From Stella Dallas to Lila Lipscomb: reading real motherhood through reel motherhood *.
Lipscomb's transformation from a military booster to the kind of antiwar protester she used to hate culminates in a moment in Washington, D.C. that elaborates in a real-life framework of some issues that become central to fictional maternal representation in American film. Lipscomb is outside the White House, trying to get resolution and closure by facing the architectural representation of the agent of her son's death. As she approaches, another woman, seeing Moore and his cameras (and knowing perfectly well what grandstanding Moore is capable of), strides up to Lipscomb and accuses her and the cameras of staging this whole visit. Lipscomb calmly repeats that she is here because she really had a son who really died in Iraq. The other woman is implacable, relentless in her attack and her suspicion of all things that look like reality TV. Only when Lipscomb furnishes the place, time, and circumstance does the woman back off, still not entirely convinced. The audience is stunned, even infuriated that anyone could be so cruel to a mother who, in losing her child, has made such a sacrifice for her country. Key here is that the two actants in the scene are both women, and, were the subject matter different, we might applaud the other woman for having such a healthy distrust of the media's potential distortion. What crucially moves us to Lipscomb's side is that she is a mother. For all we know, so is the other woman--for all we know, she has also lost children. But none of this, if true, is represented. And in Lipscomb's status as a grieving mother, we have something of a cultural absolute. Lila Lipscomb is real. But vaulted into the framework of the moving image, how the audience makes meaning of her is, for better or worse, dependent not only on our actual experience and knowledge of motherhood, but also of received cinematic codes. That is, we interpret Lila Lipscomb in part based on previous interpretations of fictional mothers like Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce, Mary Haynes and her social circle in The Women, (1) Charlotte Vale and her repressive mother in Now, Voyager, Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows, Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life, the mothers in Psycho and both versions of The Manchurian Candidate, Rosemary and her devilish baby, Alice, who Doesn't Live Here Anymore, all the mothers in The Stepford Wives, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, and Urea Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill. (2) Do we draw direct lines between all of these representations and "the real"? Not very often. But these images are in the air, they get into our drinking water, seep into our skin; they inform not only how we read a documentary image like Lipscomb, but also how we understand motherhood itself.
Searches for "motherhood" at AllMovie.com (the more intellectually engaged of the major movie databases), produce well over three hundred entries, suggestive the breadth and depth of attention the topic has received in American moving image culture. So what follows is a very brief, selective, critical history of motherhood in American cinema, from which emerges a variety of ways that mainstream U.S. films construct codes of representation and narrative, often aided and abetted by genre, that offer paradigmatic ways women should behave, and, occasionally, ways to challenge these norms. These films are profoundly responsive to their cultural contexts. As much as they offer up idealized images of what makes a good mother, or chillingly lit images of what makes a bad one, they open up fields for debate and contestation. (3) The image of American motherhood proliferates in US cinema almost from its birth, and sacrifice is one of its central characteristics almost from the start. Other things distinguish motherhood in American films, but it is easiest to find sacrificial mothers. This suggests a chronic ambivalence--in representation and culture at large--about the fact that mothers and women are the same people.
As popular entertainment, cinema struggled early on with respectability. As if to echo the general opinion of the motion picture as a cheap thrill, one of the most compelling figures in silent film was the Vamp, centrally embodied in A Fool There Was (Lowell Sherman, 1915) by Theda Bara--her name an anagram for Arab Death. (4) This vampiric, sirenic, proto-Goth seductress, this phallic woman, whose appearance is a visual metaphor for her attempt to usurp male prerogatives, needed a foil, and that foil was the mother. It is typical of silent-era films that, while Pre-Production Code sexuality reigns supreme, sexuality and motherhood are understood to be mutually exclusive. Mrs. Schuyler, the wife of the Fool seduced by the Vamp, wears demure white to Bara's lacy, racy black, inhabits sun-bright rooms in domestic spaces while the Vamp sleeps past noon in darkened, Orientalized chambers, and gives her husband simple wild flowers while the temptress teases him with exotic blossoms. And--because she is so clearly coded as a mother--she's neither sexy nor sexual, while Bara's vamp puts Mr. Schuyler into something like a tantric trance. We are lead to the obvious question, pointing up the ridiculousness of this opposition: how did that kid get there anyway? (5)
Though almost every studio-era female star had a go at it, some were less interested in portraying mothers--centrally, Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn as a mother came later in her career, when the children in question were grown (Long Day's Journey into Night), dead (Suddenly, Last Summer), or when her character was past menopause (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Hepburn played spinster more than mother. Earlier, she either wanted nothing of it (The Philadelphia Story), or had to kill herself to save herself from it, as in Christopher Strong (1933). Indeed, Christopher Strong, directed by Dorothy Arzner, is a very peculiar matrix of feminism, motherhood, and sexuality. If Arzner was a more or less out lesbian, she was a less vocal feminist (something left for later scholars to excavate from her texts when even a long-retired Arzner wouldn't cop to it: Kay and Peary, Johnston, and Mayne). Yet, she and Hepburn would seem to promise a matter-of-factly subversive formula for progressive, atypical motherhood. Instead, Christopher Strong becomes one of the oddest texts of 1930s sacrificial motherhood. Hepburn is Lady Cynthia Darrington, a famous aviatrix. She is, in the careful language of the time, a woman who "has never been in love," and as the result of one of those large-scale scavenger hunts apparently favored by the British aristocracy, is introduced to the politician Christopher Strong, apparently the only man in England who has never been unfaithful to his wife. Atypical for a Hepburn love interest, Christopher Strong is extraordinarily boring. Typically for a Hepburn heroine, she is somewhat androgynous in her dress. Indeed, Cynthia's dress costumes are all almost parodies of women's wear, or dresses as seen by someone who finds them an odd necessity. A moth costume Hepburn wears for a ball is a costume, but at a later dance, she wears a gown with flower trim that's at once impish and overwrought. It's as if in her independence she doesn't really know how to be a "proper" woman--not feminine enough in her flying ways, yet too feminine in polite company--emphasizing how much this femininity is a sartorial and social construction.
Through a series of coincidences that only melodrama can provide, both Strong's lover and daughter discover--again the Production Code language--they "have wonderful news." The big difference: Monica is a young newlywed and Cynthia a mistress who has given up flying for the man she loves. Given the iconic status Hepburn has as a Hollywood feminist, it is hard to image how, even in the 1930s, Cynthia could possibly choose to get into her plane, break the altitude record, remove her oxygen mask when the pale blue yonder offers a clearer view of the futility of her situation, and plummet to earth, terminating both life and pregnancy. Seldom has motherhood been so comprehensively sacrificial, as one mother and child dyad gives up everything for the more socially acceptable one, thus restoring order. Cynthia's reward for this sacrifice is a statue in a park. The aviatrix has been grounded and immobilized.
The enforcement after 1934 of the Production Code restricted how Hollywood could represent sex and violence. Even before that, the Depression forced a general rethinking of representations of womanhood. It was no place better articulated than the maternal melodrama, which turns on a two-fold sacrifice. First, the woman gives up sexual satisfaction for motherhood, after which, she often has to give up the child for whom she gave up sexual satisfaction. The genre's paradigmatic text is King Vidor's Stella Dallas, with Barbara Stanwyck in the title role. The film does what maternal melodramas do so well: offers an emotional outlet to a largely female audience, and in so doing acknowledges the existence of communities of women and their attendant female bonding. Yet the genre also uses this emotionality to move women to read sacrificial motherhood as the position vaunted above all others (Haskell). In 1937 this sacrifice is understandable, and Stella Dallas is a film that recognized what women were already doing during the Depression, and offers them in return a melodrama of their own lives. Stella Dallas is very specific about its opening date: 1919--just after the termination of World War I. So when it ends eighteen years later, Stella, and its audience, are once again brought into their own present day, still in the Depression, even though that is never mentioned. The audience escapes by going back in time, but still finds a description of its own situation.
In Stella Dallas class conflict is writ large, as is a complex cartography of class mobility. Class and sexual difference ultimately have a very messy and contingent relationship, symptomatic of the general ambivalence about the place where shifts in gender roles and economic upheavals meet. The story: Stella, a mill-town girl with aspirations beyond, nabs Stephen Dallas, a man whose father lost everything in the Crash. They have a daughter Laurel, whom Stella doesn't initially want, but she eventually becomes the architect of Laurel's social success, though its cost is her own. That Stella is also the tailor of Laurel's success is very important. In Stella Dallas, clothing emblematizes all that is problematic in belonging to any social circle (including family): ultimately, mothers are understood to dress a certain way--one that Stella doesn't like. In fact, melodrama is a generically specific site where the movie costumes the audience typically reads simply as clothing actually circle almost all the way around to costumes again, and the acts performed in those costumes return to the status of "performances."
This is a film to which a great deal of attention has been paid, particularly by feminist film scholars (Lang; Williams), so I shall simply point out a few key moments. Stella's first outfit is a cut above her environment, and clearly not meant for any purpose--she is attempting to snare Stephen, and therefore wants to signify, with frilly white blouse and a book of Indian Love Poems, that she is virginal, literate, and useless--a perfect mate for an upper-class man, even if what's left of his class are his manners, not his checkbook. Visiting his office, she turns the frilliness up a notch, the first sign of her inclinations toward excess. But on dates with Stephen, in public, she knows how to be demure. It's after Laurel's birth that her behavior and clothing resynchronize: she wants to go out, and does, and when she and Stephen get home, they have an argument about her excess jewelry. This fight is really over taste, and the excesses of the working class and its behavior--excesses inversely proportionate to Stephen's heritage of excess wealth. Stephen really wants Stella to take pleasure in raising Laurel as she has previously taken pleasure in pursuing Stephen. Stella resists, but later says to her gambler friend-cum-failed suitor, that, "there's not a man alive who can get me going" now that she's mother to her daughter. Mission accomplished, Or is it?
The rest of the film charts the struggle between Stella's desire for autonomy and the displacement of that desire onto Laurel's climb up the social ladder. Stella makes understated and exquisite dresses for Laurel while she dresses herself in every spare ruffle she can find. These sartorial excesses signify Stella's self-love--hardly the mark of sacrificial motherhood. After Stephen has left her for his first love, Helen Morrison, a New York society woman now widowed with three sons, Stella launches Laurel into the upper class for good by parading through a soda shop dressed, as one of Laurel's friends puts it, "like a Christmas tree." It would be easy to think she doesn't know what she's doing, but Stella is so skilled at dressing her daughter that Stephen's new-old girlfriend compliments the wardrobe when Laurel visits. Stella, who deliberately puts a necklace on as a bracelet, and gives the finger to the owning class by walking in her high-heeled shoes across their golf courses, is the same woman who, earlier in the film, having heard Laurel's glowing description of Helen's simple styles, ripped ruffles off her own dress hoping for a rapprochement with her husband. She is not likely in error. Rather, she performs a parody of herself in order to force her daughter to see her mother as the upper class sees her--to make Laurel assume owning-class astigmatism with regard to her own roots.
Men aren't much good in maternal melodramas--it doesn't take long to realize that Stephen is a boring dolt, and that Laurel has been chosen by Dicky Grovesnor, who makes her dad look like Mick Jagger. (Dick is also there to head off any incest that might be brewing when one girl is dropped into a family of three entitled boys.) But Laurel's pedigree is still in the way, and Stella knows it. The marital deal can only be sealed if Stella puts herself under erasure, and to do that she visits Mrs. Morrison, who, in her Grecian gowns and tweed suits, looks both regal and mannish next to Stella in her leopard suit and hat, But the women understand each other, and the hand-off is all but made. There remains only the scene in which Laurel returns to Stella to find her performing the role of a floozy, smoking, listening to jazz, and reading trashy magazines. Laurel's angry, heartbroken acceptance of the ruse is only half about her youth, innocence, and sense that a desiring mother is no mother at all. The other half is about how effectively she has been interpellated into the owning classes, and how her ability to read the semiotics of her own origins has been hobbled. (6) Stella views her daughter's wedding through a window anonymously, drably dressed for the first time, in a crowd of other nameless Depression Era onlookers gawking at society nuptials from the street. She sees it just as she and Stephen saw a silent film on their first date, with the same closure of a kiss. Stella turns and walks away, a look of triumph on her face. Cue music. Fade out.
But where is the triumph? At one level, Stella has suggested to her female audience that the sacrifices made during the Depression will have benefits for their children, and that if the American Dream is not to be achieved now, it will be by the next generation. But there's more to it. Stella has finally slipped the surly bonds of patriarchy to touch the face of self-determination. As she walks, Stella's step gets lighter, bouncier, more resolute. She looks as if she's been liberated, as if her life is finally her own, as if it is finally starting. This isn't the film's manifest reading, but Stanwyck's performance offers it to any woman in the audience.
Stella's own mother appears in the beginning of the film, glum, resigned, disheveled, overworked--the model of what Stella wants to avoid, but she disappears after that. If only the same could be said for Bette Davis's mother in Now, Voyager, among the most repressive maternal forces ever in a melodrama. Even when the Depression lifts, the ambivalence about sexuality's compatibility with motherhood doesn't. Here Davis is Charlotte Vale, an old-money Bostonian, an ugly duckling hobbled by her mother's puritanical ways, whose metamorphosis into a stylish, self-assured swan is enabled by the attentions of an implicitly gay psychiatrist and an explicitly heterosexual architect. We glean Dr. Jaquith is gay because he has no interest in Charlotte after she comes out--and also because he quotes Walt Whitman rather a lot. We glean that Jerry is straight because he is very interested in Charlotte, and he's married and has two daughters, one of whom, unexpected, awkward, alienated, and unloved, will come into Charlotte's care, but only because Charlotte chooses Tina over her father. Now, Voyager exhibits a remarkable sexual-maternal balance sheet. Charlotte gets involved with Jerry, and her refusal to marry a more socially acceptable man appears to be the direct cause of her snobbish mother's death. The maternal economy of the film is such that the death of Charlotte's mother allows Tina into the film (7) It is also the beginning of Charlotte's maternal sacrifice. Where she used to sacrifice inappropriately for her own mother, now she begins to sacrifice "appropriately" for her surrogate daughter.
In Charlotte's care the Vale house is happy and light. Tina is transformed, as Charlotte was, into a fairy princess who substitutes for Jerry and Charlotte's romance. In the end Charlotte famously says, "Let's not ask for the moon when we have the stars." In other words, let's not ask for sexual satisfaction and romance when I can have your daughter. This is a very curious formulation. Repressive Mother Vale is dead, the house is Party Central, and Charlotte has done hard psychological work to get to where she is. In spite of his cautions, Dr. Jaquith wouldn't really give a hoot either about remarriage (one rare cinematic case where the stepmother would be an improvement), or a discreet extramarital affair. But Now, Voyager is littered with ill women, and Tina's real mother is as repressive, angry, and controlling as Mother Vale. Jerry leaving her is out of the question. So the romance must be sacrificed for the good of the child. It is as if childhood and motherhood would themselves be worthless if they could not be measured by what else they cost.
If Stella Dallas is Depression-specific, World War II brings on maternal narratives of its own, and in the thick of a war whose liberatory, democratic goals were unequivocal, Mildred Pierce, a film noir/maternal melodrama hybrid, equivocates on the value of maternal sacrifice. That's in part because so many more women were in the work force, inhabiting the public sphere like never before. The film expresses a symptomatic ambivalence, suggesting that this unavoidable situation leaves children in danger of being under-mothered, but admitting that the autonomy and mobility that comes from earning and being more central in the public sphere, might make motherhood less desirable.
At first it seems that Joan Crawford's Mildred is the femme fatale. A man is mysteriously shot, muttering "Mildred," as he falls. Mildred is herself picked up by a cop as she tries to take a long walk off a short Santa Monica pier. When the police tell Mildred that her first husband, Burt, did the crime, she's sure it can't be true, and thus starts the voiceover narrative so common to film noir (Schrader, Place and Peterson, and May). What's rare is that it's a woman talking, telling her own story.
Mildred's voiceover starts in a way familiar to American women in 1945--"I was always in the kitchen. I felt like I'd been born in the kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married. I married Burr when I was seventeen. I never knew any other kind of life. Just cooking and washing and having children. Two girls, Veda and Kay." From here, the film delivers its focalization through Mildred. This is different from the film's being about a woman, or in a woman's genre.
Mildred and Burt's marital strife stems from her ability to make money (by selling pies) and Burt's inability to do so (by selling anything). This is emasculating for Butt. He also doesn't like the way that Mildred pushes tomboy Kay to be more feminine and take ballet when she'd rather play baseball. This baseball thing is a sure sign of Hollywood lesbianism, which is how we know she won't live. Kay herself offers clues: "I got over [boys] when I was eight." And "I should have been a boy." And another thing: Kay very happily plays with and mothers a rather remarkable "pickaninny" doll, blind to the racial difference between them. Such an enlightened child cannot survive long in the world of melodrama. On the other hand, Veda is a shallow snob of the highest order, heartless about her parents' break up, and immediately suggesting Mildred turn around and marry someone with more money.
Mildred's desire to give the hetero-feminine, manipulative, arriviste Veda everything she wants leads her to a waitressing job, which leads to her owning a successful restaurant. To avoid Burt's creditors she has to get a divorce, and this nicely coincides with Kay's impending demise, as signaled by a nagging cough. Here is a trope of European melodrama--death by consumption, so Kay meets a recuperative, feminine end. Kay is a bit like Beth in Little Women--she's a pure soul who has to get out of the way before all hell truly breaks loose. In this sense, the film is an inversion of a classical maternal melodrama like Stella Dallas, because instead of sacrificing marriage for the good of a child, the child is sacrificed--though hardly for the good of the marriage.
In a straight maternal melodrama, a woman's erotic drive is funneled into mothering. With Mildred it's also displaced into business--again, a symptom of the film's wartime context. Having lost Kay, Mildred turns her attention entirely to the restaurant, and it thrives. Since women had moved into the work force during the war to fill the vacancies left by men at the various war fronts, this aspect of the film is as reflective of women's lives in 1945 as Stella's life was in 1937.
The rest of Mildred Pierce goes like this: Kay has consumption; Veda has conspicuous consumption; both are fatal. To satisfy Veda, Mildred marries a high-society playboy, and both daughter and hubby number two leech off Mildred, disparaging her working ways even as they benefit. The film is a paean to working women, and reflects a broadening of social attitudes. The American imaginary has room now not only for sacrificial mothers and society brats, but also for a maternal figure who acknowledges women's wartime contributions to the economy.
Veda puts the make on the second husband and, revealing herself to be the story's true femme fatale, eventually kills him. Both her parents attempt to take the rap for it until the facts behind the crime are revealed. And when for once Mildred won't help her daughter, Veda tells her, "It's your fault I'm the way I am." As Mildred and Burr leave the precinct house, the couple has been reunited, but with an interesting twist: absent their children, their weary, wiser figures suggest that they'll get back together, but the last thing they want is a family. Like Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce's conclusion offers a slightly subversive possibility for its time, one that resonated with an increased sexual freedom experienced by American men abroad and American women at home: maybe it's okay for couples to be couples, rather than the foundations of families.
So far in Mildred Pierce I have concentrated on the title character. But there are other mothers here, perhaps not meant to be read, such as Lottie, Mildred's maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, the African American actress, who famously disavows motherhood in Gone with the Wind by declaring in her high-pitched yet soft screech, "I don' know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies." Remember that Mildred begins her story, "I felt like I'd been born in the kitchen." Mildred never does get out of the kitchen--but the lucrative restaurant professionalizes her. For its opening, Lottie has been hired to help out--or maybe just enlisted--it's hard to tell. She says, "This is just like my wedding night--so exciting." There's a lot in this ostensibly funny line. It certainly hearkens back to Mildred's remark about being born in a kitchen. If the wedding night is an event of extreme romance, then Lot-tie reveals that it's also part of a larger domestic continuum. But it also says something about the social position of black women in this period. White spectators would not have been encouraged to take Lottie's observation any further. But a black female spectator might construct a narrative that reflected a distinct reality: the domestic who takes care of white families while her own family is left to take care of itself
This brings us to Annie Jones in Imitation of Life. Douglas Sirk's remake of John Stahl's 1934 film was Universal Studio's most successful film in 1959. By the '50s, and in a pop-Freudian cultural context, melodramas began to locate dysfunctionality in the whole family, not just the mother (Elsaesser). But Imitation of Life is unusual as the family is all but defined as two mothers (fathers nowhere to be found), a reflection that female employment jumped over 50% during the war. These same women were encouraged to leave the work force after the war to make room for returning GIs. Nevertheless, by 1955, there were more women in the work force than there had been during the war, and by 1956, there were twenty-two million women in the work force, more than during the war, more of them older married women, like those in Imitation of Life, than anyone else ("Women Hold"). 1956 is also the year that congress passed the first Civil Rights Act in eighty-two years and the same year that the miscegenation prohibition was removed from the Hollywood Production Code.
Two mothers, black Annie Jones (Juanita Moore) and white, blonde Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) meet at Coney Island. Though Lora can't pay for Annie's labor, she and her daughter Sarah Jane move in with Lora and her daughter Susie. Eventually, Lora becomes a successful Broadway star, Susie goes to college in faraway Colorado, Sarah Jane grapples with her ability to pass for white and her mother's desire that she remain true to her black self, and Annie ... just goes on being Annie. This reveals the film's other agenda: to address the complexities of Civil Rights, and to problematize the very notion of race. Imitation of Life brings race and gender issues into conversation in ways very few Hollywood films did then, and in the allegedly debased context of melodrama. As Louise Stone would later write in The Washington Post (1966), "There are two kinds of females in this country--colored women and white ladies. Colored women are maids, cooks ... crossing guards ... welfare recipients ... and the only time they become ladies is when they are cleaning ladies" (Stone). Annie Jones is such a lady, and the last thing Sarah Jane wants is to follow in her footsteps. What she wants is to be a white lady, and the film neither condemns her for wanting, nor Annie for asking her to keep it real, so to speak.
In films of the '50s, we often see what's been called "... a masculinization of women" (Biskind). That Lora and Annie work makes them clearly assume the roles of heads of family. Lora is widowed, so her career ambition is necessary, if intense. But Sarah Jane's father (not explicitly referred to as Annie's husband) left before she was born, opening up any number of possible narratives to go along with Annie's statement that he "was practically white." (That said, Annie does wear a wedding ring.) In any case, in the '50s, as Betty Friedan wrote, "[T]he image of American woman ... suffered a schizophrenic split" (qtd. in Fischer 17). We should see such schizophrenia not just in terms of male/female, but also in terms of black and white, both literal and symbolic. Annie and Lora are halves of a whole. The film sees Annie as Lora's better "psychic half" (Fischer 16)--what Lora suppresses to succeed as an actress. Annie is a good mother--even Susie says she's a better mother to her than Lora is. She is nurturing where Lora is self-centered and egotistical. She is a natural woman, plainly dressed and unmade up, where Lora is all facade, including spectacular costumes made of the latest synthetic fabrics. Annie's labor is custodial in every sense of the word, Lora's labor is professionalized, and centers on performing.
On the one hand the women are complements; on the other, they are something else. Imitation of Life offers us a family that gets along very well, like the literary Heather, with two mommies. Early on Lora gives Annie what amounts to a very meager bonus, and Annie says, "it goes into our kitty." "Our kitty?" asks the incredulous but hopeful Lora, and as the scene plays out with tight, soft focus close ups and swelling romantic violins, we see something on the order of a commitment ceremony going on in the private domestic space of the kitchen (an area Lora doesn't really seem to know her way around). In the next scene Lora comes home from a day of pavement pounding in her grey flannel suit, and the children run to meet her at the door, Annie hanging back slightly. Manifestly, it's a domestic, her employer and their two children. But the rituals are those of a father coming home from work to his family, and that, given the presence of black and white and the absence of any man, is a very different picture. Later on, when Lora has grown rich and moved them all to the Connecticut suburbs, and Annie has socked away enough money for her funeral (the film's stirring finale), the two of them spend a lot of time alone in Lora's bedroom, both in their dressing gowns, Annie rubbing Lora's feet as Lora sighs with pleasure. It is not so much that they're lesbians, or that there's an erotic subtext to their relationship. But they do offer a counter-model to the normative fifties family, which the film's ending recuperates so fiercely as to be utterly disingenuous.
Sarah Jane succeeds in passing for white only by rejecting her mother so harshly that it breaks her heart and kills her. The film ends with Sarah Jane's throwing herself on her mother's coffin, making a scene in front of the literal thousands who have lined the streets to pay their respect to this humble woman. Lora pulls her away and escorts her to the waiting limousine, where she slumps down against Lora, observed tenderly by Lora's beau and Susie. As she's peeled off the coffin, Sarah Jane says, "I killed my mother." Maybe, maybe not, but she's certainly learned to narrate her life not from the woman who raised her but from the woman who now steps in to mother her. The film closes with the ironically perfect ending typical of Sirk films, this one so hermetically sealed it takes place in a closed limo. In spite of all the smiles between Lora and her boyfriend, Sirk doesn't let us get comfortable with an arrangement in which Sarah Jane is reabsorbed into the Meredith family, the sacrificial mother has joined the choir invisible, and we are left with mommy, daddy, and two girls, one of whom is at last free to pass without consequence. It's too easy, and by shoving the perfect ending down our throats, Sirk asks us how any
enlightened society could consider the sacrificial death of a black mother to constitute perfection.
The fall of the studio system, the influence of European Art Cinema and the rise of the earliest wave of American Independent filmmaking, coupled with the availability of the Pill (1960), the Women's Liberation movement, and the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade (1973) raises U.S. cinema's ambivalence about motherhood to an explicit level seldom seen before. This complicates maternal sacrifice. What women have to sacrifice--career, desire, children--is wider-ranging than it used to be. In The Stepford Wives (1975), Katherine Ross's photographer/mother Joanna is moved by her husband to the Connecticut 'burbs. He wants their children to grow up away from New York City's teeming masses, crime waves, urban unrest, racial tension (and also, evidently, its museums, galleries, opera, dance, great food, and cultural diversity). While Joanna and her friend Bobby try to get the other mothers of Stepford to care as much about raising their own consciousness as they do making the perfect martini and driving the perfect carpool, Walter joins a men's group whose purpose is to turn the Stepford wives into robots who can endlessly mother, serve, and service their husbands and families without ever desiring more. In spite of a more comedic remake in 2004, the original hasn't lost its satirical force, and the ending, in which Bobby and Joanna are turned into robots who mechanically greet each other in the frozen food aisle, bedecked in organza hostess skirts, piles of ringletted hair, and untold amounts of lip gloss, is as dark as the Supermarket fluorescents are blinding. The original version isn't making fun of feminism; it makes fun of the men who are afraid of it, while still taking feminism seriously.
If The Stepford Wives looks at women who are wives and mothers, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) concentrates on a woman who's extremely vocal about how little she wants to be either. Diane Keaton's Teresa strikes out on her own, leaving her sexist, repressive, abusive, and traumatic family life behind (Kaplan). She works by day as a gifted teacher of deaf children and by night explores everything her devout Catholic upbringing says she shouldn't. As good at teaching children as she is, Teresa doesn't want to be a mother, and this, tacitly, leads to her gruesome murder at the hands of a psychopath she picks up at a bar. The killer has his own baggage of homosexuality, which suggests the film is no more comfortable with Gay rights than Women's rights. Looking for Mr. Goodbar can't sort out how Teresa could be nurturing without being maternal, since the maternal seems to have no place in the search for sexual satisfaction. Only at the film's abruptly sadistic conclusion do we realize that it's been keeping a balance sheet, intending all along to brutalize Teresa in direct proportion to her search for independence and liberation. She isn't just punished for wanting to have sex, she's punished for not wanting to be a mother. Homosexuality is understood to be terminal in all kinds of ways, so the woman who wants no part of mothering is killed by a man whom the film sees as unfit for fatherhood. Especially in the Me-Decade, Disco years, anyone whose sexuality is non-reproductive is a threat to traditional society.
At the same time as Teresa and the Stepford women are forced to think about their social status as mothers, horror films like Carrie (1976) and The Brood (1979), offer abusive mothers whose traumatized daughters wreak all kinds of havoc, from eviscerating a senior prom to giving birth to mutant, murderous children. Even comedies express a more benign version of uncertainty. Both versions of Freaky Friday (1976 and 2003) and Baby Boom (1987) exhibit a post-Pill, post-Women's Lib desire to place career over family. Much of the comedy in these films stems from the tension between motherhood and work. Diane Keaton's Wall Street consultant, at whose doorstep an infant has been left, finally chooses to move to Vermont, marry the cute large animal vet instead of the stockbroker, and make her money selling homemade baby food (a more domesticated version of capitalism). And, after being horrified to find themselves in each other's bodies, the mothers and daughters of Freaky Friday come to appreciate their respective positions. Even more: what Keaton, Jodie Foster, and Lindsey Lohan all learn when they're forced into motherhood is that motherhood is not opposed to work--it is work. Motherhood is a labor-intensive activity, whether or not you're paid to do it.
1987's Baby Boom is also a film whose ending reflects Reagan Era desires to return to a time when women, even if they had to work, didn't actually want to. The masculine cinematic corollary as Susan Jeffords has astutely described, is the "Hard Body" action hero embodied by Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mel Gibson. (8) These Hard Bodies of Die Hard, Rambo, The Terminator, and Lethal Weapon, whose ability to withstand physical duress ran in direct proportion to their ability to act heroically, resonated powerfully with the post-assassination attempt persona of President Reagan. (9) They do have at least one female corollary, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Aliens.
Dan O'Bannon's script for the original 1979 Alien did not specify the gender of the characters. When James Cameron came to write and direct his sequel in 1986, he put his stamp on it by giving Ripley a backstory in which she abandoned a child on Earth as she went off to make her career in space. Returning from hypersleep, she discovers she's been away for so long that her daughter has died. She not only suffers Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from surviving the alien in the first film, she also suffers from maternal guilt. Informed that aliens are roaming a planetary outpost, she wants nothing to do with the situation until she's told the outpost, Old West fashion, is a settlement full of families. "Families," Ripley gasps in horror, and agrees to advise a Marine company when they go on their "bug hunt."
In the Reagan '80s and beyond, motherhood is the precondition for heroism in action films. Ripley is paralyzed with fear (though she's a font of alien knowledge) until the group discovers the outpost's sole survivor, a little girl named Newt. Ripley becomes her caretaker, both begin to come out of their traumatized shells, and Ripley begins to take a more active, martial role in the conflict, at last picking up a gun to protect the child. The showdown is action-film spectacular--Ripley, encased in technology, battles the Alien Queen, to protect the ad hoc family that has formed in the course of the narrative. Just as the Alien Queen is about to stick it to Newt, Ripley spits, "Get away from her you bitch," and tosses the creature into deep space. There are two things to note here: first, Ripley says a bad word for the first time. "Bitch," is not only the measure of Ripley's rage, but, in its gender specificity, marks its contours. This leads us to what the film has toiled--but failed--to conceal: the Alien Queen is also a mother, and this final battle is between a good mother and a bad one. Amy Taubin has suggested that an earlier scene in which the Alien Queen sits on her behind, furiously pumping eggs out of a flesh pipeline that is simultaneously vaginal and phallic, would resonate with Reagan's widely proliferated false tale about a Black Chicago Welfare Queen who drove a Cadillac to pick up the benefits she was getting on behalf of four different fake husbands--that is, who abused the Welfare system, sucking up a disproportionate amount of its resources (Taubin). Never mind that the typical Welfare recipient of the Reagan Era was more like Lila Lipscomb. So this final showdown suggests both a racialized tint to good motherhood and a mainstream comfort with family planning. Ripley only has one child at a time, as opposed to the Alien mother's untold numbers.
The second thing is that, the Alien mother defeated, Newt rushes to Ripley, shouting, "Mommy!" something she has never said before in the film. Now we realize that Ripley's utterance of "families" early on was prophetic and wishful. In the end, the family unit has been reconstructed, complete with android nanny, and the audience has learned that violence in a woman/s acceptable if she's defending her children. This should make us just as sympathetic with the Alien, but given the film's conservative political valences, it doesn't.
In Cameron's films it's often the man who sacrifices himself for the powerful, physically adept women who are also a Cameron trope in everything from The Terminator to Titanic. This is an ideological shell game. His typically strong and independent women are actually the vessels of his conservatism. Much was made in 1991 of Linda Hamilton's completely renovated body in Terminator 2, which was every bit as buff as Schwarzenegger's. But her self-absorbed focus on her body--though its purpose is to fight the Terminator and protect her son--evidently makes her such a lousy mother that Schwarzenegger's good Terminator has to remind her how to be one--including showing her how to sacrifice herself for her son by sending himself to his own doom in the film's climax. At one point she refers to him as the perfect father, but that's because she misrecognizes in him the very maternal skills she lacks. The lesson is a success, because later on she puts a gun to an innocent person's head in front of her son and can't pull the trigger--her rehumanization is equivalent to her reconstruction as a mother. For women to do what action heroes do is on the one hand progressive--women can punch hard, handle firearms, vanquish the enemy. But for what? And in Cameron's case, they act to restore the traditional family, kicking butt for patriarchy. The audience enjoys seeing women act heroically, but also has the recuperative pleasure of seeing the status quo maintained (Keller 1999 and 2002).
More recently it's become acceptable to have a female hero of an action film who isn't a mother: Charlie's Angels (2000, 2003), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). But there's one recent figure who is--Uma Thurman's reformed assassin, The Bride, in Quentin Tarantino's two volume Kill Bill. Throughout Part One, The Bride believes she's avenging the death of her child, since Bill and the rest of the Deadly Assassination Viper Squad--the DiVAs--left her pregnant self for dead on her wedding day, and when she comes out of her coma four years later, she's childless. Volume one is full of mothers--the first confrontation involves The Bride's going toe to deadly toe with Vernita Green, another DiVA, in Vernita's kitchen, flipping a fatal blade into her as Vernita's daughter witnesses. She doesn't know until later in the second film that her daughter is alive and with Bill, the girl's father. Maternal violence in other action films is often defensive, but here it's simple vengeance. This is Tarantino, so everything's a bit skewed. The films mostly sit back and enjoy the fists of fury they've unleashed, and the bulk of combat is between women at the height of their powers. Unlike Cameron, Tarantino doesn't qualify what they use their violence for. The last forty-five minutes of volume two are a showdown between The Bride (real name, Beatrix Kiddo), who has now met her daughter, and Bill, which results in the fulfillment of the film's title.
Then a very interesting thing happens. The film ends with an intertitle: "The lioness has been reunited with her cub, and all is right in the jungle." In the end credits, Kiddo and her kid cruise the open American road in a vintage coupe. Over Thurman's image we see her character name followed by her assassin alias: "AKA Black Mamba." This is followed by a new alias: "AKA Mommy." Business as usual for Cameron, but a startling turn in a Tarantino film. Or perhaps not: Tarantino has described his plans to wait several years and make a sequel to Kill Bill, in which Vernita's daughter (to be played by the same child actress from volume one) seeks revenge. The vengeance cycle so integral to American Westerns seems to be alive and well and in pre-production, mothers and daughters now at the center. In other words, the vengeance territory used to be for fathers and sons; the landscape of sacrifice for mothers and daughters. Now, the terrain can be shared. "Mommy" really is just another alias.
There are many other films that embody or critique the notion of sacrificial motherhood: Norma Rae (1979), Boys on the Side (1995), Stepmom (1998), Casa de los Babys (2003), Something's Gotta Give (2003), Daughters of the Dust (1992), Raising Helen (2004), all the Disney animated features that, with the exception of Tarzan, have mothers who are either dead or wicked. For the very reason that a guiding tenet of feminism is "the personal is political," we do well to remember that whatever motherhood is traditionally understood to be--the sine qua non of civilization, the noblest calling of a woman, the aspect of femininity that raised it above the baser instincts of men and would create good men when done right and bad men when done wrong--it is usually seen as eternal, unchanging, and therefore separate from, outside of history. The films that most inform our cultural sense of motherhood, for all that they are symptomatic of their places and times, have the cumulative effect of displacing the historical specificity of motherhood. So we always risk seeing the Lila Lipscomb of Fahrenheit 9/11 as simply fitting into our unchanging sense of the sacrificial mother, reducing her to a trope because she happens to match it, rather than seeing her full social, cultural and historical particularity--one that not only bears on reality, but is reality. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could learn to read Stella Dallas through Lila Lipscomb instead of the other way around?
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* Delivered before the assembled Colloquium participants and guests.
(1) In 1939, the same year that The Women is being made, John Ford and John Wayne make their first major Western collaboration, Stagecoach. Even in this most masculinist of genres, the narrative turns on the parallel redemptions of Wayne's outlaw and Claire Trevor's prostitute. The viewer knows she's a good woman from the start, but the other passengers on the stagecoach only come around when she is shown to have the requisite maternal instincts, serving as midwife and then nanny to a child, born ell route, of an upper-class woman, Until this moment, Ford blocks and edits the space such that Dallas and Mrs. Mallory are never permitted to be close together--and it's usually the men in the scene who separate them, as if the purity of Mrs. Mallory's motherhood could be threatened by a good-time girl. Even Ford, who is as keen a critic of class dynamics as he was long (though not forever) blind to his own racist view of Native Americans, suggests that Dallas is only fit to symbolize the future of America through her union with Wayne when she has also gotten a taste of motherhood.
(2) Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Women (George Cukor, 1939), Now, Voyager (1942), All that Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1954), Imitation of Life (1959), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962, Jonathan Demme) 2004), Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974), The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975), Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004).
(3) I am concentrating on American cinema, but, of course, there are culturally specific variants on this history, and a more international exploration could include Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mat (1926), go through Mikio Narase's Okasan (1952), Helma Sanders-Brahms's Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter (1979), Tamahori's Once Were Warriors (1994), Marlene Gorris's Antonia's Line (1995), Pedro Almodovar's All about My Mother (1999) and Francois Ozon's 8 Femmes (2003).
(4) She was really Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, but that's not what vamps are called or where they're from.
(5) We hardly need to add that the precedent set under silent cinema carries straight through to the 1970s. But in the early sound period, when the dark vamp made room for the platinum-tressed Mac West, the either/or was maintained, even when the tables were turned. As West said, "Marriage is a great institution--but I'm not ready, for an institution." Substitute motherhood for marriage--the foundational sentiment remains pretty much unchanged. Only a bad gift as good at being bad as West would eschew what she saw as a prison, but which most saw as foundational to civilization, to say nothing of the American character.
(6) Here it must be said that Helen Morrison, having produced not one but three male heirs, and Stephen, having also sired a daughter to strengthen the flock, may now get back to the luxury of relating to each other for pleasure--thus is erotic pleasure simultaneously suggested as improper for Stella, and also as a corollary, for excess wealth--a luxury to which Stella by virtue of her class, is not entitled.
(7) The maternal economy of both Now, Vovager and Stella Dallas have all implicit, concomitant economy of daughterhood. In both films daughters are exchanged without marriage rituals, both moving to a different house, both given up to a version of a better mother.
(8) See Susan Jeffords. That Schwarzenegger and Gibson have moved on to second careers, the first as the second Republican movie star to govern California, the second as a director of pre-Vatican II religious dramas better representing the party's conservative base, is the subject of another essay.
(9) For one account of the relation between the attempted assassination and public culture, especially see Rogin.
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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