Desire, Ambition, and the Failures of Domestic Idylls (and Ideals)

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night, I watched Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, and I started to see even more clearly why so many critics were deeply frustrated by the mainstreaming of Cholodenko’s own career trajectory, enacted through the bourgeoisification of lesbian life depicted in The Kids Are All Right.  If High Art gives us lesbians via heroin-chic — though arguably, without overly romanticizing heroin addiction —  then The Kids Are All Right gives us something worse, caricatures of uptight bourgeois lesbians.  I want to think through the relationship between these movies, but around another set of issues, the problems and representations of women’s ambition.  In the context of my colleague’ and my conversations about our ongoing struggles to reconcile career ambitions with our differing visions of family, these films emerge as the site of an interesting dialogue, within one female director’s oeuvre, about these issues.

Critiques of the The Kids Are All Right took Lisa Cholodenko to task for making yet another movie about white middle class suburbia, in which the lesbian center only barely obscures the limpid conventionality of the larger ideal to which the movie aspires and from which its characters seek their strength.  Lesbian critics found in The Kids Are All Right a sad reification of the way the lesbian community has turned away from a more radical social politics to embrace this white middle class suburban ideal in a bid for broader social acceptance.

I read these critiques with interest, realizing that this is precisely what I had connected with when I saw TKAAR with my Mom.  I felt that I recognized myself and my own family’s struggles.  My parents’ marriage fell apart while I entered my teens.  I remember feeling angry at them, alienated from them, believing in some ways that I knew better and could see through their bullshit, convincing myself that it was better that they divorced.  So the resolution at the end of the film was deeply comforting to the 16-year-old inside of me, who identified in various ways equally with “the kids” Joni and Laser.  The film was a recognition and reminder of the struggles that so many modern suburban families have, but  with a fantasy finish: Moms stay together, Kids All Right.

So yes, I liked TKAAR because it was a film about “me” but with a cushy lesbian center that made my liberal heart trill.  I felt sheepish reading these critiques of the film, but I also deeply appreciated the frustration that queer women who had  spurned this domestic ideal felt in the absence of celebrated lesbian films that didn’t cop to the mainstream.  And I realized, as I continue to struggle with questions about the kind of professional and domestic life I wanted to pursue — for I feel deeply ambivalent about that bourgeois ideal myself — films like TKAAR didn’t really do me any service either.

As I commiserated the other day with a colleague, where are the images in our culture of single, childless women who are All Right?  Not just all right, but happy and fulfilled and functioning adult members of society, who like all adults (and not just the single childless women) have had to make sacrifices and who have regrets.  I bristle, constantly, Why is the discourse of sacrifice and regret always about single childless women? Similar points can be made about single moms.  I’m going to come out and say what all my friends already know about me.  I’m very comfortable with the idea of being a single mom one day, and not because I’m woefully naive or self-destructively cynical.  It’s because I know that for many women with Ambition and a strong sense of career identity, marriage and family doesn’t always happen, can’t always happen in that order.  But the biggest problem women face is that our society, and academia in a particular, is not very supportive of single moms.  This is another huge issue, not to be explored from here.  But it again points out why films like TKAAR aren’t necessarily doing the biggest service to lesbians or career-focused women.

(And then there are the racial undertones in the film — compare the sexual persona of the woman-of-color character to all the white characters and tell me that’s not a deeply problematic stereotype when placed in the broader racial context of the film’s domestic and sexual ideal.  Let’s not even talk about the Mexican gardener, aptly described by Lisa Duggan as a “minstrel style” performance.)

Women and ambition in High Art

Cholodenko’s 1998 film, High Art, explores the developing passion between Syd, the young assistant editor at a pretentious film magazine, who hopes to move up in the art publishing world, and Lisa, a washed-up and heroin-addicted art photographer.  The two women circle each other for much of the film, navigating the boundaries of multiple overlapping desires.  Where does Syd’s career ambition and her passion and growing love for Lisa begin and end?  Lisa likewise is drawn to Syd’s youth but also to her ambition.  Meanwhile, Lisa’s lover Greta, formerly a German actress of the Fassbinder school, snarls about Lisa’s infatuation with “the teenager” and  resents the awakenings of Lisa’s own ambition from the heroin-induced haze of their dissolute lives.

The film ends with Syd realizing her ambition in through a potentially humiliating exposure of her personal life — indeed, of her private passion.  This is a theme we’ve become extremely familiar with in the ensuing decade — exposing the depths of your personal life to get ahead.  The film asks, when is this arta la the Nan Goldin style of photography Lisa produces — and when is it something else?  The exposure of Syd and Lisa’s affair to the glossy pages of Frame magazine seems to cheapen it, then begging the question, was truth and beauty there to begin with, or was it always just about Syd’s ambition?   The ending of the film is ambivalent, wrestling with the subtle — and no so subtle — havoc we wreak in our own and others’ lives in our quest for professional, personal, and sexual fulfillment.

The films in dialogue

This theme — the corrosive effect of ambition on our relationships — is all over The Kids Are All Right, but the cause and effect is never entirely clear.  Did Nic desert Jules to domesticity and dependency in the pursuit of her medical career, which drove Jules to the equally hapless Paul?  Or did Nic long ago begin a retreat into her career from the imperfections of her relationship and domestic idyll with Jules?  Unfortunately, Cholodenko stops short of a more searching indictment of the flaws and failures of the domestic ideal and the family model to which Jules and Nic have aspired.  But the problem of the driver seat is a problem in most partnerships, gay and straight and queer.

These two films seem deeply different, based as they are around dramatically different social worlds.  But they each deal with the same question about the sexual dimension of the struggles over ambition in a relationship. When Syd fights with her boyfriend James about her new friendship with Lisa, she accuses him of dismissing her ambition — indeed, of resenting it even while he professes to want her to succeed.  And this may be so, but he also is just plain jealous of the sexual interest he senses between Syd and Lisa.  But is the problem just about sex and fidelity, is this all a matter of sexual jealousy?  Rather, their fight is an example of the way professional or artistic desires can rest uneasily in the cocoon of a domesticated romantic relationship, and frequently become expressed through sexual jealousies and external sexual desires.  Lisa and Greta have the same problems as Syd and  James.  Is Greta more resentful of Lisa’s awakening sexual desire for Syd or of Lisa’s reawakening artistic and professional desires?

So much of sexual and romantic attraction is about our admiration for a lover’s artistic and professional ambitions and drive.  But artistic and professional ambitions also plant seeds of jealousies and resentments in any relationship. These films increasingly make me ponder the boundaries between the desire for another person and our delight in their profressional and artistic desires, where one stops and the other begins — in both the making, and the unmaking of love, romance, and romantic partnership.

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