Saturday, August 30, 2014

Life is hard when your parents are gay

A few weeks ago I watched The Birdcage, a movie about a clash of cultures between a gay couple who run and perform in a drag nightclub and a straight couple who are classic religious conservative types.  Their children are getting married and that generates endless fodder for comedy.  I hadn't watched it before but the folks I watched it with had memories of it being a deadly funny movie.  It had some good moments to be sure but overall it was more depressing than anything.

The real trouble with the movie is it feels like I am supposed to be sympathizing with Val, the prospective groom who is embarrassed by his gay parents.  He spends the movie trying to get one of his parents to move out of their own house because he can't bear them being introduced to the straight parents, acting like his parents are being awful people for being themselves, and being amazed that everyone doesn't want to deny their lives and experience for his convenience.  In the end he finally relents and admits that his parents are in fact his parents but he only does it once the jig is well and truly up and there is no possible way to lie any more.  Telling the truth as an absolute last resort is not a moment of redemption.

It strikes me as though I am supposed to agree with Val's position and find his behaviour reasonable, or at least defensible.  After all, his parents are super weird, right?  Instead I see him as entirely despicable with no visible redeeming value.  To me he epitomizes an insidious form of bigotry - "I am not a bigot!  I just think everyone should arrange their lives to do whatever the bigots want.  That means it is totally the fault of the bigots and not me!"  When you make it clear that we all should pander to the oppressors and take their worldviews as automatically more worthy then you support that oppression.

I suspect the movie is just showing its age.  Back in 1996 when it was released Val's position would have been much more widely accepted in society.  I can't help but wonder if I would have had this sort of reaction at eighteen had I seen the movie then.  I lacked a great deal of experience and perspective at that age but I certainly wouldn't have had any sympathy for the religious folk at the time.  Over the past eighteen years though public perception has substantially shifted and the idea of two gay parents in a mainstream movie is a lot more normal than it once was.

In a world inhabited by Gay Caricatures and Straight Caricatures you need a normal person to provide context for the comedy, for the audience to empathize with.  (Said normal person would normally be called the straight man, but that would be super confusing here.)  When that normal person is replaced by Jerk Caricature though the whole construction really fails to work.  I can easily see how this movie could be rewritten with fairly small changes to make it enjoyable for me but as it is it feels more like a sad documentary on how crappy people can be instead of a lighthearted comedy.


  1. Interesting. I saw it a long time ago and don't remember it well, but my memories match what you describe.

  2. Also, while the movie was made in 1996, it is based on a french play (or maybe the french movie adaptation of that french play) from 1973.

    I saw that movie quite some time ago and all I recall was thinking that Nathan Lane carried it.

  3. Ive seen The Birdcage twice...once as a presumably straight youth, and the second time (last month) as a queer adult. I definitely reacted very differently!

  4. Ive seen The Birdcage twice...once as a presumably straight youth, and the second time (last month) as a queer adult. I definitely reacted very differently!