The Kids Are All Right

This review was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD, and it received four Oscar nominations, including on for Best Picture.

The-Kids-Are-All-Right-2010-Movie-Poster Are queers just like everyone else?

Are queers just ordinary human beings, with the same hopes and fears and neuroses and dreams as everybody? Or are queers fundamentally different from straight people, with profoundly different ways of dealing with sex and gender and love and family?

It’s a question that shows up most dramatically in debates between assimilationists and separatists (and those of us on the spectrums in between). But it also shows up in the hearts and minds of queers — and straight people with queers in their lives — when we’re searching our souls in private about who we are and how we fit into the world.

And it’s a question explored in fascinating, funny, painful, complicated, and almost excruciatingly human detail in the brilliant new film, “The Kids Are All Right.”

Along with a whole host of equally compelling questions about sex, humanity, and selfhood…. and how they intertwine.

Kids are all right 1 Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon,” “High Art”), “The Kids Are All Right” stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a long-term lesbian couple with two teenage kids: one on the verge of college, the other still in the depths of high school. Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) get curious about their anonymous sperm donor/ father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo): they look him up, meet him, and begin folding him into their family life.

Not- so- wacky hijinks ensue. Paul, an easygoing, live- for- the- moment restaurant owner and self-avowed non- team- player, is in a lot of ways a breath of fresh air for this family, and the things he has to offer are things each of them needs: independence and rebellion for Joni, a model for manhood other than “macho asshole” for Laser, a willingness to relinquish control and let things be for Nic, and for Jules… well, I’ll get to that in a minute, when I get to the spoilers. But the flip side of Paul’s easygoing, live- for- the- moment attitude is his self-absorption and irresponsibility, his blithe disregard for the effect he has on others. And the breath of fresh air he breathes into the family soon becomes a hurricane.

Kids-are-all-right_2 So what does this have to do with queerness? Well, one of the first things you notice about Nic and Jules is all the ways they’re like every other long- married couple. Of any sexual orientation. The casually deep intimacy and the dumb squabbles; the easy affection and the old, unresolved conflicts; the long history of things that never get said and the long history of things so well understood they don’t need to be said… all this will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s married. Or who knows people who are married. Which is to say, anybody.

Yet at the same time, Nic and Jules are very much a lesbian couple. At times to the point of being scary. The processing, the casual use of therapy-speak both to communicate and to score points, will have every lesbian couple in the audience hiding under the seats in embarrassed recognition. More positively, the two women’s ease with their bodies and with each other’s bodies, the complete comfort with which they see themselves as women while offhandedly rejecting almost every conventional image of femininity, will be instantly and delightfully familiar to anyone who’s hung around dykes for more than fifteen minutes. And of course, the crux of the story — the kids of the two moms looking up their sperm donor — hinges on the special circumstances of this being a queer family. As does the particular way that Hurricane Paul wreaks havoc on the family. (Again — more on that in a tic.)

So are Nic and Jules just like every other married couple? Or is their lesbian marriage fundamentally different from a straight marriage?

The_kids_are_allright 7 The answer — to both questions — is Yes. Yes, this is a marriage much like any marriage, a story almost any married couple will relate to. And at the same time: Yes, this is a lesbian marriage, deeply rooted in lesbian culture. Queers are human beings — we’re not frogs or barnacles, of course we have deep things in common with the rest of the human race. And at the same time: Queers are queers, part of a unique culture, with experiences and quirks that even the most queer-friendly straight people are never going to get.

But Nic and Jules are more than just another married couple. And they’re more than just a distinctly lesbian married couple.

They’re Nic and Jules.

Kids-are-all-right-6 “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the most intensely human movies I’ve seen in a long time. The characters feel completely real, and completely individual, as real and individual as anyone I might meet at a party and strike up a conversation with. They are flawed and powerful, sympathetic and aggravating, thoughtful and selfish, careless and loving, disturbing and funny, with good sides and bad sides that are deeply intertwined flip-sides of one another. The characters in this movie are unique. And their marriage is unique.

Which, paradoxically, is a huge part of what makes the movie resonate so strongly. This isn’t a movie about Marriage, or about Lesbian Marriage. It’s a movie about one particular marriage, and one particular family. And that uniqueness, the humanity shown with such rawness it’s sometimes painful to watch, is what makes these characters feel so intensely familiar. It’s something I’ve often said about fiction: To make a story people can identify with, don’t make it generic. Make it personal. Making it personal is what makes it true.

Kids.Are.All.Right 12 There’s a complaint I’m beginning to see about this movie, especially from queers. (And this is where the spoiler I’ve been alluding to comes in. Spoiler alert — now!) The major plot turn in “The Kids Are All Right” happens when Jules starts doing some landscaping work for Paul, and they wind up having an affair. With disastrous effects: not only on Nic and Jules’ marriage, but on the kids’ blossoming relationship with their sperm donor/ dad. This turn of events has some queer viewers angry, or at least annoyed: they’re complaining that historically, way too many movies about lesbians end up with one of them sleeping with a man (and in many cases, being “cured” thereby). And they’re baffled as to why this movie — directed and co-written by a lesbian and so clearly created from a lesbian perspective — would perpetuate this tired old stereotype.

Kidsareallright 11 Sorry, but I’m not buying it. I’m usually happy to join a Celluloid Closet dogpile and rant at a movie for perpetuating stereotypes about queers. But in this case, I think it’s wildly inappropriate. For one thing, Jules sleeping with Paul isn’t portrayed as the lesbian being “cured” of her lesbianism. Not even a little. It’s portrayed as a freaking tragedy that comes close to demolishing a family. If anything, this movie gives a very queer twist on that old queer-bashing trope. Jules “experiments” with a man to fill a need she isn’t getting from her marriage — not a need for maleness, but a need for appreciation, and for spontaneity, and for a life whose parameters aren’t set by her hyper-organized, control-freak wife. But in the end, she turns her back on this disruptive influence, and begins working to repair her marriage and restore what she can of her normal, stable family life. A family life that, in this case, is lesbian.

And maybe more to the point: This movie isn’t about lesbians.

It’s about Nic and Jules.

I’ve been saying for years that what queer audiences (and straight ones, for that matter) need from queer movie characters isn’t positive role models. What we need is queer characters who are as human and complex and believable as the straight ones.

The-kids-are-all-right-9 Which is exactly what “The Kids Are All Right” gives us. The creators of this film aren’t obligated to single-handedly correct every dumb stereotype about lesbians in the history of film. They’re obligated to present lesbians as real, plausible, multi-faceted human beings. Which is exactly what they did. There are a lot of things you can say about Jules sleeping with Paul: it was stupid, it was heartbreaking, it was understandable, it was fucked-up beyond belief. But it was also — and most importantly — entirely believable. There was no part of me that thought, “There’s no way she would do that.” In fact, I saw it coming a mile away. It was completely in character.

A flawed, powerful, sympathetic, aggravating, thoughtful, selfish, careless, loving, disturbing, funny, completely human character.

And when a film gives me that, I can’t ask for anything more.

Kids-are-all-right_4 I could go on about this movie for days. There’s so much here that’s fascinating and compelling — not just about queerness, but about sex generally — that I haven’t even touched on. I’m tempted to write a whole other review of it as soon as I finish this one: one that explores the naturalness with which this movie explores sex, and the balance it strikes between awkwardness and ease. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into Nic and Jules’ sex life: the vibrator in the nightstand, the gay male porn, the loving attempts to kindle passion and the stupid ways that perfectionism mucks it up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how uncomfortable Nic and Jules are with their son’s sexuality, teasing out how much of it is discomfort with straight maleness (a fact they’re in almost comic denial of), and how much is just parental discomfort with their kid’s sexuality and their sense of loss over him growing up. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into teenage sexuality: the teenagers who are overly confident and glib about sex, and the ones who are wigged out by it and trying to hold it at arm’s length. I’d love to write a whole other review about how this movie sees the power of sex: the power it has to blow things up, and the power it has to blow things open. I’d love to write a whole other review getting into how casual the characters try to be — and totally fail to be — about the word “sperm.”

But this review is already too long as it is. So I’ll leave it at this: This movie rocks. It is among the best I’ve seen this year, possibly this decade. It is one of the smartest, realest, most original, most compelling, and most human movies I’ve seen in a good long time. It is one of those movies you’ll be thinking about for days after you see it, and wanting to talk about with everyone you know. If you care about queerness, about sex, or just about seriously good films, stop whatever you’re doing, and immediately put it at the top of your To See list.

The Kids Are All Right. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, and Josh Hutcherson. Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Focus Features. Rated R.

“No Strings Attached”: Sexual Convention in Transgression’s Clothes

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Is Hollywood exploring the frontiers of modern sexuality… or simply reinforcing the same old standards?

No strings attached Well, it could have been worse.

I suppose.

You may have seen the saucy, sexy previews and ads for the super-hyped new movie, “No Strings Attached.” Paramount is clearly pushing this film, not as just another romantic comedy about women hunting for marriage and men succumbing to its sweet inevitability, but as a daring, edgy, ultra-modern exploration of the “new” relationship models: casual, non-romantic, commitment-free sexual friendships, in which both women and men go in with no expectation of a capital-R Relationship, and no desire for it.

It’s always interesting to see how mainstream media treats gender and sexuality. And as a sex writer with a focus on unconventional sexuality, I’m especially curious when it purports to be shattering myths and breaking new ground. My hopes weren’t high for this one — I’ve seen way too many Hollywood movies titillate themselves and their audiences with transgressive sexual possibilities and then firmly drag everyone back into safe conventionality. But I’ve been wrong before. I’ve gone into more than a few movies prepared to be bored and irritated, and come out surprised and delighted and raving to everyone I know.

Not this time.

No Strings Attached 3 Before I get into everything that’s stupid and annoying and just plain wrong with the sexual politics of “No Strings Attached” — and believe me, there’s a lot that’s wrong with these sexual politics — let’s get this out of the way: This is not a good movie. A romantic comedy (and I use both words with grave reservations) about long-term acquaintances who try to turn their friendship into one with benefits, “No Strings Attached” is fake, implausible, and entirely disconnected from human reality. It’s not even interested in being authentic, plausible, or connected to human reality. It’s interested in aggregating some cute moments and raunchy moments and heart-tugging moments and a bunch of juvenile sex jokes that would make a twelve-year-old cringe… and half-assedly stringing them onto a tediously predictable storyline that plays like it was written by a computer programmed by a committee who all read the same stupid screenwriters’ bible. The moment when Emma casually invites Adam to “this thing she’s doing,” and it turns out to be a family funeral… that was the moment I knew that this movie was aiming solely for cheap laughs, and was not remotely interested in any of the things human beings actually do. It’s a moment that takes place approximately ten minutes in.

And that, in fact, is a huge amount of what’s wrong with the movie’s sexual politics.

They’re fake.

No strings attached 2 I suppose I should summarize the plot here. But there really isn’t much to summarize. Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are long-time friends — acquaintances, really — who’ve always been a little interested in each other. They have an impulsive sexual tryst one day, and decide, for not- very- well- explained reasons, that instead of being lovers, they should be friends with benefits, with no romance and no commitment and no strings attached. Wacky hijinks ensue. Or, more accurately: Hijinks ensue that are intended to be wacky, but are, in fact, predictable to the point of tedium. Hijinks ensue, not because it would be natural for the characters to hijink in that manner, but because said hijinking is what the screenwriters think will be funny.

Which brings me back to the fakery. The sexual politics of “No Strings Attached” have nothing to do with the sexual things people actually do. They have nothing to do with how sexual relationships are changing: the ways that people are questioning assumptions about what sexual relationships have to look like, breaking down the standard categories and inventing new ones… and how these re-inventions from the fringe are filtering into the mainstream.

Quite the contrary.

“No Strings Attached” wants desperately to be all modern and cutting-edge and sexually transgressive, with gags about menstruation and tag lines like “Welcome to the new world of relationships.” But it consistently runs back to the safe ground of predictable formula and conventional sexual morality. It daringly asks the question, “Can two friends hook up without love getting in the way?” But then — spoiler alert, but if you didn’t figure this out you haven’t seen many Hollywood movies — it answers that question with a resounding, “No!” It flirts with the titillating edges of sexual exploration, but ultimately chides the explorers for being afraid of commitment, and settles everyone into cozy, coupled, “happily ever after” conventionality. If your first reaction to seeing this movie’s ad campaign was a roll of your eyes and a jaded sigh of, “I know exactly how this movie unfolds and where it ends up”… you’re right. That’s how it unfolds, and that’s where it ends up.

Where to begin, where to begin? Well, the first problem is with Emma’s motivation for resisting romantic love.

There isn’t any.

No strings attached 4 Emma’s reasons for not wanting to get into a capital-R Relationship are pathetic. They’re like a first draft that never get hammered out in the rewrites. The reason she gives Adam is that she’s working 80 hours a week on her medical residency and doesn’t have time. The real explanation, though, the one she tells her friend, is that she’s afraid of getting her heart broken. Note, please, that she’s not gun-shy for any particular reason, a bad breakup or anything. She’s just scared. Because the screenplay demands it. Because if she isn’t, then she and Ashton Kutcher will happily fall in love in the first fifteen minutes, and the rest of the movie will consist of stock footage and light music.

But this lack of plausible motivation doesn’t just make the movie baffling and pointless. It trivializes the entire premise. It frames the very idea of sexual friendship — of pursuing sexual relationships that aren’t romantic and aren’t going to be — as ridiculous on the face of it. Doomed to fail at best; emotionally cowardly at worst.

As a longtime sex writer and educator, I find this irritating because it trivializes a fringe sexuality. It makes people who are engaging in it feel alienated and shamed; it makes people who are considering it give up before they even begin. As an off-and-on participant in these sexual friendships over the years, and as part of a community that often enjoys these kinds of friendships, I find it irritating because… well, for the same reason, basically. Because me and my friends are the ones being trivialized and shamed and marginalized. And as a moviegoer, I find it irritating because it makes me feel like a dupe. If even the writers couldn’t be bothered to take the premise seriously, why on earth should I waste my time and money it?

It’s not like a plausible motivation wasn’t possible. In fact, when my friend Rebecca and I saw this movie and then enthusiastically dissected everything that was wrong with it, we came up with an alternate plot that might have actually worked — and in particular, a motivation for Emma’s romantic reluctance that might actually make sense. In our version, Emma and Adam meet, hook up, feel sparks… but while he’s interested in pursuing something more, she has genuine good reasons for not wanting it to get serious. The fake reason she gives to Adam, that she’s working 80 hours a week on her medical residency and doesn’t have time for a romance? That would do nicely. That’s a genuine conflict, not a stupid fake movie one — wanting love, but also wanting a medical career, and not knowing how to juggle the competing demands on time and energy and commitment. In fact, in Rebecca’s version, Emma’s actually had several friendships with benefits before this one, which mostly worked out neatly and well — and so the romantic sparks she starts to feel with Adam take her by surprise, and she has to not only figure out what’s going on with her emotions, but make real choices about where to go with them.

That’s a movie we would have happily seen. It would have treated sexual friendship as a valid option, a workable alternative that reasonable people might get real value from. And it wouldn’t have had to be some heavy relationship drama. It could easily have fit into a light, goofy, romantic comedy format.

But that movie would have taken, you know, work. Attention to coherence and plausibility. Maybe even some research into what people with fuckbuddies actually do with them. (Other than the obvious, of course.) And it would have taken a willingness to question the dominant relationship paradigm… instead of pretending to question it, but having the stock answer in it pocket all along.

So there’s that.

But there’s more.

There is, in fact, the foundational premise of the movie: the assumption that sex inevitably leads to love.

No strings attached 1 This premise gets treated like a law of Newtonian mechanics. You have ongoing sex with someone you like — it turns into romantic love, with the inevitability of planetary orbits collapsing. There’s no point in fending it off. It’s ridiculous to even try. Entertaining to watch (well, in theory, anyway) — but ridiculous.

Okay. Here’s the bit where I get all TMI on you, and inappropriately disclose details about my sexual history. I promise, it really is relevant.

I’ve had sex with a fair number of people in my day. I can’t be exact about that fair number, since I stopped keeping track a long, long time ago. But it’s somewhere in the high two figures. Possibly the low three, depending on how you define “having sex.”

And of those roughly 80-120 people that I’ve had sex with, I’ve fallen in love with exactly three. David. Richard. And — most importantly, by several orders of magnitude — the great love of my life, my partner of thirteen years and my wife of seven, Ingrid.

Now, to be fair, many of those roughly 80-120 encounterees were very short-term indeed, with no time for love to blossom. Brief flings, one-night stands, people I met at sex parties whose names I never knew. But some of them were ongoing relationships — that’s small “r” relationships — of some duration. Some were friendships that became sexual; some have been sexual trysts that became friendships. Some of those friendships were fairly easy-going; some have been among the most central friendships of my life. Some have had sex as a central defining component; some were sexual only tangentially, or intermittently. Some of these people I’m still friends with; some aren’t — not because sexual friendships can never work, but for the same reasons that any friendship can sometimes drift apart.

And of all of these people, I fell in love with three.

Three, out of 80-120.

That’s some really crappy Newtonian mechanics you got there.

And I’m not the only one. I move in a community where sexual friendships are fairly common, and I know a whole lot of people who have them, or who’ve had them in the past. Some of these friendships have worked out; some haven’t. Sometimes they’ve lasted in more or less the same form for a while; sometimes they’ve changed over time. Occasionally they’ve led to romantic love; usually they haven’t. A lot like, you know, non-sexual friendships, or work partnerships, or school chums, or every other kind of human relationship on the face of the planet.

That’s the reality.

But it’s a reality that the writers of “No Strings Attached” seem entirely uninterested in.

Yes, I know. It’s silly escapist entertainment. And that’s fine. Not every movie about love and sex has to be a blazing insight into the deepest realities of the human heart. But even silly escapist entertainment is better — funnier, more engaging, more actually entertaining — when it has a whiff of plausibility. Escapist entertainment works better when you’re not scratching your head trying to figure out why on earth the characters are doing what they’re doing… or playing a silent game of “Predict the Movie Cliche” to pass the time until the sweet, sweet credits finally roll.

No_strings_attached 5 There are a handful of likeable things about “No Strings Attached.” I actually sort of loved the bit about the menstrual-themed mix CD. The running gag about silly covers of raunchy pop songs — the mariachi band playing “Don’t Cha,” the country-Western version of “99 Problems” — is pretty freaking funny. (The latter, in fact, was weirdly awesome, and I may even wind up downloading it.) Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is dry and smart and hilariously understated, and I definitely want to see him do more acting. And the idyllic sexual montage of Emma and Adam’s early hookups is both genuinely hot and genuinely sweet. It was one of the few stretches of the film where I felt that the characters were, you know, real people, with real chemistry, taking genuine pleasure in one another’s bodies and one another’s company, experiencing emotions that were honest and joyful and subject to change without notice. It was one of the few stretches of the film when I felt like there was a real movie in there, itching to come out. (Maybe the one Rebecca and I came up with.)

So yes, it definitely could have been worse. There could have been fart jokes. There could have been vomit jokes. There could have been overturned fruit carts, wacky cases of mistaken identity, people falling into wedding cakes. The sexual libertines could have died tragically at the end, of disease or violence, the last words on their bloody and tormented lips, “I know that our life of sin has led us to this sorry fate.” It could have starred Adam Sandler.

It could have been worse.

But not by much.

No Strings Attached. Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, and Kevin Kline. Produced and directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether. Paramount. Rated R. Opens Jan. 21.

ADDENDUM: There is so much more that I could have said about this movie if I’d had space. I could have talked about the flagrant fakiness of the “TV production assistant/ aspiring writer gets his script into production in six weeks” storyline. I could have talked about the approximately 43,547 supporting characters in the form of the main characters’ supposedly colorful friends and family, all of whom were essentially interchangeable and who I kept getting mixed up. I could have ranted about how, in giving Emma no sane motivation for resisting a capital-R Relationship, the movie not only trivializes sexual friendships, but slut-shames women who want sexual adventure. (Fortunately, David Edelstein covered that angle.) I could have written an entire other piece lambasting the idea that friendship — sexual or otherwise — isn’t an important connection that requires work and commitment, and doesn’t count as a “string.” And, on the plus side, I could have mentioned the lovely moment in the blissful erotic montage, when it’s strongly implied that Emma fucks Adam up the ass. Ah, well, You can’t say everything.

Natalie Portman’s ‘No Strings Attached’ Sex: Is Hollywood Finally Ditching Its Repressive Attitude?

No_strings_attached_poster_natalie_portman_ashton_kutcher You may have seen the saucy, sexy previews and ads for the super-hyped new movie, “No Strings Attached.” Paramount is clearly pushing this film, not as just another romantic comedy about women hunting for marriage and men succumbing to its sweet inevitability, but as a daring, edgy, ultra-modern exploration of the “new” relationship models: casual, non-romantic, commitment-free sexual friendships, in which both women and men go in with no expectation of a capital-R Relationship, and no desire for it.

It’s always interesting to see how mainstream media treats gender and sexuality. And as a sex writer with a focus on unconventional sexuality, I’m especially curious when it purports to be shattering myths and breaking new ground. My hopes weren’t high for this one — I’ve seen way too many Hollywood movies titillate themselves and their audiences with transgressive sexual possibilities and then firmly drag everyone back into safe conventionality. But I’ve been wrong before. I’ve gone into more than a few movies prepared to be bored and irritated, and come out surprised and delighted and raving to everyone I know.

Not this time.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Natalie Portman’s ‘No Strings Attached’ Sex: Is Hollywood Finally Ditching Its Repressive Attitude? To find out more about the new movie “No Strings Attached” and its take on friendships with benefits, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Sex in the City, But Lost in the Desert: Sex and the City 2

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.

Sex and the city 2 poster Honestly? It would have been a lot easier to write the Marxist/ anti-capitalist review of “Sex and the City 2” than the sex review. And I’m not even a Marxist. There is a bizarre dearth of sex in “Sex and the City 2″… and there is a lavish parade of repulsive, garish, bloated consumerist excess in the movie, on a level that could persuade the most ardent free-market advocate to storm the Palace and depose the Tsar. It would have been a lot easier to write up this movie for The Nation than for Carnal Nation.

But here I am at Carnal Nation. And there’s certainly enough sexual content in “Sex and the City 2” to justify reviewing it here. That is, if there’s enough content in it of any kind to justify reviewing it anywhere. Or if “content” is even the right word for this vapid, glib, tedious mess.

Sex-and-the-city-movie The “story”: Four characters from a television show — Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte, and Carrie Bradshaw, a woman who has now soared to the top of my “most loathsome fictional characters” list, just a notch or two below Yahweh — attend an extravagant gay wedding, in shameless pandering to the fantasies of the show’s gay male fans; travel to Abu Dhabi on an extravagant all-expenses-paid junket, in shameless pandering to the luxury lifestyle fantasies of their recession-stricken audience; and experience serious life crises that get neatly resolved in fifteen minutes or less.

The thing is almost entirely incoherent. Which makes it tricky to analyze. It’s hard to unpack the viewpoint of a movie when it has the attention span of a butterfly on meth and can’t keep its view focused on one point for more than three seconds. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this incoherence itself — including the sexual incoherence — is, in fact, the crucial point.

Noth1 See, here’s the maddening thing. When it comes to the sexual “content” of “Sex and the City 2,” there are, believe it or not, a few germs of good ideas in there. There’s a germ about how straight men who get hit on by gay men don’t have to see it as threatening their sexuality — they can see it as a compliment that confirms it. There’s a germ about older women maintaining a proud libido, a confidence in their desirability, and an active sex life — in defiance of a society that keeps delicately suggesting that they give it a rest already. There’s an important germ that comes up more than once: a message about how relationships don’t have to be “one size fits all,” and how every couple gets to make arrangements that work for them. There’s even a gesture towards acknowledging the validity of non-monogamy. (Although I desperately wish to Loki and all the gods in Valhalla that they hadn’t described it as “I’m allowed to cheat.” “Cheating” means “breaking your agreements about monogamy.” If it’s mutually agreed-upon non-monogamy, it isn’t cheating. How hard is that to get right?)

So there are germs. There are what appear to be sincere gestures toward woman-positive sexual revolution. But the thing is such an incoherent, sprawling mess that these germs of good ideas never go anywhere. The “structure” of the movie — a series of barely-connected vignettes, in which complex life problems get glibly resolved as soon as they’re presented, quickly replaced with either another rapid-fire “serious problem/glib solution” story arc or a garish infomercial for the lifestyles of the rich and useless — completely belittles the germs of good ideas.

Sex-and-the-city-2-samantha The serious problems in “Sex and the City 2” don’t just get resolved in dismissive and offhand ways. They often get resolved in ways that completely bypass the problems instead of addressing them. (Spoiler alert — that is, if you were still planning to see this movie after reading this review.) Samantha’s “My libido is a central part of my identity, but it’s waning as I get older” problem gets resolved, not by redefining either self or sexuality, but by her libido magically zooming back when the right guy appears on the horizon. Charlotte’s “I’m worried that my husband is going to screw our nanny” problem gets resolved, not by recognizing that you have to trust your spouse even when they’re around someone hot, but by the nanny turning out to be a lesbian. Etc.

Sex and the city 2 carrie aidan And when the problems do get handled head-on, the solutions are often so shallow and thoughtless as to be actually insulting. My favorite example of this — if by “favorite” you mean “most inducing of both rage and physical illness” — was the climactic scene at the end. (Super spoiler alert!) Carrie meets her old boyfriend Aidan in Abu Dhabi, and kisses him. Her husband, Mr. Big, is (understandably) upset about this. So the problem gets resolved (within about fifteen minutes of it being presented, as is typical in this movie) when she kneels in front of him on a footstool like an over-indulged child who’s been naughty, while he gives her a diamond engagement ring she’d specifically said she hadn’t wanted, and instructs her to repeat marriage vows he’s written for her. Ew. Just — ew. As part of a consensual kinky sex scene, if she’d knelt in front of him and he’d slapped her face and shoved his cock down her throat and ordered her to say “Thank you”? My feminist ideals would have been completely okay with that. As a real-world resolution to a serious problem in a contemporary marriage? It made me want to take a shower. One of those industrial waste accident/ Karen Silkwood showers.

More to the point, the germs of good ideas are completely contradicted — plowed under, more accurately — by the lavish parade of repulsive, garish, bloated consumerist excess (I knew I’d get the lefty pinko rant back in here somehow!), in which human relationships get reified into consumer goods and services, and sex itself gets treated as a commodity and a status symbol.

The best example of this? The movie’s attitudes towards gender and sex in the Middle East.

Sex_and_the_city_2_11 For some weird reason, much of the movie takes place in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. (There’s about as much City in “Sex and the City 2” as there is Sex — which is to say, not a whole freaking lot.) In fact, much of the movie is taken up with what amounts to an infomercial from the Abu Dhabi Tourist Board, with extensive (read: mind-numbingly tedious) visual lingering over beautiful and luxurious hotel rooms, fixtures, furnishings, services, pools, meals, bars, cocktails, clothes… and men.

And much of the movie’s sexual “content” consists of shocked disapproval at the Middle East’s backwards and draconian repression of sex — in particular, of femaleness and female sexuality.

Now, I’m not an expert on the Middle East. Very far from it. I don’t know enough about Abu Dhabi in particular or the Middle East in general to know what exactly the movie got wrong or right about it. (I would actually love to see this movie taken apart by a serious scholar or journalist of the Middle East. If anyone’s seen a review like that, please drop me a note.)

But I do know this.

Sex_and_the_city_2_12 There is a freakish disconnect — a cognitive dissonance bordering on the deranged — between the characters’ (and the movie’s) scolding attitude towards sex and gender politics in Abu Dhabi… and their eagerness to luxuriate in the city’s self-conscious, pre- packaged exotica. An eagerness that’s somehow both sycophantically adoring and smugly entitled. It’s apparently never occurred to them — to the characters, or to the movie’s writers and producers — that perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a connection between the treatment of women as property, the simultaneous coveting and terror of female sexuality… and their own luxuriant indulgence in the Arabian Nights fantasy.

They want to wallow in this fantasy, a plastic, carefully packaged fantasy of the exotic Middle East… and ignore the ways that the degradation of women is part and parcel of that fantasy. They want to be treated as fully human liberated women… and still treat other people and human relationships as commodoties and status symbols. They want to have their cake — their garish, over-designed, obscenely luxurious cake, served to them poolside by achingly beautiful and courteously servile men — and eat it too.

Sex-and-the-City-2-Photo1 They make me physically ill. They’re taking everything that’s good about the feminist rewriting of the sexual rules, and are burying it in a pit of garbage. They’re taking the idea of sensuality as a source of deep pleasure and human connection, and are mutating it into a luxury item/ status symbol, to be acquired and consumed. (I don’t think it’s accidental that the focus of the franchise has shifted from exploring sex and relationships, however vapidly, to drooling over expensive consumer products.) They’re fictional characters, for fuck’s sake… and they still make me want to start a class war, right this minute, against the bloated, useless, mindlessly entitled, obscenely rich monstrocracy.

Come on. Palace. Tsar. Anyone with me?

Howl: Everything Has Changed

Howl Well, my goodness.

Things certainly have changed since I was a girl.

And thank God for it.

This, more than anything else, was what kept drifting into my mind when I saw Howl, the new film about the renowned Beat poem and the obscenity trial that surrounded it, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.

A lot of things drifted into my mind when I was watching this film. The connections between eroticism and artistic creativity. The connections between eroticism and anti-conformist rebellion. The roots of gay liberation that extended back years before the Stonewall riots. The They Might Be Giants song, “I Should Be Allowed To Think.” (I know, I’m a Philistine.) What a tasty little dish James Franco is. How to make films based on real events that don’t seem like Lifetime docu-dramas. (The film Howl has an interesting structure, one that gives it a feeling of authenticity while still having drama and artistry and without reading as a documentary. It’s just four interweaving threads, all of which are drawn from real events: the obscenity trial, a re-creation of the first public reading Ginsberg gave of “Howl,” re-created excerpts of interviews with Ginsberg (with the events described in said interviews sometimes being re-enacted), and a luscious, evocative animated interpretation of the poem by comics artist Eric Drooker. Deceptively simple; quietly compelling; elegant.)

But the idea that kept drifting into my head, again and again, gently and relentlessly, was this:

Damn. The world certainly has changed.

It has radically changed when it comes to matters of sex.

And thank God for it.

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Thus begins my latest piece on CarnalNation, Howl: Everything Has Changed. To read more about my take on the movie Howl, and what it shows about how the world has changed in just a few decades, and how that change came about, read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia

Dont-feed-stars“It’s sort of awful. Yesterday for lunch? Spinach… and some seeds.”

“I swear by almost nothing for breakfast. Mugs of hot water!”

“The other day I realized as long as I’m in this business, I’m going to be hungry.”

“I hate dieting… I’m hungry all the time.”

These quotes aren’t from a medical journal. They’re not from a psychology book on body image in modern society. They’re not from a Lifetime Channel docudrama on eating disorders.

They’re from an Us Weekly Magazine half-page celebrity puff piece (Sept. 13, 2010, Page 18), titled “Don’t Feed the Stars!”, on how “these celebs admit it’s a diet struggle to keep their fab figures.”

Encapsulating the celebrity gossip magazine’s bone-deep schizophrenia about dieting and body size… in one neat sentence.

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Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia. To find out more about the celebrity-industrial complex’s freakishly self-contradictory attitude towards diet and weight loss — and the deeply mixed messages it sends the rest of us about food, beauty, bodies, and sex — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

The People I’ve Slept With

People i've slept with A young woman is talking to her newborn baby.

“I love sex,” she says. “And some people thought it was a bad thing. But I’ve learned that a slut is just a woman with the morals of a man.”

Sudden, screeching rewind back in time, slightly less than nine months. The free-spirited adventurer in question, Angela (Karin Anna Cheung), has just learned that one of her adventures has resulted in an embryo. She considers getting an abortion — her gay best friend, Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) practically demands it — but her conservative sister Juliet (Lynn Chen) pressures/ fearmongers/ persuades her that her life would be better if she settled down to a normal, stable family life. “Settle down,” she exhorts. “Grow up, and be happy for once.” Somehow neglecting to notice that Angela is already pretty darned happy. And definitely neglecting to notice that Angela is making her own conscious decisions about her own life… pretty much the textbook definition of being grown up.

So Angela decides to keep the baby… and embarks on a comical search to figure out which of her many adventuring partners is the father. It’s a challenge: Angela’s partners are sufficient enough in number that she keeps track of them through what she calls “baseball cards,” Polaroids with personal stats scrawled on the back. But she narrows the possibilities down to the five men she didn’t use birth control with — and goes through an assortment of wacky hijinks to collect their DNA for paternity tests. Her heart is pulling her in one direction — toward Jefferson (Archie Kao), the sweetheart labeled on her baseball card as “Mystery Man” — but she’s bound and determined that she’s going to have a normal married life, which means the man she marries should bloody well be the man she happened to conceive with. Regardless of whether she actually, you know, likes him, and wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

Yes, I know. It’s another “shmashortion” movie, in which a woman who under any other circumstances would be off to Planned Parenthood in a nanosecond for an abortion mysteriously decides to keep the baby… because if she didn’t, it’d be a fifteen minute movie. It’s an annoying pattern. Noted. Annoyed. Let’s move on.

Because “The People I’ve Slept With” is, in fact, a movie worth moving on to. It’s an odd duck: a mutant offspring of a smart, quirky, genuinely funny character study/ comedy of errors, and a sloppy, under-written jumble of cliches and careless implausibility. But the good stuff is sufficiently good — and sufficiently uncommon — to make it well worth a look.

Especially for anyone interested in movie depictions of unconventional sex.

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Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, The People I’ve Slept With. To find out more, read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

The Kids Are All Right

Kids are all right 1 Are queers just like everyone else?

Are queers just ordinary human beings, with the same hopes and fears and neuroses and dreams as everybody? Or are queers fundamentally different from straight people, with profoundly different ways of dealing with sex and gender and love and family?

It’s a question that shows up most dramatically in debates between assimilationists and separatists (and those of us on the spectrums in between). But it also shows up in the hearts and minds of queers — and straight people with queers in their lives — when we’re searching our souls in private about who we are and how we fit into the world.

And it’s a question explored in fascinating, funny, painful, complicated, and almost excruciatingly human detail in the brilliant new film, “The Kids Are All Right.”

Along with a whole host of equally compelling questions about sex, humanity, and selfhood…. and how they intertwine.

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Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, The Kids Are All Right. To find out more, read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Stonewall Uprising

Stonewall-uprising-alt I think it’s important that we remember this:

The Gay Pride parades, held last month around the country and around the world, were commemorating a riot.

A series of riots, actually, which took place over a series of several days.

The Gay Pride parades held every June around the world — the stroller contingents, the church groups, the trucks with the booming sound systems and the rainbow balloons and the handsome young men gyrating in their underwear, the polo-shirted employees of assorted corporations, the local politicians waving from convertibles — all of this is done in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. A series of riots that took place over several days in June of 1969; a series of riots in which the queers — after being pushed and pushed and pushed again, by cops and lawmakers and psychiatrists and the news media and everyone else in the freaking world, for days and months and years, and then rounded up in what was supposed to be just one more police raid of one more Mafia-owned gay bar on one more summer evening — finally fought back. The literal kind of fighting back; the “setting fire to garbage cans and throwing rocks at cops” kind of fighting back.

I think it’s important that we remember this.

And I think it’s important to remember why they happened in the first place.

Stonewall Uprising is a really, really good way to remember.

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Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, Stonewall Uprising. To find out more about the Stonewall riots, and how this documentary about them gives us crucial, inspiring, often hilarious perspective on queer activism today, or indeed on any sort of activism today — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Adult Toy Story: Romance vs. Reality in “Air Doll”

Air-Doll A sad, tired man takes the late train home from work. He comes home to his consolation: dinner and conversation and lovemaking with his beautiful girlfriend. Except his girlfriend is a blow-up doll. The conversation is entirely one-sided; when the lovemaking is over, he scrubs out her removable vagina with a hose.

This has clearly been going on for some time. How long, we don’t know. The next morning, though, the doll comes to life. Or comes to something like life.

And her story begins.

There are a lot of ways to look at “Air Doll,” a beautiful, thoughtful, oddly delicate new film from acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-ada (“Still Waiting,” “After Life,” “Nobody Knows”). And the sexual angle isn’t even the most obvious one. There’s quite a bit of sexual content in this film, but — surprisingly for a movie about a blow-up sex doll — it’s not the main focus. The existential questions — what does it mean to be alive? what does it mean to be conscious? how do we distinguish between people and non-people? — leap much more to the foreground.

But this is me. And this is CarnalNation. So let’s talk about sex.

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Thus begins my latest piece on CarnalNation, Adult Toy Story: Romance vs. Reality in “Air Doll.” To find out more about what this new movie says about sex — and especially what it says about sexual intimacy — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!