Student Journal

STORGE Homely and Heroic Love in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right

The homely face of family love

     Antigone (441 BCE), the ancient Greek tragic play about filial piety and family devotion, illustrates the quintessential dutiful daughter. Written by Sophocles, it is the tale of Antigone, one of four children born of the incestuous relationship between King Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. Oedipus does not realize until after the fact that his queen-wife is actually his mother, he blinds himself in remorse and exiles himself from his kingdom. Antigone took care of her father until his death and after burying him returned to her family home in Thebes to live with her sister Ismene. Her brothers Eteocles and Polynieces were to have alternately shared the Theban kingship subsequent to Oedipus’ exile. When it was Polynieces’ turn to rule, Eteocles refused to step aside. Polynieces then left Thebes and raised his own army to take Thebes by force. In the battle that ensued, each brother died at the hands of the other. Their uncle Creon succeeded Oedipus to the throne. He deemed Polynieces an enemy of the state and prohibited Antigone from burying him, which was a sacred rite in her role as woman/sister. Yet, Antigone felt ethically bound to honor her brother whatever the consequence, and took on the role of conscientious objector. For her disobedience, she was entombed alive in a cave.

Antigone in front of dead Polynikes

Figure 1.  Antigone in front of dead Polynikes (1865) by Nikiforos Lytras 

Because of its themes of fidelity, civil disobedience and family love, the tale of Antigone has long been a subject of literature, drama and painting. In the latter, we often see Antigone burying her brother or accompanying her sightless father. The image of the oil painting (Figure 1) is Antigone in Front of the Dead Polynieces (1865) by Nikiforos Lytras. In it we see her coming upon the corpse of her beloved brother. Lytras renders Polynieces’ lifeless body as idealized, curiously unscathed, and bathed in a light that contrasts with Antigone’s sorrowful face in deep shadow. Looking closely, the viewer will note her left hand brought up to her neck, mouth agape in shock as she confronts the abject corpse. This is not the first time Antigone has encountered the death of a family member, but the sight of a deceased loved one never fails to traumatize.

     One of the universal themes in Sophocles’ Antigone is the power of unwritten law: that family ethos—the bloodline—is the core of ancient Greek society. [1] Antigone is steadfast in her conviction that she must carry out the human rite of burying her kin, Polynieces. Yet by burying him in defiance of the law, she negates her role as a good citizen of Thebes. Philosophers such as G.W. F. Hegel, Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler have contemplated the ethical dimensions of Antigone’s actions. Hegel wrote about the play Antigone in his book Phenomenology of Spirit. In it he situates Antigone’s and Creon’s dilemma in the tradition of ethical roles for men and women: the men within civic and the women within domestic realms. Hegel sees state law as having primacy over family principles. Irigaray throws doubt on Hegel’s position in terms of Antigone by challenging the hierarchy of the sexes. In her essay, “Eternal Irony of the Community” she concludes that Hegel’s reasoning is rooted in patriarchal discourse which all but negates the second sex. Irigaray’s reading of Antigone highlights the matriarchal aspects of the protagonist’s ethical choices. Butler’s text Antigone’s Claim, departs from both Hegel and Irigaray by considering Antigone’s actions outside of gender distinctions, and redirects the argument in terms of universal kinship, sexual freedom and political agency.  

     In this paper, I approach family ethos as it is portrayed in art from another viewpoint, that of familial love. The ancient Greeks had a name for this specific kind of love: storge. The definition of family and what a family looks like have changed since the time of Antigone almost 2500 years ago. The same can be said about works of art where love within the family remains subject matter since the Greek tragedies.

     Can contemporary works of art disclose love in the 21st century in the same way as Antigone? Is the Greek model of storge still adequate or even applicable?  Do we need a newer more relevant model? This paper considers questions and ideas storge presents now. I argue that this ancient concept of family love indeed remains relevant to works of art by examining two current examples: Alison Bechdel’s bestselling autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home: A Tragi-comic (2006) and Lisa Cholodenko’s critically acclaimed fictional film The Kids Are All Right (2010). I analyze these works of art through the lens of a variety of philosophical concepts including Aristotle, Butler, Freud, Lewis, and Schopenhauer.

Storge, along with philia, agape and eros, is one of the four ways ancient Greeks tended to situate and describe love.  Eros is the Greek god of erotic love and seen as a unifying force, in opposition to conflict. Philia is love that is “friendly” and would include concepts like patriotism and friendship. Agape is an unselfish, idealized love of all people and it is the Greek word generally used for love in the New Testament. The early Christians adopted from the Greeks the notion of absolute, creative and excessive love—agape—as a comprehensive fatherly love that God possesses for humankind, which as a consequence extends to a love of one’s fellow man. Finally, storge is familial love and affection.

     Love has been a subject of philosophical debate since Plato wrote the Symposium (385 – 380 B.C.E.), in which he addresses notions of love using the voice of his teacher Socrates in dialogue with other guests at a drinking party.  The guests take turns speaking about love: its genesis, justification, and various forms of expression.  In the Symposium, Socrates and his interlocutors explain love as a series of elevations—like a ladder—that, in its most base form, expresses itself as lust or sexual attraction, or eros.

     Eros, the lowest rung in Plato’s ladder, is considered the genesis of storge, because the original relationship between parents is sexual.  Sigmund Freud writes:

People give the name ‘love’ to the relation between man and a woman whose genital needs have led them to found a family, but they also give the name ‘love’ to the positive feelings between parents and children, and between brothers and sisters of a family, although we are obliged to describe this as ‘aim-inhibited love’ or affection. [2]

Freud’s term “aim-inhibited love” is necessary in order to cultivate an attachment in which basic sexual instincts are renounced.  Anthropologist Helen Fisher points out that all human societies have an incest taboo of some sort. [3] This universal prohibition is the first sexual restriction placed on children. [4] She also points out that human aversion to incest has a correlation in the animal community (including higher primates) and humans may have evolved to uphold this repulsion towards inbreeding. [5] The narrative of Antigone is launched by Oedipus’ infraction of this biological and cultural ban, although he had unwittingly married his mother after likewise killing his father. In any case, the punishment he inflicts upon himself betrays the abhorrent stigma of incest.

     Storge is a term that generally describes the committed affectionate love between family members and old friends, but can be extended to include the affection felt for pets or even objects, places and activities, such as cherished vacation spot or the sport of soccer. C.S. Lewis expands upon the notion of storge; he considers storge a non-discriminating love because it does not take into consideration barriers of race, gender, age, class or level of education. [6]

     Lewis identifies certain criteria for storge that foremost include the notion of familiarity between people. For example, someone known over a long period of time; in the case of family this would be a lifetime.  He also links storge to the qualities of modesty and humility; it generally lacks the hubris that may be associated with eros or philia. [7]   Lewis describes an apt caricature for human affection: “Once, when I had remarked on the affection quite often found between cat and dog, my friend replied, ‘Yes. But I bet no dog would ever confess it to the other dogs.’ ” [8]


Film still from Seinfeld, episode

Figure 2. Film still from Seinfeld, episode “The Hamptons” (1994) 

Lewis assigns storge a “homely face.” [9] The affection we feel for our wizened mothers or beer-bellied buddies transcends their corporeality. The peculiar characteristic of the homely recalls a memorable episode of the sitcom Seinfeld in which the cast travels to the Hamptons to see their friend’s new baby. Upon taking a look, the characters Jerry, Elaine and Kramer are astounded by how “ugly” the baby is and how the parents seem oblivious to this fact. [10] To the baby’s parents he is the most beautiful child in the world. Familial love holds a perception of the physical that is outside of standards of beauty or refinement.

     Storge is the kind of love we can take for granted, which would not be possible in any other of the other types of loves. [11] If you took your lover for granted, it would provoke resentment. Lovers (eros) and friends (philia) want at reassurance they are appreciated. Lewis writes, “It [storge] fits the quiet, comfortable nature of the feeling.” [12] At the same time, it can also be a love that contrasts with aspects of our lives. In response to a quote, Lewis writes: “ ‘Dogs and cats should always be brought up together, it broadens their minds so.’ Affection broadens ours; of all natural loves it is the most catholic, the least finical, the broadest.” [13] For example, life partners who are on the opposite sides of a political debate practice patience with each other’s viewpoints. Compromises are made for holiday dinner menus to accommodate the preferences of both carnivores and vegans.  Ideally storgeis tolerant in situations that would otherwise not be the case. Of course, it does not always occur this way. The idiom “familiarity breeds contempt” [14] is seen in incidences of neglect or outright abuse of the elderly and children by caregivers as well as situations of domestic violence. Some relatives are simply intolerable. Lewis writes: “Nearly all the characteristics of this love [storge] are ambivalent.”[15] He goes on to say:

For the very same conditions of intimacy which make Affection possible also—and not less naturally—make possible a peculiarly incurable distaste; a hatred as immemorial, constant, unemphatic, almost at times unconscious, as the corresponding form of love. [16]

 Familial love—at its best—does not hurt, demean or dominate. [17] Yet the ambivalence inherent tostorge can provoke unloving feelings and behaviors.

     One of the major obstacles to ideal storge—as well as eros and philia —is the feeling of jealousy.[18] Any kind of change to that which is regarded as old and familiar may feel like a threat to the stability of the relationship. Freud identifies jealousy as one of the most powerful of emotions. [19]According to Fisher, jealousy is commonly found in humans in many cultures, and it is the leading cause of spousal homicide in the United States. [20] She describes jealousy as a combination of possessiveness and suspicion. [21] The jealous behaviors of animals such as gibbons and bluebirds have also been documented. [22]

     Jealousy and animosity aside, storge is a love—like all the other loves—that has the capacity to optimize our feelings of happiness. Freud points out that happiness is a primary aim of life, which manifests as robust feelings of pleasure—a driving force in how we live, what he calls the pleasure principle. [23] Yet happiness is episodic because most of the time we are coping with the universal forces of pain that are part and parcel of going up against the daily stresses of survival, of having a body vulnerable to illness, and encountering misery in our relationships with others. It is the latter that Freud sees as our biggest source of unhappiness. [24]   For Freud, life’s immanent difficulties can be handled via palliative actions, which he identifies as “substitutive satisfactions” and “intoxicating substances.” [25] As for the former, Freud identifies art as the most effective measure because of its role in our imagination. [26] Works of art hold the potential to be a temporary site of pleasure and solace.

     Like Freud, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of pleasure found in works of art. Aristotle also saw the potential for knowledge. In Lytras’ painting Antigone in Front of the Dead Polynieces the viewer can take some measure of satisfaction in the illustration of Sophocles’ story by making sense of the tale in a tangible way. For Aristotle, tragic plays such as Antigone bring about strong emotions that contribute to a healing via what he calls katharsis, which is a release of fears that build up in everyday life. These purges of anxiety open the viewer to insights about shared human experiences. Whereas the emotional intensities of life may desensitize us, the emotional power of art strengthens us.  Artworks organized around the theme of storge offer us an expanding consciousness about configurations of family affection that we take for granted. With this awareness we have the potential for a more meaningful life that we share with our loved ones.

Tragic family fun

An illustration from Fun Home

Figure 3. An illustration from Fun Home: A Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel 

     Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic tells the story of growing up in the rural Pennsylvania town of Beech Creek with her parents and two younger brothers. The book is autobiography merged with the art of comics; Bechdel’s vibrant illustrations uphold her often-scholarly text, and vice versa. Each illustrated box is a trove of the written and the visual, deployed with hatched and crosshatched line work; the palette limited to black and white with blue-gray washes. Charged with literary and pop culture references, the drawings span the minutia of the Bechdel home to maps of bucolic Beech Creek. Bechel’s adept use of bird’s eye, worm’s eye, silhouette, and close-up viewpoints parallel her multi-perspectival examinations of growing up in a home that held discordant memories of spankings and games, shouts and silence, glee and childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder.    

     Analogous to Antigone, the narrative revolves around Bechdel’s relationship with her father Bruce, a high school English teacher and third generation director of the town’s funeral home. Bechdel’s relationship with her mother Helen—an actress and also an English teacher—is an ancillary storyline. Bruce Bechdel, her erudite, creative father, was steadfast in keeping emotionally distant from his family. Bechdel employs her childhood journals to recount anecdotes about Bruce’s domineering and eccentric behaviors, which were all the while guarding secrets of homosexual liaisons that included his teenage students. Fun Home reflects Bechdel’s ambivalent struggle to make sense of her father and her personal history, which is in turns comical, poignant, and sorrowful. She comes to learn about her father’s covert life during her freshman year of college, right after her own revelation that she is a lesbian. At this point she recognizes that a shared ground has always existed in an implicit bond with her father. Tragically, his abrupt death (he was struck by a truck) only a few months after her coming out to her parents preempts any possibility of a happy ending or blissful resolution.

     When Bechdel writes a letter home informing her parents of her newly realized sexual orientation, her mother reacts by telling Bechdel about her father’s long-standing sexual indiscretions. Not long after, Helen asks Bruce for a divorce; two weeks later he is dead. Bechdel believes her father’s death was not an accident but suicide—that he leapt into the path of a passing truck. Reflecting upon the sequence of events prompted by her coming out Bechdel writes:

I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parent’s tragedy. I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit. And with my father’s death following so hard on the heels of this doleful coming-out party, I could not help but assume a cause and effect relationship. If I had not felt compelled to share my little sexual discovery, perhaps the semi would have passed without incident four months later. Why had I told them? I hadn’t even had sex with anyone yet. Conversely, my father had been having sex with men for years and not telling anyone. [27]  

Bechdel refers to “her parent’s tragedy” when in fact it is her tragedy as well.

     The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer describes tragedy as a supreme literary achievement because it presents the dreadful side of life in the highest expression of the will’s objectification. He sees the will—which is outside time and space—as the reality underlying our world. While Western thought upholds a life ruled by reason, our will is in a ceaseless conflict that motivates our desires and emotions. He writes:

But in the epic, the novel, the tragedy, selected characters are placed in circumstances in which all of their qualities unfold, the depths of the human heart are revealed, and become visible in extraordinary and very significant actions. Thus literature objectifies the     Idea of man, an Idea which expresses itself in highly individual characters. [28]  

In Fun Home Bechdel reveals the depths of her heart; we see it especially in the expressions of responsibility and guilt in which she emerges as hero.  In his Poetics, Aristotle offers qualifications for the hero. [29] They include the notions that the hero must be a good and upstanding person—not perfect—but wants to be a better person, be realistic (believable), and consistent in character. Nowhere does Aristotle assert the hero cannot be a woman, although it is generally understood in the context of ancient Greek tragedy that the gendered male was the typical hero. [30] Bechdel fits this description of a hero: she is basically a moral person, reasonable yet self-questioning, and stable in character (much like Antigone.) These are the qualities that will instill pity and fear in the viewer/reader/listener and bring about catharsis. Aristotle also states the tragedy brings the downfall of the hero via a flaw of character or ignorance—what he calls hamartia. This happens when Bechdel reveals of the truth of her sexuality to her parents—an action motivated by honesty—that ultimately discloses her ignorance of her father’s sexual transgressions.  This new knowledge is anagnorosis, Aristotle’s word for recognition or discovery.  According to Aristotle, these transitions from unawareness to insight produces either hate or love by the hero for other characters. [31] In the case of Bechdel, the storge she feels for her father is revealed in her personal suffering.

     The essence of a tragedy is that the hero must suffer. [32] While Bechdel struggles with guilt in the aftermath of her father’s death, her ambivalence is evident:

The idea that I caused his death by telling my parents I was a lesbian is perhaps illogical. Causality implies connection, contact of some kind, and however convincing they might be, you can’t lay hands on a fictional character. [33]

The hero also doubts herself in her sorrow. There is heartbreak in the overt disconnect between Bechdel and Bruce; we expect our parents above all people to tell us the truth, and in that collapse of terra firma, we walk with instability.

    In spite of her father’s shortcomings, Bechdel assumes responsibility for her father’s death and expresses guilt by believing she played a part in Bruce’s disappointments and failures. In Oedipus’ guilt and shame he blinded himself to become completely dependent upon Antigone for all of the needs of his daily living, placing her in the role of caretaker at the same time abdicating rule to his sons. Conversely, Bruce Bechdel remained emotionally aloof and uncommunicative from his daughter, as well as the rest of his family. (Did he feel guilty about this? We cannot be sure.) Unlike Bechdel or Antigone, Oedipus and Bruce relinquish responsibility for what has happened, which appears to serve as an avoidance of resolution.

    Bechdel goes on to compare her father with the life and writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, an author and text he greatly admired. She considers the parallels in their lives, even the timing of their deaths:

For a wild moment I entertained that idea that my father had timed his death with this in mind, as some sort of deranged tribute. But that would only confirm that his death was not my fault. That, in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. And I’m reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond. [34]

The hero of a tragedy must suffer and this suffering is the essence of a tragedy. Freud calls this “tragic guilt. [35] Freud writes: “we can at last grasp two things perfectly clearly: the part played by love in the origin of conscience and the fatal inevitability of the sense of guilt.” [36] Freud’s theory is that the origin of guilt was the result of the primal horde killing their father. [37] Feelings of guilt spring from feelings of ambivalence, in this case Bechdel’s vacillating love for Bruce. While he was a disappointment as a father she still held storgic love for him. Consciousness and guilt are in direct relationship to storge [38] and Bechdel suffers in her feelings of responsibility for his death. It is this agony that keeps alive a relationship with her father; they can be close in a way they never were in life.

     Returning to the idea of a suffering hero, Freud is privileging the gendered male, but in contemporary thought it can be asserted that the hero does not necessarily have a specific sex/gender. This notion is argued by Butler: “gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” [39] For Butler, gender is performance—how you choose to act at any given time—not who you are. In this way identity is never fixed and not an essence; this would include the identity of “father” or “mother.” The subject is free to reinvent the self.

     What is Bechdel’s “sacred role” in the aftermath of Bruce’s death in terms of family ethos? Tragedy gives voice to agency: Antigone took on the role of conscientious objector and Bechdel that of conscientiousness. By feeling responsible for her father’s death, Bechdel demonstrates a cogent expression of storge with its qualities of commitment, humility and tolerance. Like Antigone, the hero of Fun Home acts upon love for her father, and by extension for her family.

     Jacques Lacan reconsiders Antigone in his lectures on the ethics of psychoanalysisHe writes: “tragedy is at the root of our experience, as the key word catharsis explains.” [40]   Bechdel crafts an Aristotelian catharsis by re-suffering individual events of her past and reconstructing them in her memoir.  The graphic novel is a work of art—and a labor of storgic love seven years in the making—that allows for catharsis, which serves as a kind of resolution. Bechdel liberates her father’s secrets as well as her own, and although she lays out Bruce’s terrible web of lies and deceptions, it is not in a moralizing fashion. Bechdel never tells the reader how to feel; yet there is an emotional connection to her suffering.

Alternative family affairs

Photograph of the cast for The Kids Are All Right

Figure 4. Photograph of the cast for The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right [41] is a film that takes on another contemporary configuration of family love. Like Antigone it also addresses themes of fidelity and disobedience. The plot revolves around married middle-aged lesbians Nic a gynecologist, and Jules, a stay-at-home-mom. [42] They have two teenage children: Joni and Laser. [43] Both children were conceived via the same sperm bank donor: Joni gave birth to Nic and Jules to Laser. The kids refer to their parents as “moms.”

     The family lives in a comfortable middle class home in sunny and verdant Los Angeles. Unlike the Bechdel household, Nic and Jules are attentive and emotionally communicative with each other and their children; a tightknit kinship is evident although the cracks in the otherwise wholesome veneer become quickly evident. In an early scene Nic criticizes Jules at the dinner table for buying a truck without first consulting her about the purchase. In the same scene she badgers Joni about writing thank you notes. Later that evening Nic complains about the pornography she is watching even as Jules attempts to sexually pleasure her. While the family is an affectionate one, Nic’s critical and controlling persona is contrasted with Jules’ role as a more sensitive, passive and reasonable peacemaker. The kids—for the most part—abide by their parent’s rules, particularly Joni who is an overachiever and demonstrates the marked sense of filial piety seen in Antigone.

     The timeline of the film is the summer before Joni leaves home for college. Laser, 15, wants to meet his biological father and pressures Joni to make contact, since at age 18 she is legally able to do so. Reluctantly Joni initiates communication with Paul, [44] who is a successful restaurant owner with an organic farm. The kids surreptitiously meet him; afterwards Joni finds him compelling, while Laser is ambivalent.  When Laser discloses the meeting to the moms Nic in particular feels threatened by changes to the family dynamic that Paul may generate. Her preexisting drinking problem becomes exacerbated. Already authoritative, Nic grows increasing sarcastic, irrational and angry. Jules is more welcoming of Paul and willing to suspend her doubts for the sake of her children’s desire to know him.  

     Much like Jules, Paul is an easy-going and open-minded character. His relationship with his biological children deepens as he spends time with them; they are drawn to his affable, non-judgmental attitude, particularly in contrast to Nic. He remains unflappable, never getting drawn into her acrimonious statements.  The kids find in him a free-spirited father figure who accepts them at face value, offers new experiences and eventually speaks up in their best interests. In one scene he suggests to Laser that his bad-tempered friend is a “tool” and in another he sticks up for Joni after being attacked by Nic for riding on his motorcycle. But Paul is not their “dad.” He is a special friend. His affection for them is not by definition storge since it does not meet the foremost criteria of long-term familiarity. At best, we might think of this relationship as philia.

     Meanwhile Jules is in the throes of establishing a new landscape design enterprise, and Paul—in a gesture of support—hires her as the gardener for his new home. Their friendship grows as a result of Paul’s encouragement; he becomes a caring confidant. In a surprising plot twist, there arises an erotic attraction between them, which Jules initiates. The sex is powerful for both of them and a torrid affair ensues. While Jules feels guilty about her unfaithfulness to Nic, she repeatedly climbs into Paul’s bed where she takes on an aggressive dominant role—a role that is not taking place in her marital bed. Jules has found something she can control (her body and Paul’s) as well as someone who cares for herunconditionally. Paul falls in love with Jules although she does not reciprocate this affection; her heart still belongs to Nic.

     Nic discovers their affair at the end of the summer, not long before Joni departs for college. In an emotionally charged scene between the couple the night of the discovery, the following dialogue takes place:

Nic: Are you in love with him?
Jules: No. No!
Nic: Are you straight now?
Jules: No, it has nothing to do with that. I just… felt so far away from you.
Nic: Oh, right, so it’s my fault.
Jules: Who said anything about faultJust listen to me!
Nic: I’m listening! What?
Jules: I just…I just… I needed…
Nic: What—to be fucked?
Jules: No—appreciated.
Nic: Oh, its always what I’m not doing for you, isn’t it? Well, OK, here’s what I don’t do to you. I don’t work out my issues by fucking other people.
Jules: He’s not just other people—.
Nic: No—he’s our sperm donor, you couldn’t have picked a more painful way to hurt me.[45]  

Nic dismisses Paul as a mere impersonal provider of a medical service, but Jules acknowledges the possibility of deeper emotional and physical connection for her children. This confrontation brings up a few questions: What is the responsibility of a parent in terms of their children’s psychological wellbeing when these children are conceived via artificial reproductive technology? What is the role of the parents in regards to supporting their children when they want to know the sperm donor? What is the place of a sperm donor who is sought out by his children, especially when a parent is opposed to this disclosure? How does a family uphold storge in this situation?   

     It is easy to judge Jules for her infidelity to Nic, but the story is not only about eros, which is an important factor in her affair with Paul. The larger idea here is storge. Paul and Jules have deceived the family and as a result the family becomes polarized. Jules is ejected from the marital bed and relegated to sleeping on the couch. The kids align with Nic; Paul is abruptly cut off and alienated by the very people who invited him in. Most troubling is that Nic takes on a new role of tearful victim, never taking responsibility for her derisive actions. Yet who really is the victim here? Is there a hero?

     I suggest that Paul is the unlikely hero in this contemporary tragedy about family love. He first becomes a kind of hero—albeit anonymously—by providing the sperm which allow Jules and Nic to biologically bear their children and create their loving nuclear family. Without the sperm donor, Jules and Nic would not be able to birth their own children, which they must have felt vital to their marital relationship. Artificial insemination is costly, and parenthood by any methodology is a significant psychological and physical commitment. It was Paul’s particular sperm that created Joni and Laser; to deny his physiological role in their being cannot be argued.

     Secondly, when Joni and Laser reach out to him he agrees to meet them. Since his assent is clearly out of his comfort zone the gesture can be seen as an act of emotional courage. In developing a friendship with them, he wades into unchartered psychological waters. He is a father figure—their biological father—but he is not a father in the full socio-psychological sense of fatherhood since he did not raise them or financially support them. Still there is this inexpressible connection, a part of their immanent identity, which is intuited by Jules. Before their affair commences, a scene between them in Paul’s backyard entails an awkward but charged discussion of how the garden might be designed:

Jules: I’m really liking: “more is more”. I mean—lets not try to tame this space, OK? Lets just let it be like lush, overgrown…ah, fecund.

Paul: Fecund…
Jules: Like fertile, yeah?
Paul: No, I love that word. Its just people don’t use it very often.
Jules: No…yeah.
Paul: No… “More is more”—yeah, I like that. Right on, lets do that.
Jules: [Takes off her sunglasses and looks directly at Paul.] I’m sorry…
Paul: What?
Jules: I just keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face.
Paul: Really?
Jules: Like that: “Really?” [She imitates his head flick and inflection.] Like: “Yeah.” [She imitates him again.] That’s like Laser!
Paul: [Looking embarrassed but also touched.] Huh…well… [46]

This garden is a metaphor for the uninhibited erotic relationship that Jules and Paul are about to explore. It is also a kind of anti-symbol for the clinical biological conception of their children.

     Paul—by definition as a hero—is basically a good guy and seems to think that he can become a better person by organically developing a relationship with Joni and Laser. His character is convincing and consistent. Paul is not absolutely virtuous, noted in his sexual activities: a casual sexual relationship with an employee and then his extramarital affair with Jules. The latter is the turn of the plot in which Paul makes his biggest error in judgment—his hamartia. Nic discovers the pair’s betrayal when she finds evidence of Jules’ red hair in his bathroom, and it costs him everything: his relationship with Jules as well as Joni and Laser. Aristotle calls this peripeteia, the reversal in the plot of a tragedy whereby the hero’s situation goes from good to bad (or vice versa.) Peripeteia is the climax of the narrative that brings us toward the conclusion.

     Yet the conclusion of The Kids Are All Right lacks catharsis and resolution. At first all lines of communication shut down in the family. Everyone cuts off talking with Paul. Joni also lashes out at the moms, confronting them with their double standard of values. As Joni prepares to leave for college an uneasy truce prevails in the home. The night before her departure a sorrowful Paul appears unwelcomed at the door, and they talk briefly on the porch out of earshot of everyone else:

Joni: What are you doing here?
Paul: I just needed to talk to you before you left…please.
Joni: There’s nothing to talk about.
Paul: I wanted to apologize again. I…I…I can’t tell you how ashamed, how…how much I regret what happened.
Joni: So everything that happened between us—what was that? That was just bullshit?
Paul: No, no. It wasn’t bullshit at all. OK? I know that I don’t have much credibility right now but I reallyreally care about you. I want to know that I will   be able to see you again some day. I mean, do you think that can ever happen?
Joni: I don’t know. I just wish you could have been…
Paul: What?
Joni: Better. 

What does Joni mean by “better?” I think it means to do what is right. Antigone had a difficult choice to make in terms of her family versus the state. Bechel tried to do the right thing by truthfully coming out to her parents. The notion of “better” is what children expect from their parents. It is also what parents expect of their children—what Bechdel expected from her father Bruce.

     At this point Nic finds them and pulls Joni in the house. She angrily confronts Paul:

Nic: Oh, you have got some balls, mister! No, you hold on—You know what you did to my kids? Let me tell you something: this is not your family. This is my family!
Paul: I know that Nic.
Nic: No, you don’t know and do you know why? Because you’re a fucking interloper. If you want a family so much you go out and make your own. [Nic slams door in Paul’s face. Paul makes eye contact with Laser through the window but Laser gets up coldly and walks away.]

 Later that evening Nic, Joni and Laser are watching TV when Jules addresses them:

I need to say something. Um, its no big secret your mom and I are in hell right now, and uh, bottom line is marriage is hard. It’s really fucking hard. Its just two people slogging through the shit year after year, getting older, changing… it’s a fucking marathon, OK? Sometimes you know you are together so long you just stop seeing the other person, and see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices, which is what I did and I feel sick about it because I love you guys and I love your mom and that’s the truth. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most and I don’t know why…if I had read more Russian novels…anyway I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually. Thank you. [47]

While Jules is saying this, Nic is crying on the couch holding her children’s hands. Jules’ apology holds elements of veracity about associations of storgic love: the banality of the everyday routines, the tedium of longevity, the taking for granted—all the elements that are not components any other type of love. Still, this monologue is one-dimensional compared to the earlier exchange between them in which Jules more authentically addresses issues of fault and consciousness.

      The next morning the family packs up the car to take Joni to college. It is a challenging time in any parent’s life to send their oldest child to college and the family comes together stoically for this moment of transition. Still, this is a Band-Aid merely placed on a wound that needs more serious attention. Long-term resentment by all family members is hermetically covered up in order to protect the family’s storge. Nic banishes Paul as an interloper, but he is actually a conduit for long-standing problems in her marriage: the corrosive problems of alcohol abuse, unmet sexual desires, as well as controlling and passive-aggressive behaviors, for which there is an obvious lack of self-reflection. The film plot demonizes and scapegoats Paul for his inadvertent part in these issues; his exile is not the long-term solution for the health of the family. It is likely Jules will be unfaithful again in the future when another conduit surfaces in their life. Without addressing these critical issues, will the children really be all right?

     Paul’s character as another kind of “conduit” also raises critical questions via his important biological connection to both moms and kids. While this film is fiction, the real life situation of tens of thousands of children born via artificial reproductive technologies and their “donor dads” is a contemporary family matter. Children conceived outside of traditional sexual relationships have legitimate questions about their core identity embodied in the DNA of the male at the other end of the sperm transmission. [48] Biologist and social studies theorist Donna Haraway writes, “A ‘regulatory fiction’ basic to Western concepts of gender insists that motherhood is natural and fatherhood is cultural: mothers make babies naturally, biologically. Motherhood is known on sight; fatherhood is inferred.” [49] Yet technology and reproductive culture has changed even more significantly since Haraway wrote this over twenty years ago. A 2011 New York Times article states that while there are no definite statistics about children born as a result of sperm donation, the estimate is somewhere between 30,000 – 60,000 per year or higher. [50] And the appearance of the nuclear family is taking new shapes: 10 million single parents are documented in the 2011 U.S. Census [51] and about a quarter of American households are same-sex couples according to the Williams Institute. [52]Reproductive freedoms raise new questions in terms of the definition of the family and subsequently in terms of storge. How will storge evolve in light of the latest practices and sciences?


La Soupe (1862) by Honoré Daumier

Figure 5. La Soupe (1862) by Honoré Daumier


The Caress (1902) by Mary Cassett

Figure 6. The Caress (1902) by Mary Cassett

 Art history holds a rich array of representations of storge. Some archetypal examples include Daumier’s Le Soupe (1862) in which storge’s homely face and lack of hubris is seen at a humble family meal.  Mary Cassatt’s The Caress (1902) conveys the unabashed tenderness between siblings and mother. The Banjo Lesson (1893) by Henry Ossawa Tanner reminds us how love not only originates in the family but also is first practiced there.

The Banjo Lesson

Figure 7. The Banjo Lesson (1893) by Henry Ossawa Tanner


In contemporary examples Fun Home and The Kids Are All Right each narrative concerns white, educated, middle-class, and suburban American kinship. While they address issues of sexual difference, they do not address ethnic, poor minorities, rural or inner city dwellers in which storge may look a bit different due to class and cultural variations. [53] Current prime time television programming includes groundbreaking family situation comedies The New Normal and Modern Family, which highlight same sex (male) parenting. Notably they also feature white middle class characters in which hardcore issues of poverty, lack of higher education, racism, disability, and religious diversity have thus far been carefully avoided. [54]

     For artists, an examination of storge continues to be a fecund and promising scope of exploration particularly in light of an increasingly heterogeneous American culture and expanding reproductive technologies. As noted, these changes bring up ever-new inquiries. Martin Heidegger states, “Questioning builds a way.” [55] He believed, “Art is truth setting itself to work” [56] and that art comes about by the “thinker’s questioning.” [57] Artists who tackle storge as content in their work might consider this Heideggerian notion: art reveals truth, even if this truth is transient, at once concealing at the same time it reveals. By always asking questions we are practicing critical self-reflection that will help us to understand the shifting natures of family love.

     Storge is the first love—ideally—the love we are born into. It is the private sphere of the family that shapes who we will become as beings-in-the-world, an archetype for our experiences of eros,philia and agape. The longstanding importance of storge is understood in ancient myths such asAntigone, which demonstrates the agonizing choices demanded by filial piety and commitment to the bloodline in the face of adversity. I suggest we consider that anyone who loves someone is a hero--that love-givers put themselves out there to chance losing everything. This brings about new questions: What kind of courage does it take to love? How does the definition of hero as love-giver compare to our current notion of hero as an idealized figure? In the meanwhile, art reminds us that loving someone—even a family member—is a risk we must consciously be willing to take.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Bechdell, Allison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2007.

Butler, Judith. Antigone's Claim. NY, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000.

—. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, NY: Routledge Classics, 2008.

Cholodenko, Lisa and Blumberg, Stuart. The Kids Are All Right. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Performed by Annette and Moore, Julianne Bening. 2010.

Fisher, Ph.D., Helen. Anatomy of Love. New York, NY: Fawcett Books, 1992.

Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Edited by Peter Gay. NY, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 1991.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). Edited by David Farrell Krell. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 1993.

Hutchings, Kimberly. Hegel and Feminist Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. , 2003.

Irigaray, Luce. "Eternal Irony of the Community." In Hegel and Contemporary Continental Philosophy, by Dennis King Keenan. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1991.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Plato. Symposium. Project Gutenberg eBook. November 7, 2008.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. Edited by David Berman. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1995.



[1] The act of kin burying their own predates ancient Greece. According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, the customs of interment date to Cro-Magnon era, although there is evidence that Neanderthals also ritually buried their kin. There is debate whether Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought.

[2] Freud, Sigmund, “Civilization and Its Discontents” in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay, (New York: NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 744.

[3] Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love (New York: NY: Fawcett Books, 1992), 249.

[4] Ibid., 249 - 250. Fisher hypothesizes this comes about in the epoch of the Cro-Magnon. If sibling or parent-child relationships resulted in babies, the consequence would be a lack of adults to support the helpless infant. This would be an economic burden to the family group. Also, children of incest would cause acute social conflict borne of domestic rivalries. This conflict would carry over into political liaisons because marrying off adult children to outsider clans or tribes tended to forge trading and social ties with other groups. Finally, inbreeding had a tendency towards unpredictable physical effects that compromised genetic health.

[5] Ibid., 251.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc., 1960), 32.

[7] Ibid., 33.

[8] Ibid., 33 – 34.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Seinfeld, “The Hamptons”, episode 85, originally aired May 12, 1994.

[11] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 33 – 34.

[12] Ibid., 34.

[13] Ibid., 36 -37.

[14] This saying is first attributed to Apuleius, a Latin prose writer in the 2nd century CE. The first recorded use of it is included in his text De Deo Socratis (On the God of Socrates).

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 38.

[16] Ibid., 40.

[17] Ibid., 44.

[18] Ibid., 45.

[19] Freud, Sigmund, “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men” in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay, (New York: NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 388-389.

[20] Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love,168. For this statistic Fisher is referring to the findings of M. Daly and M. Wilson in their text Homocide, 1988.

[21] Ibid., 167.

[22] Ibid., 168.

[23] Freud, Sigmund, “Civilization and Its Discontents” in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay, (New York: NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 729.

[24] Freud, Sigmund, “Civilization and Its Discontents,” 729.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 728.

[27] Alison Bechdel, Family Fun Home: A Tragicomic, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2006), 59.

[28] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, (London: Orion Publishing Group, 1995), 159.

[29] I am using the term “hero” as opposed to “heroine” to disrupt the gender binary of “male” and “female”.

[30] In rethinking the assumption about language and gender, Butler points out, “The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge Classics, 2008), 34.

[31] Aristotle, The Poetics, translator Ingram Bywater (Gutenberg eBook #6763, 2012), Kindle ebook file. 

[32] Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader (NY, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 509.

[33] Alison Bechdel, Family Fun Home: A Tragicomic, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2006), 84.

[34] Ibid., 86.

[35] Sigmund Freud, “Totem and Taboo”, The Freud Reader (NY, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), 509.

[36] Ibid., 501.

[37] The primal father (or primal horde) is a theory by Freud that a prehistoric clan of sons killed and ate their father in rebellion of his incest taboo. This mandate frustrated their intent to act on the power of their sexual desires. While they hated the father’s commands, they still loved and admired him. After his murder, this affection for him was expressed in their remorse and their decision to uphold his rules.

[38] Nietzsche had other theories about the origins of guilt that he explains in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Contemporary guilt finds its origins in ancient religious belief systems, which wielded power to suppress the subject’s animal instincts by turning aggression inward upon itself with the development of a bad conscience. With guilt the subject feels responsible and accountable for what is done or said that results in the other’s pain. This is the case with Bechdel’s coming out letter and the subsequent suicide of her father for which she feels blameworthy. The Bechdel’s were Catholics, a religion in which suicide is a mortal sin, punishable by eternity in hell for the soul of the perpetrator. 

[39] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 191.

[40] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959 – 1960, (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 244.

[41] The Kids Are All Right. Dir. Lisa Cholodenko. Perf. Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Paul Ruffalo. Focus Features, 2010. DVD.

[42] The actors Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play Jules and Nic respectively.

[43] Joni is portrayed by actor Mia Wasikowska and Laser by Josh Hutcherson.

[44] Actor Mark Ruffalo plays Paul.

[45] The Kids Are All Right.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Cholodenko’s film does not fully address this current controversy of kinship, but it would be fascinating should some artist take it on. 

[49] Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 1991), 135.

[50] (accessed November 25, 2012).

[51] (accessed November 25, 2012)

[52] (accessed November 25, 2012)

[53] This would also be true of wealthy families and families that have high public profiles.

[54] People of color make rare appearances or are ancillary characters on these shows. The one exception is Modern Family, which features a Hispanic mother and son character; yet the mother does not work outside the home and is married to a wealthy Caucasian male breadwinner.

[55] Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology” from Basic Writings, (New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 1993), 311.

[56] Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of a Work of Art” from Basic Writings, (New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 1993), 165.

[57] Ibid., 187.