I was in college and in the closet when The L Word first aired on television. My then girlfriend and I got the hookup from the dorm cable guy and each sunday night we would curl up in her twin bed to watch the episodes. Beyond the uber-feminine, white, west-coasty crunchy vibe, somewhere along the way we found ourselves in the characters. It was validating. Of course, along the way as I learned a bit more about being gay and black, my reaction to the sex scenes weaned and my critique to the feminine aesthetic grew. I knew as did everyone else, The L Word was packaged in a way that was safe for both homos and heteros, there was one strap scene albeit with a cheating straight women but the sex was real in all of its splendor and in all of its boredom.
Fast forward to 2010, with the release of The Kids Are All Right. Jack Halberstam called it “soul-crushing” and a “scathing critique of gay marriage” citing everything from the lack of desire between Julianne Moore (Jules) and Annette Bening (Nic) to the refusal of the film to make a “gender distinction” between the women who are “vague” representations of the butch-femme dynamic. (By the way, white lesbians are a lot more androgynous in their parings so this was not a surprise, besides, Jules was a gardener–not the most fashionable person.) Beyond this, she calls into question the inclusion of the male-character (Mark Ruffalo) as this charismatic-without-effort insert who juxtaposed to the overly sappy lesbian is “free, cool, and casually sexual.” In short, her critique relies on sexual and gender politics and abandons the racial politics of the film until the final line of the critique. It is one line, “A couple of moments of racism in the film (the depiction of the Latino gardener as a half-wit and the African American restaurant hostess as voracious) reminds us that this a deeply conservative film” that holds the most weight for me. The minority characters structure the film in a way that is mostly overlooked.
In fact, the black and Latino characters almost do all the work of getting “the gays” a place in straight reality. The black woman, who buys interesting afro-centric gear from Brooklyn provides the sperm donor/father the cred necessary to come off as a cool, free, funky kinda guy. While the motorcycle certainly gives him some swag, there is nothing like a good old black woman to add some true virility, nevermind the fact his little swimmers worked twice. Is this not right? As for the Latino man, who beyond his apparent discomfort and amazement that his supervisor would take a break from work for a quick lay, is a steady worker. In a film where a white woman with clear commitment issues can still manage to have a home, two kids, and a Volvo and land a dream landscaping job shows the power of whiteness. The Latino gardener is later dismissed without a thought and accused of having a drug problem because he sniffs a lot. Perhaps he’s a drug mule?
Overall, despite my critiques, I enjoyed the film. Hell, the shitty thing about stereotypes is that they often represent some truth. Not to say that Latino gardeners are drug mules and that black women are all fuck buddies, but in a sense they do operate this way in the real world. Of course today where we can find many different representations of blacks and Latinos our very basic ideas about them remain. Black women are sex objects and Latinos are hard low-wage workers. So there is a truth to the film that lends to its legitimacy even if it is a bit insulting. Like my days of the L Word, I can still see through the bullshit to some other points.
It is amazing to me how gay people want to be part of the straight constructed world so much but also want to be shown without stereotype or caution. Perhaps within the many critiques there can also be room to review narrative structure and that even above and beyond all the racial and sexual implications of the film, there is a realness to it. The presence of the dad, while imposing to lesbian homes is also a realistic desire for their male child, the teenage angst, the lovey dovey moms who don’t touch that often are true of many relationships way before year fifteen. What’s so egregious about their struggle?