When it comes to women on screen a set of stereotypical roles they inhabit seems to persist: the ‘kickass hottie’ who oscillates between distracting the male protagonist and the audiences; the ‘femme fatale’ who often sets the ball rolling; or the ‘wife’ who creates an interesting antipole to her husband. But leaving these and others aside, ‘mother’ is undeniably one of the most stereotypical female characters in the history of film.
Although some screen-mothers have taken the lead and starred as protagonists in more complex roles (The Blind Side or Erin Brokovich) their more common portrayal reflects the socio-cultural structures of our patriarchal society as self-evident. They accept their subordinate role which demands them to care and nurture rather than to strive and thrive. These mothers are praised for the sacrifices they make for their families and their selfless decisions in life – both in the narrative and by fans. The fictional Robin Wright in The Congress belongs to this category, but also one of cinema’s strongest female characters, Sarah Connor in Terminator. Both devote their own lives to enabling their sons’ future.
But what if they acted differently? Not only would their characters be hated for following their own, selfish desires – an unfortunately recent example for this is the hatred expressed in response to Skyler White in Breaking Bad; but their portrayal would also easily shift from angelic to demonic and suddenly we are terrorised by more or less ‘bad mothers’ like Mary in Precious or Erica Sayers in Black Swan.
Of course mothers are not the only source of care and protection. The emotional layer of parenthood is just as well added to male characters in order to emphasise their heroism – for example Ford Brody in Godzilla or Cooper in upcoming Interstellar. The difference is however that it remains an add-on, while for women it often defines their entire behaviour (e.g. Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity). Their will to fight and survive or to improve their personal situations remains closely tied to their ability of reproduction.
Before we dismiss this issue as sole US-American phenomenon as the examples I mentioned up until now might suggest, a quick analysis of the programme of Europe’s most important film festival in 2014 – Cannes – proves that motherhood plays an important role in contemporary national cinema around the globe. Like many other film festivals Cannes has reacted to growing criticism about its exclusion of the female gender by exhibiting more female-directed films than in the last five years together. But not only female directors were put in the spotlight; there was also an increased density of female-centred stories. Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders, the Dardenne brothers’ Deux Jours, Une Nuit, Olivier Assayas’ Sils Maria, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, Jonas Alexander Arnby’s When Animals Dream, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars; I am not trying to create a complete list of all female characters in all films at this year’s Cannes festival, but these are some of the most buzzed films of the selection – and they all prominently feature female characters or have female leads. As diverse as they are though, every single one of them broaches the issue of family and motherhood or the absence of it at least to a certain extent. Having children or the negotiation of why not seems to be a central theme for any female character.
But why is that? And is it even appropriate?
I am 25. When my mother was my age she was married, had two children and had left her career behind. Today these things have changed. Many women between 25 and 40 prioritise education and career above marriage and family. Statistically the average age of women becoming mothers in the UK rose from the early twenties in the 1970s to about 30 in 2013.
Other women’s experiences have a strong influence in one’s individual decision, whether they come from personal conversations or are transmitted through the media. Especially the latter however, tend to portray women in their mid-30s as ‘baby crazy’. Think about Charlotte’s daddy-hunting in Sex and the City or the general tone in media coverage of Jennifer Aniston’s recent engagement. Psychologist Karen Kersting states in her 2014 TEDx talk on ‘baby panic’ that even though young women are told that having a baby too early was bad they are at the same time driven into anxiety to have it all. This 2004 article in the New York Magazine describes a 29-year-old woman with a successful career who suddenly upon watching a TV programme about female fertility started panicking about biological clock. Of course the general idea of gender equality and female self-determination is out of question, but these characters and programmes basically suggest that young women would be better off returning to ‘the old way’ and take care of their career after having children.
One thing is clear – women of any age think a lot about having children (or not having them), it will always be a hot topic. This answers my own question: yes, it is appropriate for films to deal with the issue extensively. But it is the way motherhood is addressed that really is problematic. What message does come across when motherhood is either treated as self-evidently or as the ultimate achievement of a woman in her 30ies? Is the media trying to convince us to have children early on again? Is motherhood the fundamental dream? Is there something wrong with me if I do not feel that way?
Taking a close look at some of this year’s Cannes films I would like to say that no, nothing is wrong. Motherhood in cinema has moved far from being taken for granted. Worldwide filmmakers are breaking with the stereotype after all. Let us take a look at some of them.
In Mommy director and writer Xavier Dolan introduces two mothers who struggle with the balance between personal and family life. One of them is widowed single mother Diane Després. She inhabits the title role but experiences difficulties controlling her hyperactive and violent son Steve. Suddenly confronted with having to take care for him on her own, she realises that a demanding child and a conventional job are hardly compatible in her life. She loves Steve and wants to enable him a good future, but realises her restricted possibilities to do so. Although Diane initially accepts her role as mother she eventually releases Steve into care. Maintaining her own independent life wins the fight over giving up everything for a child. At no point however, her decision is deemed selfish – she did what she thought was best for Steve.
Another single mother who struggles to make a living for herself and her two sons is Billy in Ryan Gosling’s Lost River. Unlike Diane she goes beyond her own limits to keep her family together and gets a job at the local cabaret club where she endures physical and mental exploitation. She is neither the picture-book perfect mum of patriarchal society, nor a ‘bad mother’ who blames her family for her misery. Eventually she takes control of their situation; admittedly the situation they are in and her actions to get out are not necessarily ordinary, but stripped to the bone it signals that even a mother can only take so much for her children.
Probably the most relevant film in this sense is Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which premiered as two films and work in progress at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and as a comprehensive re-edited version this year in Cannes. It tells the story of Eleanor and Connor, a young married couple in New York, from two perspectives – his and hers. They fall crazy in love, marry and have a baby, but when the child dies Eleanor’s initial reaction is to end her own life. She gave up her education and career to become a mother and when that even that was taken away from her, she panicked. Although her attempt fails she disappears subsequently from Connor’s life. Back at university and surrounded by her own mother, who bemoans the life she has given up for her daughters, and her struggling single-mum sister she tries to find a new place in life. We watch her claim all the pain the loss of a child evokes, treat her husband as if he had not gone through the same and pity herself for the life she missed out on.
By the end of the film, when she finally sets out to finish her anthropology degree in France, we feel like loosing her child was the best that could have happened to her. Marrying and starting a family too young took away her chance for an exciting and fulfilling life. Losing her child (and surviving a suicide attempt) ‘allowed’ her to push a reset button in her life and start over again. Lucky Eleanor. What she ignores though is what her behaviour means for others. What is so unconventional about her character is that she is allowed to act for solely selfish reasons.
In a way, she should be the kind of woman I would want to relate to the most. She embodies my generation’s unwillingness to decide. She wants it all, but realises that the traditional order of family and career does not hold up well for her. Like her, I hope to experience great things in my life before I settle down with a family – to be honest, I would rather not have children at all. But somehow, I am still unsatisfied by the image of motherhood given. I do not like Eleanor. She remains a cinematic example of a black and white approach to the issue. Women who have children early on will eventually realise that their dreams and passions are lost forever and women who focus on experiences, education and career are self-centred egoists – again, women are lead to believe that there are only two alternatives.
As much as I want to appreciate Benson’s turnaround in the portrayal of motherhood I demand more. Having children early, late or not at all is an issue that provokes emotional conversations throughout generations. Tying it to personal renunciation or selfishness does not ease the social pressure that young women feel upon them. I hope that in the future films will contribute to relieve this pressure.
This article was initially released in Mas y Mas (issue June/July 2014) here.