope of sleeping with a man the only way she, her character arc, could have achieved this? No, of course not. But in the world that this particular story created, yes. Only this new, charming (I found him a bit annoying, but clearly they were charmed) member of her family — the sperm donor — could have come in with enough permission to slide under the radar for her to let her guard down and go for it.
So because Jules had sex with a man, and clearly enjoyed it (was it really necessary for that scene to be so long, and so detailed?), does that make her bisexual? No. That’s not necessarily how identity works. Arguably, one can be a lesbian and still, occasionally, enjoy sex with men. If that is something that happens, well, frequently, then, yes, I think the identity label of bisexual is a bit more appropriate. But for someone in a 20 plus year committed relationship with a woman, who sleeps with a man a few times for various reasons, does that automatically make her bisexual? No. Identity is more complicated than that.
There are some easy criticisms of gender depicted in this film — particularly that, of course, it is the more feminine one who sleeps with a man. And yes, yes, yes that is a problem. No, we do not want to encourage visions of a femme lesbian sleeping with a man to the straight men in the audience. But first, is that what this film does? No. It depicts a woman who has enough sovereignty in her own life and around her sexuality that, though she does cheat on her partner, she knows it is not a question of her orientation, just like it isn’t a question of whether she loves her partner. It is about some larger issues of their relationship, and needing a wake-up call so big that it affects every one of her family members.
But really, was the gender in this movie particularly smart? Progressive? Genderqueer? Enlightened? No, it wasn’t. And while we’re at it, what about some of the depictions of other things in this film — race, class? Why aren’t all these critiques talking about the ways that the depictions of those things are problematic? Because they are, and it is just as ripe for critique and criticism around racial depictions and class privilege as it is about this one Lesbian Sleeps With a Man trope. But we can’t quite see past this trope, can we? At least, that’s what the dozens of writings I’ve seen on this film have been telling me so far.