‘mother!’ Paints a Picture of How Female Characters Get Screwed Over

It’s all in the name of love. And God, of course.
By  · Published on September 22nd, 2017

This post contains spoilers for ‘mother!’

mother! is not a narrative in the traditional sense so much as a panic attack translated into a cinematic spectacle. It’s like the sort of fever dream one could imagine coming from the mind of a theologian or a philosopher who finally collapsed from exhaustion after making it through the better part of a week without sleep via force of will and caffeine consumption.

For all the ongoing debate, pretty much everyone seems to agree that the film is a commentary on something, but the “what” part has become the question that launched a thousand thinkpieces. The fact that Aronofsky et al. have switched away from the tight-lipped approach in favor of citing the filmmaker’s chosen explanation—that it’s a climate change allegory with more Biblical allusions than you can shake Adam’s rib at—has not really curbed debate. I am of the not unprecedented opinion that this is an unfulfilling and frankly dull explanation for a film that is anything but, and that under scrutiny the argument resembles a cheese grater in the sense that it is strong as steel in the places where it is not full of holes. Fortunately for us, while filmmaker intention is worth noting, it is ultimately how an audience chooses to interpret a work that holds the real weight (a concept which the film itself explores, so ha!). And even if a filmmaker disagrees with a particular interpretation, it does not make it invalid. For example, I don’t know whether or not Edgar Wright put all that Oedipal subtext in Baby Driver consciously, but that does not change the fact that it is very much there. 

The power is in our hands. So first things first: let’s agree that there are definite environmental themes to mother! but no hearts or minds unmoved by Al Gore or photographs of sad polar bears on tiny ice floes are going to be won over by the same tale, allegorized, with added Christ figure. And with that settled, let us move on to more interesting pastures.

Now, others have already written about how while Jennifer Lawrence’s “mother” (we’re just going to call the characters by the actors’ names for this one so it doesn’t get confusing, okay? Okay.) is the main character—i.e., it rests on her P.O.V.—her much older husband, Javier Bardem’s brooding poet man-child “Him,” is the protagonist. He has all the agency, in spite of the writer’s block that plagues him throughout the film’s first act. He can leave the austerely beautiful but extremely remote home his wife is so painstakingly putting together for him (she seemingly can’t; at one point she begs him not to leave with a group in a way that implies her tagging along is not a possibility). When he opens his mouth, other characters actually listen, while Lawrence’s aggravated but soft-spoken requests are met with scorn or ignored entirely.

More than one commentator has already pointed out how mother! makes a great cautionary tale for younger women about the perils of entering a relationship with a Big Artiste type—albeit, one a little undermined by Lawrence’s entering a relationship with Aronofsky, who, if the ironies were not already profound enough, just so happens to be the same age as Bardem.

However, understanding Lawrence’s character as a wife and muse to Bardem’s “Great Writer” does not fully explain her character or many of the film’s more aggravating elements. But then again, looking at Lawrence as some sort of allegorical Mother Earth or Gaia type figure does not really do so either. What does explain for this is interpreting Lawrence as both muse and the creation inspired by said muse, one and the same in Bardem’s mind. She is simultaneously like two people unceremoniously meshed together and not even one whole person at all, her existence filtered through his egocentric lens.

Her character is like someone took every single page of the book of the most aggravating tropes and clichés that continue to haunt fictional portrayals of women and condensed them into one figure. Bardem calls her his goddess on occasion—repeatedly just before blowing her off in favor of something or someone else—but the more accurate pet name would perhaps be angel, as in “the angel in the house,” a relatively popular term for the Victorian ideal of female perfection, which Lawrence embodies more or less to the letter until her husband’s rabid fans cannibalize her son. She finally loses it and fights back, stabbing several unwanted guests with a piece of broken glass until she is overpowered by the crowd, who brutalize her in return while shouting vicious gendered slurs. Lawrence’s character is one of the most blatant depictions of the extremely uncomfortable paradoxes present in the concept of the idealized female muse —she is on a pedestal, as if higher than a lowly mortal, but also like an object, and less than human.

There is not much one can do on a pedestal. You can stand there and be admired when there are not more pressing matters to be attended to—as there often are—or you can move, attempt to do something for yourself, and fall. But she is an object of desire and (inconsistent) bringer of Inspiration, and when we obtain shiny trophies we put them on display, so that is where she—or at least, the parts of her that actually matter—go. After all, Bardem cares far more about the shiny crystal of rebirth that he pulls from her charred chest—which represents her heart to a degree certainly, but, bearing in mind Bardem’s spiel about the object early in the film, is perhaps better described as the embodiment of all the stuff Bardem values about her without dealing with the inconvenience of her being an actual person with independent goals and needs and desires.

At the end, when the charred Lawrence laments that she was not enough for her beloved poet (which is quite possibly what said poet might feel in his heart of hearts), perhaps the more accurate statement would be that she was ultimately too much, or threatened to become so—that an independent identity, with unique goals and aspirations that existed beyond serving the poet’s every whim and “bringing life” back to his home, kept trying to creep in through the cracks.

The tension in mother! ebbs and flows, and the film’s halfway point is also the eye of the storm. The couple wakes up post-sex, Lawrence already knows she’s pregnant— “women’s intuition” or whatever people go on about sometimes, which I think is supposed to be like a human lady version of that innate thing animals have that alerts them to skedaddle on out prior to major natural disasters while we rely on weather forecasting machines developed in the last century or two in order to not be caught entirely off guard—and the poet gets his writing groove back. While the ensuing nine months of peace implied by the film, as well as the relative calm introduced at the beginning until Ed Harris’s Adam-figure shows up at the door can be linked by a lack of unwanted house guests, these lulls can also be connected through how they represent moments of certainty and stability in Lawrence’s and Bardem’s relationship. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are moments in which the role Lawrence plays in relation to Bardem and the unique value she has to him is well-defined. When Harris shows up and proves to be more intriguing and inspiring than his so-called muse, whose constant presence has been failing to fend off his writer’s block, said would-be muse’s life begins to go off the rails. Only when Lawrence re-establishes her purpose to him as a wife (through sex), reminds him of her powers of fertility by becoming a baby incubator, and manages to return to return to bona fide muse status as the combination of these first two things somehow appears to reignite Bardem’s creativity, do we see her at her happiest and most confident. Lawrence’s situation goes to hell in a handbasket once more just after Bardem finishes his second work—meaning he is still working on promoting it but done creating it, and no longer requires a muse for the time being—and just before Lawrence gives birth, meaning she is on the cusp of losing the important role of baby incubator as well. While mothers are nice to have after being born, they are only truly necessary for the prenatal growing part. For female characters, there is nothing more dangerous than being less than necessary. Even before walking into the film, that is something that mother! had me thinking about, due to the title.

After all, there is no figure more prone to an obvious but unacknowledged and/or unlamented absence in movies than that of a mother. Just think of how the original Star Wars trilogy treats Luke and Leia’s parents. Luke’s father is a huge presence in his story even before the Darth Vader twist is revealed, but he never even asks about his mother. Meanwhile, Leia’s brief mention of her “memories” of her “very beautiful” and “sad” mother in Return of the Jedi only serves as a giant plot hole with the addition of the prequel trilogy (unless the Force allows you to remember being approximately three minutes old).

Or, turning from a galaxy far, far away and heading to Westeros, of all the book characters who were omitted or condensed into composites in order to keep Game of Thrones from becoming too unwieldy, those whose absences are most blatant, even to non-book readers, but do not receive even a throwaway line of explanation are mothers. After all, children who are trimmed out are just people who are never born; families left on the cutting room floor bloodlines that were never established. Then there is Alerie Tyrell, who must have existed in the world of the television show because two of her children did, but who never merits so much as a mention. But is that better or worse than the case of Marya Seaworth—who is mentioned in seasons 2 (Melisandre asks Davos if he loves his wife, he says he does) and 3 (Salladhor Saan advises Davos to return to his wife to grieve their son, but he refuses) before she promptly vanishes from the show’s collective consciousness? The list goes on.

Regardless, it is no wonder that Lawrence’s character refuses to give up her newborn son—and, noticeably, the scene in which she holds her son is the only one in which someone actually heeds her word; it is only once she finally nods off that Bardem is able to take the child from her.

That said, the specific use of “goddess” as a pet name does serve another purpose because it highlights a key irony at the heart of mother!—Lawrence’s character does not have a true Biblical counterpart, even though it is only edged out by Noah for a concentration of Biblical references in an Aronofsky film by perhaps one and a half allusions. For all the archetypes and clichés she represents—the angel in the house, the Madonna to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Whore—various commentators and Aronofsky himself have described Lawrence’s “mother” as Mother Earth or Gaia, neither of which are Biblical. Yes, she ends up birthing the son of our God-figure, but it is no immaculate conception—and besides, Mary was not a goddess but a mortal woman.

But let us take a moment to historicize things because just saying the Bible has no mother goddess does not mean there is not some important connections to be made there. After all, the Bible ended up superseding a number of pagan religions that featured mother goddesses, and it did so with a creation story involving a father god that took pre-existing imagery—a woman, a snake, and a tree—and took them from being symbols of her power as a goddess to her wickedness as a mortal woman, a wickedness that leads to the fall of mankind and dooms her to a role of subservience.

But then again, Genesis has a pretty major plot hole—it does not feature one creation story, but two, and they do not agree. In Genesis 1, God creates mankind, “male and female,” in his image. In Genesis 2, God takes the rib of Adam, created in His image, and from that makes Eve—putting her an extra step away from Him. This extra step served as the foundation for misogynistic arguments (including those that would lead to the persecution of primarily women as witches in the early modern period) that to a twenty-first-century mind, even considering that prejudice is hardly a thing of the past, seem almost comically ludicrous.

Some commenters have described elements of the depiction and treatment of women in mother! as painfully insightful, others have described it more along the lines of misogynistic nonsense.

Both are true.

Maybe we still so rarely encounter female characters treated as people because we are still so tied to making allusions to stories that stripped them of power and agency.

Aronofsky may claim the film is about how we impact the environment. That is all very well and good. But what mother! depicts even more strikingly is the relationship between male creators, female creations, and then how those creations are imposed upon women more generally—after all, when the cycle starts all over again at the end of the film, the body that lies on Lawrence’s side of the bed and the face that speaks her first line (“Baby?”), turning it into the film’s last, is new and unknown, though we are given every indication that the story will repeat itself, more or less verbatim.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.