Screening Motherhood in Contemporary World Cinema

Volume 13, Issue 2  | 
Published 30/11/2016

Editor: Asma Sayed
Publ: Demeter Press
Reviewer: Meena Nanji

Screening Motherhood in Contemporary World Cinema is a collection of scholarly essays examining how motherhood is represented in a variety of cinematic traditions from around the globe.

Edited by Asma Syed, the book is organized into four parts with the first two thematically arranged. Part 1 discusses independent and experimental films from the U.S, Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and Russia, with a few articles featuring marginalized or underrepresented groups within these areas. Part 2 explores recent Hollywood fantasy/sci-fi films and their changing representations of women/mothers. The last two parts are geographically organized, with ‘Latin Mamas’ being the focus of Part 3, and ‘Eastern Mothers’ comprising Part 4.

This slightly haphazard arrangement of sections is acknowledged by the editor in her introduction where she states that the range of submissions received in her call for papers forced her to ‘limit the scope of what was possible in order to shape a cohesive book project’. (p.19) This acknowledgment is appreciated, as is another that adds that even though the book is titled ‘World Cinema’, several major world cinemas are omitted, such as Japan, China, Nigeria and those of Western Europe. The book is therefore not encyclopedic, but ‘a tentative first step’ to address the fact that there are no known books on the representation of mothers in world cinema. This in itself is astonishing to note, and so the book is a very welcome first attempt at broaching this important topic, and must be commended as groundbreaking for putting 'motherhood' on the cinema studies map.

The resulting volume is somewhat uneven, spanning from some brilliant analyses to essays that leave one wondering why they were included. However, as a collection, they do fulfill the editor’s wish to ‘investigate the changing and dynamic cross-cultural images of mothers on screen and to question and resist stereotypes in cinematic traditions and practices of mothers, motherhood, and the maternal, on and off screen’. (p.19)

What is particularly striking in reading the entire book is to realize how limited representations of motherhood in cinema actually are. Across the world these depictions fall into two major categories:

- The first is the subservient, self-sacrificing, ‘good’ mother, an ideal where unrealistic expectations are placed on her by patriarchal, capitalist and/or state systems. This mother is generally a peripheral character who is supposed to obediently serve the needs of her family.  She is de-sexualised, without her own agency, hopes or desires.   She is first and foremost defined by her 'motherhood', and will sacrifice everything to ensure a better life for her offspring, including herself.

- The second category is the ‘good’ mother's polar opposite: the ‘bad’ or ‘rebel’ mother. The chapters exploring ‘rebel’ mothers assert this mother as slightly more complex than the ‘ideal’ mother. Her traits include her being inattentive to her children, self-absorbed, irresponsible, absent, and devoid of the nurturing qualities normally associated with motherhood. Films that feature the ‘rebel’ mother provide context to justify her choices - thereby allowing her more depth and complexity - yet these depictions remain limited. The women discussed are almost uniformly single mothers, working class, with economic hardship dictating their availability to their children. Their physical and emotional absence is explained by long work hours, exhaustion, or alternatively depression, sex-work or addiction.

Although there are nuances and some departures from these depictions, stereotypical representations remain all pervasive. Some essays provide clues as to why this might be so, with discussions around production and distribution apparatus, which is still largely male-dominated. Simply put, movies that get broad distribution are mostly produced and directed by men, who seem to have little interest in, or awareness of, representations of mothers.

The book points to some promising bright spots in dismantling these stereotypes and thus posits cinema as a site of resistance, a place where new norms in motherhood can be represented and disseminated.  The essay on Argentinian films is instructive and cites examples of multidimensional and complex mother characters. These ‘new’ mothers are not defined by the fact of their mothering, but in terms of who they are as individuals, making choices that empower themselves yet also fulfill maternal duties, if they so choose. Surprisingly, this is occurring in Hollywood fantasy/sci-fi movies to some extent as well, with films such as Brave, Harry Potter and the Alien series (discussed) confronting hitherto taboo subjects and imagining alternative models of motherhood.

However, films placing the mother centrally, or breaking the good/bad mother binary, are still few and far between.  The vast majority of mothers in film remain disempowered and it is still extraordinarily difficult for multi-faceted females to gain significant screen time. A case in point is Brave, the Disney animated feature about a young girl, whose female writer/director was pushed out of directing the film by her male producers, and the story somewhat changed to make it more palatable to male viewers (read toning down the girl's strength and independence).

Of particular interest are the articles providing context of relevant socio-cultural and political shifts through their histories that are reflected in their cinema. This allows for tracing the evolution (or not) of the motherhood trope, and whether these tropes reflect the ‘reality’ of mothers’ lives/conditions. Some mother figures were used symbolically, signifying the aspirations of the Nation-state as in ‘Motherland’. Other mothers were used to symbolically critique political or social regimes.  The chapter on Iran is particularly edifying with its history of Iranian film, and others on Mexican and Russian cinemas.

Issues of colonialism and marginalised communities are also addressed, but I found a majority of these articles wanting for deeper analysis, pointing to the fact that much scholarship on these issues still needs to be done.

More editorial intervention would have been helpful in some cases, where arguments are too oft repeated, or where there are obvious translation issues (such as the gender of children constantly shifting unintentionally in one essay) and where some concepts/language are used with regressive and fixed meanings to the detriment of the argument being made.

However, these criticisms are slight in comparison to the project of the whole volume. The book gives comprehensive insights into particular films being made around the world, and highlights that ‘motherhood’ representations are in dire need of an overhaul. This is a book not only for the academic community, and cineastes of all stripes, but also, (I hope), for producers and directors who create these representations. Perhaps it can help stimulate more considered, and multi-layered, mother representations that can in turn evoke new vistas for audiences to contemplate. Additionally, the book is an invitation to scholars around the world to build on this rich and varied topic.

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.