Intimate Relationships: Exploring the Real and Reel Dynamics of Americana

Curator's Note

Relationship research transcripts occasionally read like movie scripts. Indeed, humans build multifaceted relationships and the complexities of these relationships are often mimicked and projected on the big screen. As motion pictures frequently depict, intimate relationships can be a source of immense happiness when they go well and a cause of tremendous heartache when in turmoil. It is apparent to most moviegoers that significant discrepancies exist between the relational structures, behaviors, and values portrayed on the “reel” and those that persist in “real” life. However, identifying these incongruities may prove particularly difficult for audience members unfamiliar with relationships that diverge from “tradition.”

Critical scholars have rightly argued that the “traditional American family” is an amalgam of structures, behaviors, and values that never co-existed at the same time and place. Without a doubt, it is impossible to accurately and adequately describe the American “family” or “relationship” without further characterizing these active and evolving systems as static entities. Notwithstanding the obvious diversity of individual families and relationships, social scientists importantly point out that homosexual couples and families possess striking similarities to their heterosexual counterparts. In fact, studies show surprisingly few differences between straight and queer couples in committed relationships. When significant differences emerge, researchers have suggested that heterosexual couples have “a great deal to learn” from homosexual couples, particularly when it comes to conflict resolution, egalitarianism, and unconstrained commitment. This research certainly brings into question the notion of the often seductive and nostalgia-inducing “American family” and “heterosexual ideal” that is perpetuated in American motion pictures.

The Kids Are All Right is a ripe point of reference for exploring ideas of “tradition,” “family,” “nostalgia,” and ever-evolving symbols of “Americana.” Is there identity incongruence when a self-identified lesbian (i.e., Jules) has a sexual affair with a heterosexual man (i.e., Paul)? Does the movie reinforce a heteronormative standard for homosexual couples and families? Does the movie liberate and/or constrain the way queer families are defined?

Ultimately, it is my general observation that the concepts of relationships and Americana are dynamic and, more importantly, systemic. Not only are both concepts continually changing, but also concomitantly having an impact on the redefinition of the other.


Thanks for this post.  Your final comments about heteronormativity and the interdependence of ideas about relationships and Americana made me instantly think of the classic Grant Wood image, American Gothic. American Gothic has been repeatedly parodied, yet almost all remakes maintain its classic couple form. (And I suspect this might be taken up in tomorrow's post so I'll limit my observations here.)  But this fact did remind me of the continuities between heteronormativity and homonormativity, not only for their shared focus on the couple form, but also for their own relational self-definition against a variety of other people and social forms -- a dynamic that also has the norm repeatedly performing itself.  (Thus the staginess of American Gothic too seems relevant here.)  The Kids Are All Right does just that, e.g. in the scene in which Julianne Moore's character assumes the Latino gardener her audience -- in a characterization that is stereotypically racist.  Or how the film uses a black woman to stand for the outsides of normative sexual propriety.  Thus it seems that the idealized "American family" is not only defined by heterosexuality.  Others have written about this aspect of the film more eloquently than I, but I thought I'd contribute to the conversation here.  Thanks for starting us off!

 Great post. *SPOILER ALERT*  Initially, I had a very visceral reaction to the affair between Paul and Jules. The shock of their trist jolted me from my seat and I *almost* left the theater in disbelief. Luckily, I  stayed til the end to see Cholodenko's brilliance at work. Her interrogation of the typical American couple and family is refershing and completely inline with your post. Using media platforms like film and television, we can tease out a panoply of American familial and relational modes. Cholodenko's film remides us of the multifaceted expressions an American couple or family may take. 



Yes!--and thanks and but, with heterosexual couples implied as the norm (evidenced by the film's title), homosexual couples are legible only to the extent that they may be read as heterosexual: dissident, perhaps, or failed, or mimetic, depending on one's perspective. Thus, the necessary reassurance that despite (or even with) lesbian parents, "the kids are all right." Similarly, Ellen DeGeneres, with her makeup ads, is safely embraced within heterosexuality: the lesbians are all right, too, apparently. Not the escapees from heterosexual slavery theorized by Monique Wittig but heterosexually coupling, after all, underscored in the film by the penis present in every sexual encounter.

Recently rewatching The Kids Are All Right, I was struck anew by a few things that may bear usefully on this conversation. First, the film’s treatment of Tanya should not be equated with Paul’s insistence on making her “stand for the outsides of normative sexual propriety”, as a previous poster wrote. In her every appearance on screen, Tanya voices desires that easily would be termed normative – expressing interest in using Paul’s sperm, telling him how much she likes seeing him in “dad mode”, keeping his bio daughter and her friend company while he’s working, and responding jealously when another woman flirts with him in front of her. The excuse Paul uses to break up with Tanya – that he’s getting older and wants a family, so needs someone “who can go there with me” – clearly seems intended to indicate that he’s blind to her interest in doing precisely that, and that her “fuck you” upon departure is one he had coming. Jules’ racist treatment of her gardener is more problematic. Even if the aim were to illustrate Jules’ self-absorption, the film treats Luis in the same offhand manner that she does, expressing only the slightest contrition over ordering his quick exit from the premises. I’ll leave alone the already much discussed matter of Jules’ and Paul’s affair, aside from mentioning that the image of a lesbian sleeping with a man without its splintering her sexual identity at all is refreshing, to say the least. As for the narrative drive to batten down the hatches of homonormative family values, however simplistic the role reversal of scapegoating the single straight dude to protect the sanctity of the gay nuclear family, it’s not nothing that the “interloper”, to use Nic’s word for Paul, is a white heterosexual man who presumes to claim someone else’s family when “dad mode” finally overtakes him. On this one, I’m with Nic; getting the dick of heteromasculine privilege out of her ass is what’s needed to save this family.


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