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>The parents are okay too

>We finally saw The Kids Are All Right this weekend. I quite liked it, and it has the plot of a YA novel: two teenaged kids of lesbian parents curious about their sperm donor dad seek him out, wreaking entertaining havoc and ultimately begetting a bit of growing up for all concerned. While the story is classic teen lit, the focus is on the three parents: Annette Bening as the alcoholic perfectionist; Julianne Moore as the dreamy earth mother; Mark Ruffalo as the dreamy-looking donor dad, who eventually gets it on with Julianne.

While the movie got mostly great reviews in the press, there is some sizable dissent among gay and lesbian viewers, and I happened upon a furious debate over at the queer message board Datalounge. Someone began it by posted a naysaying review by a lesbian critic and virtual screaming rapidly ensued: I’m tired of lesbians going bi in movies! Lesbians don’t watch gay male porn (a little kink the couple has)! Why does Annette have to have a drinking problem! This movie sets the movement back twenty years! And, of course, regular interjections of “who cares, we get to see Mark Ruffalo’s bare butt!”

What struck me most was seeing how the arguments and tangents so closely resembled the discussions we have in the children’s book world, especially when it comes to books that involve someone’s identity politics. Concern about role models, stereotyping, and cultural accuracy. The belief that there are so few books about x that any book about the topic needs to be “positive.” Holding one book responsible for the sins of a genre. Grandstanding for its own sake without having read the book in question–one of the Datalounge posters insisted that there was NO WAY Annette Bening’s character would sleep with a man. Somebody else published a link to a review which complained that the movie was racist because of something heinous (and racist) Julianne Moore does to a Mexican gardener, confusing, as we often do, the behavior of a character with the attitude of the author. So the whole debate made me feel right at home; the only (and interestingly) absent complaint was that no one seemed upset that neither Bening nor Moore are lesbians, a criterion that frequently zooms right to the top in our children’s book discussions of insiders and outsiders.

Most of all, I’m disappointed when people want their movies or books to be conflict-free, or only allow it between the sainted and oppressive. If the good guys–or lesbians–aren’t as screwed-up as the real people I know, how am I supposed to connect?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Moira Manion says:

    >I asked my lesbian roommate if she'd heard anything about the movie, and she said she'd heard good things. But I'm not sure from where. The movie sounds ripe for a discussion panel at WIScon, though the theme's probably been done to death already. (Oops, sorry, for those who don't know about WISCon, it's a feminist science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction convention, where the Tiptree Awards are presented. ) As a straight women, I try to listen and not throw in my two cents; all the better to learn.

    I got into enough trouble by expressing to het female coworkers that, first, I didn't know who Mark Ruffledtoes was, and second, after being shown Google images of him, by saying, "Ick!" Hell hath no fury like straight women whose movie hottie is scorned.

  2. Moira Manion says:

    >"Ruffalo." Is that a cross between a dog and a bison?

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >No, he's more of a cross between Burt Reynolds and Hal Sparks. Now there's a gay parenting movie I would love to see.

  4. Michael Grant says:

    >Ah, how times change. I remember we passed on writing a book about a black character because we were white (come to think of it, we still are) and we didn't want to get stuck writing something too high-minded.

    I have three major African-American characters going at the moment — one heroic lesbian, one sleazeball, one businessman. And no one cares that I'm white (still) and straight.

    Here's a sign of hope: my two kids never — literally never — describe anyone by race. That's not some rule we imposed, they just don't see the world that way. We've had conversations where we're trying to differentiate between, let's say camp counselors. And neither kid will ever say, "the black guy," or the "Asian girl."

  5. >I think there was a good bit of "wink-wink" humor in the movie that I didn't hear many folks laughing at in the theater. Like when Moore explains to her son that the women hired in lesbian porn are usually straight and inauthentic. And when Bening (who blurts some very funny insults) asks Moore if she's straight now, and then Ruffalo's character misunderstands the fluidity of Moore's sexuality in exactly the same way when on the phone with her–It's almost like a lot of these critiques have already been anticipated, and a preemptive attempt to diffuse them with humor has been made. Unfortunately, I fear that playing overly strict with idealistic identity politics can kill a sense of humor just as fast as bigoted demonizing can in the other direction.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Do you get the feeling that we understand how people work in general– how they turn facts into fiction, how they misremember stuff or get their facts wrong in their stories, how they make tasteless jokes to deal with upsetting events . . . but when it comes to our personal sore spot, we say that people shouldn't act like people any more. Our sore spot is SPECIAL and people should be somehow a better version of human beings when they deal with it?

  7. Moira Manion says:

    >I haven't seen the movie, but I'd like to see a mainstream film with a lesbian couple in which their being lesbians isn't the focus, and in which one or both of them doesn't die, doesn't suffer from misery due to being lesbian, and doesn't have sex with a man.

    That would make a change. Actually, it would be unique.

    I wonder how the movie Patrik 1.5 compares?

  8. Cassie Noelle says:

    >Mr. Sutton, I have a direct question for you. I am currently in a Children's literature class and doing a project on gays/lesbians/bisexuals/trangenders in children's literature. I have read most of A Family of Readers and was wondering why you never mentioned LBGTs or controversial issues at all?
    I'm not disrespecting you, I just am curious (more info for my paper :] )

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >always better to reach me through the Horn Book, Cassie–magazine at h book dot com. But there is mention of glbt books in Megan Lambert's essay and I don't think we shied away generally from controversy. I guess the one place it could have come up where it didn't was in the YA chapter, but I chose there to focus on two books that really interested me rather than the gamut.

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