Reviews that missed the point

August 19, 2010

JEEZ LOUISE. Two different contributors recently panned two of the better things I've seen on stage or screen this year--the movie The Kids Are Alright and the Broadway musical Billy Elliot.

Both these writers take thin and, I would argue, dogmatic reasons to claim that these pieces feed into stereotypes. This is particularly alarming in the case of Billy Elliot, a musical with such amazingly good working-class politics that I wish every socialist had a chance to see it.

Lets start, though, with the The Kids Are All Right, a movie featuring two lesbian moms and their kids. In his review ("Gender stereotypes at the movies"), Scott Johnson seems unable to forgive the movie for the sin of having one of the lesbian moms have an affair with a man, which falls into the stereotype, he contends, that all lesbians "just need to find the right man."

While I can see how a synopsis of the plot could lead someone to think that, the actual movie left me with a different message. In a society where same-sex relationships are considered legally and morally inferior, here you have a big-time movie depicting a lesbian-headed family in a compassionate, realistic and down-to-earth way.

One thing I thought was so good about the movie is that Nic and Jules live in their own world, with its own internal logic, and not in some infomercial about gay marriage. They are very much rendered as real people, who, by the way, I didn't even always find completely likable.

And while Nic and Jules do fall into some character stereotypes (the uptight, harried breadwinner and the under-appreciated and stifled child-rearer), their sexuality challenges stereotypes and gender norms.

First of all is the simple fact that they are a lesbian couple successfully raising a loving family. Secondly, I think the scene where they have to explain to their son why they watch gay male porn, besides being hilarious, touches on how sexual desire is confusingly constructed by society. It shows a complexity in sexuality that doesn't fit the usual Hollywood cookie-cutter.

I think it also sets up the affair to be cast in a less serious light. Here are two lesbians who happen to get a few jollies off male sexuality. In the middle of a sort of midlife marital crisis, Jules plays out those fantasies, but from the beginning to the end of the movie, she never really seems to question her understanding of her own sexuality and lesbianism.

Scott already gave away some spoilers, but here's one more--in the end, it's the hunky guy who's the odd man out, left out in the cold by the newfound (and lesbian-headed) family he so desperately wants to be a part of.

In terms of "why did the filmmakers go down this road in the first place?"--well, it's an interesting story, and one I think people can relate to. As Nic resentfully points out, Jules picks the worst and most hurtful scenario for having an affair--with the easygoing, hip (male) sperm donor who represents the opposite of Nick and their family life in so many ways.

The sperm donor plot also delves into the touchy subject of the tension between parents as sexual beings and their relationship with their kids (a similar theme is taken up in Linda Cholodenkos' earlier film Laurel Canyon).

BUT AS much as I disagree with Scott's take on The Kids Are Alright, I was kind of stunned by Alexander Billet's description of the musical Billy Elliot, mentioned in an otherwise great letter to Elton John ("Dear Elton..."), who happened to have written the music to Billy Elliot.

My disagreement with Alex has nothing to do with Elton John. The music is not even the best part of Billy Elliot. What I found shocking was his claims that the play "portrays working folks in an insulting, one-dimensional way." His proof? That "the protagonist's miner father is horrified by his son's dreams of becoming a ballet dancer because it's not 'manly.'"

First of all, I think there is no denying that men and boys of all classes face a lot of pressure to be "manly" and not engage activities that are seen as feminine, like ballet. This tension is gorgeously rendered through some of Billy's dance pieces. The idea that it is somehow offensive to the working class for Billy's family to reflect this real tension in our society just seems ludicrous to me. (And to Billy's dad's credit, he's under a lot of pressure, and totally comes around to supporting Billy through the play).

Second of all, Billy Elliot the musical is just about the most beautiful and powerful tribute to working-class struggle I have ever had the good fortune to see. It was a shock to the system to sit in expensive Broadway seats and watch brutal class conflict staged in such a skillful and horrifying way. The portrayal of courage and solidarity of the strikers, even as they go down in defeat, was stirring at the deepest levels. I just don't quite understand how any socialist could not see it as political dynamite.

While I find Scott's disagreements somewhat more understandable on a certain level, what I see as similar in Scott and Alex's reviews is that they both object to the actions of central characters that provide some of the main dramatic tension of these shows. Furthermore, this dramatic tension reflects real contradictions and complexities in the society we live in.

It seems to me that to demand that shows be cleansed of these tensions would lead to less realistic and more sterile art.
Lucy Herschel, New York

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