Gender stereotypes at the movies

August 11, 2010

The Kids Are All Right, like several other recent films, falls short of its potential to challenge stereotypes about gender and sexuality, argues Scott Johnson.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers and reveals important plot twists, so read at your own risk.

SEVERAL FILMS widely released this year have attempted to look at gender and sexuality issues in interesting and original ways. Considering the number of formulaic rom-coms that are inflicted upon moviegoers each year, there's great potential for films to take up these issues.

Unfortunately, sometimes the resulting films fall back on stereotypes and plot formulas that limit the effectiveness of their stories.

Most notorious is the Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in many ways an effective thriller about violence against women. The heroine is Lisbeth Salander, a punk/hacker who has suffered a history of abuse and helps a journalist solve the decades-old disappearance of a teenage girl. The mystery is intriguing as it delves into the lingering fascist sympathies of the Swedish elite and a covered-up series of rapes and murders committed by one of their own.

The problem with the movie is that the audience has to wade through a cesspool of brutal rape scenes in order to get to this story. In theory, these scenes aim to show the anti-misogynistic message of the film, but in practice, they're exploitative and unnecessary. Nothing in them brings us any closer to understanding the lingering pain of this violence or the evil behind it. We learn to tell the good guy from the bad guy, but in terms far more blunt and one-dimensional than is required.

Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo star in The Kids Are Alright
Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo star in The Kids Are Alright

The imagination put into these scenes is horrific in itself. I would have never considered that rape could be used as a form of revenge--especially in a movie scene that aims to be a "crowd-pleaser"--but after seeing Dragon Tattoo, I know otherwise.

It's a shame, not only because it cuts against the message of the film, but also because the first rule of suspense is to show less in order to inspire the audience's imagination. Most of us probably could not imagine scenes more brutal than those shown in the film, but we are no better off for having seen them.

Another movie that looks at some of these issues is Splice, a gender-bending sci-fi film that is surprisingly small and intimate in the era of Avatar and Inception. Two biotech scientists played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley create new life forms for the purpose of producing proteins for sale to the pharmaceutical industry. Under the threat of being shut down, they ask a simple question--could we splice this creature with human genes?

Review: Movies

The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.

The results could have been predictably stupid, but instead, the creature's lifespan poses questions about human sexuality and the ethics of cloning while the male and female scientists respond differently to their new creation.

The answers to these questions, unfortunately, are that females are inherently demure and passive, while males are aggressive and violent, especially in relation to their sexuality. What begins as an intriguing mystery eventually becomes all too predictable as gender-bending becomes gender-conforming. The film's potential to challenge us with a unique portrayal of sexuality is lost as the formula reveals itself on the road to a CGI-filled final battle scene.

BUT THE movie with the greatest potential to break through to the broader public is The Kids Are All Right, starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as middle-aged lesbian moms whose teenage children seek out their sperm donor. There is plenty of honesty in the portrayal of this middle-class, Southern California clan of organic food, composting suburbanites and the performances are heartfelt. Bening in particular stands out for her combination of protective mom and disgruntled wife.

Daisy Hernandez from Colorlines has commented about the movie in an article titled, "The Kids Are All Right, But Not the Queer Movement":

Like cinematic white heteros and gays in San Francisco's Castro district, Nic and Jules' [Bening and Moore's] contact with people of darker hues is limited...To be fair to [Director Lisa] Cholodenko, she was probably just following Hollywood's race rules. The moment a main character is darker than white bread, the movie becomes about race and doesn't appeal to a wider (read: white) audience.

But it's also a portrait of the white gay movement, which has struggled with its race issues for some time now, most publicly after Prop 8 passed in California and hysterical white gay boys blamed Black voters for keeping them from the joys of registering at Tiffany's. If that happened, though, it was largely because the movement has failed to build institutions where people of color, like those in The Kids Are All Right, play more than minor roles.

In spite of her tone mocking the fight for marriage equality without any recognition of the greater diversity in the current struggle compared to those of the past, Hernandez makes a few valid points. As she suggests, gays and lesbians portrayed by Hollywood are almost universally white and affluent, and she also goes on to comment that given this limitation of the film the characters are portrayed fairly well.

But there is a much deeper problem with the film that Hernandez completely ignores. What begins as an opportunity to portray a "non-traditional" family falls into stereotypes that drag down the entire story.

Early on in the film, Bening and Moore make love while watching gay male pornography. This scene leads to a predictable moment in which their son finds the video and then one of the mothers finds him watching it, but the payoff is hardly worth the unlikely setup.

EVEN MORE unfortunate is the moment that develops--and this is a major spoiler for the movie--where one of the mothers begins to have an affair with the sperm donor. This is incredibly awkward and confusing. Have we finally come so far as to have a film with big movie stars and serious actresses playing a lesbian couple, only to have it sullied with this moment? Apparently, yes. The collective result suggests that, as it turns out, lesbians really do just want sex with a hunky guy.

As the aftermath of this affair develops and the family has to deal with the consequences, the uneasiness I felt in my stomach over this turn of events turned into real sympathy for the betrayal felt by the rest of the family. But the plot begs the question, why did the filmmakers go down this road in the first place?

They must have known that this would probably be the only movie about lesbian mothers released this year, so it's perplexing that they would fall back into the stereotype that lesbians just need to find the right man. Perhaps the point is to show that the sperm-donating father is really an outsider to this nuclear family, but the path to reaching this conclusion is awfully convoluted.

It would be tempting to blame Hollywood for these missteps, but that would be inaccurate. Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish production and Splice is Canadian, while The Kids Are All Right is an independent film costing merely $4 million, a paltry sum considering the talent involved.

In fact, these movies are unique enough that they would be unlikely candidates for Hollywood. Even though the industry showed interest in distributing these films, this was only after others took the artistic and financial risks to produce them.

What these films show is both an interest in investigating these issues but also a reliance on cultural and cinematic stereotypes that hold them back. None of them are a complete disaster by any means, but they all falter on precisely the issues that they are attempting highlight. In each case, creativity and effective storytelling fall back onto simplistic approaches that would be dismissed in lesser movies but are really disappointing in these films.

The fact that movies are attempting to grapple with these issues shows potential. Hopefully, the growth of confident struggles for LGBT and women's liberation will inspire new ideas and give confidence to screenwriters, directors and even producers that there is an audience for more innovative material.

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