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



This was a film about upper-middle-class white lesbians, and I mean lesbians, not dykes or queers. So it’s a wonder I identify with these characters at all. I mean, it is not a given that because they sleep with women I will in fact have something in common with them.

But I did identify with them.The depiction of the inner-workings of their long term relationship were stunning and complex. I complain frequently and loudly about how lousy most “relationship films” are, because they depict the chase. Couple is not together in the beginning of the movie, hijinx ensue, couple is together at the end of the movie. The End! Happily ever after!

For years I’ve been saying that it’s no wonder we have absolutely no idea how to be and behave and cherish and belong in long term relationships, given that the only depictions and models we ever have are the story before the committment. What happens after the commitment? What happens after the “I do” vows and the kids and twenty years later when things are getting, well, too comfortable? How do you reconcile if someone does something really stupid? How do you forgive? How do you keep loving someone for such a long time, at such close proximity? How do you go from being separate beings to that merging one-ness of connectedness and togetherness?

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I want more films, and more media in general, to explore these dynamics. And even in a year-and-a-half of exploring my own new relationship, it was clear that some of our struggles with merging and separating were being reflected on screen. And not just reflected, because I duly note with awe and reverence when I see any movie take on those struggles, but also reflected by lesbian characters. And with kids, 20 years on, with a house, with careers, with aspirations, with struggles and hopes.

Nic and Jules are a beautiful, real couple. I want Nic — played so perfectly by Annette Bening and who, one critic said, steals every scene — to be my dyke-aunt figure, who lets me come over and observe her life as she drinks her wine and lets those life-experience pearls of wisdom out of her mouth in casual conversation. Especially because I would love to be the person she calls when she discovers that Jules cheated on her. I would love to have that access to her inner world, to start seeing the ways that the perfect doctor-wife-mother unravels, what her fears are, how she will begin to rebuild. I was so in awe of her throughout the film — both Bening’s acting and the character’s emotional arc.

Have I convinced you yet? This film is worth seeing.

So many write-ups I see for this film by lesbians on their sites say things like, “Granted, I haven’t seen The Kids Are Alright yet, but …” and then proceed to go on and on about this awful lesbian-sleeps-with-a-man trope.

Dorothy Snarker called this out on Twitter recently, saying, “People who HATE The Kids Are All Right without having seen The Kids Are All Right are depressing me.” I know it’s hard to stomach, but it’s more complicated than it seems. See this film before going on and on about how bad this trope is. Don’t judge it before you have even expeirenced it. Watch the film, and watch it with a tiny bit of an open mind, asking yourself, is this the same old trope, or is this something new? Is this depicting the trope in a new way, breaking away from the old confines of what it means, in a film, for a lesbian to sleep with a man?

Of course, there is the question of why this trope has to exist in this film at all. Can’t we break out of this entirely, regardless of whether it is a well-known stereotypical plot device? Can we have some films where this isn’t even a factor?

God I hope so, and I think that’s coming, but I guess we haven’t gotten there yet. I think the thousands of queer kids who are teens and 20 and 30-somethings are going to continue making and re-making the images of lesbians we see in popular cultural depictions, like films. And perhaps by then we’ll have more tropes to pull on than just this one.

And as Lesbian Dad points out, the recurrence of this trope shows just “how challenging it is to re-/overwrite dominant narratives.” Even a film which perhaps attempts to tell a more complicated story about a stereotypical theme is getting criticized for even including this theme, and many viewers and casual observers aren’t certain she is successful at overwriting. But if we look a little closer, and we bother to check out the details, not just the big, overarching, umbrella under which this plot line falls, then perhaps we will start seeing the ways that indeed even this film is beginning to challenge and re-write or overwrite the ways lesbians sleeping with men are depicted.

And if we look even closer than that, we’ll see learn, valuably, that not everything is black and white, and that in the grey we can have more complicated, more intricate, and more detailed understandings of what is happening in our world.

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