Motherhood in Film & Television: Sherrybaby

Maggie Gyllenhall in Sherrybaby

This is a guest review by Gabriella Apicella.
In all areas of our lives, women are neatly packaged into stereotypes that strip us of complexity and personality. Dating back to the original typecasting of Virgin vs Whore, there are other labels that fall along the same trajectory, just as inadequate and inaccurate: Wife, Mother, Slut, Gold-digger, Victim, House-wife, Lesbian, Office Bitch, etc. All of these unhelpful words have been embodied by countless depictions in film, from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” to “The Devil Wears Prada,” to “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” So much so, that there appear to be very defined ideas in society of how any one of these characters may or may not behave.

What is so extraordinary about “Sherrybaby” is the main character is so completely rounded and real that she bursts free from the predictable constraints imposed by stereotypes. The film follows Sherry Swanson, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as she tries to reconnect with her daughter after being released from prison. Yet although this provides the main motivation for virtually everything she does in the film, writer and director Laurie Collyer has brought to the screen a female character who is not just a passionate mother, not just a recovering addict, not just a victim of abuse, not just a sexually confident woman, not just a sweet primary school teacher, but ALL of these things.
Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby
Even within my own circle of friends I have had conversations where they have expressed concern about how they should or should not behave now that they have become mothers. This revered state of Motherhood has them calling into question how much they should now drink, have sex, enjoy their careers: clearly something is very wrong if women are feeling that they are not free to be themselves, because they have become a mother. Other friends have confided to losing close friends since having a child – as if they are perceived as not even being the same person anymore!

Flaws within a mother are almost inexcusable by society: how dare they drink, have sex, work, put anyone but their child first 24 hours a day every day for the rest of their lives! Film and society at large have both upheld this unattainable expectation of virtuous behaviour, giving transgressors the harshest of punishments. In film “bad mothers” tend to end up dead, alone or insane, whereas the rates of women being imprisoned is climbing at an extraordinary rate, with nearly two-thirds of the prison population being mothers.
Director Laurie Collyer with Maggie Gyllenhaal
Watching the painstaking journey Sherry Swanson takes in “Sherrybaby” is almost unbearably moving at times. Her resolve to be with her child is steadfast throughout, yet as she makes attempts to reconnect with her, the audience is also shown the different sides to her personality; sexual, troubled, playful, over-sensitive, kind, immature, ruthless, Gyllenhaal’s performance is nuanced and raw.
Whilst she explodes into a violent rage at one of the bullying women harassing her in a halfway-house, she maintains her composure and diplomacy with the far more painful handling of a conversation with her sister-in-law, who has instructed Sherry’s daughter to call her Sherry instead of “Mom.” When her child Alexis appears to be scared of her, and is reluctant to spend a day with her, Sherry never loses her patience, and only displays love and tenderness to the child; entirely at odds with her declaration at an interview “I’ll suck your dick if you give me the job I want.”
Director of Sherrybaby, Laurie Collyer
There is no straightforward way to describe this character, as all the contrasting facets of Sherry’s personality are evident, and yet she remains consistent. Perhaps this has been the quandary of filmmakers, and the reason for stereotypes: how is it possible to reconcile so many different characteristics into one person? So “Moms” (and let’s face it, Women) are wholesome and good, or crazy and bad. But people are multi-faceted, as are Moms, and the sensationally real depiction of Sherry by Laurie Collyer demonstrates expertly that there is no need for the two-dimensional predictability we are used to from female roles.

Without using over-egged sentimentality, Collyer even affords Sherry the possibility of happiness, showing that despite her drug-taking, sexual misadventures and lack of parenting skills, she deserves a second chance. This compassion is certainly missing from film depictions of women, and is all too often missing from wider society also. Both must change so that women may smash through the stereotypes.
Gabriella Apicella is a feminist writer and tutor living in London, England. She has a degree in Film and Media from Birkbeck College, University of London, is on the board of Script Development organisation Euroscript, and in 2010 co-founded the UnderWire Festival that aims to recognise the raw filmmaking talent of women. Her writing features women in the central roles, and she has been commissioned to write short films, experimental theatre and prose for independent directors and artists.


  • Posted May 22, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    nice write up! i liked this performance and this writing too!

  • okcsteve
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    this is what you call an indie film even a HIPSTER could hate. Just terrible.