Does your mother know? The maternal on-screen

What makes a ‘natural’ mother? Perhaps someone clad in sensible linens, someone warm, compassionate, inherently good-hearted, and not one to make a fuss, pure and self-sacrificing. The opening lines of Lorrie Moore’s 1998 short-story ‘Terrific Mother’ introduce Adrienne, a woman in her mid-30s who is navigating the shifting temporal landscape of her own bodily potential and the recognition of her status as a fertile object capable of rearing a child:

Holding a baby was no longer natural—she was no longer natural—but a test of womanliness and earthly skills. She was being observed. People looked to see how she would do it. She had entered a puritanical decade, a demographic moment—whatever it was—when the best compliment you could get was, “You would make a terrific mother.”

In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2020 adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter, Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged academic holidaying alone on a sunny Greek island, strikes up a tenuous friendship with young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), dipping her toe into a fraught dynamic of voyeurism that stirs up troubling memories of raising her own daughters. A sentiment of maternal pressure disguised as banal chatter electrifies the interactions between Leda and the large, palpably mafia-esque family to which Nina belongs. In a barbed but outwardly pleasant chat with Nina’s pregnant cousin Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) at a beachside birthday party, Leda demurs at the woman’s implication that she must miss her adult daughters. ‘You’ll see,’ Leda says, clutching a paper plate of cake and shielding her eyes from the sun. ‘Children are a crushing responsibility. Happy Birthday.’

This puritanical desire for the perfect mother continues to weave its way through contemporary depictions of the maternal experience. In a time when rejecting motherhood and maintaining bodily autonomy are fast retreating under the oppressive dictates of conservative governments, the ideal mother wields more and more power as a cultural norm. Critical responses to recent depictions of ambiguous motherhood on screen have lauded the bravery of these representations, praising directors for portraying mothers exerting power over their own lives and expressing their discomfort with the strictures of motherhood. Though they may appear radical on the surface, these recent films and television dramas remain stuck within the same rigid framework of maternal expectations that so dominated the melodramas of Hollywood’s golden age, punishing those who strayed from the norm. 

Mid-century Hollywood studio films offered their fair share of mother-centric narratives, known as ‘weepies’ for their heartstring-tugging narratives of family struggle, poverty, and tragedy. Making a genre out of the trials of motherhood and appealing directly to women proved a canny commercial move by Hollywood studios, and melodramas dominated screens from the late 1930s through to the early 1960s. Though they presented problematic and often trite simplifications of American womanhood, these films also critiqued the unreachable standards of domestic perfection and self-eradication expected of the modern mother.

In Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) the titular heroine (Barbara Stanwyck) gives up everything, including the love of her cherished daughter, to ensure that daughter’s ascension into the elite echelon of wealthy high-society, cementing a marriage between her beloved Laurel (Anne Shirley) and wealthy heir-apparent Richard Grosvenor (Tom Holt). Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) takes a rather more cynical approach to the narrative of motherly devotion and class ascension. Hewing closely to the contextual backdrop of Stella Dallas, the film follows the trials and tribulations of working-class mother and divorcee Mildred (Joan Crawford) as she attempts to give her two daughters Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) a chance at success in dust-bowl era California. Like Stella, Mildred worships her daughters, giving of herself completely—she works hard as a waitress, gradually moving up the ranks and throwing everything into developing a chain of diners, all while suffering Veda’s haughty judgement and unrelenting cruelty. Motherhood in Mildred Pierce thus becomes an ambiguous and complex emotional landscape, a space where devotion and repulsion coincide.

Though Mildred ostensibly represents a ‘loose’ woman—divorced and raising her daughters alone—any moment of sexual liberation for her is quickly scuppered by motherly duty. Mildred embarks on a whirlwind but chaste romance with local playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), climaxing in a weekend getaway at his beachside mansion. During this brief period away from the family home, Mildred’s youngest daughter Kay contracts pneumonia and dies. It’s hard to read this moment as anything other than punishment for Mildred’s implied sexual promiscuity, and Kay’s death serves as the catalyst for Mildred’s increased fervour to protect and support the ungrateful and callous Veda. All Mildred’s attempts to care for Veda backfire and she grows more spoilt and cruel, eventually embarking on her own doomed affair with Monte in the ultimate act of maternal rejection.

The melodramatic narrative provides a neat visual dictate for the appropriate path towards salvation for the wayward mother. By sacrificing herself entirely to her child—erasing, even, any possibility of reciprocal love—Stella Dallas reaches a level of spiritual purity akin to the overwhelming fervour of the self-flagellating sinner. Annie in Douglas Sirk’s career-defining feature Imitation of Life (1959) is goes above and beyond the expectations of good motherhood, refusing to abandon her child even when she is continuously and cruelly rejected by her. Imitation of Life follows the lives of two single mothers, Annie (Juanita Moore) and Lora (Lana Taylor), one Black, one white, and their two daughters, Susie (Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Lora hires Annie as a live-in maid and caregiver, creating an unconventional matriarchal family unit that gives Lora the chance to pursue Broadway stardom. But the relationship between Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is stuck in a perpetual and self-destructive cycle of shame about her Blackness, and Annie, who desires nothing more than the chance to love her child, emerges as the film’s most engaging narrative thread. Annie is alone among the melodramatic mothers discussed to achieve the love and affection of her beloved child, but she only receives Sarah Jane’s hysterical devotion at her own funeral. Having toiled for years in the employ of Lora, raising both daughters and refusing to give up on the possibility of reconciliation when Sarah Jane flees her mother in a rage of self-disgust, Annie is vindicated only in death, her lavish funeral the site of the ultimate maternal cleaving.

Lora, like Mildred, pursues a career outside the domestic space and, even though she achieves wild success, is punished both for her ambition and her sexual appetite. The trope of the sexually subversive mother-daughter-lover triangle returns, as Susie, like Veda, lusts after Steve (John Gavin), the object of her mother’s desire. Girlish and bubbly and clad in demure poodle skirts, Susie is no vampy Veda, but her desire for her mother’s lover functions as a similar retribution for Lora’s failure to behave as the ideal mother.

Historically, in the classical melodrama, the mother figure had to simultaneously negotiate the shifting space between fertility, erotic objectification, and desexualised maternity. There remains, however, a distinct note of ambiguity when considering the dynamics between sexual freedom and motherhood, one that fits neatly with the still-taboo notion of portrayals of older women with active sex lives, be they subversive, fulfilling, complicated, or even simply visible on screen. Gyllenhaal articulates this complexity in The Lost Daughter, specifically in the scenes between Leda and Will (Paul Mescal), a young Irish man working for the summer on the island. Their interactions shift constantly between playful flirtation, mother-son advice-giving, and, most uncomfortably, a distinct note of embarrassment on Will’s side. When Leda makes flirtatious comments to Will at their dinner together, he laughs, bashful, though it is difficult to tell whether he is laughing with her or at her. Leda’s desire for a younger man is frequently inferred as embarrassing, even cringey, and she is instead subtly encouraged to pursue the older handyman Lyle (Ed Harris).

Nowhere is the judgement of towards the mother figure pursuing a younger sexual conquest given so much narrative sway as in Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Filmed in saturated technicolour, the film portrays the blossoming romance between well-to-do widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and rugged young arborist Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), causing a minor scandal amongst the New England social elites and alienating Cary’s adult children. With her demure skirt suits and near-permanent expression of apple-cheeked woe, Cary is the epitome of the sensible, affluent woman. Her relationship with Ron, however, functions within its own dynamic of power and affection. Cary is his social and financial superior, while Ron is retains an aloof Thoreauvian affect manifested in a Walden-esque cabin in the woods.

Sirk skewers the hypocrisy and shallowness of Cary’s bourgeois peers who raise their manicured eyebrows at her relationship with Ron, but it is her two university-educated children who emerge as the primary obstacles towards Cary and Ron’s blissful future. The disapproval of Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott) persuades Cary to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of her children’s comfort, who supply her with a new object upon which to cast all her repressed sexual desire—the television. Cary’s decision backfires spectacularly when both children, having shamed their mother into ending the affair, announce their plans to abandon their mother for their own marital futures and international career opportunities. Cary’s torment, in true melodramatic fashion, threatens to literally destroy her through the onslaught of debilitating headaches, and she spirals into a frustrated depression. Cary and Ron are reunited by the film’s end after Ron suffers a near-fatal fall, which provides Cary the opportunity to step back into her role as the maternal ideal, nursing Ron back to health. Early versions of the script concluded with Ron’s death; deemed too tragic by producer Ross Hunter, the ending was rewritten, but the original, which left Cary bereft of her children, her home, and her young lover, provides a stinging rejection of the maternal ideal and its propensity for destruction. For Cary’s desire for Ron to finally be accepted by her friends and children, only for Ron to perish, serves as a cautionary tale of the catastrophic potential of motherly self-sacrifice. Far from endorsing the maternal ideal, Sirk’s three mothers— Annie, Lora, and Cary—instead depict the inevitable tragedy that attempting to embody the ‘terrific’ mother entails. 

It has become a derivative and favoured device of literary and filmic depictions of motherhood to focus on the existential malaise of the yoghurt-smeared, middle-class mother, thrust into the displacing experience of child-rearing. This is not to say that motherhood is not a fundamentally world-shifting experience, or that the particular trials of these mothers are not valid. What indeed could be more shocking than to realise that all the preparation in the world, all the promises of contemporary capitalist motherhood—the many books, gadgets, podcasts, courses—did not adequately prepare you for what is supposed to be the most ‘natural’ experience of cisgendered womanhood?

One such example of prestige TV’s attempt to depict the consequences of the ‘crushing responsibility’ of neoliberal motherhood is the 2021 HBO series Scenes From a Marriage, Hagai Levi’s glossy remake of the 1973 Swedish miniseries by Ingmar Bergman. The show, which depicts the degradation of a marriage rocked by infidelity, jealousy, cultural divide, and the pressures of child-rearing, is like a public service announcement against the whole concept of matrimony. Like the original, the motivating factor in the downslide of the relationship is an agreed-upon abortion, followed by an affair, and one partner abandoning the family home to pursue a romance with a younger colleague. Levi’s series, however, switches the gender of the philanderer, making Mira (Jessica Chastain) the one who strays from Jonathan (Oscar Isaacs). Aside from the surface optics of a mother who abandons the home, Scenes From a Marriage offers little in the way of commentary on the stifling dynamics of neoliberal domesticity. Mira is bereft of the cold disengagement of her 1973 male counterpart, and Jonathan is presented with none of the passivity of Bergman’s female protagonist. He fights back against Mira’s abandonment—he is a man, and we are not to forget it—and although he is depicted as the primary caregiver, he frequently expresses discomfort with the gendered implications of this role.

It is the genre films that are currently offering the most radical and nuanced depictions of motherhood. A24’s sci-fi dramedy Everything Everywhere All At Once stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, a harried laundromat owner trying to juggle the demands of running a business, an impending divorce, an IRS audit, the arrival of her ageing father from Hong Kong, and a strained relationship with her queer daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu)—all while outwitting a universe-jumping supervillain who threatens to destroy the multiverse. Amidst the fight scenes, surrealist comedy, and universe-shattering consequences, it is Evelyn’s ambivalent and complicated relationship towards her identity as a wife, daughter, and mother that gives the film its emotional heft.

Evelyn and Joy’s filial dynamic is complicated by layers of cultural divide that widen and shift like the astrophysical gaps between the film’s myriad universes. Rejecting the stereotype of the rigid, overattentive, and unwittingly callous Asian mother, almost always relegated to secondary-character or even villain-status, Everything Everywhere instead devotes the bulk of its narrative attention towards Evelyn’s complexity. The film does not attempt to absolve her of the pain she has caused her Americanised daughter, but nor does it shy away from examining the decades of cultural trauma and socioeconomic hardship that have infused Evelyn’s attitude towards herself and her maternal methods. Here, the mother-as-action-hero does not function as a simple gender-swap aimed at pacifying feminist critiques of the male-dominated landscape of mainstream adventure cinema. Instead, the film portrays the infinite possibilities that emerge when one abandons the fixed narrative viewpoints of middle-class malaise that dominate filmic depictions of motherhood, making space for alternate encounters with maternal selfhood.

Purity and sacrifice—the religious tenets of good motherhood—still course through representations of the maternal on-screen, just as they continue to weave their way through the dynamics of motherhood in reality, the political implications more fraught than ever. Whether or not the complexity of ambivalent motherhood can ever truly be represented in a filmic landscape rooted in the unrelenting desire for the wayward mother’s punishment remains to be seen. To abandon the heteropatriarchal constraints of neoliberal motherhood, to move beyond the nihilistic ouroboros of the mother who consistently fails at self-sacrifice and is thus sacrificed at the filmic altar of narrative retribution, is to glimpse a world in which we might reconceive our notions of the reproductive familial structure in its entirety—beyond the simple, unattainable ideal of the ‘terrific’ mother.


Image: Olivia Coleman in The Lost Daughter

Louise Cain

Louise Cain is writer and researcher based in Naarm, currently completing a PhD on queer French cinema.

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