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The spacialization of motherhood: Estancia, nation, and gendered space in Maria Luisa Bemberg's Miss Mary.

According to Gaston Bachelard, author of The Poetics of Space, the house, or the abode, provides one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind. (1) In the film Miss Mary, the Argentine director, Maria Luisa Bemberg, utilizes the space of the estancia to represent the national, cultural, and social values of her nation, especially those pertaining to women, during the 1930s and '40s. Interweaving her own memories with those of the protagonist, the British governess, Miss Mary Mulligan, who had come to Buenos Aires in 1938 to take care of an estancia owners' three children, Bemberg reconstructs the era's patriarchal norms, the Argentine upper class's conservative politics and penchant for all things British including the English language, and the period's political upheavals including the rise of Juan Peron, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II.

The space of the estancia, Miss Mary's Buenos Aires apartment, and the church of St. Ignatius, also in Buenos Aires, where the youngest child Terry's wedding is to take place, serve to link the present (1945) with the past (1938), as well as contrast the rural and the urban way of life. After an initial historical note in which Bemberg informs the viewer that in 1930's Buenos Aires, General Uriburu overthrew the legitimate government of President Irigoyen and remained in power for the next fifteen years through fraud and coercion, she projects a series of black and white photos of famous people and events of the era accompanied by its musical hits which serve as a frame for the story.

The repressive values of Uriburu's regime filtered down into all layers of Argentine society, and especially to its women and mothers, as evidenced by the lifestyle and rituals of the Martinez-Bordagain family, whom we meet in a short introductory vignette, and in a series of flashbacks that Miss Mary, played impeccably by Julie Christie as very civilized, self-controlled, and distant (Fontana 36), has in her apartment and in the church while waiting for the youngest daughter Terry's wedding to begin. The family life on the estancia, as remembered by Miss Mary, is in reality a "work of memory"(Kearney 6) for the director Bemberg through which she seeks to reconcile with her own loss of childhood innocence and with the loss of her political ideal of freedom for Argentina and for women and mothers in general. Through the characters of the governess Miss Mary, the mother Mecha (who together comprise a type of schizophrenic motherhood), and the two daughters, Bemberg seeks to revisit her identity and its changes through time, and also to preserve her selfhood when confronted by the Other, i.e., the patriarchy, represented by the male characters of the estancionero, Alfredo, his son Johnny, and his brother-in-law Ernesto. The film, in Bemberg's words, is "a fresco of an epoch I knew personally. There are many parts in which I show ..." (Bach 23). Throughout the film's dialogue, Bemberg concomitantly alludes to the acts and events of violence of the era, such as the suicide of the poet Leopoldo Lugones, and the demonstrations in favor of Peron, which are also the founding events of Argentine society today, and as such, are a part of the nation's collective memory. (2)

The close, suffocating atmosphere of Miss Mary's current apartment in Buenos Aires and life on October 16, 1945, is contrasted through flashbacks with the wide open spaces of the pampas, (3) to where Miss Mary arrived in the summer of 1938 as a governess from England for the Martinez-Bordagain children, Carolina, Johnny, and Terry. Upon her arrival, Miss Mary is informed by Ernesto that this is a "civilized country," and as a surrogate mother, is immediately introduced to the gendered spaces of the estancia by the mistress of the house, Mecha, a passive, subdued wife, sometimes given to hysterical gun-toting rages, when driven by her philandering husband. "This is your kingdom--the playroom," Mecha tells Miss Mary. The governess's reveries in her apartment and the church some seven years later recreate for the viewer the remaining spaces of the estancia manor house, each with a particular function related to gender and its power structure. It also reminds us of Bachelard's notion that for knowledge of intimacy, localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates (9).

In "Family Structure and Feminine Personality" Nancy Chodorow examines the roles that men and women have played and are expected to play within the Western world. Chodorow describes the role that the male plays as an agency role while the woman's role is a communion role. She describes the male personality as preoccupied with the "agentic," that is, a personality of self-protection, self-expansion, separation, aloneness, possessing the urge to master and to repress thought, feeling, and impulse (50). In contrast, the "communion" personality, or the female personality, manifests itself in the sense of being at one with other organisms and in union with others. Thus, her main preoccupation is the maintenance of the family unit (50). Chodorow further argues that these developmental roles stem from the fact that "women, universally, are largely responsible for early child care and for (at least) later female socialization." She states that "women's motherhood and mothering role seem to be the most important features of accounting for the universal secondary status of women" (45).

The office is one of the masculine spaces that embodies agentic male authoritarianism. When Alfredo first interviews Miss Mary in his office, he requires that she, as a surrogate mother, bring up his daughters well and supervise them constantly. "No woman is safe as long as there are men around," Alfredo tells Miss Mary. He also demands that the governess use a lot of religion because "religion keeps women out of trouble." In a telling scene, we see grandmother Mama Victoria reciting the rosary incoherently and endlessly, perhaps representing the future of all Argentine women who are silenced through religion and/or violence. Likewise, Mecha is in charge of church responsibilities and Catholic rites of passage for all the members of the estancia family. She inadvertently reinforces the patriarchal values that have kept her subjugated all her life. She unconsciously has taken on what Foucault calls self-policing (Bartky 149). (4) She forces her marginalized illiterate workers, the gaucho Don Mateo and his woman Angelita, to marry in the Church (an episode which can be read as symbolic of Sarmiento's theory that Buenos Aires's urban European civilization is trying to attenuate indigenous rural barbarism in Argentina), (5) and arranges the first communion for all the children. Even the youngest daughter Terry's marriage is a forced one, in this case by Johnny, her older brother, which on another level can be read as Terry's loss of virginity, a barbaric act, will now be tempered by marriage in the Catholic Church, a civilized act. In order to salvage the family honor, Johnny visits Toribio, with whom Terry was caught in flagrante delicto on a yacht excursion. The meeting takes place at the fencing academy, another space symbolic of male dominance and power, where Johnny demands that Toribio restore his sister's honor by marrying her, even though Terry states that she does not love him. It becomes apparent through episodes such as these that church and religion served to keep in place the rigid centuries-old power structure favoring the upper classes dominated by European males.

The terrace of the main house is also a gendered space for activities symbolic of the upper class's pastimes, such as family parties with dancing and music. Lunches and dinners, organized by the mother, and prepared and served with style by the household servants in the formal dining room, are balanced with periods of leisure and piano music in the parlor. Throughout the film, Mecha is seen and heard playing piece after piece on the piano, an escape for her boredom and frustration. Outdoor activities include picnics, carriage rides, puppet shows and music produced by phonographs. The first communion and wedding celebration of the gaucho couple are also held outdoors. In addition to providing costumbrista elements and local color to the film, these scenes also point up the economic capital and cultural capital of the haves versus the have-nots that Pierre Bourdieu states are the two differentiation principles of social space (631). The locals do not enter the main house other than to serve. Nor do they dare invade the private space of its inhabitants, as is illustrated at the wedding dance, when Miss Mary harshly rebukes a gaucho for dating to touch her. The estancionero class is amply represented by its landholdings and rituals, a far cry from the habitus and customs of the workers or gauchos, who live and work for their privileged bosses. At the same time, however, as depicted in the film, what both groups have in common is the subjugation and control of women, especially wives and mothers.

Miss Mary's encounter with the gaucho as well as her constant admonishments to the girls on what to do with their bodies and how to control their movements recall Bartky's assertion that not only does the body move through space, but the body is also a space itself that can be "invaded," abused, possessed, or constricted by both the body's owner and by others. Bartky points out that "there are significant differences in gesture, posture, movement and general bodily comportment: women are far more restricted than men in their manner of movement and in their spatiality" (134). Likewise, a woman's proper role is reflected in her posture and in her gaze. A "virtuous woman" is a restricted woman, while a "'loose woman" is one who has "spread herself out too much." This looseness is also apparent in her manner of speech, and in the free and easy way she moves (136). Furthermore, the virtuous woman will cast her eyes downward because the female gaze is trained to abandon its claim to the sovereign status of seer, and does not penetrate others with her stare. The nice girl learns "to avoid the bold and unfettered stating of the 'loose' woman who looks at whatever she pleases" (137). In the film, the loose woman, Mecha's future sister-in-law and neighbor, the widowed Perla (note her single status and lack of children), actively penetrates the masculine space of the billiard room and seduces Mecha's husband and brother with her flirtatious glances and provocative posturing.

The gendered spaces of the estancia connect to the rites of passage of the two girls and the governess herself, and serve to restrict female movement and expression. The occurrences of bathroom and bedroom are taboos not to be discussed in polite society. Miss Mary warns the two sisters never to be in the bathroom alone together. Caroline's first menses are explained to her by the governess in a very polite and cautionary tone as she changes bloody sheets, and when Caroline in her effusive, adolescent manner wishes to have a party to celebrate the occasion, Miss Mary is horrified and forbids her to speak of it ever again: "You are not to talk about this; this is a secret amongst women." In another scene, Miss Mary hits Caroline on the knuckles with a stick, when Caroline makes fun of a doll with a penis and makes reference to male sexuality. Eventually the constant repression of Caroline's natural instincts and flair for life seen in her carefree dancing and spontaneous utterances lead her to a state of mental imbalance during which she is shown, sitting on the floor of her room, typing names from a telephone book, a therapy which had been prescribed for her by her psychiatrist. By typing names Caroline's gaze and movement are completely restricted and impeded, while her gaze is directed downward, as were her mother's when Mecha was playing the piano. Simultaneously, Caroline's room serves as both a refuge and a prison for the mad woman of the house, driven to insanity by all sorts of patriarchal rules and regulations. Both her father and her brother question her uncomprehendingly: "What does she want? What does she want?"

Miss Mary's bedroom is the space for the sexual and romantic awakening of Johnny, and in a way Miss Mary herself. It is also an Oedipal scenario par excellence. Miss Mary had repressed all her feelings and wishes in public and in the privacy of her "crying room," the bedroom, she cries and drinks alcohol while writing cliche-filled letters to her mother in England about the charm of Argentine life and the tango. On the night of his birthday Johnny's unfortunate first sexual encounter with another surrogate mother, the local prostitute, leads him to seek the solace and comfort of Miss Mary's arms and room. He barges into her room without permission or knocking (already in a male agentic fashion), and the two consummate their feelings for one another. Mecha, unfortunately, sees Johnny leaving Miss Mary's room in the middle of the night, and this immediately leads to the expulsion of the governess from the estancia for this ultimate breach of faith. In another reading of this mutual seduction, one might view Johnny's and Miss Mary's relationship as incestuous, thus justifying her immediate dismissal. On the other hand, it might be interpreted as Johnny's first attempt to appropriate a stable gender identity, independent of his mothers, both biological and surrogate (Chodorow 49) by identifying with his father's sexual mores. (6)

In the parting scene between Mecha and Miss Mary, the vulnerability and the loneliness of the governess are fully revealed. Her love life had been alluded to earlier by the mention of a photo of a soldier that Johnny found hidden in her trunk. As Bachelard tells us, chests with false bottoms, or desks with hidden drawers, or locked wardrobes become "veritable organs of the secret psychological life" (78). The inner space of Miss Mary's trunk, and Carolina's locked wardrobe in an earlier scene become metaphors of intimacy and are invaded by men, Miss Mary's by Johnny and Carolina's by her father. The inner space of trunk and closet is intimate space, rarely revealed without emotional trauma. All of Miss Mary's repressed spiritual and psychological baggage comes to the fore in this scene with Mecha, where Miss Mary, the surrogate mother, is humiliated and broken in spirit. It is ironic to think that as the children's tutor she has also taught Johnny the true meaning of sex and love in the confines of her bedroom. The invasion of Caroline's private space ultimately leads to her nervous breakdown.

In 1945, a number of years later, after Terry's wedding, once again in the confines of Miss Mary's room in Buenos Aires, Johnny and his governess meet for the last time, This meeting is an attempt at reconciliation and closure. Miss Mary decides to return to England (Could "civilization" be departing from Argentine soil?), and Johnny accepts the past with no regrets. He recognizes the role that she has played in his maturation: "I have no regrets. I'm talking about the storm, the rain." She, on the other hand, seems to continue to control her feelings, unable to shed the legacy of repression begun fifteen years earlier with the ascendance of Uriburu: "It's not raining, Johnny," she tells him. As Miss Mary leaves for England, Juan Peron is released from prison on October 17, 1945.

Miss Mary is dominated by two fundamental ideas expressed through the use of space: the repression of true feeling and sexuality which characterizes the females and mother figures, and the blindness toward inevitable social changes that were (Fontana 37), as the forces of civilization and barbarism clashed in 1945 Argentina. The estancia of the '30s and '40s in Bemberg's capable hands, becomes a microcosm of Argentina with its varying class structure and struggles. Above all, we come to know well Argentina's upper crust in the characters of the estancionero Alfredo, his wife Mecha, his children, his parents, including a father who had lost his fortune at the gambling tables of Montecarlo, and his nationalistic, ultra conservative brother-in-law. We are awed by the beauty of the estancia itself, a symbol of a way of life marked by paternalism and male authoritarianism, which is more clearly revealed to us in the alveoli or the smaller spaces within. Therefore, a topoanalysis, i.e., a systematic psychological study of the sites of the intimate lives of the inhabitants of the main abode of the estancia reveal to us a theater of the Argentine past constituted by Miss Mary's memory. In that vast ocean of the pampas, the main house serves as an anchor, and to paraphrase Bachelard, Bemberg's poetic daydream, which creates symbols, confers upon the characters' intimate moments an activity that is polysymbolic, extending to antithetical notions of motherhood, of barbarism and civilization, and of Argentine nationhood (26). In Bemberg's house on the pampas everything that ascends and descends comes to life again dynamically in the space of the film.


    MECHA               MISS MARY





Bach, Caleb. "Maria Luisa Bemberg Tells the Untold." Americas March-April 0994): 20-27.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Foreword by Etienne Gilson. New York: Orion, 1964.

Bartky, Sandra Lee. "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power." Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia LIP, 1997. 129-54.

Bourdieu, Pierre. "First Lecture. Social Space and Symbolic Space: Introduction to a Japanese Reading of Distinction." Poetics Today 12:4 (Winter 1991): 627-38,

Chodorow, Nancy. "Family Structure and Feminine Personality." Woman, Culture and Society. Ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford LIP, 1989. 43-66.

Fontana, Clara. Los directores del cine argentino, Maria Luisa Bemberg. Buenos Aires:.Centro Editor de America Latina, 1993.

Miss Mary. Dir. Maria Luisa Bemberg. Perf. Julie Christie and Nacha Guevara. GEA Cinematografica S.R.I./New World Pictures, 1986.

Ricouer, Paul. "Memory and Forgetting." Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy. Ed. Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley. London: Routledge, 1999. 5-12.

Sarmiento, Domingo F. Civilizacion y barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga. Chile, 1845.






(1) Bachelard (5-8), where he discusses the significance of the house as a first universe, a real cosmos, a large cradle for mankind.

(2) For a discussion of memory and forgetting, see Ricouer, esp. 12.

(3) In Bachelard's discussion of the dialectics of outside and inside, he ironically alludes to the pampas as a prison metaphor precisely because of their vastness and immensity (221).

(4) Bartky discusses how the design of the Panopticon, the modern prison, for Foucault captures the essence of disciplinary society. The prisoner feels watched all the time until the moment arrives in which permanent visibility assures the automatic functioning of power, i.e., each prisoner becomes to himself his own jailer (131-32). In the same way, Mecha has assimilated all the patriarchal norms, and not only follows them herself, but passes them on to her daughters and to other women on the estancia. An example of the violent repression of women can be found in the Argentine film, La historia oficial (directed by Luis Puenzo) which takes place during the "dirty little war." (1976-83).

(5) There are other references in the film to barbarism vs. civilization, e.g., when Johnny tells Miss Mary that perhaps she should have gone to India, where it is clear who the natives are, and when the girls give Miss Mary a bottle of Argentine perfume, which in reality is urine. The indigenous estancionero workforce in the film cannot read or write, nor do they have identification papers, suggesting that they are born, work, beget children, and die without official records. The first to raise the national consciousness vis-a-vis this antithetical dualism of Argentine life was Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in his Civilizacion y barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga, published in Chile in 1845, in which he discusses the barbarity of the rural life versus the civilized urban life, and the ability of the latter to temper the former.

(6) Chodorow argues that a boy's masculine gender identification must come to replace his primary early identification with his mother. Usually this masculine identification is based on the boy's father, with whom he will share a "positional" identification (sharing in one or more aspects of his father's clearly or not-so-clearly defined male role), rather than a more generalized "personal" identification simply because the boy does not spend as much time with his father as he did with his mother (49).
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Author:Gatto, Katherine Gyekenyesi
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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