Friday, August 13, 2010

The Kids Are, Um, Maybe Less Odious Than We Thought?

Or, Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

(Photo Credit: via)

The moms and Geoffrey arrived back on native soil late Tuesday afternoon from their two-week odyssey of work and pleasure in Wales and England. While they were away, nothing seems to have happened – or maybe a lot happened but nothing really changed.  Same diff, right?

The weather was miserably hot and dangerously unstable when they left, and they found it that way on their return. Democrats were and are desperate and clueless; Republicans were and are shameless, cynical, and scary. A California judge decided that the moms have the right to wed (again, for now, assuming the judge’s order isn’t stayed by a higher court) in that state, should they choose to do so. CNN released two polls showing that the nation is evenly divided on a) whether the Constitution already provides a right to same-sex marriage and b) whether the 14th Amendment to the Constitution should be changed to deny birthright citizenship to the children of parents who are in the country illegally. Meanwhile, the queer blogosphere is still scratching its collective head over Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbo family dramedy, The Kids Are All Right. We weighed in with a mixed to negative review of the film before the moms left town. Others were harsher, including Jack Halberstam, Tenured Radical, and Lisa Duggan. Our pal Jill Dolan has now weighed in with two thoughtful and more favorable assessments over at The Feminist Spectator. Finally, Karen Tongson and Jasbir Puar joined forces for a super-smart analysis of the film that sees it as critiquing the homonationalist model of family that is its narrative focus.

It’s a lot for a jet-lagged typist to take in, so let’s approach this weird concatenation of issues and events, as we so often do, indirectly or, if you will, sideways. Gather ‘round, children, and settle down. It’s story time.

* * *

Years ago – never mind how many – the moms and Geoffrey came up with a set of nicknames for one another that they have used ever since in private conversations and messages. Moose is “Queer Mom 1” (usually shortened to “QM1”), Goose is “Queer Mom 2” (“QM2”), and Geoffrey is “Queer Son 1” (“QS1”). We’re a little fuzzy on how Moose came to be first in this hierarchical structure, though we figure it has something to do with a rhetoric of family getting mixed up with both the language of canine pack structure and dissertation committee lines of authority. (Moose directed Geoffrey’s dissertation, never mind how many years ago.)

In any case, the names have stuck, probably because they convey a uniquely satisfying combination of campy queer fun and genuine affection. They are parodies, yes, but they are also not devoid of sincerity and even, if you will permit me to say it, emotional/relational truth. To be a “queer mom” is to be gay, perhaps, but, more importantly, it is to be in significant but not blood-based relationship with a significantly younger person. It is a relationship of affinity and choice, but it has such depth and thickness that one might find oneself looking up from time to time and thinking, “Ah, there he is – my beloved son, my beautiful boy,” and meaning it, as much as any mother anywhere has ever meant such words. We’ll let the queer son say for himself, if he wishes, what his thoughts are at such moments, but we imagine they are something along the lines of, “If she reminds me to keep to the left side of the road one more time I am going to scream!” Sons from time immemorial have had such thoughts, surely.

From time to time, when they travel together, as they were these past two weeks, the moms and Geoffrey are taken for an actual (gay? queer? two-mommied?) family. Sometimes, they present themselves as such, just to see how folks will react. Not surprisingly, people in the hospitality industry work hard to be welcoming of everyone and to seem unfazed by any of the quirks of their guests. At a car rental place in Wales, a clerk smiled and nodded sympathetically when Geoffrey made a crack about the joys of traveling with one’s moms after Goose came in to make sure he had reported a minor problem with the car when he had, of course, already done so. At a London hotel, Goose was the first down for breakfast and explained to the guy at the desk that her partner and son would be joining her momentarily. “Put his charges on his room,” she said. “He pays his own way.” A knowing nod was the reply. The next morning, when Moose was the first to reach the dining room, the host said, “And your son will be joining you as well?” “Oh, yes,” she replied. “And his charges will go on his room,” they said in unison.

So, fine, a group of white, economically privileged American queers can zip around the UK selectively pretending to be a family and not get their heads bashed in for doing so by people paid to be nice to them. What does that prove? Probably not much. Even in the bad old days, tolerance could be purchased. Still, let’s score a point or two for progress in the fact that our queer family group was received as utterly unremarkable. The point of the heartwarming story, however, is to circle back to The Kids Are All Right and the problematic place of the family in queer culture and critique.

In the course of their commentary on the film, Tongson and Puar offer this marvelously pithy provocation:  "Families suck. Even queer families suck, despite their best intentions. 'Families We Choose' can be the worst families of all, because we choose them thinking they will be better, yet they often turn out to be the same and quite violently so."  On the one hand, there is a great deal of truth in this assertion, and it's a truth queers ought not overlook as they build their lives, relationships, and intimacies.  Clearly, queer families can suck, can be riven by the same (or similar) violences, tyrannies, and inequalities as straight families, and we delude ourselves if we imagine otherwise.  The Kids Are All Right, as Tongson and Puar suggest, demonstrates that truth all too well.  On the other hand, the assertion that families, even queer ones, suck obviously doesn't capture the whole truth about families, queer or unqueer, because families can also be, as we suggested in our review of the film, capacious, generous, flexible, inventive, and resilient.  Further, even if the very word "family" has churned up a nasty burning sensation in the back of our throats since the Reagan years, a commitment to something like a family formation doesn't have to be at odds with a radical social vision or a commitment to solidarity across blood and other kinds of lines.

Here's the thing: We can and should remain clear and forceful in our analyses of the family in neoliberalism as, as Tongson and Puar put it, “a unit of national security, a formation of hierarchical unequals that naturalizes the exclusions and border patrolling of nationhood.” At the same time, we have to acknowledge that families come in all shapes and sizes, exhibit a range of qualities, and may resist in a variety of ways the roles they are supposed to play vis-à-vis the state and society. Not to go all after-school special on you or anything, but, hey, most of us grew up in families, and we turned out ornery, cool, and queer as pink ink, so it would appear that some families suck less or, um, suck differently than others. We romanticize family at our peril – but there are risks in ignoring or essentializing it as well.

Another film, which Moose happened to catch during the plane ride home, might help to make the point.  Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful example of a story that shows the more capacious and socially engaged model of family we have in mind.  In this animated version of Roald Dahl's children's novel of the same name, Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his wife Felicity(voiced by Meryl Streep) grapple with the slings and arrows of middle age and parenthood and the vexing problem of how to be wild in an increasingly routinized, un-wild world.  The film ends with Fox ecstatically celebrating his wife's second pregnancy and the triumph of his ragtag, multi-species band of animals over a group of farmers who have spent the movie trying to kill or starve them out of their homes.  His final speech is a testament to the wiliness and resilience of the pack, as they have found their way into a grocery store and are making do with food that looks and tastes fake.  Fox concludes:  "[M]y point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”  (The "half" a wild animal to whom Fox refers is the child Felicity has just told him she is carrying.)

Jack Halberstam wrote glowingly about Fantastic Mr. Fox in May, calling Fox's final speech "one of the best and most moving addresses in the history of cinema" and hearing in it a kind of credo about wildness, queerness, adaptability, and survival.  Acknowledging that the film might be seen to recycle old tropes of "female domesticity and male wildness," Halberstam prefers instead to see it as "offer[ing] up some very different forms of masculinity, collectivity and family."

Halberstam is exactly right about the film but doesn't emphasize as much as we might the ways in which family and non-familial collectivities work in conjunction to defeat a common foe in this charming yet remarkably radical story.  The queer critique of family often seems to imply that all families everywhere are politically conservative and insular, irredeemably hostile to sex and gender variation, and determined to quash or co-opt any form of wildness, but the family at the center of Fantastic Mr. Fox is shaped by a different set of dreams and assumptions.  Fox is a deeply committed husband and father, but his "pure wild animal craziness" proves to be not antithetical but essential to his family's survival.  Further, his attachment to family is in no way at odds with his attachment to individuals, groups, and values that go beyond family.  He moves easily back and forth between familial and non-familial groups and triumphs in the end because the two have joined forces without quite blending.  The family is the family and the pack is the pack.  The groups overlap and are allied, but they are not the same.  Fox revels in the wonderfulness of the individuals in each group -- "the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life" -- but the point of his toast is to celebrate what their collective effort has made possible:  "We'll eat tonight, and we'll eat together."

The brilliance of the queer critique of the family is in showing how shrunken and dessicated our notions of this bio-social entity have become, particularly in the U.S., in the decades since shrill and cynical debates over "family values" provided political cover for a dramatic downsizing of the state and of our sense of ourselves as citizens.  Within the framework of neoliberalism, the family may indeed suck, but families, on screen and off, are complex, varied, and occasionally, as the utopian family guy Fox insists, wonderful.  We should all raise our boxes -- and our paws -- to the survival of that wild and happy possibility.  Peace out.


  1. I wishe I hadde moms like you guys.

  2. Candy Man1:26 PM EDT

    Have finally seen the film, Roxie, I just wanted to drop a quick note of appreciation for this post. I see the critiques, as most would I'm sure; but your points here very much resonate with the way I felt on leaving the theater.


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