Thursday, 11 July 2013

On Lisa Cholodenko and 'The Kids are All Right'


Watching Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature film, High Art, it is easy to see why it became a queer cult film. Clearly fitting within the canon of New Queer Cinema, the film centres on drug addict photographer Lucy and the development of her relationship with neighbour Syd. The characters are people, not just lesbians, defined by their sexuality. The film which explores human vices and flaws, was critically acclaimed both by queer and mainstream critics alike, which contrasts with Cholodenko’s latest film The Kids Are All Right. Whilst more mainstream, the film can also be defined as New Queer Cinema. Centring on a two-mum family (with Nic and Jules at the head), the film explores the characters’ personal flaws and their struggle to keep their family together as sperm-donor father Paul becomes part of the family. Whilst mainstream critics unanimously praised the film for its ‘refreshing’ representation of a lesbian relationship, queer critics went so far as calling it a “dyke-faced minstrel show”[1]. So why are the two films, by the same director, both centring on lesbian protagonists, and both clearly part of New Queer Cinema, received so differently by their queer critics?
Cholodenko has explained in interviews that in both films she was trying to portray depoliticised characters (the central principle of New Queer Cinema). However, the critics argued that the depoliticisation in The Kids Are All Right has significantly different connotations and influences than that in High Art. Zoe Fine and Mary Whitlock identified the concept of homonormalisation in their article on The Kids Are All Right, arguing that it functioned to normalize the ‘non-normal’. In the case of The Kids Are All Right, this can be viewed as the influence both of the Hollywood target audience, but also an effect of the system in which the film was produced. Many queer critics, such as Lucy Duggan, found it shocking that a lesbian director would portray lesbian characters in such a stereotypical manner. She felt that as a lesbian, it was Cholodenko’s responsibility to create characters who did not feel stereotypical or clichéd, which in her opinion, those of The Kids Are All Right were.
One of the ways in which the characters of Nic and Jules are normalized is through the gender binary created within their relationship. Nic is cast as the typical ‘male’ of the relationship. Her appearance is not traditionally feminine, she has short-cropped hair, and we never see her in anything other than trousers. She is the primary breadwinner for the family, working as a doctor, supporting Jules’ various failed business attempts. Jules is more feminine, a free spirit with long hair, and a more feminine dress sense. While Cholodenko argued that she created the characters out of her own experiences, and based them upon her relationship with her partner, many felt they negatively enforced existing stereotypes of lesbians. It is something that contrasts strongly with the characters from High Art, where relationships are co-dependent and there is no sense of the socially imagined gender binary within the same-sex relationships.
To further enforce the gender binary within the relationship, it is Jules (the ‘feminine’ lesbian) who has an affair with their sperm donor. The affair was flagged by numerous queer critics as unnatural and strange, yet was overlooked by the majority of mainstream critics. It is easy to understand why such heterosexual desires went unnoticed by many, as Richard Dyer argues, “[h]eterosexuality as a social reality seems to be invisible to those who benefit from it”[2].
Considering the affair in The Kids Are All Right, some key differences between the two Cholodenko films are clear. In The Kids Are All Right we see numerous heterosexual and just one homosexual sex scene, despite the film’s focus on a lesbian couple. The contrast between how the two types of sex scene are portrayed is striking. The homosexual sex scene between Nic and Jules is awkward, fully clothed, comedic, and non-passionate. The heterosexual sex scenes are fast-paced, passionate, and intimate (created using nudity). The film seems comfortable to present heterosexual sex, but uncomfortable with presenting homosexual sex as fulfilling. This is interesting, given that the director is herself a lesbian. Talking in the director’s commentary of the film, Cholodenko admits she was uncomfortable with the lesbian sex scene, and felt a comedic aspect was necessary to make the scene acceptable. Interestingly, she did not feel this way about the heterosexual sex scenes between both Paul and his African-American waitress Tanya, and Paul and Jules. Even through Paul and Jules’ sex is an affair, it is represented as more satisfying and fulfilling that Jules’ sex with her wife.
Cholodenko also, seems not to have felt this way about the sex scenes in High Art. In High Art too we see both hetero- and homo- sexual sex scenes, but the hetero/homo preference seen in The Kids Are All Right is reversed. The single sex scene we see between Syd and her boyfriend, is awkward, slow, shot from a distance, doesn’t reach climax, and Syd remains dressed. The lesbian sex scenes we see between Lucy and Greta, and Lucy and Syd, are, as with the heterosexual sex scenes in The Kids Are All Right, shot in a favourable manner.
It is possible to assume then, that as the films are directed by the same person, that it is the production context rather than the director that has influenced this portrayal. It would seem from this that, while Hollywood is now willing to portray homosexual relationships, they are not quite ready to do so in a manner that frames them equally next to heterosexual relationships.  The depoliticization of the characters in The Kids Are All Right appears to be done in a way that does not challenge the heteronormative Hollywood audience or make them uncomfortable. In High Art Cholodenko successfully creates people: not lesbians or stereotypes. The film is not about their sexuality (a refreshing change for LGBTQ cinema) but rather about their human drama. While Cholodenko may have wished to achieve this same result with The Kids Are all Right it would seem the film’s production context prevented her from doing so.

[1] Duggan, Lucy (2010, July 30). ‘ONLY the Kids Are All Right’, Bully Bloggers. Accessed via: on 17/04/13.
[2] Dyer, Richard, The Matter of Images (Oxon: 2002). P.118.

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