In Netflix’s latest romantic comedy, Your Place or Mine, Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher play long-distance besties Debbie and Peter who hooked up once in their twenties before deciding to shift to friendship. After a bout of house-swapping between their respective homes in NYC and Los Angeles and various mishaps, they end up together. Your Place or Mine pulls various tricks from romantic comedies of the past as well as no-sex sex comedies (even though there’s technically a whisper of sex here) like Pillow Talk, even reproducing that iconic bathtub split-screen scene.
You may be wondering why I’m writing about a straight rom-com on Autostraddle, even though the premise of long-distance-friends-to-lovers does indeed sound gay as hell. Well, Debbie has a local best friend, too. Her name is Alicia, and Alicia is played by butch icon Tig Notaro. Alicia has two twin daughters and a wife — or, at least, I think she has a wife. She makes a vague reference at some point to “Mimi” who is “at home” making dinner using “TikTok recipes.” Other than that, there’s no explicit — or even tacit acknowledgement — of Alicia’s home life or, more noticeably, her queerness. When Alicia references an ex, no identifying words are used other than “ex.” Alicia is a visibly butch woman (and Tig Notaro is one of the most visible butch comedians of our time), but the character could be anyone, with any sexuality or identities.
My most cynical take is that the words gay, lesbian, wife, or even partner never show up in the script so that Netflix can globally distribute the movie without having any friction in countries that censor LGBTQ material (some films make their gay moments brief and excisable for exactly this reason). My more complicated but still downer of a take is that this is a continuation of a pattern I’ve been noticing where queer characters have their queerness watered down to the point where it’s barely textual at all beyond surface level details. I wrote about this in my review of the new Hulu comedy The Drop. Suddenly, it seems like all these LGBTQ characters are popping up in bit movie roles that don’t have the same stereotypical “sassy gay friend” or “token gay friend” energy as iterations from the 90s and early 2000s but instead just seem interchangeable with straight characters.
Some might look at Alicia here and be satisfied because at least there are no lazy gay jokes. At least her queerness doesn’t merely exist as a punchline. But while I don’t think a lesbian joke here or there would be better because then at least her queerness would be more acknowledged, I don’t think what we get is any better either. Alicia exists solely to be the sage best friend character who doles out advice. And that in and of itself is technically fine. It’s a character stocktype we see over and over again in romantic comedies. But merely slotting queer characters into these stocktypes isn’t progress; it’s boring. The fact that Alicia could be anyone — gay, straight, whatever — isn’t radical; it’s regressive.
Not only are there no explicit surface-level acknowledgements of her queerness but — and I actually care about this more than anyone saying “my gay wife is at my gay home making us a gay dinner” — there’s also no queer specificity to Alicia’s interiority or worldview. She gives Debbie advice from the vantage point of a nearly blank slate. She advises Peter on matters of parenthood (he’s responsible for Debbie’s teen son while housesitting) from a similarly unspecific point of view. Sure, she references the fact that she’s a parent of teens herself. But again, she doesn’t speak from a place of being a queer parent of a teen but just a parent, full-stop.
I suppose the implication is that queer parents are just like all parents, and I can get behind that sentiment up to a degree, especially in a conversation with people who don’t think gay people should be allowed to be parents, but it’s actually that last bit there that makes it tough for me to accept this lack of a queer perspective from Alicia. These watered down representations of LGBTQ characters might work better if our world were not the way it is. We do not live in a world where queer folks are treated the same as straight people. Our society is deeply heteronormative. But I’m not even saying Alicia or all queer characters should face hardships or homophobia. I’m saying that because those are the realities and lived experiences of LGBTQ people, we never really get to just shut off our queerness. And frankly, a lot of us don’t want to either! I just don’t even find it realistic when queer characters’ worldviews aren’t informed by their queerness. It touches so many parts of our lives. And it doesn’t have to be a huge thing for everyone. Alicia doesn’t need to say things like “WELL, AS A QUEER PARENT.” But for it to not come up at all, to not shape her interiority nor external function in the storyline at all — the lack is loud.
It makes me wonder if some writers think that the only ways queerness factors into gay people’s lives is when they’re being oppressed or facing some sort of obstacle. Acknowledging a character’s queerness doesn’t have to be an othering and doesn’t have to be a source of conflict either. I can’t believe I’m about to quote Ocean Vuong in a silly little review of a silly little straight rom-com on Netflix, but here we go:
Often we see queerness as a deprivation, but when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me, I had to make alternative routes. It made me curious, it made me ask this is not enough for me because there’s nothing here for me.
Coming out can take a lot away from people, but it doesn’t have to be a deprivation; it can be additive. It can open up new possibilities. Your Place or Mine is bland in a lot of ways (the premise makes it so that the leads spend most of the movie apart, only seen together in split-screen phone conversations, so Witherspoon and Kutcher never develop tangible chemistry), but it’s most flavorless when it comes to Alicia. Giving her a queer perspective wouldn’t have taken anything away from the film; it would have added to it.
It’s so rare to see a butch character in a romantic comedy. And I went into the movie knowing, of course, that Tig Notaro’s character was just one small, bit part. The leads always take precedent in a rom-com, and the secondary characters are there to merely push them into each other’s arms (though some of the best comedic performances in rom-coms belong to the bit best friend characters, like Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally and Judy Greer in 13 Going On 30). But by rendering her so flat and indistinct from the straight characters, Alicia becomes even less than a bit character. I don’t want “dry butch bestie” to become the new “sassy gay friend.” If mainstream rom-coms can’t even imagine a butch lesbian as a specific and developed side character, how am I supposed to hold out hope for films that place her at the center?