“Sisters” disappoints with the same old lesbian stereotypes

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This weekend’s Saturday Night Live was the best episode of the season so far, and only second in ratings to Donald Trump‘s disappointing turn as host earlier this month. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-hosted SNL to promote their new film, Sisters, written by longtime sketch writer and out lesbian Paula Pell. The best sketches had commentary on older men leaving their wives for much younger women, Hillary Clinton now vs. 2008 (featuring Kate McKinnon), a take on a 1950s Carol-esque lesbian drama (as directed by a man), and their own girl squad remake of Taylor Swift‘s “Bad Blood” with their nannies, gynecologist and Amy Schumer. It was smart, feminist and hilarious.

How I wish I could say the same for Sisters.

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Sisters, originally called The Nest, is loosely based on Paula’s real life relationship with her sister who she says was always much cooler with boyfriends and a social life while Paula sat at home “changing the grit on her rock tumbler.” As Kate, Tina is the cool sister whose carefree life as a youth is now messy as an adult. She has a teenage daughter who detests the instability her mother provides and, secretly, goes to live with her aunt, Amy Poehler’s Maura. Maura is a nurse, but she’s divorced (for two years!) and obsessed with her parents (something not completely portrayed but fed to the audience toward the end to try and give more of a story to a film largely about a house party). What Maura needs is, of course, the love of a good man.

Kate and Maura’s parents are selling their childhood home to go live in a condo, something the sisters are pissed about. They go home to pack up their rooms and decide to throw one last party where Maura will finally have sex in her twin bed. She’s going to let loose and not be the Party Mom who takes care of everyone and makes sure nothing goes awry. Instead, Kate has to be the responsible one for once, and the predictability factor will let you know how that goes over.

As someone who loves Paula’s work on SNL and Tina and Amy for just about everything they do, I want to support Sisters. I want to support a movie starring two fantastic performers, hilarious and successful women in comedy that can bring people to theaters and money to the box office. But I’m so tired of being fed the same stories where women have to have some kind of dude love interest to make the story complete. This year alone, it’s been done in Trainwreck, Hot Pursuit, Pitch Perfect 2 and Spy. Sadly, most of these films treat lesbians as stereotypes and jokes. And while we can laugh at ourselves, it gets really tired when it’s the only way we’re thrown a bone in a mainstream film about women; even more frustrating when it’s done in a film written by one of us.

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In Trainwreck, it’s a line: Amy Schumer saying she’s slept with three women but is only seriously interested in men. In Hot Pursuit, it’s Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara pretending to be “lesbian lovers” to be in good favor with a gross truck owner. They share a kiss, an uncomfortable attempt at comedy. Pitch Perfect‘s lesbian character (played by Ester Dean) is shown as the predatorial one who tries to kiss and inappropriately touch the other Bellas. (It’s no surprise lesbians are more drawn to the subtext between Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow than they are the annoying gay character.)

Kate McKinnon plays the stereotype in Sisters, appearing in a small role as a lesbian friend who wears jean shorts, has a collection of carabiners and hangs out with a softball team. She attends Maura and Kate’s party with a friend who is a DJ. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before (and before that, and before that). It didn’t feel any fresher than any time we’ve seen these same tropes play out before as written by men or straight women or outsiders who have very limited ideas of what gay women are. And it didn’t play the same way as Paula’s famed sketch for Ellen Page when she hosted SNL in 2008 and joked she wanted to hug another woman with her legs in friendship, poking fun at the stereotypes of lesbians rather than investing in them.

As Carol racks up award nominations and continues to bring money in at the box office, we have hope that not only can positive lesbian visibility be a reality in mainstream Hollywood, but that films starring two women leads can be successful without forcing a male love interest to factor into a happy ending. I can’t help but think how much more interesting and exciting it would have been if Sisters had been more closely based on Paula’s real life, and Maura was in search of the right woman. Maybe then the DJ or a member of the softball team would have more purpose, and we could feel like films about women weren’t for straight women who don’t mind lesbians at the party, as long as they’re OK with being laughed at.

I’m not naive enough to think that Hollywood execs would have signed off on a film like Sisters as easily if one of the roles was written as gay. I realize this is asking a lot from those who write the checks; that even Carol took years to make and that was even with Cate Blanchett attached early on. While women are still having to prove themselves (ourselves) as creators and consumers, I still encourage us all to go to the theaters and support movies like Sisters and Trainwreck and the upcoming Ghostbusters, although it is worth noting they were all directed by men. (Sisters was directed by Jason Moore, who also directed the first Pitch Perfect. Elizabeth Banks directed the sequel and is also directing the third film.) We deserve better, and hopefully, if more women are at the helm of films about women’s lives, they will agree and work harder at fair representation.

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Sisters has its moments, mostly those of physical humor and the charm of its stars. But the rest of the story is lacking, making it all-too-noticeable that it’s not Maura and Kate we are watching, but Tina and Amy. We’re not concerned for the sisters because we know they will be better than OK. They’re America’s sweethearts, and they rebound from OK films (see: Baby Mama) to create things like Mean Girls, Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock. They can even return to SNL and slay like they did this weekend, likely writing a lot of their own sketches, including one smart non-offensive lesbian-themed set-up. Imagine that. 

Sisters is in theaters now.

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