Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Hot Steaming Smug of Open-Mindedness

"C'mon, Nathalie, we'll catch your brains! Let them fall out of your open mind!"

Okay, Duncan, ya lazy bum, get to it.

I was led to the British online magazine Spiked by a post at alicublog, which touched on issues that I hope I'll get to before the end of the year. But the title of this article in a sidebar caught my attention: "Lesbians: the new smug marrieds?"

Wait a minute, so the author doesn't like the old smug marrieds, whoever they are? Anyway, the article turns out to have been inspired by Lisa Cholodenko's movie The Kids Are All Right, in which the teenaged children by artificial insemination of two lesbian moms track down their sperm donor, and seriocomedy ensues. (The women took turns, each one using the same donor for the child she bore.) Feeling neglected by her workaholic doctor partner Nic (Annette Bening), the less-driven Jules (Julianne Moore) drifts into an affair with the donor (Mark Ruffalo), nearly bringing down her household. Myself, I liked the film, which inspired a fair amount of controversy, though it is safer and more accessible than Cholodenko's two previous features, both of which were pretty dark. The Kids Are All Right is groundbreaking only if you haven't been paying attention to either the lives of gay people or GBLT film for the past couple of decades, but between most straight people's ignorance about the former and most gay people's ignorance about the latter, it's not surprising that it was a revelation for many.

The Spiked writer, Nathalie Rothschild, takes The Kids Are All Right as an opportunity for some concern trolling. First of all, she seems to be sure that gay men and lesbians really are fundamentally different from straight people, and that the film goes wrong because
it tries so painstakingly hard to communicate the message that hey, there’s nothing odd about two women raising a family together, man, that it ends up being a fairly ordinary film about, well, a married couple wrapped up in a middle-aged crisis with two teenaged kids wrapped up in a teenage crisis.
Rothschild does touch on one of the paradoxes of minority art: should it stress the differences between a minority and the majority -- the oddness of, say, Jews trying to live in a Gentile country as though they were, y'know, people just like the goyim -- or the things the minority has in common with the majority, which the majority often tries to ignore or deny? If she wants difference, she should have a look at Cholodenko's first feature, High Art, in which a naive young straight woman becomes fascinated by a brilliant, self-destructive older woman artist, or her second, Laurel Canyon, which is a variation on the same basic story. Of course, in both cases it could be argued that Cholodenko is telling a story that could just as easily be heterosexual if the fascinating older artist were male, so that High Art turns out to be "a fairly ordinary film" too.

But Rothschild has another concern to troll about.

Watching the film, I was reminded of a story I heard at a Thanksgiving weekend party in the Hamptons a few years back (la-di-da). The host couple’s seven-year-old son was friends with a black boy and girl who had been adopted by two white gay men. One day in school the seven-year-old asked his friend how come he had two dads. The friend shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Cos I do.’ The boy was apparently satisfied with this answer and that could have been the end of it, but the dads found out and called up the boy’s mother to discuss the matter.

The fact is, even in this day and age two white, gay men adopting two black children represents a pretty extraordinary cultural shift. Of course, normalcy is a fair enough aspiration for gays. They should have the choice, just like anybody else, to lead a conventional lifestyle or a non-mainstream lifestyle, to be single or married. But being curious about gay marriage, adoption and sperm donation – how it works, what is the impact on those involved, how they get treated by the rest of society – is perfectly acceptable, too.

These kinds of questions, this kind of curiosity, which one could reasonably expect The Kids Are All Right to deal with, are not really confronted. Instead, everyone is so right-on, so cool, so open-minded that their brains may spill out at any minute. Anyone who interacts with the family accepts them as they are and no one seems to think much of their fairly unusual set-up. This goes for Laser’s knucklehead mate, as well as Joni’s male and female friends, Nic and Jules’ straight friends, and Paul and his part-time mistress. Finding out that his sperm (donated when he was 19) had been inseminated into the wombs of a same-sex couple, he says something to the effect of ‘Oh, yeah, okay, I love lesbians’.

Rothschild overlooks a few things. I thought, myself, that Paul's "Oh, yeah, okay, I love lesbians" was meant as gentle mockery, that as a rather shallow and commitment-avoiding heterosexual male he mainly thinks of lesbians in terms of girl-on-girl action in porn videos. At the same time, he has probably met a few real lesbians, whether he loved them or not, but he doesn't take them all that seriously. It's true that the film has little to say about the adjustments that had to happen along the way for Nic and Jules's neighbors to be as "right-on" and accepting as they are now. That would be an interesting TV miniseries, maybe, but the film is about the lives they live now. Evidently, like many dominant-group members, Rothschild believes that minorities should make their art with a dominant-group audience in mind, patiently explaining everything for their benefit. There's a place for such work, but sometimes minority artists choose to produce work for their own group, which allows them to make assumptions about what the audience will understand, and to tell different kinds of stories. GLBT writers and critics have complained for decades about the ubiquity of the coming-out story, and tried to find ways to start by assuming a GLBT milieu. From what I've seen, such work is often popular with at least some straight people, perhaps because it respects their intelligence and trusts their willingness to learn, even if that's not the artist's intent. The intent may be along the lines of: I'm going to make this film or write this novel for a gay / lesbian / bisexual audience, and if heterosexuals want to watch / read it, that's fine, but I'm not making it to cater to them. That's perfectly acceptable approach as far as I'm concerned.

Rothschild has another axe to grind, though. Her Hamptons anecdote has some gaping holes in it. What exactly transpired in the conversation between the gay adoptive father and the straight mother? Rothschild assumes that he called specifically in order to tell her that her son's curiosity or her own was not "acceptable." Not knowing what they talked about (does Rothschild?) I'd have supposed that the father wanted to make sure that his son wasn't going to be bullied or harassed, or that the mother wouldn't forbid her son to play with his son. In any society I know of, not excluding hip California, bullying of kids deemed different is enough of a problem that the father wasn't being at all paranoid to want to make sure there was no problem, and if there was, to nip it in the bud. He might well have gotten a rather confused report from his young son -- clearly, it wasn't "the end of it" in the boy's mind, or he wouldn't have told his father about it -- and wanted to talk parent-to-parent. (For that matter, I take it that the straight mom was working with her young son's version of the story, which might not be perfectly accurate either.) Such concerns are, to my mind, just as acceptable as heterosexuals' curiosity about sperm donation.

And look again at this sentence: "But being curious about gay marriage, adoption and sperm donation – how it works, what is the impact on those involved, how they get treated by the rest of society – is perfectly acceptable, too." Indeed it is, but you'd think from the way Rothschild puts it that the "curious" weren't part of "the rest of the society" themselves. That gay father was talking to part of "the rest of society," and he knew it.

But again, before I can really make any suppositions, I have to know what the gay father said, and Rothschild doesn't share that information. My curiosity about the conversation is not acceptable, apparently. Maybe she doesn't know herself, but sees the story as an opportunity to deplore Political Correctness, or she calls it, "intolerance." I think my suspicions are justified, if not confirmed, by what Rothschild says next. She begins with liberal good will:

Of course, a film about gay people doesn’t need to be a miserable drama about prejudice and discrimination. In fact, it’s actually refreshing that The Kids Are All Right is not that. But for all its right-on-ness, it has a distinct air of intolerance about it. Just like that gay dad in the Hamptons automatically thinking there was a problem about his son’s friend’s curiosity, it’s as if Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, who co-wrote the film, believe that to have any issue at all with, or indeed any curiosity about, two women raising a family is just not kosher. ‘We’re all cool with this’, the filmmakers and cast seem to be saying, ‘and if you think there’s something odd about this family, then there’s something wrong with YOU’.

Oh, really? I think Rothschild is projecting here. If Cholodenko and Blumberg thought it wasn't okay for straights to be curious about the lives of lesbian parents, they wouldn't have made a movie about them for general release. (If they felt they had to make the movie anyhow, putting it on the GLBTQ festival circuit would have kept it far from the un-kosher eyes of most straights.) I'd have thought that was obvious enough, but evidently it isn't, so it needs to be said.

Some straight people (and men, and white people, and Gentiles) experience art by minorities as excluding them, or meaning to, unless it explicitly declares the artists' acceptance of their marginal role. This has been especially common, from what I've seen, in some straight men's reaction to lesbian feminist writing: they report feeling as though they were reading something they weren't supposed to be reading. I've never had that feeling, even when reading lesbian-separatist writing that I knew I wasn't supposed to be reading because it was labeled "lesbian-only." I believe that any serious reader wants to read what isn't meant for his or her eyes, though I'm probably overgeneralizing here from my own temperament. But as with Rothschild, I think such men were really trying to cover their own hostility to uppity lesbian writers who weren't trying to cater to them, by projecting their hostility onto the writers. It seems that for Rothschild, gay parents are damned if they do try to forestall potential problems affecting their kids, and damned if they don't but cheerfully expect everyone to be "
so open-minded that their brains may spill out at any minute."

Californians or not, we should be free to live with anyone we want, to raise kids, to grow our own organic vegetables and to compost our kitchen scraps – but we should also remember that it’s pretty intolerant to expect others not to criticise our lifestyles, or at least be curious about them.

I don't think I'm projecting in saying that this is quite a leap to make, from "curious" to "criticise." The two are not the same thing, and I think it says something about what lurks beneath Rothschild's liberal protestations that she confuses the two. I'm fine with curiosity -- remember, I've been running the local GLB Speakers Bureau for over twenty years, and have been answering heterosexuals' questions about gay life for twice that long. Criticism is fine too; we homosexuals have been criticizing ourselves all along. But if heterosexuals want to criticize gay or lesbian "lifestyles," they must expect the rest of society to criticize them right back.