One of the most popular Dutch romantic comedies is the 2013 film Soof. Soof shows us a mother who cooks not for the wellbeing of her children but for her own financial independence.Cooking has become a choice, no longer a chore a mother is supposed to do. Are we seeing a self-aware and independent woman? When watching the film with my own mother her verdict was quite harsh: “She’s a bad mom”.
Does this mean my mother is used to a more conservative portrayal of the mother figure? If so, what does this tell us about society? This became the core question of my master thesis. I wanted to find out if and how films portray mothers in a traditional and conservative way, upholding a patriarchal construction of motherhood. Meaning in what ways she sets herself aside to function as an extension of her husband and family. In my frantic search of more progressive portrayals of mothers, I noticed three distinct types of mothers. These three cinematic mothers are: the domestic mother, the monstrous mother and the Final Mother.
Within the domestic mother hides the most conservative mother. As the name implies this mother is mostly confined to the homely atmosphere. She is often visually trapped in frame, like in Gorris’ De Stilte Rond Christine M. (1982) or in Beumer’s De Gelukkige Huisvrouw (2010), in which Lea is trapped within frames after she gives birth to a son. Cassevete’s A Woman under the influence (1974) features the mentally instable Mabel, also portrayed as a prisoner in a frame-in-frame construction. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)features the same construction, this film however takes it one step further by matching the flower pattern on her dress to the pattern on the walls. She visually melts together with the house visualising the inescapability. The same idea can be found in the much discussed mother! (2017) by Aronofsky,the fact that she can’t leave is established inthe opening scene, in which she moves from frame to frame in a static perspective. These films all show women on the verge of becoming mothers or living for years as mothers and wives. These women are isolated and trapped in the domestic world, taking care of their husbands and children.
One more thing these women have in common is that they are all at a point of collapse under the pressure of being a mother, especially the patriarchal version. These domestic mothers find themselves in a phase change to the monstrous mother, a mother figure rising up against oppression. In the previous articles and video-essays I’ve made for Imagine I’ve shown various ways the monstrous can resist oppression. In the aforementioned films the monstrous shows itself in the form of female hysteria, a phenomenon which was attributed to demonic powers during the medieval witch hunts. Later this was seen as mental illness found in rebelling women, the women striving to have equal rights and sexual liberation.These women who wouldn’t conform to the traditional femininity were seen as monstrous.In De Gelukkige Huisvrouw and Rosemary’s Baby this hysteria follows after the violation of the female body. During the dream scene in Rosemary’s Baby we see the oppression of her sexuality linked to reproduction, while in De Gelukkige Huisvrouw the woman is unwillingly penetrated by a male doctor ( similar to The Exorcist). In A Woman under the influence and De Stilte Rond Christine M. the monstrous comes from years of oppression and humiliation. In De Stilte Rond Christine M. this manifests itself in a castration and the murder of a male shop owner.
Where in most films hysteria is accompanied by yelling and physical violence, in De Stilte Rond Christine M. we see another kind of resistance. After her horrible deed, which she completes with two other women, she stays silent. This silence becomes an act of resistance by refusing to speak the patriarchal language. Where other female characters try to express their subordination in hysteria and despair, Christine visualises her oppressed position though drawings. A visual language can be found in her drawings, as an alternative form of communication. A female language.
In the character of Christine, I find my third type of mother, the Final Mother. This character is aware of the crooked power relations but shows another type of resistance than the monstrous mother. The Final Mother shows solidarity, works together in a collective or makes fun of the powers at be without trying to wear a mask or be someone else. In Soof I recognize a Final mother in the motherly figure of Sophie. In a scene in Soof we can see a giant sculpture of the male reproductive organ with a sculpture of a woman without arms in the background.Again, the male dominance is emphasized while the female is portrayed in a fragmented manner. Where the monstrous mother would react in a monstrous way, Sophie puts an apron on the sculpture and dances around it. Soof radicalizes the image of the oppressed woman and makes fun of the unfair power relations. In this irony we can see a form of female agency in a postfeminist way.
In the Final Mother we find an empowered woman, but also in the Final Girl. This character will be discussed in the article next week. The femme fatale will also be prominently featured.
About the author
After completing her bachelor’s degree cum laude, Gwyneth Sleutel (1994) was selected for the professional track in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam. During her studies Gwyneth did extensive research into the portrayal of women in cinema and became inspired by the combination of film and feminism, as movies offer us a unique insight into how our society functions and deals with issues regarding gender. During her master thesis she took a closer look at the development of feminist film theory in order to analyse the portrayal of the ‘mother’ in Dutch movies.
Her passion for cinema also shows in her work as a freelance filmmaker and her contributions to critical online media platforms. However, her heart lies with the script development of fictional film. After a few internships with a focus on dramaturgy and the practical development of movies, at the VPRO among others, Gwyneth is now working as a freelance dramaturg and script editor. In addition to this she is editor-in-chief for the faculty magazine Babel. Gwyneth will publish a weekly article for Imagine Film Festival, drawing inspiration from her talents as an analyst and critical thinking skills concerning the portrayal of women in cinema. Championing the idea that there can never be enough kick-ass women in film.