Sometimes it’s good to look back at where we’ve been so we can truly appreciate (and contextualize) where we are – also to pinpoint the possibilities of where we can go.  This is especially true for Cinema.  How we grow – the stories that connect – how our eyes (and tastes) change.  They say that as adults develop, our taste bud mature.  What was unpalatable in our younger years suddenly tickles the tongue.  The gag reflex, which is involuntary, settles into a comfortable swallow of new flavors.

With a soft twang of a steel string guitar, we glanced backward at one of the most iconic performances of the decade.  We did so through a side-view mirror of a moving truck, and caught a gaunt, troubled, and love struck Enus – played immortally and impeccably by Heath Ledger.  He was lean, head bowed defensively against the elements, and as he strolled out of view, into an alley – he breaks.  The film was Brokeback Mountain, and it did a lot of breaking:  it broke hearts, it broke boundaries, and it shattered Cinema’s most beloved masculine trope – The Cowboy.

The biggest moment in the film was the love scene.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, two of Hollywood’s hottest up and coming leading men, pitch a tent, so to speak.  The type of sex between them could have been articulated in a number of ways – it could have been manually mutual, or oral, however, Ang Lee made it quite clear exactly what kind of sex it was:  anal sex between two men.  While the scene isn’t romantic, or stylized in soft focus or glow, it was direct, desirable, and clearly consensual.  There have been a surprising number of anal sex scenes between men in critically acclaimed modern day films.  However, the context in Deliverance, Pulp Fiction, Maya Breckinridge, American History X, to name a few, are all rapes scenes.  Hollywood has almost always treated anal sex between men as forcible, unwanted, and degrading.  Brokeback Mountain stood in stark contrast, and it was enough to silence theatergoers in every single theater I was in (which was three).

Brokeback Mountain was the third critically acclaimed film where the love story was the main focus.[1] And it was the first of those to have a male relationship, which is much more taboo than lesbian representations.  Meet Hollywood’s core demographic:  males 16 – 45, and of those, they are heterosexual, often white, and often middle class.  It seemed very unlikely that a film about two Cowboys whose love dare not speak its name be nominated for Best Picture, but alas, it was the power of the message, the superb acting of Heath Ledger, and the beautiful pulse of Ang Lee’s cinematic novel that struck a nerve with filmgoers.

For all its uniqueness, in the celluloid closet of Hollywood’s gay tales, Brokeback seems incredibly formulaic. It is a well-known fact that in the category of Comedy, a gay male couple is acceptable, but in Dramatic stories, they have about as much chance of surviving as the lone black actor or the sexually experienced friend in a Horror film.  Torch Song Trilogy, Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry, My Own Private Idaho, Prayers for Bobby, Longtime Companion, and A Single Man, are all examples of great films with gay characters or couples who either end up separated by life (or society), or come to a violent or ill-stricken death.  This has been a standard of gay cinema since it’s history – the martyr storyline – that invites the viewer into a new unknown world for a short taste of “tea and sympathy” and then safely returns you to the world of normal heterosexuality.

In 2010, just five years after the release of Brokeback Mountain, and two years after Milk received acclaim for a depicting another beautiful gay man slain in the face of homophobia, we received a sign that everything was going to be all right.  Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous films included High Art – where a newly formed lesbian couple is ripped apart by a drug overdose – and Laurel Canyon – where a straight couple is seduced by the life of casual (bisexual) encounters, broke free from the constraints of hegemony and penned Best Picture nominee (and winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical), The Kids Are All Right.

This was the very first time in American Cinema where the main focus of the film was a Lesbian couple… but not just any couple:  A twenty year long relationship complete with two kids and a white picket fence.  Nic, Jules, Joni and Laser are a modern American family – they eat at the dinner table, they fight, they communicate (sometimes in vain), and they complacently deal with life’s everyday problems that arise.  In short, nothing sexy.

Hollywood has had a long history with girl-on-girl sexual fantasies.  Even in the early days of mankind, drawings, paintings, early porn films, and nudie magazines have captured the frolics of young and curious nymphets grazing in the forbidden (but sexually permissible) bushes of female sex.  In Hollywood, Lesbianism is a forgivable detour so long as a) a male is either present as a participant, b) the female returns to a male before the credits, c) the less feminine of the two meets her (un)timely demise.  The difference between those films and The Kids Are All Right is that heterosexuality is the detour.  Nic and Jules are very matter-of-factly Lesbian.  Jules, although an adulterer, is absolutely not one, two, three, or even four really good, really hot, really adventurous fucks away from being straight.  The film goes to great lengths to de-sexualize lesbian sex, and yet, no matter how much more appealing the sexual encounters between Jules and Paul may seem, Paul in no way measures up to the “man” of the house.  Reliability, trust, comfort, approval, support, attention, and love, wrapped up in a twenty-year bond of kids and marriage, is what makes everything all right.

Cholodenko, although criticized for her portrayal of Lesbian sex, made the smartest decisions in making this film.  She answered some of the long looming questions that burden Lesbian identify:  “You just haven’t found the right man”, “Who’s the daddy?”, “Every boy needs a father”.  All of these are addressed without needing to smack the audience in the face with some after school message.  The Kids Are All Right is a smart, sophisticated love story of Modernity.  Things might not be okay, but with the right love and openness, things will be all right.

In one swoop, Cholodenko turned typical Hollywood hegemony on its ear, and presented Lesbianism not just for the male viewer’s visual pleasure, but to tell a story of where we’re going.  At the end of the movie, Nic and Jules are alive and mending their relationship.  They have come a long way, and so have we as filmgoers and storytellers.  The Kids Are All Right signals strength in Hollywood to open its mind to gay stories that can touch audiences through reflection, not martyrdom.  The celebration of this film with audiences also signals that audiences both straight and gay are willing to try on new stories.  Our appetites wet with anticipation of what the future holds.

[1] Here I am crediting Boys Don’t Cry and Monster as one and two respectively, however the acclaim was more for the performance of the main actress than the film as a whole.