“Your Place or Mine” Fails To Explicitly Acknowledge Bit Butch Lesbian Character

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?

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 837 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article! I had some similar thoughts about the butch best friend character, Mo, in “You People”- she’s there, but we don’t know anything about her. I was glad to see her character but after the movie was frustrated that we didn’t know where her dating advice or passion for podcasting or friendship with the main character came from.

  2. I have mixed thoughts/feelings about this, none of which are necessarily very smart or insightful and I would not be watching a Witherspoon/Kutcher vehicle anyway, but! here I am in the comments.

    I’m not great at remembering the details of tv/movies so I’m searching my mind fruitlessly for examples of this being done well in a straight movie- thoughts, anyone? I kind of (okay fully, deeply) do not trust a movie by cishet people for cishet people to actually be *able* to write a complex queer supporting character in a way that feels real and recognizable and like someone the main audience deserves to have a window into- like I almost just want to leave them to it and look to queer media for specificity and realness that feels like truly satisfying representation.

    Also, weirdly enough, especially as a parent I can say that this actually is a type of gay person? Like queer because that’s the word we use now but not queer as in politics or lifestyle or social circle. I see quite a bit of it in my city, and even (briefly!) dated a Gen X butch lesbian who was very much not celebratory of queerness and did see it as just another mundane fact about herself (imagine my dismay). All of which to say- Mimi at home on the Tiktoks maybe is a certain kind of representation? More so than a lot of “drop flat sketch of person of x identity into best friend role, no matter how implausible” writing has been? I personally am still Team This Review but I guess the half-baked thought here is that I can see *someone* seeing themself in and liking this.

    • No you’re totally right! This type of gay person who has chosen assimilation absolutely does exist. It’s just like frustrating when movies choose that type of characterization because yeah the whole thing about assimilation is that it’s about becoming more palatable to straight people and there are a lot of limits to that. And yeah I don’t necessarily expect radical queerness in a movie like this but every single character was afforded more depth and dimension than Alicia in a way that feels really blatant to me

    • I haven’t seen this movie, but maybe me wife and I are like Tig in this movie? We have twins (one of the few surprises you get in queer baby making) and parenting is so darn hard. We feel like we connect to other parents (mostly straight) of young kids more than childless queer couples because parenting twins is so all encompassing. I kind of wish they made a movie about Tig’s character. I’d watch that… in the middle of the night… on my phone… praying to the goddesses that the awake twin doesn’t wake up his siblings.

  3. thanks for this review, Kayla :) it perfectly describes why Captain Holt is one of my favourite LGBTQ+ characters in a tv show — his queerness is neither tragic nor played for laughs nor functionally ignored; and it clearly informs his worldview, his approach to interpersonal relationships, and his politics <3

  4. Would I have appreciated Tig’s character being more openly queer? Yes.

    But this movie on a whole was so substance-less. It was like cotton candy. None of the characters are really fleshed out with the exception Ashton (somewhat) and the plot’s pretty thin.

    Ashton’s character has a job which is vaguely described and his only defining trait is that he used to be an aspiring writer and had an alcoholic dad that abandoned the family and passed away when his character was young. There’s a mention of him going to rehab twice and Reese’s character picking him up both times as well as her driving a long distance to attend his mother’s funeral.

    Reese’s character used to be an aspiring editor and switched to a safe accounting job. Her defining trait is that smothers her son and is overprotective and loves literature. Her family is not mentioned at all besides her son except for a throwaway joke line about a saying her potentially alcoholic mom said. We learn very little about her throughout the whole movie..

    If we barely get much background or fleshing out of Reese’s character, I don’t really see how we can expect Tig’s character to get more than “reliable, wise cracking long term friend with twins that attend the same school”.

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