I was beyond excited. A major motion picture. Two big celebs. We would finally have cultural shorthand during introductions. Like this past weekend when we dropped our fifteen year old son Ben off at camp. "Hi I'm Joan and..... I tell you what -- let me make this easier for you. Have you seen The Kids Are All Right? I'm kinda like Annette Benning -- you know, the one with the short hair. But I'm not a doctor. I'm actually terribly squeamish. And this is my partner Eileen -- she was a hippie in college just like the Julianne Moore character but she is not at all flaky like her. And this is our son -- he's Laser!"
A cultural touchstone. We'd never had one before.
Our daughter Scout saw a trailer online just after all the buzz at Sundance. When she sent the link to me, she wrote an email that indicated that she had not just watched it a few times. She had swallowed it whole. She, at age 20, is Joni.
Kit, on the cusp of 16, was beyond excited. "OMG! I am souped! When can we see it?"
Our very own family on the big screen! For the very first time.
So I went to see it. And unlike the many who raved about this film, I have a real problem with it.
Did I just see you roll your eyes? You're wondering how a lesbian mom and gay rights activist who has three kids through donor insemination can possibly have any issues with the first mainstream feature film with box office stars as lesbians who have been together forever who create and raise a family together. As someone who teaches about the intersection of media and social change, why can't I simply celebrate this film? Do I have to be so damned picky?
Yes, I do.
Because it is the first. Because of the star power. Because it has gotten rave reviews. Because the film has grossed $5 million in two weeks in limited release. Because this past weekend, the film moved from cities to suburbs. Because these images will shape how gay families are perceived. How lesbian moms are perceived. Perhaps more importantly, this movie will also be important for kids of gay and lesbian parents. Director LIsa Cholodenko says it herself "it's a brave new world" and millions (yes, millions) of donor insemination kids are coming of age. How will these images speak to them?
I wanted the movie to be perfect. I get that this is unrealistic. But it was imperfect a very important way.
The trailer teases it but I thought, no. It couldn't be. Then I saw the film.
One of the moms has an affair (okay, this happens). Not with another woman. With another man (okay, this happens, too, but knowing their moms all these years, it would totally and completely rock their kids' world as they knew it). But not just any man. With the kids' sperm donor (I barely know where to even start).
What were the writers thinking? I'm okay with one of the lesbian moms crossing a line, but that line? Let's be clear. The relationship between a sperm donor, known or unknown, with the family he helps to create is blurry and complicated. If that donor then enters the life of your family, parents have a special obligation and responsibility to behave like grownups -- to lead the family carefully through those unchartered waters -- not to exponentially increase the complications by taking the donor from the kids in a flagrantly irresponsible way.
I'm here to tell you that after a move like that the kids would definitely not be all right.
Combine this plot twist with the scene in which Jules and Nic watch gay male porn. Male porn. Male. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I wondered: Did I miss a memo? I started asking around (actually I asked two people, I was way to embarrassed to ask more than two). One woman told me it is more common than I might think. It would have to be more common than I think because I have never thought of it. Another woman told me that lesbians watch gay male porn because lesbian porn isn't very good. This response didn't satisfy me in the slightest (no pun intended).
It boils down to this: I'm upset because I believe the takeaway from this film will be that lesbians and the families they create need men to be complete. I'm upset because any parent who has created a family through donor insemination understands just how devastating Jules' choice would be for her children. There is nothing funny about this. Nothing. And lastly, I'm upset that a film that offers the first mainstream glimpse of what Cholodenko herself calls "unchartered territory" sends messages like these.
One last point. Regardless of the circumstances, if I am ever introduced to the men who made our family possible, I know the very first thing Eileen (the hippie one) and I (the one with short hair) would say: Thank you. As flustered as Nic and Jules are upon meeting him, it is the one message many of us wish we could communicate to the men who helped to make our dreams come true. It would have been oh so easy to add these two words to the script.
One reviewer made mention of the controversial nature of the film. "It's certainly possible that the unconventional makeup of this family will turn off one segment of the audience."
How ironic that I find myself in that club.