The Kids Are All Right: The Trouble with the Lost 1970s

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.

9 thoughts on “The Kids Are All Right: The Trouble with the Lost 1970s

  1. I’m going to have to go see this movie. An interesting review by Nathan Lane appeared in last week’s New Yorker (but then again, what review by Nathan Lane is not interesting?).

  2. Maybe it’s because I was a teenager in Ann Arbor when Youth Liberation was being born there, but to me the elephant in the room is our generation’s collective failure to bring about the future we envisioned, the one in which the tide of plastic retreated and the economy became a network of local collectives under the umbrella of a democratic egalitarian green socialist government. The reason we aren’t all bitter about it the way previous generations of disappointed idealists have been is that we have prospered. We don’t remember deciding to sell out, but the lives we have ended up with sure look like what our younger selves though of as the sold out life. Yes, we have a President of African descent, varying degrees of sexual freedom, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and just enough political power to keep even the post-9/11 Republican administration from bringing back the military draft, but compared to the truly just society of our hopes and anticipations, it looks all too much like business as usual. And we don’t know quite how it happened, or failed to happen. Despite Peter Townsend’s warning, we got fooled again. Sometimes I think our collective epitaph should read “It turned out to be more complicated than we thought.”

  3. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  4. Joan: You’ve nailed it here, extrapolating from my dis-ease with the movie and sadness about the passing of fiery-voiced feminism to a larger vision that has faded away. I’m not sure what it will take to generate some of that youthful idealism; it still exists, in patches, but mainstream media doesn’t have any investment (and I use that word deliberately) in promoting such idealism or linking it with our recent past.

    Dear “President Obama”: I’m absolutely thrilled you dropped by. Maybe you’ll drive more traffic my way — but as I’m sure you know, it can take awhile for one’s gifts to be appreciated by more than spammers and Tea Baggers.

  5. I recall those days. I don’t recall feminist rage as much as I do fear of a finger in my eye and cold stares. I recall going to a Holly Near concert and feeling for the first time in my life what it means to be a minority — and unwanted, to boot.

    I was raised by a feminist. She raged about women not in public so much, without doubt, though, in private. But it seems to me that this rage was a carry over from her anger about civil rights and her hostility to war and letting people live in poverty. My mother thought she was at her best ranting; but I always thought she was at her best when she was loving, tender and accepting of others…without giving up her principles.

    I’m not trying to belittle a movement. But those are in fact my memories of those days.

    And now? Well, how can we get mad about anything? Where do I start? Rage won’t help. Anger and negative emotion. I believe in love and acceptance. I really do. I believe too in cold, hard stares, shrewd calculating, planning, rational thinking and flat out in your face discourse.

    Good piece, Martha!~~

  6. I know what you mean about those Holly Near concerts, when identity politics began to take over women’s lib in the late ’70s and ’80s. I was part of the club, of course, but the clubbishness in the aftermath of second-wave feminism didn’t seem like the answer to achieving necessary political change to me.

    What a good question, David, about how do we get mad about anything now. The general discourse is so angry, that raving and ranting doesn’t serve anybody. And yet, so many inequalities exist. Maybe it’s the in-your-face confrontations I’m looking for, the speaking truth to power, rather than all the back-pedaling and misdirected anger and just flat-out lies (read the Sherrod fiasco).

    It’s a conundrum…

    P.S. So nice to hear from you again, DB.

  7. When I was 13 it was 1980 and I was convinced I had been born at the wrong time. I was enamoured with the ideals, not to mention the music and culture, of the 60’s. Reagan had just come into office, and I grew my hair long, played guitar, and went to No-Nukes rallies. There was something in the righteous anger of the left that meshed nicely into my own coming-of-age desire to rebel.

    But, it was more than just rebellion for its own sake, I think. There was in those times a basic premise that ideas and principles were worth arguing over, fighting about, and even going to jail for. While my views on politics and societal issues have evolved in the 30 or so years that have passed, I still enjoy engaging with ideas, and can still get fired up about what I believe to be true and right when faced with ignorance or injustice.

    That having been said, I don’t see this dynamic played out in popular discourse the way it was back then. Like many others I have, sadly perhaps, simply tuned out (we don’t have TV in our home) the noise that passes for debate these days. It’s mostly either tendentious vitriol (Fox), or a lame attempt to be seen as evenhanded at the expense of digging deep enough to uncover anything that smacks of truth (CNN).

    What scares me about this Sherrod affair is that even a supposedly progressive administration was unable to take a stand on what should have been a no-brainer. They acted from fear, which is the way of the weak. It reveals a mindset where everything is based on fear of being ridiculed by appearing to defend the wrong principles, and therefore displaying none, ever.

    Weirdly, the only folks who seem to be so fired up these days that they are willing to look silly in public in order to get their message across (i.e., 3-corner hats, etc.) are the tea-partiers.

    To re-phrase the great question of your piece Martha, about whether you would want to return to the 70’s: Would people in the 1970’s wish to be transported into our current time? I wonder…

    Thanks for another great post.

  8. Ken, you are so right about the scary subtext of the Sherrod fiasco. The administration acted on the highly edited and suspect comments of a conservative blogger rather than taking the time to check out the facts. It’s also true that populist anger, long the province of various progressive movements, has now been taken over by the Extreme Right. Moderate liberals, in particular, now recoil from all battle hymns about rage–even if hurled at obvious inequality–and that’s not a good development at all. Fight the Power, people! Stand tall! I’m dead serious.

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