|bitchfest. Edited by Lisa Jervis & Andi Zeisler|
Motherhood is a theme we've visited before (Black Swan comes immediately to mind, as does the mother character in Rachel Getting Married), and anxieties about it abound in film and television. Mothers can't seem to escape the same virgin/whore dichotomy structure that plagues all depictions of women in sexist media: either the woman is domestic, passive, nurturing, and selfless, or she's a monster whose desires ultimately destruct the familial unit. (I'm currently watching the first season of the AMC show The Walking Dead, and waiting to see if the mother character falls into the latter cliche. I suspect she will; stay tuned for a probable Flick Off.)
Thinking about mothers led me to page through bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine and revisit the essay "Mother Inferior: How Hollywood Keeps Single Moms in Their Place" by writer and filmmaker Monica Nolan, originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of Bitch. Here's an excerpt that looks at single mothers in 1945's Mildred Pierce and 1987's Baby Boom.
In the 1940s and '50s, when wartime taught women that they could be economically successful on their own, and as divorcees and widows became more common, Hollywood switched gears. Single moms, here transformed into the dreaded "career women," were now messing up not their kids' economic chances but their psyches. The most spectacular example was the 1945 classic Mildred Pierce, in which Mildred kicks out her deadbeat husband and builds a successful restaurant chain, only to have one daughter die and the other turn into an amoral murderess.[...]In Baby Boom, Diane Keaton's J.C. is a high-powered Manhattan exec who suddenly inherits a baby. Initially, this looks like a radical twist on the Three Men and a Baby concept, as the film introduces the idea, in several comic sequences, that motherhood is no more instinctual for women than it is for men. But before the audience can grab another handful of popcorn, she's quit her job and fled to a farmhouse in Vermont, a move that the plot reassures us is all for the best: J.C. has always dreamed of a house in the country. In this movie, children don't entail real sacrifices, just changes that turn out to be redemptive. It's the baby's job to feminize Mom and, in the process, save her from the rat race.[...]A single mom and her kids are by definition a family without a father, and the female-headed household is destruction of the patriarchy at its most basic level. Needless to say, in Hollywood, showing its unproblematic success is still a huge taboo. Contemporary single-mom films are truly reflective of our culture: A massive amount of energy is expended in a desperate attempt to prove that single parenthood is not good enough, even as an ever-increasing number of women parent on their own. (It's important to note that this anxiety manifests itself onscreen with an almost exclusive focus on white, middle-class single moms, despite the fact that more than one-third of American single moms are women of color. Though this is part and parcel of the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood in general, it conveniently allows mainstream films to ignore the factors of class and race that are inextricably intertwined with single parenthood.
With the recent mini-series remake of Mildred Pierce in mind, I'd love to see an updated version of this article. (I also can't help but think about The Kids Are All Right, which is not about a single mother but about lesbian mothers, and how it fits right into Nolan's description of the "family without a father" in the final quoted paragraph above; here, lesbian "parenthood is not enough," hence the disruption brought about by the sperm donor's entrance into their lives, and the family is white and upper-middle class.)
What movies, in the past decade, have depicted mothers in a positive way, moving forward from one-note stereotypes and bucking the trend of "keeping single moms in their place?" With all the focus on the negative, I'd like to see some positive examples.