I was in New York City last week in a dark movie theatre listening to roars of laughter as the audience watched the lesbian movie that is changing social history - The Kids Are All right.
When the lights went up at the end I saw that the packed cinema was full of straight guys with their girlfriends – I know this because as the line filed out there was a lot of hand holding and kissing, probably an unconscious but necessary display of heterosexuality – the last time I saw the same mass movement body language was after Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy movie.
In both cases I think that the guys were looking for reassurance as much as making a statement. If gay is the new normal, where does that leave straight?
Lisa Cholodenko’s movie is a family comedy with a twist – the parents are both women, the kids charmingly call them ‘the mumses’, and the kids were born via sperm- donor.
The family is well-off middle class with a detached house and a Volvo. Annette Benning plays Nic, a doctor, who supports the family. Julianne Moore plays Jules, the sweet sexy softer half, who has never quite got her career together.
The plot spins round the classic theme of the Stranger – the newcomer who disrupts the status quo leaving everybody to re-assess and maybe, or maybe not, re-make their lives.
The Stranger in this movie turns out to be the kids’ biological father, Paul, contacted through the sperm-bank by daughter Joni, (18) and son Lazer, (15). They don’t tell the Mumses until Nic decides that Lazer must be gay and having a relationship with someone called ‘Paul’ – the mysterious ‘other’ on his cell phone.
When Lazer asks his Dad why he decided to be a sperm-donor, laid-back ladies’ man Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo) replies, ‘It was more fun than giving blood.’
Lines like that raise roars of laughter from the men in the audience, and every guy is going to identify with Paul’s easy sexuality and magnetic attraction. He has never married and he has plenty of girlfriends – but he finds himself powerfully attracted to Jules. Feeling neglected at home by workaholic bordering on alcoholic Nic, Jules starts sleeping with Paul.
All of the reviews and the interviews that I have read celebrate the fact that here is a mainstream movie with a political indie feel to it, and one that just puts women at the centre with no need for explanation or apology. This is a couple, this is a marriage, this is a family. Here are all the usual struggles around relationships and intimacy, children and career, mid-life misery, too much wine, not enough sex. The only spot the difference is that the women are gay.
So have we finally arrived at a time and place in the history of the western world when lesbians are no longer weird and a gay marriage is a good marriage?
Movie and TV representations of lesbians tell us a lot about prevailing views – and it is worth remembering that movies can’t afford to lose buckets of cash, and TV channels need ratings. That makes visual media conservative. Yes, we have endless amounts of straight sex and plenty of violence against women in our dramas, but that stuff sells. Gay has always been tricky – even Russell T Davies’s brilliant Queer As Folk (1999) was dropped by Channel 4, and in spite of its five-year long TV success, the L Word (2004-2009) has been shelved as a feature film.
If gay male is tricky, lesbian has been near-impossible. When the BBC made Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit 20 years ago, we had to run it after the watershed hour of 9pm, even though it had only one very mild sex scene. And there was really nothing on TV, before Oranges that showed gay women as anything but ugly, desperate, confused, lonely, addicted, alcoholic, predatory, or going through a phase.
When I was growing up in the 1970’s, the classic lesbian movie was the magnificent but completely depressing The Killing of Sister George. (1968). Beryl Reid played June Buckeridge, a brassy, bitchy, hard-drinking dyke, verbally and physically violent to her girlfriend Childie (!) a floppy femme dismally acted by Susannah York. Much was made of the story that York was so turned off by her sex scenes that she had to have a bowl of ice cubes under the bed to keep her nipples hard.
We were a long way from Tipping the Velvet and The L Word.
Oranges, directed by Beeban Kidron, won two BAFTAS, Best Drama and Best Actress (Geraldine McEwen) in 1990, as well as the Prix d’argent at Cannes, and plenty of other awards around the world. It was a moment of change for TV, and in spite of – or possibly because of, the Thatcher government’s notorious Clause 28 – the 1988 legislation banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, or the normalising of what it called ‘pretended family life’, attitudes towards homosexuality began to alter in the UK in the 1990’s. That is pretty obvious from British Soaps.
Brookside managed its first lesbian kiss in 1994, in a tabloid-frenzy of pre-watershed ‘perversion’. Never mind that Anna Friel playing Beth Jordache looked totally cute and couldn’t have offended anyone by anything as loving as her kiss…
Zoe Tate was Emmerdale’s resident lesbian, getting married to her girlfriend in 1996 - though this being a soap they could not live happily ever after.
Eastenders jumped into the fray across 1994-1995, with Binnie and Della, who were so hot that the scriptwriters had to exit them to a new life in Spain. Pam St Clements, the lesbian actress who plays Pat Evans, said of the scriptwriters, ‘Having given themselves the brief, they didn’t know that the f***K to do with it…’ In 2006, the show had another go with Sonia and Naomi, but the ratings fell, and Sonia rushed back across Albert Square and a return to het-land with Martin.
Still, it was worth a try. And better than the Hollyoaks 2009 attempt between Sarah and Zoe (drunken mistake), followed by Sarah and Lydia, (death by parachute).
Meanwhile, we shall have to wait and see what happens on Coronation Street, celebrating 50 years on TV with no lesbians at all – must be something they put in the water up there – but finally finally, Sophie and Sian are getting it together. Probably one of them will have to die… or maybe they will go to Spain too.
The raunchy Footballers’ Wives on ITV sported Hazel, a gay coach, and while the lesbian sports queen is a much a stereotype as the camp gay man, Jane Lynch has just picked up an Emmy for her role as Sue Sylvester – the aggressive cheerleading coach in Glee. Maybe the best way of dealing with stereotypes is to get us to love them – when that happens the fear that is behind the stereotyping disappears.
Lynch, who is 50, recently married her female partner, the psychiatrist Laura Embry. The two of them look very like Annette Benning and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right.
I suppose there is a signature-style to being lesbian now, in that it is always easy to spot gay women – they are usually well dressed, but they have a confidence about them that doesn’t depend on the male gaze. That is sexy, and it is new. New in that that the defiance has gone, new in that gay women are no longer trapped in faulty roles as approximate men or failure females, new in its ease.
The version of the brush-backed lesbian, mannish and hard, or boyish and confused, is on its way out as cleanly as the wimpy and wimpering Susannah Yorke femme. Gay men no longer look like Quentin Crisp or Liberace. Lesbians no longer look guys gone wrong. Thank God for that…
Walk down the street – the women who look like lesbians are ‘supposed’ to look – unattractive, badly dressed, unsexy, are with their unattractive, badly dressed, unsexy men. They are heterosexual – in so much as they as sexual at all. If you don’t believe me go and shop in Argos.
Since Ellen de Generes came out on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1997, the glamorous gay women has been quietly giving the lie to the old male rumour that lesbians are ugly women who can’t get a man. The miserable butch and femme thing has been reinvented too – women can be as tailored as they like, (Navratilova) or as lipstick as they want, (Saffron Burrows). The dress code and the make-up is style not badging.
Just as gay male style allowed straight men to wear necklaces and pink shirts, I am sure that it is lesbian women who can offer a different kind of glamour – independent of the panic of dressing to please a man.
So maybe feminism has turned its last trick – not only are women in the mainstream, but gay women too. Yes women and gay women are still under-represented, but that is surely only a matter for time to change. Nobody needs to live in the closet now, and with openly lesbian Tory MPs like Margot James, the rise and rise of popular lesbians like Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins, and style queen Mary Portas, voted Number One on this year’s Pink List, the fight to be lesbian is light years away from its dingy dykey past.
That is all true, and it’s true too that women are becoming more open about their sexual preferences – a lot of women are comfortably bisexual, and recent news has it that plenty of women are prepared to make the switch mid-life, and trade the guy for the gal. Mary Portas and Susie Orbach were both in happy heterosexual marriages for years. The swap doesn’t make the old life a lie; it is witness to a new sense of personal power and well being. Love is democratic. Why should the wrapper bother us?
But just this week poor William Hague has had to defend himself against allegations of ‘gayness’.
Homophobia hasn’t gone away, for men or for women. Even this summer, in Scotland, my girlfriend and I chose not to stay at a particular hotel because we were not welcome. In Italy, gay men have been driven off the beach for ordinary kissing and cuddling. In Africa men still carry out ‘corrective rape’ on women who prefer other women.
Google homosexuality and you will be disturbed (I hope) to see how much of the world still prosecutes and persecutes homosexuality, male and female. New York City or London or Berlin is not the wider world. Wherever women are oppressed or treated as second-class, lesbians in those countries have it even harder than their ‘straight’ sisters.
One of the things that has surprised me recently is the influx of mail I get from Muslim girls. They are reading Oranges, and because they are oppressed by fundamentalism and oppressed by gender, that story of a crazy religious home-life and a young girl who falls in love with another girl, and runs away, is finding a new audience.
I am excited by The Kids Are All Right, though I don’t think we should be saying that the least important thing about it is that there are two women. It’s so normal we don’t notice, right? Wrong. Of course we notice, and the whole point is to notice.
I have a worry about the movie – a serious one – and I wonder if its rapturous reception by straight men is because the message loud and clear is that good sex needs a dick.
Nic and Jules like watching male porn - that makes sense because there is nothing more depressing than watching women faking it – and that includes one half of every straight porn scene ever shot. Men, bless them, still don’t seem to know or care that what they are watching is a total fake, Women do care – so a gay guy with a hard-on is sexier than a woman with too much hair, silicone boobs, and nails that would land her partner in hospital for stitches – if she ever actually touched her.
All right… but Nic and Jules have no sex life, apart from a bit of burrowing under the duvet with a vibrator while Nic keeps her specs on. The vibrator looks to me like a pink Jessica Rabbit, which is a girl-friendly model, but the image deeper embeds the Message of the Penis.
Then we come to the only hot sex in the film – the affair between Jules and Paul.
It makes complete sense that a woman might find herself attracted to the father of her child – even if the sperm came via the cryobank. And any women feeling neglected at home will be glad of genuine attention elsewhere. Paul is not a predator; he’s a nice guy who has no boundaries.
I have no problem with women having good sex with men – in my view the more good sex the better – but I have a problem with a movie that reinforces what the straight world wants to see and hear – especially the straight male.
Even so, by the end of the movie, Jules has ditched Paul and patched things up with Nic, and it is true, we hope that they will stay together – and so do the kids, who seem to have turned out heterosexual, quietly squashing the lunatic legend beloved of homophobes that gay couples breed gay kids. It just doesn’t work that way.
It is a gentle movie, but a powerful one – and I prefer its portrayal of lesbian lives to the bisexual psychotic Lisbeth Salander and her sometime girlfriend Miriam Wu in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.
Call me old-fashioned but where feminism has failed is that we never made the caring virtues desirable or sexy. A woman with a gun is more thrilling than a woman with a baby. A woman who hacks into computers, has no real personal life, knows how to shoot and is prepared to do anything is a very male kind of woman. The dysfunctional superheroes Batman and Spiderman are the template for Lisbeth Salander. As with Kickass and its murdering miniature anti-heroine, it seems that as long as a woman is ‘strong’, she is a positive role model.
It isn’t strong to be unable to form relationships. It isn’t strong to be a loner or a misfit. It isn’t strong to separate sex from intimacy.
As women – gay or straight – I hope we can go on make better role models for ourselves than compulsive women for whom sex and violence have become identical to the male stock in trade.
published in Times weekend September 11th
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