By Emily Zou
“Motherhood studies as an area of scholarship is on precarious ground”, Samira Kawash warns in her article New Directions in Motherhood Studies. Advocacy for mothers and the study of feminism are inextricably linked, yet the study of motherhood has been largely neglected by the feminist movement. There are numerous reasons for this (which Kawash elaborates in her article), including the desire to remain separate from conservative “family values” and changing feminist theory. It will take years and a lot of work for this field to be more broadly recognized.
So this is that: the years and the work.
Through the next few weeks, I hope to understand and discuss films through a lens of motherhood studies, or as museum founder and scholar Martha Joy Rose elaborates “Mother Studies” citing motherhood as an institution, mothering as an act, and mothers as the persons at the center of this discourse. But, before we begin, I would like to explain why I feel studying both cinema and mothers is important.
There are three main reasons as to why film is worth thinking and writing about. The first is the most obvious: cinema has an audience, and the messages portrayed onscreen have real life impacts. Franklin Fearing wrote in 1947 that “motion pictures achieve their effects because they help the individual to cognize [their] world.” This still holds true today; anyone who has seen a film knows that it is not a passive experience, it is an interaction. Cinema allows us to peek into worlds that we could never imagineThey also can change our minds; a 2015 study from the University of Dayton found that 25% of participants changed their stance on the government after watching Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. The ideas expressed in movies are of consequence– they shape how we see the world. This is why so many people campaign for diversity onscreen and fight for more female directors. Accuracy in visibility is key to the millions of people who come in contact with these ideas.
So, studying fictional mothers is important because of what they mean to their audience. Of the influence of the portrayal of mothers in cinema, Asma Sayed writes in “Intersection Interventions in Global Cinema”: “–are these mothers good? How quickly are they able to reclaim their pre-baby bodies? How do they balance work and mothering? Such questions are a reflection of societies in which, historically, a woman’s primary role has largely been defined by her ability to bear and rear children.” The representation of the maternal figure on screen both reinforces and is produced by societal values.
But motherhood, mothers, and their portrayal onscreen reveal much more about society. Like how Sherlock tells us that oceans can be deduced from a drop of water, a singular film can provide insight into the context of the world that made it. Why it was created, how it was created, how people responded to it, and all of its intentional and unintentional effects can be profound and impactful. Jennifer Wingard’s article “(Re)Producing Globalization: The Labouring Body in Maria Full of Grace” links how capitalism and imperialism affects the bodies of mothers in the film Maria Full of Grace. Sayed aptly summarizes Wingard’s article: “It is important to follow the movement of Maria’s body not only to understand how women’s bodies affect and are defined by the contradictory flows of global capital, labour, and migration but also to see the limited range of choices available to women navigating within this system. Wingard points out how women’s labour is not recognized as part of economic production, even though it is essential to sustaining the global economy.” fictional mothers may not always be explicitly metaphors for any socio-cultural commentary, but the idea of the maternal and how it relates to those issues are still expressed through them.
Intersectionality is essential to creating an inclusive environment to learn about motherhood, which varies across race, class, and culture. Family dynamics are constantly changing across the world. Samira Kawash remarks that “…we need to broaden our awareness and understanding of the diverse positions and meanings of motherhood. Feminist scholarship on motherhood in the past decade has focused attention on the various ways in which mothers cannot or will not submit to the (white, middle-class, heterosexual) norms of good mothering.” So, not only can mother characters reveal infinitudes about the world, but we must expand our study of mothers of all kinds, from all around the world.
My last and most romantic reason is that the appreciation of art is what makes this life meaningful. There’s this quote that I love by Donna Tartt: “Beauty alters the grain of reality.” She was describing paintings, but this idea applies to all forms of the sublime that we are lucky to experience on Earth. The cinematic experience is a wonderful one, and I am excited to reinterpret them over the course of the next months.
As a final note, I would like to bring up the idea Kawash concludes her article with, that “feminism cannot possibly hope to remain relevant without acknowledging motherhood in all its contradictions and complexities.” It is only through understanding mothers and the way we treat them that we can hope to advocate for gender equality without leaving our mothers behind. We must embrace the many forms that mothering can take in order to uplift and honor the legacy of the generations of mothers that have largely gone forgotten and misrepresented.
*side note: In Kawash’s article, she writes “One positive development is a new Museum of Motherhood, “a real and virtual social change museum focused on amplifying the voices and experiences of mothers while connecting ‘the cultural family,’… there is also an opportunity, not only in the Museum of Motherhood but in the broader field of popular and academic investment that the museum seeks to make visible.”