A Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of â€˜The Kids Are All Rightâ€™ 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.â€ â€“ William Grimes, Media Journal
â€œTheyâ€™re all right. The kids are all right.â€ The Who
â€œItâ€™s kind of a family values movie.â€ Lisa Cholodenko
The Kids Are All Right is the story of lesbian couple Nic and Jules Allgood, both in their 40â€™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 (â€œdonor dadâ€), and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as Joni and Laser â€“ explores the multifarious ways that the familyÂ is disrupted by Laserâ€™s desire to bring his â€œdonor dad,â€ Paul, into the otherwise female context he inhabits. Kids absorbs the mainstream audience thoroughly in this familyâ€™s precisely designed â€œlifeworld and systemâ€ (an expression used by Habermas term that seems fitting here). This immersion is total and subversively successful; indeed, when Jules introduces the word â€œmarriedâ€ midway through the film, it seems â€“ almost â€“ anticlimactic, and â€“ almost â€“ not needed.Â 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 filmâ€™s exploration of that topic is more than a matter of chance: Cheshire Calhoun, a scholar of gay marriage, has noted that â€œno one actually knows the consequences, especially the long-term consequences, of state recognition for same-sex marriage. Who can tell what will be â€˜normalizedâ€™ by same-sex marriage: Homosexuality? Marriage?â€ (Clarke â€œLesbianâ€ 527). These questions are tentatively answered in this film, which may appear to â€œproduce defensive and apologetic arguments that normalize [lesbian] families â€¦ â€˜weâ€™re just the family next doorâ€™ â€¦â€ (Clarke and Kitzinger 1) â€“ but in fact indicates that lesbian families may in the end be very different from heterosexual models. Indeed, â€œthe very participation of same-sex couples in such relational practices may divest them of their heteronormative underpinningsâ€ (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 â€œthe institution of marriage,â€ traditionally defined as male/female exclusively, â€œhusbandâ€ or â€œmanâ€ and â€œwife,â€ â€œbride and groom.â€ My analysis will extend Cholodenkoâ€™s frequent description of the film as a â€œdramedyâ€ and borrow a more appropriate term from Tina Fey, who posits the genre of â€œdramedysembleâ€ â€“ 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 â€œmultimodal,â€ i.e., a single text â€œinvolving the interaction of multiple semiotic resources such as [written and spoken] language, gesture, dress, architecture, proximity and lighting, movement, gaze, camera angle, etc.â€ (Oâ€™Halloran 3). In multimodal texts the various linguistic and visual modes retain their unique qualities â€“ but also complement and reinforce one another as the viewer perceives the separate modes as one discourse (Kress and van Leeuwen 93-94) â€“ in the case of â€œKids,â€ a â€œdramedysembleâ€ 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 â€œMethodology,â€ section 2, below. The discourses in Kids that seem most promising for this close reading are conventional heteronormative marriage and lesbian relationships, the two â€œlifeworlds and systemsâ€ on which this storyline pivots, and these issues are investigated in â€œMultimodal Critical Discourse Analysisâ€ (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 â€œmultifaceted phenomena in our societiesâ€ â€“ such as â€œThe Kidsâ€ discourses in this inquiry â€“ requires an interdisciplinary frame â€œin order to analyze, understand and explain the complexity of the objects under investigationâ€ (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 â€œmultimodal articulation of multiple and integrated discourses,â€ 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 â€œcreative modelingâ€ is Geeâ€™s strategy for discourse analysis. Gee explains that discourse is the work of design â€“ that we use language as well as all other elements available to us to create or build our â€œlifeworldâ€ and to mediate our places within it (10). He suggests specific â€œbuilding tasksâ€ 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 â€“ Activities â€“ Relationships (i.e., what is this text being used to enact?) (11-12). These â€œbuilding tasks of discourseâ€ are critical in nature, given their focus on power and ideologies enacted in social practices.
Both theoretical models â€“ Kress/van Leeuwen and Gee â€“ seem equally promising for approaching texts with multiple modalities, like â€œKids,â€ 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 â€“ Design â€“ Production), I plan to position the modified â€œbuilding tasksâ€ 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 â€œdemystify the hegemony of specific discourses by deciphering the ideologies that establish, perpetuate, and fight dominanceâ€ (88) â€“ 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 â€œlifeworlds and systemsâ€ are marriage â€“ which has traditionally â€œaffirmed by law menâ€™s power over womenâ€ â€“ and â€œlesbian existence,â€ a â€œprecarious and risky business â€¦ threatening because [it does] not submit to the male dominanceâ€ (Cameron 45-46). These separate Discourses provide this movie with two â€œspecific fields of social actionâ€ that have historically proven hostile to each other. Indeed, â€œlesbian feminists see compulsory heterosexuality [marriage] as fundamental to the patriarchal oppression of womenâ€ (Peterson 174). However, as emphasized in Gee, Kress and van Leeuwen, Reisigl and Wodak, and others, discourses are also constituted by our social practices â€“ they do not function as prescribed beliefs that we enact in zombie fashion â€“ and therein lies the power of resistance and promise of change. Kids in fact constructs a subversive and actively â€œqueerâ€ discourse of lesbian marriage in the fiercely conventional context of heteronormative American society and its co-opting of â€œfamily valuesâ€ (which Cholodenko signals directly in the interview which titles this paper).
As Kathryn Campbell-Kibler et al. have argued, â€œthe defiance of â€˜queerâ€™ derives from its resistance to a dominant ideology of â€˜differenceâ€™ 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 categoryâ€ (27). It can in this respect be argued that Kids not only serves to â€˜queerâ€™ the conventional notion of marriage as â€œman and wife,â€ but â€˜queersâ€™ as well the idea of essentialized lesbian identity.Â The film disrupts a gay/straight binary in interesting ways that accord with Judith Butlerâ€™s argument for constant and tenacious re-imagining of such discourses of identity, which should be â€œnever fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposesâ€ (Cameron 228).
4. Design of The Kids Are All Right
The filmâ€™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 â€œwell-organized and recognizable set of signsâ€ (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 â€“ i.e., two healthy kids, a comfortable home in a suburb of California greenbelts, a gleaming Volvo SUV, a â€œstableâ€ albeit â€œimperfectâ€ 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/VCRâ€™s are part of the visual grammar of this middle-class home, Joniâ€™s addiction is the boardgame Scrabble â€“ 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 childrenâ€™s ability to complete in the global marketplace. Laserâ€™s activities involve biking and team sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball: he does not disappear for entire weekends into an Xbox 360 â€œgamificationâ€ 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 â€œgay marriageâ€ is currently debated, â€œthe kids are (certainly) all rightâ€ 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 â€“ a commendable track record for any committed couple. Yet it must be noted that â€œopponents 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 effectsâ€ of this parenting (Clarke â€œWhat About the Children?â€ 568). Studies have documented a discourse that presents lesbians as â€œenemies of the family and [lesbian] marriage is a threat to the family, marriage and moralityâ€ (Clarke â€œLesbianâ€ 519).Â Kids presents an argument that the lives of lesbian parents â€œstrongly 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 homeworkâ€ (Clarke and Kitzinger 204).
Normalizing the narrative in this respect, the film constructs Nic as an Obstetrician/
Gynecologist and Jules as the mom who â€œquit [either college or graduate school] before the kids were bornâ€ (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 â€“ who call their mothers by the collective â€œMomsâ€ â€“ 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 Momsâ€™ good fortune), and â€œ41% indicated that they would like to meet the sperm donorâ€ (Leiblum 343). Nic and Jules would be placed among the majority here and were indeed appalled that their children wish to pursue this relationship: â€œBut whatâ€™s done is done. You met him, and now you guys can move on,â€ says Jules hopefully (s 30). Perhaps in such a scenario for aÂ dramedysembleâ€ 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 â€“ he has owned a successful organic restaurant â€œfor about a yearâ€ (f), as well as the garden that supplies it; he likes to have â€œa lot of funâ€ (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 Impalaâ€™s â€œSundown Syndromeâ€ as the soundtrack when Paul is introduced (â€œI wander around for days/ Wondering what I’ll say/ When they want the truthâ€).Â 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 â€œIâ€™m just saying, the plan was to limit his involvementâ€ (s 40) which quickly devolves to the fear that he is â€œtaking overâ€ 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 â€œfactitiousâ€ behavior believed of lesbians â€“ that womenâ€™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 filmâ€™s argument: â€œIâ€™m married â€¦ yeah, and I love Nic,â€ she informs Paul (s 72).Â 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: â€œJesus, whatâ€™s wrong with me?â€she asks. â€œIâ€™m totally fucked upâ€ (s 72). In a nod to an earlier film that depicts a pushback to an equally forceful enchantment, Jules has a â€œwash that man right out of my hairâ€ moment in Paulâ€™s shower â€“ which serves ironically as the context for Nicâ€™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 â€œthe kidsâ€ away from Nic (â€œLetâ€™s make this happen â€¦ letâ€™s get the kids together and do this thing â€¦I want a family. Iâ€™m readyâ€ [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 â€“ he has owned a successful organic restaurant â€œfor about a yearâ€ (f), as well as the garden that supplies it; he likes to have â€œa lot of funâ€ (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 Impalaâ€™s â€œSundown Syndromeâ€ as the soundtrack when Paul is introduced (â€œI wander around for days/ Wondering what I’ll say/ When they want the truthâ€).Â 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 â€œIâ€™m just saying, the plan was to limit his involvementâ€ (s 40) which quickly devolves to the fear that he is â€œtaking overâ€ her family (s 66).
The mise en scene, designed precisely, functions as an extralinguistic mode that serves also to realize the filmâ€™s discourses: â€œCinema setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative actionâ€ (Bordwell and Thompson 115).Â 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, â€œOh, yeah, oh, thatâ€™s cool. I love lesbiansâ€ (the script adds the note: â€œHe cringes at his lamenessâ€ [s15], and Ruffalo performs this feeling eloquently, grimacing as if heâ€™d eaten one of his organic lemons), believes that all he needs to do to extract Jules from this relationship is demand it (â€œIâ€™m readyâ€). 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 TVâ€™s; pictures, silky blankets, stainless steel appliances, and seemingly endless glasses of red wine. The design speaks directly of the coupleâ€™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 â€œrecord and construct reality,â€ they also represent explicitly defined values and thus do specific â€œsemiotic workâ€ as part of the integrated practice of the multimodal text (13). The design of the coupleâ€™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 â€“ 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 weâ€™re witnessing in this Production â€“ from the first cozy familiar scene in the family home, when Nic arrives after dark from a day of dealing with â€œ27 fibroids, all in the liningâ€ (s 4) and Jules has dinner (salad; rolls; wine) on the table â€“ 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 â€œretro,â€ in many ways, as the days of â€œFather Knows Bestâ€ when the patriarchal â€œbreadwinnerâ€ is nurtured by the homemaker who performs what Nancy Chodorow calls her â€œservicing functionâ€ (Harris et al. 371). Here we see the classic â€œHoney, Iâ€™m home!â€ moment. Jules has already settled â€œthe kidsâ€ at the dinner table, clearly expecting her M.D. â€œspouseâ€ to be late, fulfilling her expected role and performing â€œwife and motherâ€ â€“ i.e, performing â€œwomanâ€ â€“ â€œtraditionally reproducing people in the housework and child care, â€¦ [enacting] the image of women as servicers of menâ€™s and childrenâ€™s needsâ€ (Harris et al. 371).Â Food is cooked and served (the script calls for a â€œwell-prepared dinnerâ€ [s 3]); the house is orderly; music is playing quietly. The aural complement to the scene is Leon Russellâ€™s â€œOut in the Woods,â€ the lyrics a sharp ironic counterpoint to Julesâ€™ seemingly mild manner and gentle smile through this scene:
Well, Iâ€™m goinâ€™ down goinâ€™ down a hard road/ Just donâ€™t know donâ€™t know where Iâ€™ve been/
I think Iâ€™ve been a-walkin, Iâ€™m a-walkin â€˜round in circles/ â€¦ I can hardly sing my song â€¦
Iâ€™m lost and all alone/ Canâ€™t tell the bad from the good/ Iâ€™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 Nicâ€™s right; Joni, Nicâ€™s biological child, alone to Nicâ€™s left. This is the â€œpecking orderâ€ of this family, also visually fixed to support the centrality and control of Nic. The cinematic â€œstillâ€ also establishes visually the two â€œsidesâ€ within this family: Jules and Laser, to the left, are biologically linked by hair in shades of red; Nic and Joni are blond â€“ Nicâ€™s genes for lighter color apparently dominant over what Paul calls his â€œpeasantâ€ [f] or â€œMediterranean genesâ€ [s 53] (see Figure 3).
With Nicâ€™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 characterâ€™s demand for attention (particular the males); with Nic, the same goal is achieved with her voice alone, and the word â€œHey!â€
Hey, whose truck is that? (s 4)
Hey, who was that? [about a call on Laserâ€™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 familyâ€™s; she rejects the wine selection (â€œDo we have any more of the Fiddlehead?â€[f]); challenges Julesâ€™ purchase of a truck for her aspirational business and demeans it (â€œWhat business? [film note: Getting edgy.] The gardening?â€ [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 doesnâ€™t deserve it) and overrides Julesâ€™ comment (â€œWe just think heâ€™s a little untendedâ€ [f]). When gently admonished by Jules to â€œlet it go, Mommyâ€ [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 (â€œI mean, if it was up to you, our kids wouldnâ€™t even write thank you notes, you know, theyâ€™d just send out good vibesâ€ [s 6]).
The identity that Nic enacts is masculinized: she appears to reinscribe the heteronormative convention by positioning herself as the dominant â€œfatherlyâ€ figure in this relationship.
Hers is the controlling voice in every scene she enters; indeed, the script describes her as seeking to establish â€œdominanceâ€ once Paul enters the picture (s 30). She may be â€“ by dint of her intellect and the elegant composure that Bening performs â€“ low on the â€œbutchâ€ continuum, but she is depicted physically â€œbutch,â€ nonetheless, and the more immediately recognizable lesbian figure. Her name is a shortcut for Nicole, a Greek term that meant â€œvictorious peopleâ€ and has become a French derivative of â€œNicholasâ€; 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 â€œhoney Iâ€™m homeâ€ scene) a manâ€™s boxy overcoat, trousers, and Converse sneakers. She makes no secret of her immediate attraction to Jules (â€œYou were really prettyâ€ [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 Paulâ€™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 â€œsexy man-PJâ€™sâ€ in the script [s 47]. And Paul, in the one instance of agreement between them about Joni Mitchellâ€™s album â€œBlue,â€ toasts Nic as â€œmy brother from another motherâ€ (f).
While it may seem that her performance, equally strong, as â€œmotherâ€ â€“ she has, after all, given birth to the coupleâ€™s first child, Joni â€“ might complicate the otherwise â€œpatriarchalâ€ role she creates, her functionality as â€œmotherâ€ is less nurturing than disciplinary. It is Nic who holds â€œthe kidsâ€ 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 â€œcarrying the whole load hereâ€ (s 67); she drinks too much; she complains that she is â€œexhausted,â€ then snaps, â€œwhoâ€™s gonna pay for thatâ€ when Jules advises her to take time off and â€œrechargeâ€ (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 â€œrough languageâ€ 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 â€“ with her long red hair always escaping its constraints; her loose embroidered tunics or clingy graphic tee-shirts; her more visually â€œfeminizedâ€ form (see Figure 5) â€“
a more familiarly â€œfemmeâ€ or wifely persona.Â The â€œNâ€ 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 â€œcreating a family identity (particularly when children are or will be part of the family) is a significant motivation for name-changingâ€ (Clarke et al. 437), and it seems significant that Julesâ€™ name is the one subsumed. But in fact she enacts a more complex sexual identity as her first name, â€œJules,â€ indicates â€“ at once both visibly male (the French â€œJulesâ€) and aurally female and objectifiedÂ (â€œJewelsâ€), and this ambiguity is performed in the film as Jules explains to Laser [ her vocal intonations are marked]: â€œHuman sexuality is complicatedâ€¦? And sometimes peopleâ€™s desires can be â€¦ counterintuitive â€¦â€Â (f). Like her verbal habits, akin to Lakoffâ€™s description of â€œwomanâ€™s language,â€ Julesâ€™ posture is typically submissive, leaning forward, and she attempts to ameliorate a tense situation with a â€œwindshield wiperâ€ motion of her thumb on the otherâ€™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 â€“ she is described in the script as â€œdefeatedâ€ (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: â€œJust listen to me!â€ (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 â€œmaleâ€ â€“ a biological destiny that is unavailable to females, naturalized as nurturant and dependent â€“ and not a gendered performance.
Indeed, the dominant role as Nic performs it is more workaholic (and alcoholic) than sexualized â€“ Jules is the more intensely physical partner â€“ 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: â€œThis is my family. Youâ€™re just a fucking interloper,â€ she declares coldly. â€œYou really hurt my kids â€¦ If you want a family so much, go out and make one of your ownâ€Â (s 93). The film employs the aural mode effectively to reveal the loneliness that subtends Nicâ€™s performance of this dominant role: in one memorable scene at the dinner at Paulâ€™s apartment, she sings an unself-conscious and poignant verse of Joni Mitchellâ€™s â€œAll I Wantâ€: â€œDo you see how you hurt me, baby, and I hurt you, too, and we both get so blueâ€ â€“ thus establishing dramatic irony, since she will, in about five minutes, discover Julesâ€™ betrayal. The scene is fully integrated with this physical setting, these words, this music, this performance â€“ 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: â€œI am on a lonely road and I am traveling traveling traveling â€¦â€
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 â€œSecret Gardenâ€ at Paulâ€™s restaurant is both a way the film foreshadows their affair and symbolizes her â€œsecretâ€ and secretive nature. Nic is direct in expressing emotion: she cries when sheâ€™s sad; sings when sheâ€™s moved; yells if sheâ€™s angry. Jules is not so accessible, and she is definitely the â€œquicksilver girlâ€ (as a Steve Miller tune of her â€˜70â€™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 familyâ€™s enstructuration â€“ who is, in the logic of the filmâ€™s design, the one positioned to initiate the radical change. (Nic simply carries on, drinking the red wine whose quantity she denies: â€œJules: â€˜Honey, thatâ€™s your fourth glass.â€™ Nic: â€˜Actually, itâ€™s my third. But thanks for countingâ€™â€ [s 39].) The shift in power is enacted in the way Jules initiates the betrayal with Paul â€“ in the film it is she who makes the move â€“ 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 Paulâ€™s invasion of her home, and she attempts to counter it: â€œOh, just fucking kill me â€¦ I just canâ€™t with the fucking hemp milk and the organic farming and heirloom tomatoesâ€ (s 65) â€“ without visibly realizing that the change of language is actually a function of Julesâ€™ 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 (â€œsomewhere between slapstick and animal,â€ notes the script ), although the performance provides something of a rationale as Jules gazes amazed at Paul and says, â€œI just keep seeing my kids in your expressions â€¦ [She performs a toss of the head.] â€¦Thatâ€™s Laserâ€ (f) (and in the script: â€œYou and Laser have the same mouthâ€ ).Â 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 â€œfactitiousâ€ lesbian life for marriage with Paul (whose intentions are clear: â€œI want marriage and family and I want someone who will go there with meâ€ [f]) is here confounded: Jules fights to remain with her family and in fact is never more dominant herself than when she declaims, â€œJesus, Paul! Iâ€™m gay!â€ (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 â€œanimalâ€ attraction to Paul â€“ to leave as well the criticism she has visibly experienced with Nic â€“ and refuses. Her subversion of her role â€“ fixed in the seating arrangements around the Allgood dinner table, the silence she deploys to co-exist peaceably with Nic â€“ occurs prior to Paul, when she buys the truck to start her business, despite Nicâ€™s scoffing and sneering (â€œWhat? The gardening? â€¦ I just donâ€™t understand why you bought the truck nowâ€ â€¦ â€œDid you break ground? Did you dig in? I donâ€™t know the termâ€). Paul is in many ways merely a sign of her bid for substance, for subjectivity, for an identity not submerged in Nicâ€™s â€œAllgoodâ€ collective:
Jules: I just needed â€¦
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 â€œqueered.â€ Nic is the silent, seemingly â€œdefeatedâ€ 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. Julesâ€™ is the voice that defines the discourse of their relationship, hence, this movie: â€œMarriage is hard. Itâ€™s a fucking marathon, okay?â€Â (s 94). And when the family settles Joni in her dorm at Stanford, it is Jules who sits in the driverâ€™s seat of the family Volvo (â€œJules is at the wheelâ€ [s 97]) — also for the first time in this film â€“ as they return to their suburban home.
The French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut has noted that â€œthere are two kinds of directors: those who have the public in mind when they conceive and make their films, and those who donâ€™t consider the public at allâ€ (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 â€œlifeworld and systemâ€ for their kids. The film acknowledges the fears of a culture that the kids of lesbians would be gay themselves â€“ or the boys would be lost without a father â€“ 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 Laserâ€™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: â€œDonâ€™t take calls at the tableâ€ [f]â€¦ â€œI wish you were gay. Youâ€™d be so much more sensitiveâ€ ). Despite Julesâ€™ lack of profession, her evident crisis of age, or role, or a confusing mixture of those pressures, she has nonetheless created a home â€“ that clean and comfortable setting â€“ 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 â€œmiddle-aged sad-sack lesbianâ€ she believes she has become has refused to feel â€œdefeatedâ€ (â€œlostâ€ in the Russell lyrics) any longer. Nic, as noted, earns a professional income that ensures the kind of â€œinstitutionalized economic inequalityâ€ (Cameron 46) endemic in marriages where a wife is a â€œstay-at-home-mom,â€ like Jules; and Jules enacts, at first, an â€œideology that females [her assigned role in this relationship] are naturally nurturant and generous, more selfless than men, self-abnegatingâ€ (Harris et al. 371). In one critical encounter, Jules accuses Nic of not supporting her professional aspirations and suppressing her: â€œYou hated it when I worked! You wanted me at home. You wanted a wifeâ€ (s 67). And indeed, in the ideology of the nurturant female, â€œas a social institution the contemporary family contains no role whose principal task is the reproduction and emotional support of the wife and motherâ€ (Harris et al. 372). In this situation, Jules is the â€œwife and motherâ€ attempting, albeit confusedly, to start a new career and salvage a sense of agency as she sees the â€œempty nestâ€ solidify with Joniâ€™s packing for Stanford.
This discovery of â€œdeep sense,â€ as Gee has called the kind of resonance we find in our most meaningful social practices â€“ â€œthose things we hold in common as basic human needs,â€ as media critic Joseph Harris has noted (471) â€“ 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 â€“ the film is in fact devoid of overt feminist and indeed political context â€“ the audience has experienced a radical â€˜queeringâ€™ of marriage â€“ and experienced, too, a kind of â€œDefense of Marriage Actâ€ at the same time. Indeed, as many critics noted, â€œunconventional families can be just as tedious in their melodramatic dysfunctions as any traditional clanâ€ (Groen). Nonetheless those â€œtedious dysfunctionsâ€ serve to sustain this â€œunconventionalâ€ lesbian family and give it discursive staying power.
The filmâ€™s foregrounding of betrayal in a long-term female partnership as a â€œkind of family values movieâ€ is indeed a strategic and timely cultural act: â€œThese are real people, not placards,â€ notes journalist Don Savage, â€œand the movie presents a fully realized, fully human portrayal of a long-partnered-if-not-married coupleâ€ [emphasis added] . However, the apparently casual and indeed matter-of-fact introduction of the words â€œIâ€™m marriedâ€ into the center of Julesâ€™ 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 â€œlinchpinâ€ of this film, the source of its cohesion and subversion simultaneously. As viewers, we know we have moved beyond those tepid words â€œdomestic partnershipâ€ and witnessed a genuine marriage. We witness, too, the collapse of religious/political/social discourses that conflate marriage with heterosexual norms â€“ that indeed, as Cameron quoting the poet Adrienne Rich has noted, enforce a â€œcompulsoryâ€ heterosexuality (44). We see the relationship as Jules has named and described it â€“ â€œMarriage is hard. Itâ€™s a fucking marathonâ€ â€“ a â€œmarathonâ€ 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 â€“ no matter who is enacting them â€“ such as the ways that power is negotiated, fixed, and disrupted, and the kind of resolution that marriage in its most potent commitment, â€œâ€™til death do us part,â€ 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 â€“ and experience the kind of recognition that leads to â€œsubversion and change,â€ as Cameron posits it (55). The rhetorical work that the film is doing â€“ its deep purpose beyond â€œsit-comâ€ entertainment (as some reviewers have charged) â€“ is clear in its dramatic use of the aural mode in the closing song, â€œYouthâ€ 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 filmâ€™s argument that pushes its issues beyond identity politics or a simple albeit multimodal poster for gay marriage, and thus a â€œcultâ€ 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 â€œyouthâ€ did â€œflood the streetsâ€ and â€œchangeâ€ â€“ the â€˜60â€™s directly referenced by the filmâ€™s title, The Kids Are All Right, a revision of the title of the song, â€œThe Kids Are Alrightâ€ by The Who (the change in spelling signaling the different text and context). Thus, both title and film move â€œan old idea into a new context,â€ as the quote that foregrounds this paper argues, and â€œthis is one way tradition moves forwardâ€ â€“ i.e., adapting to the â€œnew and exciting thingsâ€ that a new generation discovers.
â€œWhat else do you have but your tribe?â€ the filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko notes in her description of Kids — the â€œtribeâ€ predating conventional scripts of marriage (â€œThe Makingâ€). Her use of the word â€œtribe,â€ rather than â€œfamily,â€ serves, finally, to signal the filmâ€™s subversive intent and announce its radical critique of conventional roles. The discourse that equates the â€œmasculineâ€ (in the form of Nic) with husbandly dominance and independence, and the â€œfeminineâ€ (in the figure of Jules) with wifely dependence and subordination, alters dramatically in the trauma this â€œtribeâ€ 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 Cholodenkoâ€™s â€œdramedysembleâ€: impulses and intentions have led to unexpected consequences. Laser informs them: â€œI donâ€™t think you guys should break up â€¦ Youâ€™re too oldâ€ (f) â€“ a comment thatâ€™s not so funny, or even poignant, for two women facing a loss of the â€œfecundâ€ (a word clearly on Julesâ€™ mind [s 41]), a daughter who says, â€œIâ€™m an adult now and you have to respect thatâ€ (s 58) and slams the door on them, or yells â€œIâ€™m so sick of both of youâ€ (s 90). Laser cuts to the heart of the matter (as he often does in this film) â€“ but itâ€™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 â€œwhateverâ€ and write it together. The kids, as theyâ€™ve raised them in their particular tribe, are â€œall right.â€
That two women, in central and dominant roles, engage in a process of â€œre-normingâ€ our notions â€“ indeed, our â€œcultural capitalâ€ â€“ that has defined marriage in heteronormative ways which deny the integrity or even the existence of alternative â€œlifeworlds,â€ is indeed the filmâ€™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 â€“ 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 womenâ€™s stories: â€œWith few exceptions not many [films] are really that interested in women. Most of these films are male worldsâ€ (Foner and Sayles 149).Â This strategy places the film directly in line with Judith Butlerâ€™s â€œexpanding political purposes,â€ but pragmatically. The film and the viewerâ€™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 â€“ which the film indeed makes central and emphatic â€“ 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 â€œlifeworld and systemâ€ that could certainly â€œqueerâ€ and overturn our deepest ideologies â€“ and that future is â€œall right,â€ too.
By Nancy Fox, University of Washington, Seattle
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 In â€œConfessions of a Juggler,â€ 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 â€œheterosexuality and lesbianism are not just different but equal choices women can make; one of them â€“ heterosexuality â€“ is compulsory, the other â€“ lesbianism â€“ is forbiddenâ€ (44).
 See Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, for one perspective on this concern.
 An assertion that research supports: â€œChildren 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 homosexualâ€ (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 filmâ€™s perhaps most subtle story arc, and nonetheless one of its most dramatic, Laser moves from persuading a reluctant Joni to contact the â€œdonor dad,â€ since she is legally of age, to skepticism and ultimately a complete and disgusted rejection of Paul.
 Nellie Forbush in â€œSouth Pacific.â€
 This is an instance of class ideology that is part of â€œThe Kidsâ€ 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 manâ€™s speech.
 It is interesting to note that Paul as donor â€œhas no legal right or responsibility to any child that may resultâ€ from his donation. (Markus et al. 129)