Polyamory, Pop Culture, and Propaganda: “Yes, We’re Open”


So when people making movies/ TV shows etc. are depicting the lives of some misunderstood/ marginalized group that doesn’t get depicted in pop culture very much… what responsibilities do they have? If any?

Yes We're Open posterI saw this movie last night, “Yes, We’re Open”: an indie small-budget comedy (available on DVD and download) about a San Francisco couple beginning to consider non-monogamy when they meet an open-relationship couple who expresses an interest in them. (Mild spoilers ahead.) I really, really wanted to love this movie: there are so few films about non-monogamous/ polyamorous/ open relationships and people, and the few that are out there tend to be insulting, or exploitative, or demonizing, or dismissive, or just laughably wrong. (Or any combination of the above.) I liked this movie a fair amount… but I didn’t love it, and I so dearly wanted to love it. In some ways, the fact that I did like it, the fact that it did have interesting ideas and quirky human characters, the fact that the filmmakers are clearly familiar with and affectionate towards alt sex culture in general and San Francisco alt sex culture in particular… all of that, in a weird way, made it even more frustrating. My expectations were higher: it could have been so much more.

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

I’m not sure I buy that. I think there’s tons of humor in the hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death aspect of polyamory. And I think you can do humor about ethical people: there’s plenty of humor/ conflict/ narrative tension in basically good people screwing up, or being self-deluded, or battling with their demons and better angels, or being out of the loop and trying to figure it out. It is harder, though, I’ll grant them that. So here’s the question I keep coming back to: When people making movies/ TV shows etc. are depicting the lives of some misunderstood/ marginalized group that doesn’t get depicted in pop culture very much… what responsibilities do they have? If any?

Celluloid Closet book coverHere’s what I mean. Back when I was a film critic for an LGBT newspaper in the early ’90s, I was very engaged in holding filmmakers’ feet to the fire. “We want better gay characters!” I demanded, along with a zillion other queer film critics. I didn’t want them all to be awesome perfect role models: I don’t, in fact, want my pop culture entertainment to be propaganda. Propaganda is, among other things, boring as fuck. I just wanted some goddamn gay characters who didn’t fall into the inexorable stereotypes of psychopath, pathetic loser, or mincing clown.

I don’t have to demand that anymore. Because, to a great extent, we won. There is an enormous variety of gay characters in movies and TV now: heroes, villains, morally complex people, ordinary people, sympathetic leads with complex inner lives, secondary and background characters who fold naturally into the landscape, in comedies and dramas and thrillers and sci-fi and every other genre you can think of. There are still problems with these depictions: among other things, gay characters tend to be either hyper-sexualized or entirely de-sexualized (the gay best friend dispensing romantic wisdom but with no sex life of his own has become the new cliché). But there isn’t that sense of a huge gaping hole in the pop culture landscape. (Not for lesbians and gays, anyway: there is still somewhat for bisexuals, and significantly more for trans people.) And so there aren’t those huge expectations laid on every gay movie that comes out, that urgent demand to have every single movie fill every one of these needs… or that sense of bitter disappointment when something misses the mark.

Yes We're Open stillBut that isn’t true for poly people. We don’t have our “Philadelphia,” our “Brokeback Mountain,” our “Ellen,” our “The Kids Are All Right,” our “Will and Grace,” our “Glee.” And so when a movie like “Yes, We’re Open” comes along — a funny, quirky, human, likeable movie, a movie that gets so much right about the awkward vulnerability of sexual exploration, and the envious voyeurism of some more sexually conventional people with their more adventurous friends, and the cringe-worthy absurdity of competitive hipster culture (OMLOG, the food scenes made me want to both bust a gut laughing and crawl under my seat with embarrassed self-recognition), and that horrible moment of clarity when you realize that you’re being a douchebag — it’s that much more disappointing when the poly people are so skanky, and not particularly ethical. When they pursue their non-monogamy with so little concern for others, so little sensitivity to the fact that this is new ground for the objects of their desire and maybe they should tread carefully. When they basically just use people and discard them. When they aren’t even really three-dimensional characters at all, but caricatures, trends in modern urban culture made flesh. When they don’t really seem to have inner lives of their own, but simply exist as a catalyst for the main characters to learn and change and grow.

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

Yes, We’re Open. Cherry Sky Films/ Greenrocksolid. Starring Parry Shen, Lynn Chen, Sheetal Sheth, and Kerry McCrohan. Written by HP Mendoza. Produced by Theresa Navarro; produced and directed by Richard Wong. Available on DVD and download.

Comments

  1. malachite says

    This is yet another instance of the difference between the one and the many. I don’t think that a producer has a responsibility to have a particular character constructed to not reinforce stereotypes of a minority/discriminated-against group, but I do think the movie industry as a whole has a collective responsibility to not do that. How you reconcile that? Not easily.

  2. Bill Openthalt says

    or that sense of bitter disappointment when something misses the mark.

    Seeing the perennial violations of the laws of physics in movies (think guns, computers, cars, fistfights, fires, bombs, horseriding, etc), the complete distortion of medical practices, and the misrepresentation of the legal system, it’s actually a major miracle they are not equally shoddy in their depiction of relationships (but then, maybe they are :) ).

  3. antialiasis says

    Can I just say I agree with you so hard on everything you post about fiction and pop culture? Especially the bits about not wanting boring propaganda and role models meaning variety, not that all characters from neglected minority X must be shown as perfect superheroes. I’d love it if you posted more about these issues – not that I object to any of the other things you post about.

  4. leftwingfox says

    Malachite: I think at the studio level, there’s a good opportunity there. A committed studio could ensure that they annually greenlight a few films for production which tell stories outside of the non-cis straight white male perspective. They can also suggest at the script/casting stage, to ensure that there’s some diversity in the cast.

    It might be shallow to simply swap a character’s sex, race or orientation without doing more than a pronoun swap in the script, but it also helps break down stereotypes (i.e. if the slovenly “dudebro” sidekick of the film is made gay without any other changes. Cheap trick? Maybe, but I know a dozen guys like that in reality!) Hell, Aliens did it, and turned Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley into a cultural touchstone.

  5. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    I’m not sure I buy that. I think there’s tons of humor in the hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death aspect of polyamory. And I think you can do humor about ethical people: there’s plenty of humor/ conflict/ narrative tension in basically good people screwing up, or being self-deluded, or battling with their demons and better angels, or being out of the loop and trying to figure it out.

    That was my first thought. Hell, I’d watch that movie if it was done well — it’s a perfect setup for comedic confusions, cleverly-written dialogue, an ensemble cast all working at cross purposes despite everyone’s best intentions. And the “hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death aspect” invites a) a script where you can have comedic situations without any character having to be completely unsympathetic or vicious, and b) the possibility of a resolution where nobody’s been seriously emotionally hurt at the end of the 90 minutes (which is kinda the point of the “h-e, h-p, tetd aspect” in the first place).

    As for responsibility: I’d say that at a bare minimum, in cases where “getting it right” will actively contribute to the movie as movie even overlooking the quality of representation…a filmmaker has a responsibility to get it right. If a fair, honest and sympathetic picture of the group will also make for a better comedy/drama/whatever-the-genre, then there’s the responsibility of representation and the responsibility of filmcraft, and a failure is a failure with respect to both responsibilities.

  6. says

    I got a copy of “We’re Open” as soon as I could, and I was disappointed by how it ended. Partly because I expected them to successfully open their relationship. And partly because the ending was a false resolution. It was not satisfying to see them moving on without being honest about their “infidelities.” So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I would like to see more installments. Let’s watch them over a period of years as they experiment and hopefully learn from their mistakes and successes.

    We can only hope that mass media types are responsible and not perpetuate false stereotypes, false information, etc. But it is certainly not the rule in that industry.

    Si

  7. says

    “Open” relationships are doomed to failure, and are not at all healthy, even if the participants are “highly ethical” about it. Every single time I’ve heard about one of these, it was because the guy wanted to get more sex without being held accountable for cheating, while the woman is (figuratively) left at the side of the road. Not healthy.

    Pair-bonding and monogamy is normal, natural, and healthy.

  8. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Wow WMDKitty, could you make that comment a little more condescending and heteronormative?

  9. says

    WMDKitty:

    Every single time I’ve heard about one of these, it was because the guy wanted to get more sex without being held accountable for cheating, while the woman is (figuratively) left at the side of the road. Not healthy.

    Gee, thanks ever so fucking much for being yet another person who disappears me, a bisexual woman. It’s obvious you don’t have one single clue as to how many poly relationships work, and as that’s the case, perhaps it’s best to sit on your fingers while you get busy with some self-education.

  10. Greta Christina says

    “Open” relationships are doomed to failure, and are not at all healthy, even if the participants are “highly ethical” about it. Every single time I’ve heard about one of these, it was because the guy wanted to get more sex without being held accountable for cheating, while the woman is (figuratively) left at the side of the road. Not healthy.

    Pair-bonding and monogamy is normal, natural, and healthy.

    WMDKitty (Always growing and learning) @ #8: ?????

    I’m going to assume that you’re being sarcastic here, or are making a clumsy effort to re-state what you see as the social norm rather than your own opinion. But on the off-chance that you’re not: ????? Among the many other things that are wrong with this: It assumes heterosexuality. Which is a bad assumption: non-monogamous/ poly/ open relationships exist among same-sex oriented people, as well as opposite-sex oriented people, bisexual people, and people who don’t identify on a gender binary.

    Another thing that’s really wrong with this is the idea that what’s normal and/or natural have anything to do with what’s healthy. Who cares what’s normal? What seems to be “normal” in current Western culture is making promises to never have sex outside the relationship, and then breaking those promises. I do not give less than a damn about what’s normal. I care about what’s ethical, and what makes people happy,

    And, of course, something else that’s wrong with this is that it’s just… well, wrong. R-O-N-G Rong. Factually inaccurate. There are lots of open/ poly/ non-monogamous relationships, including ones among straight people, that don’t even remotely fit the template you describe,

    Which leads me to what’s probably the biggest wrong thing wrong with this: namely, basing a sweeping conclusion about what is and isn’t healthy or doomed to failure… solely on the basis of what you, personally, have heard about. I strongly urge you to read more about the wide variety of non-monogamous, poly, and open relationships, among people of all genders and relationships of all gender configurations. (“Opening Up” by Tristan Taormino and “The Ethical Slut” by Dossie Easton and Janey Hardy would be good places to start.) Please do that before you continue to perpetuate inaccurate and harmful ideas about poly/ non-monogamous/ open relationships and people. Including the host and author of this blog. Thank you.

  11. says

    So, my experience, yet again, counts for nothing.

    No, I see how this works — any experience that does not conform to this mythological “perfect” polyamory where nobody is ever jealous or has feelings is automatically discounted as “wrong”.

    Caine I AM bisexual, and did not “erase” you. You’re not helping us out any by perpetuating the myth of the bisexual as a greedy lover who wants multiple partners and can’t commit to just one. In fact, advocating for poly “relationships” does far more harm to us than anything hetero society could do, precisely because it’s playing in to that stereotype.

    I am capable of monogamy, I prefer monogamy, and I’m tired of these poly assholes insisting that I’m weird or wrong for expecting the same from a partner. If you aren’t capable of monogamy, just admit it instead of jerking people around thinking you want a relationship with them only to blow them off to fuck some new random person you found at the bar.

    Greta

    Monogamy and the promotion thereof is not inherently “heteronormative.” Monogamy is necessary for a healthy relationship and a healthy society, especially if you want to raise children — regardless of the genders and orientations involved.

    The simple fact is, humans of ALL genders and orientations naturally form romantic pair-bonds. As in TWO people. Not three. Not four. Five is right out. TWO. To insist otherwise rises to the level of “not even wrong”, and, once more, contributes to anti-bisexual sentiment among not only hetero folks, but among the L and G parts of what’s supposed to be OUR community, too. This bullshit is the reason I can’t get a date — “bisexuals are greedy”, we “can’t have just one partner”, we “want to fuck anything that moves”, and so forth.

    And here’s the thing; I was IN an “open” relationship. HE was allowed to fuck around all he wanted. I wasn’t allowed to have ANY friends over (of any gender or orientation) because — and this is his reasoning — “you’re bisexual, you’ll cheat on me with your friends.” But he could drag home some random piece of tail from the corner and I couldn’t say one word about it because “we agreed to an open relationship”. (If anyone is wondering, yes, it’s that ex.)

    “Open” relationship is, in my experience, code for “I want to fuck around with other partners and don’t care about your feelings.”

    So, hey, a little recognition that a lot of people get burned badly by “open” relationships and polyamory, please?

  12. says

    WMDKitty:

    You’re not helping us out any by perpetuating the myth of the bisexual as a greedy lover who wants multiple partners and can’t commit to just one. In fact, advocating for poly “relationships” does far more harm to us than anything hetero society could do, precisely because it’s playing in to that stereotype.

    I’m not the one perpetuating harmful stereotypes here. That would be you. Most of your opinions lately seem to be right out of right wing authoritarian asshole handbook. As for committing to a partner? I’ve been committed to my husband for over 34 years. I’ve also been committed to my woman partner for over 15 years, so fuck you very much.

  13. Greta Christina says

    So, my experience, yet again, counts for nothing.

    WMDKitty (Always growing and learning) @ #12: Your experience counts for something. But it doesn’t count for everything. The experience of myself, and my poly friends and colleagues, and the thousands upon thousands of poly people whose experience wildly differs from the one you describe, also count for something. I’m really sorry that you had a bad experience with it — but it sounds like you were involved with a controlling, abusive asshole. That’s not the fault of polyamory. There are plenty of controlling, abusive assholes in monogamous relationships, too.

    I am not trying to erase your experience or your observations. I am not trying to present all polyamory/ non-monogamy/ open relationships as perfect and awesome. I am simply saying that:

    (a) Monogamy is also not perfect and awesome.

    (b) Your characterization of poly/ open/ non-monogamous relationships is not accurate. It’s sometimes like that, but you didn’t say that — you said it was always like that, and that’s just not so.

    and (c) Your assertion that monogamy is right and natural and healthiest and best for absolutely everyone, and that polyamory is always just an excuse for people who aren’t capable of committing to monogamy and just want to screw around, is both seriously insulting and flatly, observably untrue.

    If you prefer monogamy, that is totally fine with me. That is an entirely legitimate choice. There are some poly people who are judgmental of monogamy: I strongly object to that, and think they’re wrong to do it. But I am not going to just sit back and say nothing while people tell insulting, hurtful untruths about my life, and the lives of so many people I care about.

    I’m not the one saying your experience wasn’t real. You’re the one saying that my experience isn’t real, and that the experiences of my friends and colleagues aren’t real. Please, please, stop.

  14. Greta Christina says

    Caine, poisoned chalice: Please remember my comment policy. No personal insults aimed at other commenters. Criticize ideas and behaviors. Do not personally insult people. And keep heated rhetoric to a minimum. I won’t be able to watch this thread with the vigilance it apparently needs, and I’m going to rely on you and other commenters to keep it civil. Thank you.

  15. jonathanh says

    Holy crap, it was you! I sat next to you at the movie and when you asked the question at the Q and A I thought I recognized you and the way you spoke. Wow, kicking myself so hard for not at least trying to shake your hand….

    Anyways, I definitely see what you’re saying and what HP said, but I’m definitely siding with you on this one. I get the need for drama, but I don’t know why it had to be drama at the expense of the poly characters. They were already willing to have the main characters lie to each other, why have the other couple be self centered dicks? It seemed unnecessary to me, especially since really at the point the movie’s on the downward slope and they don’t actually get that much drama from the unethical behavior of the poly characters.

    Dang, just writing this is sort of retroactively dislike the movie more and more. Shame, because otherwise it was really endearing.

  16. says

    Greta

    I’m done with this discussion. I’m feeling angry, and upset, and hurt, because people are dismissing my experiences without even considering that I might have a point. I’m just going to go do something else until I can calm down.

    Caine

    I apologize for causing any hurt. I know intent is not magic, but I really had no intention of hurting anyone, and I was simply relaying my experiences. I feel bad that my pain and anger ended up causing you pain.

    I know you’re not going to read this comment, I don’t care. I just need to get this out.

    Everyone else in the thread

    I apologize for disrupting this conversation.

  17. says

    WMDkitty
    No one is dismissing your experiences. People are saying that it is not reasonable to generalize from that experience to all open/poly relationships. This is especially true since the example you gave was of a severely abusive relationship. Every point you described except using the term open relationship are not just literally textbook examples of traits of an abuser, they are, put together, basically the definition of an abusive relationship, and every last one of them happens to people in officially monogamous relationships that are abusive, regardless of the genders of the people involved The problem with that relationship, in other words, was that the other party was an abuser; all the other problems stem from that one. Therefore, your extremely offensive generalizations implying that Caine, Greta, myself, and others are either a) abusers or b)being abused by our partners, which is doing us and our partners an incredible disservice.
    Also,

    The simple fact is, humans of ALL genders and orientations naturally form romantic pair-bonds.

    Citation massively fucking needed.

  18. says

    You know… I seem to remember movies from way back, where some group’s house/church/etc. where threatened by some jerk or other, and the people involved banned together, in some mad cap way, to save it. They where funny, they didn’t treat the lives of the people defending themselves like there was something wrong with them, etc. Why couldn’t they have gone that route? I mean, other than the “modern” formulaic, which demands that such movies be about a gang of moronic people, with questionable ethics, trying to chase down money, being given away by someone with even poorer ethics… I.e., the “jokes” all have to come from how stupid, or corrupt, or otherwise flawed the people are not their “opposition”, assuming there is any, according to the logic of today’s “comedies”.

  19. says

    All I can say is WMDKitty seems to be making broad brush statement that seems to come from an unethical past. My partner of 5 years has 3 other partners while I have 2 others.
    In the past 3 years our greatest relationship issue has been scheduling. So when WMDKitty says “ALL open relationships” are MENZ being unethical, they’re deep in the deep end of the confirmation bias pool.

  20. says

    Hi Greta,

    It’s H.P. Mendoza, writer of YES, WE’RE OPEN. Jonathan Hanson, who I think is commenter #17, was the final person of many to point me to your blog post. I really appreciate your write-up and would like for you to read my response.

    http://hpmendoza.com/ywo

    Hope to hear from you!
    H.P.

  21. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    without even considering that I might have a point.

    Of course you have a point. But it is a single point. A single data point. It’s human nature to take a small data set of one (our own experience) and use it to formulate inaccurate generalities. We all do it. It’s one of the biggest challenges we face, trying to be aware of our cognitive biases. Remember that this is a site devoted to skepticism (among many other things) and a good skeptic realizes that their experiences are not universally true for others.

  22. says

    So, I think that what might be going on here is that this entire movie is ABOUT polyamory. Or rather, it’s about couples dealing with poly issues, and that’s the central conflict of the film. So naturally, in order for there to BE conflict and humor, it has to revolve around the poly stuff.

    In my opinion, the key to integrate gender/sexuality minorities, people of color, people with alternative lifestyles, etc. into our media is not to make the entire film/show/book ABOUT the way in which those people are different. The story arc of a gay character should not be all about them being gay. The story arc of a polyamorous character should not be all about them being poly. They should be presented as people who have mostly the same conflicts in their lives as anyone else.

    Under that framework, a movie that includes a poly couple could portray them and their relationship in an affirmative, healthy way because the actual story would be about something other than their polyness. Because “Yes, We’re Open” is a movie about polyamory, it’s unable to normalize that lifestyle at all. An average, “normal” polyamorous relationship wouldn’t be nearly interesting enough to make an entire film about.

  23. says

    @H. P. Mendoza: Some comments on your response.

    1. Luke and Sylvia are at a point many people come to and a few proceed to figure out polyamory and/or swinging. They are trying to integrate their desire for other lovers with their desire to maintain a primary relationship with each other. Swinging and polyamory are honest ways to do this, but at the end of the movie they have both cheated. I think leaving them compartmentalizing their infidelity at the end of the movie create more questions than it answers, and maybe it will stimulate moviegoers to discuss those questions, but I don’t think most movie goers will have the information to do that. So I vote for one or more sequels.

    2. Ron and Elena are NOT polyamorous, let alone successful polyamorists or swingers. Neither ethical polyamorists nor swingers would seduce people who did not have an agreement to have other sexual partners with their own partners. And their rule about never having sex with the same person more than once is something I have never heard in my 45 years of experience in the poly and swing worlds. Polyamorists are interested in crafting long term, multifaceted, loving relationships, not using and discarding people. Swingers generally want to keep in touch with people they have had good experiences with and might expect to see at parties in the future.

    3. I think it is ok to play with stereotypes that have a basis in real human beings, and Eating Raoul does this admirably. There are a lot of people like Sylvia and Luke, so stereotyping them in my book is ok. But I don’t think there are many predators like Ron and Elena, especially in the polamory community. So giving people the idea that they have to look out for Ron and Elena types doesn’t help people dealing with the issues that Luke and Sylvia are struggling with.

  24. Matrim says

    I’ll probably still see the film at some point, but I have to admit that I’m a little bummed now. I was always a bit taken aback by the lack of understanding about poly relationships when the issue came up with me. Most people are cool that I’m bisexual, most people are cool with the fact that I’m an atheist, but if it ever came up that I was in a poly relationship it was almost like it just didn’t compute. I really hope that at some point poly folks will eventually have some sort of acceptible representation in media.

    @WMDKitty> I don’t necessarily think an apology is needed; the fact that you’ve had a bad time of things sucks, and I hope you’re in a better place now. I also hope that you’re aware that your characterization of poly relationships is simply wrong. I acknowledge that poly relationships are not perfect, nor is everyone suited for them. Yes, people still get jealous or resentful; yes, there are still problems. However, I hope you acknowledge that pair-bonding is not perfect, nor is everyone suited for it. People still get jealous or resentful; there are still problems. No one here is asking you to be in a poly relationship, and anyone who claims you should be is a jerkwad. I honestly don’t see how saying “monogamy is necessary for a healthy relationship and a healthy society, especially if you want to raise children” has any more basis in fact than “heterosexuality is necessary for a healthy relationship and a healthy society, especially if you want to raise children.” While it’s true that having a revolving door to your bedroom that your children are exposed to can lead to issues; I don’t know of any research showing committed poly groups have any difficulties raising children that aren’t equally represented in the rest of the population. In fact, to wax anecdotal for a moment, it tends to be a great situation for my relationship. One of my partners has a child, and between the three of us there is always someone to be around, always someone to make him feel loved. He’s never had any difficulty dealing with our relationship (granted, he’s fairly young, so he probably hasn’t given it much thought), and sees me and my other partner as an aunt and an uncle (referring to us as such). Granted, I’m sure there are poly groups who have poorer experiences with child rearing, but the same can be said for just about any other form of parenting.

    Wow, this got a lot longer than I meant for it to be. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sorry you’ve been mistreated, but that it wasn’t polyamorism that mistreated you; it was your partner. I acknowledge that polyamorism isn’t perfect and would be a poor relationship for some people, and hope that you acknowledge the same about pair-bonding.

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