Just this morning, as I loaded a bowl with Cheerios for my son, he sang these lines to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
“You think that you can buy us off with crummy wedding rings
You never give us half the profit that our labor brings”
He did this for a laugh, and of course I did laugh. The lines were from “The Battle Hymn of Women,” which he came across in the folk songbook called Rise Up Singing. I didn’t ferret out this anthem—honest. He found it with my husband. They’d been looking for the lyrics to the original “Battle Hymn,” but all they turned up was this version.
So now my eight-year-old son sings a battle hymn for women’s lib, with the sweet acceptance children in progressive Cambridge, Mass., often have. And hearing the words from his lips has made me think harder about why the movie The Kids Are All Right, despite so many critical raves, disappointed me.
Two weeks ago, when my husband and son had unearthed “The Battle Hymn of Women,” they were mischievously delighted. That very evening, two women friends of mine had come over for a barbecue, and my son was itching to sing it with me. We’d all bellowed out the chorus:
“Move on over or we’ll move on over you
Move on over or we’ll move on over you
Move on over or we’ll move on over you
For women’s time has come!”
“I love the 1970s!” I’d shouted.
But this morning, my mind didn’t move on from “crummy wedding rings.” I wondered: What’s happened to women’s liberation? And, maybe less predicatably: Would I actually want to go back to the 1970s?
Yes. I’d be young again and idealistic. No. Think of the fallout, politically, economically, for the women’s movement and everything else. Think of the fatuous me, me, me-ness of it all, the weirdly hectic and forced sexuality. Think of the The Kids Are All Right, which when I saw it this past weekend I found very amusing yet oddly flat.
The movie’s eighteen-year-old daughter sparked the most emotional heat. Maybe that’s as it should be, in this story of a fifty-something, longtime LA couple (who happen to be lesbians), sending her off to college. When the girl and her younger brother decide to look up the sperm donor who is their biological father, the family unravels from there.
Mark Ruffalo, as the sperm donor, does a great turn as Mr. Middle-Aged Alternative Guy. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the two moms play clashing “types,” but they each reveal moving glimpses of regret. Locavores and California landscape design and New Age parenting (let’s talk everything out, but I want to control every second of your hothouse existence) are fondly skewered, even if director Lisa Cholodenko says this isn’t just an LA movie.
But maybe it’s the accuracy of the satire that gives the whole thing such a tepid feel, regardless of graphic sex scenes and much wringing of hands. Or could it be the 1970s vibe, casual sex with a great soundtrack?
During the movie, I felt sympathy for everyone, but not much emotional engagement. I found myself ruminating about whether I should download the soundtrack, with its LA punk songs from the likes of X. It even had David Bowie’s “Black Country Rock.” When was the last time I listened to that?
There’s the problem, I think. I was focusing on the music, which strikes me as another ’70s reflex. It turns out Ruffalo’s character still owns the record album for Joni Mitchell’s Blue, not to mention Bowie’s Hunky Dory. As I watched I thought, hell, he isn’t just a blast from my past. He’s me.
Except for my idealism, then and now. Post-2000, a two-mom family is played as average, with the defeats and small wins of any married couple. Yet this is lifestyle feminism, not the glory of a battle far from won.
I was a tad young to be marching on the barricades of Women’s Liberation, but it and many other social movements of the time shaped who I became. My fierce belief in the need for political change, faded or nonexistent for the movie’s characters, is what’s missing from The Kids Are All Right.
I’d argue that it’s missing from most popular conceptions of the 1970s. In Rise Up Singing, the lyrics of “The Battle Hymnn of Women” are credited to the political activist Meredith Tax with no publication date. Tax, once a member of the iconic feminist group Bread and Roses, says in her online bio that she wrote the song for a Boston “march for women’s freedom” in 1970.
It’s a product of its time, no doubt. With my women friends at the barbecue, I’d giggled my way through that line about wedding rings. They’d laughed, too. A few days later, when my son and I were walking into Harvard Square, he sang the same lines, loud enough to turn a few shaggy gray heads.
I laughed again.
“Why do you always laugh there?” he asked.
I said something like times have changed. Most people don’t think wedding rings are crummy now. My son’s attention skipped away.
Yet I had thought that, once, about rings and weddings—precisely because gays weren’t allowed to marry by the State. Meredith Tax’s version of fighting for change, for freedom, for equality is surely the vision I want to hand off to my son. But like the struggling mothers in The Kids Are All Right, sometimes I find myself laughing at the wrong things.
There are lines from “The Battle Hymn of Women” that might still feel cathartic or discomforting, depending on your politics. Take the seemingly archaic phrasing of “our labor,” which evokes ’70s feminist notions of housework and childcare as work that should be economically valued.
Once I stop laughing, I have to point out that traditional economists still don’t consider childcare (or eldercare) “labor.” The implications for women in the work force and the financial difficulties of most people trying to care for babies or a parent with Alzheimer’s remain with us, cubed.
In a dead-pan irony, one of the moms of The Kids is the breadwinner and the other a stay-at-home (until recently); the economic imbalance is also a power imbalance. I know this one well, as do many wives in hetero relationships, and at this level, the movie brings the politics home.
But I miss the righteous outrage. My son is old enough to feel his own rage at unfairness, at being told what to do. His reasons aren’t mine. Still, this particular battle hymn hooks us both with its opening words:
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the flame of women’s rage
Kept smoldering for centuries, now burning in this age.”
One MP3 sample I found for “The Battle Hymn of Women” was from a March 2009 recording on Welcome to the Circle. It’s the kind of syrupy women’s music that now makes me cringe. But I also found a YouTube clip of a young man crooning it, a copy of Rise Up Singing before him.
It’s roots music to him, perhaps. He’s so earnest, explaining at the end why he changed a line, so lacking in women’s politicized rage, which may seem odd and alien today. It is so easily boxed up by words like “quaint” or, more ominously, the idea that feminism is over.
Yet he and my son make me think there’s still glory to be found.