Kristin Effland - No Dumb Questions (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 77-78

No Dumb Questions

No Dumb Questions centers on a topic that necessarily interrogates "traditional family values." The film follows a white middle-class family of five closely as mother, father and in turn, their three children, digest the challenging news: their loved one has decided to live as Aunt Barbara, instead of as Uncle Bill. While the film does not explicitly address "family values" rhetoric, Melissa Regan's documentary shows its viewers one family's values and the process by which they are cultivated.

As a family, they cultivate the values of love and acceptance throughout the film by employing the principles of openness, love, and humor in dealing with the new knowledge about Aunt Barbara/Uncle Bill. As the title of the film suggests, both [End Page 77] the parents and Aunt Barbara encourage questioning and respect the children's perspectives. When Chelsea, age 11, wants to ask a question using the word penis she first says, "Can I say it? It won't be inappropriate?" By involving questions in the process of cultivating their children's values, the parents avoid stifling the learning process with prescriptions that would close down or limit discussion. They thereby demonstrate meaningful value-making through their interactions. Olivia, the 9 year-old niece, initially expresses fear when she meets Aunt Barbara, but later says that she "calmed down" after talking with her. Chelsea, the oldest daughter, feels proud that she stood up in class and provided the terms her classmate requested rather than simply allowing the class to snicker about a "man who wants to become a woman" without a direct response from the teacher.

The family's approach to interaction with their children is consistent: they present a topic, sometimes by asking questions, then they allow their children to think about the topic, reflect, interact with one another and answer each other's questions. Then, the parents respond to their children's inquiries and spark further discussion. Each of the sisters have very different reactions from one another as well as very different ways of coping, reflecting, and processing information, so each of them learns to employ the values that their parents encourage in their own way. When the children learn that their Uncle Steve decided not to meet Barbara because he is not handling the news very well, the mother says that her daughter was mad saying, "I do not understand! This is his brother, his sister! If that was my sister and she had something going on, I would always love her!" The children demonstrate that they have learned the values their family encourages.

The means used to cultivate family values in the film stands in stark contrast to the "traditional family values" rhetoric that demonizes groups of people. Aunt Barbara's family refuses simply to ostracize her; instead they consider the difficulties she experiences. As viewers, we learn about some of the struggles she will face as a transgender individual through the eyes of those who love her including her six year-old niece, Abby. Humanizing Barbara through their approach to her decision, Barbara's family recognizes that the learning process matters as much as the outcome. Indeed, the very root of the word traditional reveals that traditions, like its synonyms, custom and culture, are learned. So, if ones values in practice are not consistent with the values one claims to want to preserve, then a mixed message can result.

The familial context of this film reveals that the phrase "traditional family values," can be employed as an empty rhetorical tool that fails at the very process required to accomplish its alleged purpose of preserving tradition. Choosing not to focus energy on hunting down allegedly immoral people, the family does not concern themselves with how to protect their innocent children, but rather they devote time to preparing their children to reflect and make decisions about how to live a life of love. The film thus gives the viewer hope that communities and families can still foster love, acceptance and humor despite the context of "the culture wars." By not treating their questions regarding their aunt as a threat from somewhere outside their family, the family in the film avoids a stifling debate over transgendered identity. Portrayed as at war, any focus on the values of consensus, love and acceptance can disappear from the discussion, but Regan's decision to present her subject through the eyes of children within intimate family settings enables her film to break through the impasses of these debates.

Without employing the phrase "family values," Chelsea, Olivia, Abby and the parents exhibit their family's values: they illustrate practical tools for cultivation and value-making steeped in love, where the parents' means for introducing values to their children are consistent with their desired ends. The process by which the family in No Dumb Questions teaches and learns the values of love and acceptance is refreshing and exhilarating to witness so intimately. This family's admirable approach to processing difficult family news would make any hard-to-deal-with family issue easier to consider. Faced very directly with a controversial topic, we witness parents guiding and supporting their children as they encourage them to think through complicated ideas and questions. The process of cultivation that they as parents employ enables them to return from meeting Aunt Barbara with an assessment of success, "If this has done anything, it has put a positive light in being accepting of others. [Our children] are going to be better off because of it." Appealing to their core values as a family, they take a courageous and very humane stance. Love leads them to accept Aunt Barbara completely, even when they cannot completely understand or relate to her decision.

Youth Program Coordinator
Gender Public Advocacy Coalition

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