A Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of ‘The Kids Are All Right’ by Nancy Fox
Time passes and a new generation discovers new and exciting things in the old stuff. Frantic picking and gleaning goes on, and creative editing. This is one way tradition moves forward, by moving an old idea into a new context and discovering that it can do the work of a new idea.” – William Grimes, Media Journal
“They’re all right. The kids are all right.” The Who
“It’s kind of a family values movie.” Lisa Cholodenko
The Kids Are All Right is the story of lesbian couple Nic and Jules Allgood, both in their 40’s, and their children, Joni (18) and Laser (15), conceived via artificial insemination with sperm from the same donor. The film — co-scripted by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blomberg, directed by Cholodenko, and performed by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, Mark Ruffalo as Paul (“donor dad”), and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as Joni and Laser – explores the multifarious ways that the family is disrupted by Laser’s desire to bring his “donor dad,” Paul, into the otherwise female context he inhabits. Kids absorbs the mainstream audience thoroughly in this family’s precisely designed “lifeworld and system” (an expression used by Habermas term that seems fitting here). This immersion is total and subversively successful; indeed, when Jules introduces the word “married” midway through the film, it seems – almost – anticlimactic, and – almost – not needed. Nor has that scene, that politically explosive word, been a matter of particular interest in the analyses and reviews of this film, which tend to focus on the sheer conventionality of the storyline (for better or worse: see Akbar; Ebert; Laurier; Mayer; Scott; among many others). Yet the film’s exploration of that topic is more than a matter of chance: Cheshire Calhoun, a scholar of gay marriage, has noted that “no one actually knows the consequences, especially the long-term consequences, of state recognition for same-sex marriage. Who can tell what will be ‘normalized’ by same-sex marriage: Homosexuality? Marriage?” (Clarke “Lesbian” 527). These questions are tentatively answered in this film, which may appear to “produce defensive and apologetic arguments that normalize [lesbian] families … ‘we’re just the family next door’ …” (Clarke and Kitzinger 1) – but in fact indicates that lesbian families may in the end be very different from heterosexual models. Indeed, “the very participation of same-sex couples in such relational practices may divest them of their heteronormative underpinnings” (Clarke et al. 437).
In this paper I will argue that the film The Kids Are All Right effectively re-norms our collective gaze on what we call “the institution of marriage,” traditionally defined as male/female exclusively, “husband” or “man” and “wife,” “bride and groom.” My analysis will extend Cholodenko’s frequent description of the film as a “dramedy” and borrow a more appropriate term from Tina Fey, who posits the genre of “dramedysemble” – i.e., a comedic treatment of a serious topic collaboratively produced. What Fey has neatly and brilliantly characterized is allied to a kind of material production defined in academic analysis as “multimodal,” i.e., a single text “involving the interaction of multiple semiotic resources such as [written and spoken] language, gesture, dress, architecture, proximity and lighting, movement, gaze, camera angle, etc.” (O’Halloran 3). In multimodal texts the various linguistic and visual modes retain their unique qualities – but also complement and reinforce one another as the viewer perceives the separate modes as one discourse (Kress and van Leeuwen 93-94) – in the case of “Kids,” a “dramedysemble” delivered via the medium of film.
I will begin by positing a creative model of analysis which combines elements from the multimodal work of Gunther Kress and Theo Leeuwen with ideas of discourse analyst James Paul Gee, described in “Methodology,” section 2, below. The discourses in Kids that seem most promising for this close reading are conventional heteronormative marriage and lesbian relationships, the two “lifeworlds and systems” on which this storyline pivots, and these issues are investigated in “Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis” (section 3). Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the implications of this film and the argument it embodies for future conceptions of marriage and alternative family life.
2. Methodology: Creative Modeling for Multimodal Texts
The film The Kids Are All Right is heteroglossic, as defined by Mikhail Bakhtin, in the sense that multiple valences and voices can be discerned in its content as well as its rhetoricity. Martin Reisigl and Ruth Wodak have noted that investigation of “multifaceted phenomena in our societies” – such as “The Kids” discourses in this inquiry – requires an interdisciplinary frame “in order to analyze, understand and explain the complexity of the objects under investigation” (89). In Kids, the filmmaking strategies encompass linguistic modes (i.e., the written script and production notes), visual modes (in the fields of design and cinematography), and performative elements (in delivery of information through speech, facial expression, gesture, intonation, and music or silence). It seems useful to employ a variety of available heuristics to analyze this complicated and interdiscursive material and discover the practices and values contained therein.
Since the film can be considered a “multimodal articulation of multiple and integrated discourses,” as defined by Kress and van Leeuwen (36), the preliminary model they theorize affords analysis of such complex productions. The categories most salient to my inquiry are Discourse, Design, and Production. Augmenting this approach in my attempt at “creative modeling” is Gee’s strategy for discourse analysis. Gee explains that discourse is the work of design – that we use language as well as all other elements available to us to create or build our “lifeworld” and to mediate our places within it (10). He suggests specific “building tasks” of this discourse, and the elements most pertinent to this study are Significance (i.e., what does a given text signal as important?), and Identities – Activities – Relationships (i.e., what is this text being used to enact?) (11-12). These “building tasks of discourse” are critical in nature, given their focus on power and ideologies enacted in social practices.
Both theoretical models – Kress/van Leeuwen and Gee – seem equally promising for approaching texts with multiple modalities, like “Kids,” and for my purposes here appear to function in complementary ways. Therefore I plan to improvise an analytical frame that is an assemblage of elements: within the broader model that Kress and van Leeuwen have devised and defined (Discourse – Design – Production), I plan to position the modified “building tasks” of discourse that Gee has identified. Indeed, in their equally pioneering work with multimodal analysis, Reisigl and Wodak note the power of such creative models to “demystify the hegemony of specific discourses by deciphering the ideologies that establish, perpetuate, and fight dominance” (88) – a matter of particular moment as this paper explores a text that appears to replicate a dominant heteronormative value and, at the same time, imagine and film its demise. Quotations from the script will be cited as (s p#), while spoken lines from the film will be marked (f) and used if the final performance deviates from the written text. 
3. Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of The Kids Are All Right:
Discourses of Marriage and Lesbian Life
The Kids material is derived from recognizable American social contexts, each with its own proprietary discourse (or ideology, as Foucault has conjoined those terms). Among these contexts or “lifeworlds and systems” are marriage – which has traditionally “affirmed by law men’s power over women” – and “lesbian existence,” a “precarious and risky business … threatening because [it does] not submit to the male dominance” (Cameron 45-46). These separate Discourses provide this movie with two “specific fields of social action” that have historically proven hostile to each other. Indeed, “lesbian feminists see compulsory heterosexuality [marriage] as fundamental to the patriarchal oppression of women” (Peterson 174). However, as emphasized in Gee, Kress and van Leeuwen, Reisigl and Wodak, and others, discourses are also constituted by our social practices – they do not function as prescribed beliefs that we enact in zombie fashion – and therein lies the power of resistance and promise of change. Kids in fact constructs a subversive and actively “queer” discourse of lesbian marriage in the fiercely conventional context of heteronormative American society and its co-opting of “family values” (which Cholodenko signals directly in the interview which titles this paper).
As Kathryn Campbell-Kibler et al. have argued, “the defiance of ‘queer’ derives from its resistance to a dominant ideology of ‘difference’ that depends on the construction of definable identity categories which, once defined, place restrictions on social acceptance, excluding those who cannot (or refuse to) place themselves within any pre-defined category” (27). It can in this respect be argued that Kids not only serves to ‘queer’ the conventional notion of marriage as “man and wife,” but ‘queers’ as well the idea of essentialized lesbian identity. The film disrupts a gay/straight binary in interesting ways that accord with Judith Butler’s argument for constant and tenacious re-imagining of such discourses of identity, which should be “never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes” (Cameron 228).
4. Design of The Kids Are All Right
The film’s Design, in both story and cinematic style, enables the realization of its central domestic discourses. As Kress and van Leeuwen explain, ideas in multimodal texts are made through components (i.e., linguistic and visual) that present the viewer with a “well-organized and recognizable set of signs” (30). As Kids delineates in all available modes of delivery, Nic and Jules, the heads of the classic American-as-apple-pie Allgood family, have done a very good job – i.e., two healthy kids, a comfortable home in a suburb of California greenbelts, a gleaming Volvo SUV, a “stable” albeit “imperfect” household (Ebert). Their oldest child, Joni, sleeps beneath a quirky collage of her ribbon awards and framed honor diploma, was valedictorian at graduation and is a National Merit Scholar on the cusp of leaving home to attend Stanford University. Although laptops and TV/VCR’s are part of the visual grammar of this middle-class home, Joni’s addiction is the boardgame Scrabble – and neither she nor her younger brother, Laser, engage in the 24/7 gaming and texting culture that currently keeps so many anxious parents up at night, fretting about their children’s ability to complete in the global marketplace. Laser’s activities involve biking and team sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball: he does not disappear for entire weekends into an Xbox 360 “gamification” experience. During this pivotal end-of-summer period, both Joni and Laser experiment briefly, lightly, and without consequence with a bit of sexual activity (Joni) and pills (Laser). However, as Cholodenko argues in the title which defines the Discourses and Design of this movie, on billboards and marquees in every state in which “gay marriage” is currently debated, “the kids are (certainly) all right” in just about every way that conventional middle-class America values most and aspires to achieve.
But the equally obvious twist and sly subversion in Kids is that Nic and Jules are female partners who have shared a stable monogamous relationship for over twenty years – a commendable track record for any committed couple. Yet it must be noted that “opponents of lesbian and gay parenting repeatedly draw on arguments about the sinfulness, unnaturalness, and selfishness of lesbian and gay parents, and the negative psychological and social effects” of this parenting (Clarke “What About the Children?” 568). Studies have documented a discourse that presents lesbians as “enemies of the family and [lesbian] marriage is a threat to the family, marriage and morality” (Clarke “Lesbian” 519). Kids presents an argument that the lives of lesbian parents “strongly resemble heterosexuals [and] they too perform all of the familiar tasks that constitute everyday life in a family: doing the dishes, making breakfast, going to the grocery store, doing homework” (Clarke and Kitzinger 204).
Normalizing the narrative in this respect, the film constructs Nic as an Obstetrician/
Gynecologist and Jules as the mom who “quit [either college or graduate school] before the kids were born” (s 37) but aspires to a career in ecological landscape design, having meandered through a variety of random interests (architecture; importing Balinese furniture). Their children – who call their mothers by the collective “Moms” – were conceived with sperm from the same donor, as noted. Research has shown that only 44% of lesbian mothers achieve a pregnancy with donor insemination (which speaks to the Moms’ good fortune), and “41% indicated that they would like to meet the sperm donor” (Leiblum 343). Nic and Jules would be placed among the majority here and were indeed appalled that their children wish to pursue this relationship: “But what’s done is done. You met him, and now you guys can move on,” says Jules hopefully (s 30). Perhaps in such a scenario for a dramedysemble” it is inevitable that the donor, Paul Hatfield (see Figure 2), is charming in the etymological sense: he exudes a Byronic aura that exerts a powerfully seductive influence over women particularly. Both
Jules and Joni are at once enamored of his California sophistication and mellow, possibly studied, persona – he has owned a successful organic restaurant “for about a year” (f), as well as the garden that supplies it; he likes to have “a lot of fun” (f) on his vintage BMW motorbike, and bakes a fabulous strawberry rhubarb pie. These aspects of his character and current situation are signaled aurally by Tame Impala’s “Sundown Syndrome” as the soundtrack when Paul is introduced (“I wander around for days/ Wondering what I’ll say/ When they want the truth”). Nic is equally drawn by his magnetism, but more darkly, and troubled in ways she finds difficult to articulate or explain. All she can express at first is a bewildered “I’m just saying, the plan was to limit his involvement” (s 40) which quickly devolves to the fear that he is “taking over” her family (s 66).
The film is designed to create and sustain a close and probing focus on its discordant issues and the discourses contained therein, i.e., the institution of marriage; the lesbian relationship. The device that conjoins these issues is a heated affair between Jules and Paul, which is sparked when Paul offers Jules the job of landscaping his restaurant garden. The conventional view might be that Jules is enacting the “factitious” behavior believed of lesbians – that women’s exclusive sexual relationships are temporary and whimsical (Cameron 860) or done for political purposes (Peterson 174). However, it can be argued that Jules, using the only language available to her to describe her life with Nic, sets up the premise of the film’s argument: “I’m married … yeah, and I love Nic,” she informs Paul (s 72). Her confusion as she continues the affair might mirror that of the audience, whose assumptions about marriage and indeed lesbians are in the process of being confounded: “Jesus, what’s wrong with me?”she asks. “I’m totally fucked up” (s 72). In a nod to an earlier film that depicts a pushback to an equally forceful enchantment, Jules has a “wash that man right out of my hair” moment in Paul’s shower – which serves ironically as the context for Nic’s discovery of that red hair and the affair. With the enduring strength of that female bond, despite the attempt by Paul to take both Jules and “the kids” away from Nic (“Let’s make this happen … let’s get the kids together and do this thing …I want a family. I’m ready” [s 86-87]), the film is designed, finally, to open a new and potentially transformative discourse: that Jules, in legal terms unmarried and therefore free to pursue this passionate affair, has committed adultery as the culture defines that term and indeed confines it typically within the institution of marriage. Jules and Joni are at once enamored of his California sophistication and mellow, possibly studied, persona – he has owned a successful organic restaurant “for about a year” (f), as well as the garden that supplies it; he likes to have “a lot of fun” (f) on his vintage BMW motorbike, and bakes a fabulous strawberry rhubarb pie. These aspects of his character and current situation are signaled aurally by Tame Impala’s “Sundown Syndrome” as the soundtrack when Paul is introduced (“I wander around for days/ Wondering what I’ll say/ When they want the truth”). Nic is equally drawn by his magnetism, but more darkly, and troubled in ways she finds difficult to articulate or explain. All she can express at first is a bewildered “I’m just saying, the plan was to limit his involvement” (s 40) which quickly devolves to the fear that he is “taking over” her family (s 66).
The mise en scene, designed precisely, functions as an extralinguistic mode that serves also to realize the film’s discourses: “Cinema setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action” (Bordwell and Thompson 115). All encounters in which Nic and Jules are centrally positioned in the cinematic frame are almost decontextualized, i.e., without reference to a political/social world that does not yet accept their relationship and know its implications. Even Paul Hatfield, invited into the space and having assured Joni, “Oh, yeah, oh, that’s cool. I love lesbians” (the script adds the note: “He cringes at his lameness” [s15], and Ruffalo performs this feeling eloquently, grimacing as if he’d eaten one of his organic lemons), believes that all he needs to do to extract Jules from this relationship is demand it (“I’m ready”). The intense focus on Nic and Jules is achieved by framing that limits its field to the boundaries of their family property: the fence and white roses in the front garden; the enclosed lawn and deck in the back yard; the comfortable rooms replete with books, cedar tubs, expensive cooking equipment and knives; multiple TV’s; pictures, silky blankets, stainless steel appliances, and seemingly endless glasses of red wine. The design speaks directly of the couple’s durable and shared commitment: Nic would have paid for the house, while Jules has clearly tended it and keeps it immaculate. As Kress and van Leeuwen have noted, such images not only “record and construct reality,” they also represent explicitly defined values and thus do specific “semiotic work” as part of the integrated practice of the multimodal text (13). The design of the couple’s setting works with the scripted and performed narrative to define in material terms the discourses that inform their shared identity. They are a suburban American couple – secure economically and able to survive the recession in style and indeed consider a new business in difficult times. Simultaneously, they live a precarious and in many ways solitary existence as outsiders: their union, it should be recalled, is not legally or socially sanctioned in this specific California context, where Proposition 8 which bans gay marriage has been consistently affirmed by a majority of voters.
Convention and Subversion in the Production of The Kids Are All Right
The field we’re witnessing in this Production – from the first cozy familiar scene in the family home, when Nic arrives after dark from a day of dealing with “27 fibroids, all in the lining” (s 4) and Jules has dinner (salad; rolls; wine) on the table – is middle-class American marriage and domestic life. At once, therefore, the film both seems to challenge and reinforce a social norm by visually confronting us with the popular image of an American family as idealized and “retro,” in many ways, as the days of “Father Knows Best” when the patriarchal “breadwinner” is nurtured by the homemaker who performs what Nancy Chodorow calls her “servicing function” (Harris et al. 371). Here we see the classic “Honey, I’m home!” moment. Jules has already settled “the kids” at the dinner table, clearly expecting her M.D. “spouse” to be late, fulfilling her expected role and performing “wife and mother” – i.e, performing “woman” – “traditionally reproducing people in the housework and child care, … [enacting] the image of women as servicers of men’s and children’s needs” (Harris et al. 371). Food is cooked and served (the script calls for a “well-prepared dinner” [s 3]); the house is orderly; music is playing quietly. The aural complement to the scene is Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods,” the lyrics a sharp ironic counterpoint to Jules’ seemingly mild manner and gentle smile through this scene:
Well, I’m goin’ down goin’ down a hard road/ Just don’t know don’t know where I’ve been/
I think I’ve been a-walkin, I’m a-walkin ‘round in circles/ … I can hardly sing my song …
I’m lost and all alone/ Can’t tell the bad from the good/ I’m out in the wood and lost in the wood.
Thus we are introduced to the issues the film foregrounds and gives Significance: marriage and family, and lesbian domestic life, as performed by the central characters Nic and Jules.
Also significantly, the ideologies of power and dominance are alive and well, and equally nurtured, by the Identities enacted through the Activities and Relationships established in this early scenario, which warrants a close look at the way this family is initially framed and performed. Nic in the patriarchal role is positioned at the head of the table (the seat empty until she arrives home, visually
establishing the idea that roles are fixed, as are the seating arrangements, in this family); Jules and the child she carried, Laser, to Nic’s right; Joni, Nic’s biological child, alone to Nic’s left. This is the “pecking order” of this family, also visually fixed to support the centrality and control of Nic. The cinematic “still” also establishes visually the two “sides” within this family: Jules and Laser, to the left, are biologically linked by hair in shades of red; Nic and Joni are blond – Nic’s genes for lighter color apparently dominant over what Paul calls his “peasant” [f] or “Mediterranean genes” [s 53] (see Figure 3).
With Nic’s arrival, too, the atmosphere in the dining area is charged and punctuated by her staccato questions (which kill the plaintive background music). Music is often used in this film to signal a character’s demand for attention (particular the males); with Nic, the same goal is achieved with her voice alone, and the word “Hey!”
Hey, whose truck is that? (s 4)
Hey, who was that? [about a call on Laser’s cell phone] (s 5)
Hey, did you start on those thank you notes? (s 5)
The dinner conversation is suddenly driven by her criticisms and dictates: she announces her work of the day (those 27 fibroids) and does not inquire about the family’s; she rejects the wine selection (“Do we have any more of the Fiddlehead?”[f]); challenges Jules’ purchase of a truck for her aspirational business and demeans it (“What business? [film note: Getting edgy.] The gardening?” [s 4]); admonishes Joni for a potential social gaffe (those thank you notes), although she fails to thank or even acknowledge the hard work of Jules in preparing and serving a very good dinner; she directs Jules wordlessly, her nose wrinkling in distaste, to challenge Laser about his friend, Clay, and then both critiques Clay (not that he doesn’t deserve it) and overrides Jules’ comment (“We just think he’s a little untended” [f]). When gently admonished by Jules to “let it go, Mommy” [f] as she persists about those thank you notes, she teases Jules in a way that serves to criticize her character in front of their kids (“I mean, if it was up to you, our kids wouldn’t even write thank you notes, you know, they’d just send out good vibes” [s 6]).
The identity that Nic enacts is masculinized: she appears to reinscribe the heteronormative convention by positioning herself as the dominant “fatherly” figure in this relationship.
Hers is the controlling voice in every scene she enters; indeed, the script describes her as seeking to establish “dominance” once Paul enters the picture (s 30). She may be – by dint of her intellect and the elegant composure that Bening performs – low on the “butch” continuum, but she is depicted physically “butch,” nonetheless, and the more immediately recognizable lesbian figure. Her name is a shortcut for Nicole, a Greek term that meant “victorious people” and has become a French derivative of “Nicholas”; her hair is cropped and boyishly styled; she dresses exclusively in a tailored minimalist black and grey (see Figure 4), or (in a less congenial “honey I’m home” scene) a man’s boxy overcoat, trousers, and Converse sneakers. She makes no secret of her immediate attraction to Jules (“You were really pretty” [s 41]), and she alone, of all the women in this film (including a Wiccan garden employee whose sexuality is otherwise ambiguous) is immune to Paul’s powerful charm. Her sense of ownership of Jules is subtly reinforced by a shake of the head when Paul offers Jules the landscaping job, and she performs her devotion to Jules in a seductive scene wherein she prepares a bath for Jules and wears black satin pajamas described as “sexy man-PJ’s” in the script [s 47]. And Paul, in the one instance of agreement between them about Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” toasts Nic as “my brother from another mother” (f).
While it may seem that her performance, equally strong, as “mother” – she has, after all, given birth to the couple’s first child, Joni – might complicate the otherwise “patriarchal” role she creates, her functionality as “mother” is less nurturing than disciplinary. It is Nic who holds “the kids” to their thank you and get well notes, who scolds them publicly for defying her wishes, and threatens Laser with the loss of a Dodgers game if he does not comply with her demand. She also inhabits the more problematic aspects of the fatherly role as sole supporter of the family: she feels as if she is “carrying the whole load here” (s 67); she drinks too much; she complains that she is “exhausted,” then snaps, “who’s gonna pay for that” when Jules advises her to take time off and “recharge” (s 68). Her speech in these episodes is masculinized as well, as Robin Lakoff and Deborah Cameron, among others, indicate, in that she uses more “rough language” than any other character (15 instances). (It should be noted in this respect that Paul, the one adult male in a central role, curses once.)
As complement, the character Jules might seem – with her long red hair always escaping its constraints; her loose embroidered tunics or clingy graphic tee-shirts; her more visually “feminized” form (see Figure 5) –
a more familiarly “femme” or wifely persona. The “N” engraved as an initial on her right wrist (evident in Figure 4) is the one sign of her last name, lost in the Allgood collective. Research in lesbian families has shown that “creating a family identity (particularly when children are or will be part of the family) is a significant motivation for name-changing” (Clarke et al. 437), and it seems significant that Jules’ name is the one subsumed. But in fact she enacts a more complex sexual identity as her first name, “Jules,” indicates – at once both visibly male (the French “Jules”) and aurally female and objectified (“Jewels”), and this ambiguity is performed in the film as Jules explains to Laser [ her vocal intonations are marked]: “Human sexuality is complicated…? And sometimes people’s desires can be … counterintuitive …” (f). Like her verbal habits, akin to Lakoff’s description of “woman’s language,” Jules’ posture is typically submissive, leaning forward, and she attempts to ameliorate a tense situation with a “windshield wiper” motion of her thumb on the other’s arm (s 9, 69). If Nic curses frequently, Jules matches that custom with frequent apology. She often adopts a defensive position, particularly with Nic: her eyes open wide, she sits up straight, and gives one- or two-word answers in a high-pitched voice. More perniciously, she just as often does not answer at all – she is described in the script as “defeated” (s 10) (see Figure 6) and in that silence is perhaps her motivation for succumbing to her attraction to Paul. When she at last speaks out to Nic, she screams: “Just listen to me!” (s 82)
But the film is not in the business of simply complying with social convention, either in terms of spousal relations or lesbian life. The dominant patriarchal role is here performed by a female, Nic, thus puncturing forcefully any notion that dominance is essentialized “male” – a biological destiny that is unavailable to females, naturalized as nurturant and dependent – and not a gendered performance.
Indeed, the dominant role as Nic performs it is more workaholic (and alcoholic) than sexualized – Jules is the more intensely physical partner – and presents a display of gender defined socially as male. She provides for her family materially very well indeed and is alert to any danger that threatens its borders, like Paul: “This is my family. You’re just a fucking interloper,” she declares coldly. “You really hurt my kids … If you want a family so much, go out and make one of your own” (s 93). The film employs the aural mode effectively to reveal the loneliness that subtends Nic’s performance of this dominant role: in one memorable scene at the dinner at Paul’s apartment, she sings an unself-conscious and poignant verse of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”: “Do you see how you hurt me, baby, and I hurt you, too, and we both get so blue” – thus establishing dramatic irony, since she will, in about five minutes, discover Jules’ betrayal. The scene is fully integrated with this physical setting, these words, this music, this performance – as well as the extreme close-up in which the camera focuses on the closed face that joins with the other elements to signal the truth of her internal world: “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling traveling traveling …”
But her dominance is challenged ultimately by Jules, her partner, not Paul. Jules defies the convention of the compliant and cooperative female in many compelling ways. She is the more opaque, the more unpredictable, and certainly the less easily read. Her desire initially to design a “Secret Garden” at Paul’s restaurant is both a way the film foreshadows their affair and symbolizes her “secret” and secretive nature. Nic is direct in expressing emotion: she cries when she’s sad; sings when she’s moved; yells if she’s angry. Jules is not so accessible, and she is definitely the “quicksilver girl” (as a Steve Miller tune of her ‘70’s era describes such a woman) who enacts both change and contradiction: the ecological and organic gardener smokes cigarettes in a hidden part of her back yard; she spends her afternoons with Paul and neglects her business, firing her Mexican employee on a sudden whim. It could be argued that her need for subterfuge is the direct result of her subordinate position. She is indeed the femme couvert, or hidden woman in this conventionalized relationship, the one whose name is eclipsed, who benefits the least from the family’s enstructuration – who is, in the logic of the film’s design, the one positioned to initiate the radical change. (Nic simply carries on, drinking the red wine whose quantity she denies: “Jules: ‘Honey, that’s your fourth glass.’ Nic: ‘Actually, it’s my third. But thanks for counting’” [s 39].) The shift in power is enacted in the way Jules initiates the betrayal with Paul – in the film it is she who makes the move – and begins defending him to Nic and talking a lot about compost. It is the introduction of this language that seems to signal Nic most clearly of Paul’s invasion of her home, and she attempts to counter it: “Oh, just fucking kill me … I just can’t with the fucking hemp milk and the organic farming and heirloom tomatoes” (s 65) – without visibly realizing that the change of language is actually a function of Jules’ assertion of independence.
It is perhaps a surprise to the viewers that the lesbian Jules would engage so readily in a sexual affair with a male (“somewhere between slapstick and animal,” notes the script ), although the performance provides something of a rationale as Jules gazes amazed at Paul and says, “I just keep seeing my kids in your expressions … [She performs a toss of the head.] …That’s Laser” (f) (and in the script: “You and Laser have the same mouth” ). And the film visually ties Jules and Paul through a penchant for leather Bohemian jewelry and plaid shirts. But a possible audience expectation that Jules is now appropriately sexualized and will renounce her “factitious” lesbian life for marriage with Paul (whose intentions are clear: “I want marriage and family and I want someone who will go there with me” [f]) is here confounded: Jules fights to remain with her family and in fact is never more dominant herself than when she declaims, “Jesus, Paul! I’m gay!” (s 87), cuts off the voice of the impassioned Paul, and throws the phone across her garden. She has a chance to act on her “animal” attraction to Paul – to leave as well the criticism she has visibly experienced with Nic – and refuses. Her subversion of her role – fixed in the seating arrangements around the Allgood dinner table, the silence she deploys to co-exist peaceably with Nic – occurs prior to Paul, when she buys the truck to start her business, despite Nic’s scoffing and sneering (“What? The gardening? … I just don’t understand why you bought the truck now” … “Did you break ground? Did you dig in? I don’t know the term”). Paul is in many ways merely a sign of her bid for substance, for subjectivity, for an identity not submerged in Nic’s “Allgood” collective:
Jules: I just needed …
Nic: What? To be fucked?
Jules: No, appreciated! (s 82)
And the resolution of this crisis is suggested in the way the dynamic of this relationship has now been “queered.” Nic is the silent, seemingly “defeated” one, her body collapsed on the couch between her kids, or wordlessly leaving the house for her long day. The scene where they together confront the Paul affair positions Jules in the dominant standing position for the first time in the film, while Nic sits hunched over. Jules’ is the voice that defines the discourse of their relationship, hence, this movie: “Marriage is hard. It’s a fucking marathon, okay?” (s 94). And when the family settles Joni in her dorm at Stanford, it is Jules who sits in the driver’s seat of the family Volvo (“Jules is at the wheel” [s 97]) — also for the first time in this film – as they return to their suburban home.
The French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut has noted that “there are two kinds of directors: those who have the public in mind when they conceive and make their films, and those who don’t consider the public at all” (Bordwell and Thompson 3). Indeed, this portrait of lesbian marriage is intentionally designed to critique and destabilize a tenacious (and tenaciously exclusionary and heteronormative) ideology. The partners engaged in this conventional pair-bond are female who have built a durable and in many ways enviable “lifeworld and system” for their kids. The film acknowledges the fears of a culture that the kids of lesbians would be gay themselves – or the boys would be lost without a father – but challenges them. The charming Paul is the most unstable character, with no long-term relationship to report when Nic interrogates him, no college education, and no cohesive history before the opening of his restaurant a year ago. (It is Jules and Nic who have built Laser’s home, supplied and cleaned his room, clothed him and cooked his nutritious meals, driven him to soccer, basketball, baseball, bought the practice goals and table tennis in the yard, played games with him, held him to his family duties. It is they who call him on his behavior: “Don’t take calls at the table” [f]… “I wish you were gay. You’d be so much more sensitive” ). Despite Jules’ lack of profession, her evident crisis of age, or role, or a confusing mixture of those pressures, she has nonetheless created a home – that clean and comfortable setting – as well as a well-tended family and 20-year-marriage that sustain her through this volatile period.
More than this: the affair with Paul, with a male, is clearly not the main goal or message of her story, either written or performed and recorded: she has reached a point where the “middle-aged sad-sack lesbian” she believes she has become has refused to feel “defeated” (“lost” in the Russell lyrics) any longer. Nic, as noted, earns a professional income that ensures the kind of “institutionalized economic inequality” (Cameron 46) endemic in marriages where a wife is a “stay-at-home-mom,” like Jules; and Jules enacts, at first, an “ideology that females [her assigned role in this relationship] are naturally nurturant and generous, more selfless than men, self-abnegating” (Harris et al. 371). In one critical encounter, Jules accuses Nic of not supporting her professional aspirations and suppressing her: “You hated it when I worked! You wanted me at home. You wanted a wife” (s 67). And indeed, in the ideology of the nurturant female, “as a social institution the contemporary family contains no role whose principal task is the reproduction and emotional support of the wife and mother” (Harris et al. 372). In this situation, Jules is the “wife and mother” attempting, albeit confusedly, to start a new career and salvage a sense of agency as she sees the “empty nest” solidify with Joni’s packing for Stanford.
This discovery of “deep sense,” as Gee has called the kind of resonance we find in our most meaningful social practices – “those things we hold in common as basic human needs,” as media critic Joseph Harris has noted (471) – enables Kids to achieve a rhetorical double- play: the convention is used for the sake of its own subversion. Indeed, the multimodal analysis in this paper has revealed how the discourses of Kids can be viewed as a semiotic bridge between conventional marriage and lesbian existence. By the end of the film, without firing a single direct political shot – the film is in fact devoid of overt feminist and indeed political context – the audience has experienced a radical ‘queering’ of marriage – and experienced, too, a kind of “Defense of Marriage Act” at the same time. Indeed, as many critics noted, “unconventional families can be just as tedious in their melodramatic dysfunctions as any traditional clan” (Groen). Nonetheless those “tedious dysfunctions” serve to sustain this “unconventional” lesbian family and give it discursive staying power.
The film’s foregrounding of betrayal in a long-term female partnership as a “kind of family values movie” is indeed a strategic and timely cultural act: “These are real people, not placards,” notes journalist Don Savage, “and the movie presents a fully realized, fully human portrayal of a long-partnered-if-not-married couple” [emphasis added] . However, the apparently casual and indeed matter-of-fact introduction of the words “I’m married” into the center of Jules’ affair with Paul, when the attention of viewers is directed to the kind of disruptive event from which relationships do not always recover, is the “linchpin” of this film, the source of its cohesion and subversion simultaneously. As viewers, we know we have moved beyond those tepid words “domestic partnership” and witnessed a genuine marriage. We witness, too, the collapse of religious/political/social discourses that conflate marriage with heterosexual norms – that indeed, as Cameron quoting the poet Adrienne Rich has noted, enforce a “compulsory” heterosexuality (44). We see the relationship as Jules has named and described it – “Marriage is hard. It’s a fucking marathon” – a “marathon” this family has both experienced and defined for over twenty years.
And it is clear that the act of contextualizing this marriage in American middle-class convention allows the audience to identify with its issues – no matter who is enacting them – such as the ways that power is negotiated, fixed, and disrupted, and the kind of resolution that marriage in its most potent commitment, “’til death do us part,” makes possible. It can be argued, too, that through the act of seeing these identities of dominance and subordination endemic in marriage performed by unexpected actors (both literally and symbolically), mainstream audiences are able to see them anew – and experience the kind of recognition that leads to “subversion and change,” as Cameron posits it (55). The rhetorical work that the film is doing – its deep purpose beyond “sit-com” entertainment (as some reviewers have charged) – is clear in its dramatic use of the aural mode in the closing song, “Youth” by MGMT, which is worth quoting in its entirety. An anthemic call for change, based on ways that the young adapt to new ideas, delivers the film’s argument that pushes its issues beyond identity politics or a simple albeit multimodal poster for gay marriage, and thus a “cult” phenomenon:
This is a call to arms to live and love and sleep together
We could flood the streets with love or light or heat whatever
Lock the parents out cut a rug twist and shout wave your hands
Make it rain the stars will rise again
The youth is starting to change, are you starting to change? are you together?
In a couple of years, tides have turned from boos to cheers and in spite of the weather,
We can learn to make it together
The youth is starting to change, are you starting to change? are you together? (f, credits)
The song functions to tie, both aurally and linguistically, this particular moment with an earlier era in which the “youth” did “flood the streets” and “change” – the ‘60’s directly referenced by the film’s title, The Kids Are All Right, a revision of the title of the song, “The Kids Are Alright” by The Who (the change in spelling signaling the different text and context). Thus, both title and film move “an old idea into a new context,” as the quote that foregrounds this paper argues, and “this is one way tradition moves forward” – i.e., adapting to the “new and exciting things” that a new generation discovers.
“What else do you have but your tribe?” the filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko notes in her description of Kids — the “tribe” predating conventional scripts of marriage (“The Making”). Her use of the word “tribe,” rather than “family,” serves, finally, to signal the film’s subversive intent and announce its radical critique of conventional roles. The discourse that equates the “masculine” (in the form of Nic) with husbandly dominance and independence, and the “feminine” (in the figure of Jules) with wifely dependence and subordination, alters dramatically in the trauma this “tribe” experiences, and the future of the family within this new uncharted terrain (with Jules at the steering wheel now) is unresolved. Nothing is simple in the world of Cholodenko’s “dramedysemble”: impulses and intentions have led to unexpected consequences. Laser informs them: “I don’t think you guys should break up … You’re too old” (f) – a comment that’s not so funny, or even poignant, for two women facing a loss of the “fecund” (a word clearly on Jules’ mind [s 41]), a daughter who says, “I’m an adult now and you have to respect that” (s 58) and slams the door on them, or yells “I’m so sick of both of you” (s 90). Laser cuts to the heart of the matter (as he often does in this film) – but it’s a heartless truth, and the one consolation at this pivotal moment is that Nic and Jules laugh ruefully, together, and will (probably) enter that place of “whatever” and write it together. The kids, as they’ve raised them in their particular tribe, are “all right.”
That two women, in central and dominant roles, engage in a process of “re-norming” our notions – indeed, our “cultural capital” – that has defined marriage in heteronormative ways which deny the integrity or even the existence of alternative “lifeworlds,” is indeed the film’s most potent statement:
Popular culture makes women into objects rather than subjects. Women become something to be looked at, talked about, worried over, desired. Men are more typically made into the lookers, the talkers, the worriers, the ones who desire – into subjects. (Brummet 125)
In this respect the filmmaker John Sayles has noted that 90 to 95% of movies are made by men, who demonstrate indifference to women’s stories: “With few exceptions not many [films] are really that interested in women. Most of these films are male worlds” (Foner and Sayles 149). This strategy places the film directly in line with Judith Butler’s “expanding political purposes,” but pragmatically. The film and the viewer’s experience of it are saturated with colors and textures that serve to evoke, at once, familiarity and strangeness: the audience sees conventional scenes of marriage performed and hears the expected words, but in female voices. Beyond the focal point of lesbian existence – which the film indeed makes central and emphatic – are the ways the various modes of this movie position the female characters in the most decisive roles. Thus, the discourse created through the multiple identities and relationships in Kids is one that empowers a female “lifeworld and system” that could certainly “queer” and overturn our deepest ideologies – and that future is “all right,” too.
By Nancy Fox, University of Washington, Seattle
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 In “Confessions of a Juggler,” The New Yorker 14 & 21 February, 2011
 An interesting study, beyond the scope of this paper, would be a textual analysis that traces the development of this story through four revisions and the final revised performance.
 Other notable discourses worthy of investigation in Kids are class, family life, race, masculinity, generational change, irony, among others, which are tempting but beyond the scope of this paper.
 This term, as noted elsewhere in this paper, was actually coined by the poet Adrienne Rich, quoted in Cameron, who explains that “heterosexuality and lesbianism are not just different but equal choices women can make; one of them – heterosexuality – is compulsory, the other – lesbianism – is forbidden” (44).
 See Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, for one perspective on this concern.
 An assertion that research supports: “Children raised by lesbian parents do not differ statistically in emotional, social, or cognitive development from children raised by heterosexual parents. In addition, children conceived and raised within lesbian relationships are not more likely than other children to exhibit gender identity or role confusion or to grow up to be homosexual” (Markus et al. 125). The studies are in accord that these particular fears are nonetheless expressed by vocal opponents of lesbian parents, and the film confronts that issue directly.
 With Laser, not so much. In the film’s perhaps most subtle story arc, and nonetheless one of its most dramatic, Laser moves from persuading a reluctant Joni to contact the “donor dad,” since she is legally of age, to skepticism and ultimately a complete and disgusted rejection of Paul.
 Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific.”
 This is an instance of class ideology that is part of “The Kids” design, and unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper. But Jules fires her assistant on the spot, accusing him of using cocaine, when she believes he is leering at her activities with Paul, in the middle of this recession. Later, Paul mimics and mocks the man’s speech.
 It is interesting to note that Paul as donor “has no legal right or responsibility to any child that may result” from his donation. (Markus et al. 129)