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Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers

Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers
Redefining Feminism on Screen

Continuing the celebration of female unruliness she began in The Unruly Woman, Karlyn explores how representations of mothers and daughters in popular films and television shows both reflect and contribute to current debates within and about feminism.

January 2011
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320 pages | 6 x 9 | 59 b&w photos |

Since the 1990s, when Reviving Ophelia became a best seller and "Girl Power" a familiar anthem, girls have assumed new visibility in the culture. Yet in asserting their new power, young women have redefined femininity in ways that have often mystified their mothers. They have also largely disavowed feminism, even though their new influence is a likely legacy of feminism's Second Wave. At the same time, popular culture has persisted in idealizing, demonizing, or simply erasing mothers, rarely depicting them in strong and loving relationships with their daughters.

Unruly Girls, Unrepentent Mothers, a companion to Kathleen Rowe Karlyn's groundbreaking work, The Unruly Woman, studies the ways popular culture and current debates within and about feminism inform each other. Surveying a range of films and television shows that have defined girls in the postfeminist era—from Titanic and My So-Called Life to Scream and The Devil Wears Prada, and from Love and Basketball to Ugly Betty—Karlyn explores the ways class, race, and generational conflicts have shaped both Girl Culture and feminism's Third Wave. Tying feminism's internal conflicts to negative attitudes toward mothers in the social world, she asks whether today's seemingly materialistic and apolitical girls, inspired by such real and fictional figures as the Spice Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have turned their backs on the feminism of their mothers or are redefining unruliness for a new age.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Bad Mothers, Angry Girls
  • 1. Postfeminism and the Third Wave: Titanic
  • 2. Trouble in Paradise: American Beauty and the Incest Motif
  • 3. Girl World: Clueless, Mean Girls, and The Devil Wears Prada
  • 4. Final Girls and Epic Fantasies: Remaking the World
  • 5. How Reese Witherspoon Walks the Line
  • 6. Teen-Girl Melodramas: My So-Called Life and Thirteen
  • 7. Girls of Color: Beyond Girl World
  • 8. The Motherline and a Wicked Powerful Feminism: Antonia's Line
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Kathleen Rowe Karlyn is Professor of English and Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. Her publications include the award-winning The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter and articles in Screen, Cinema Journal, Genders, Feminist Media Studies, and other journals and anthologies. She has been interviewed by major media outlets, and her work, especially on comedy and the unruly woman, has been reprinted, cited, and taught worldwide.


Everything will be changed once woman gives woman to the other woman. There is hidden and always ready in woman the source, the locus for the other. The mother, too, is a metaphor.

—Hélène Cixous


Oh, Mother, shut up.

—Rose to her mother Ruth, in Titanic


One of the emotional turning points of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic occurs soon after the ship's collision with the iceberg that will sink it within hours. In a scene of escalating panic and chaos, Ruth (Frances Fisher), the mother of the film's headstrong protagonist Rose (Kate Winslet), urges her daughter to join her in a lifeboat quickly filling with other members of the upper class. Rose is revolted by her mother's snobbery and yearns to remain with her newfound love Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frisky young fellow traveling in steerage. She pauses, fixes her gaze on her mother, then refuses with a resolute, "No, Mother." In doing so, she turns her back not only on her old life but also, in all likelihood, on life itself rather than follow the path laid out for her by her mother.


The film has dramatized her choice with the laserlike clarity of melodrama: Jack stands for innocence, art, freedom, and love, and Ruth stands for all that the film vilifies—the weight of convention, especially on women, but more important, the oppressiveness of the class structure symbolized by the opulent excesses of the ship. The film validates Rose's moment of self-definition by enabling her to survive the disaster and live a long life, rich in adventure. Jack becomes the sacrificial lamb who rescues her first by instilling in her his zest for life, then by giving up his own life for her.


Titanic's reviews were mixed, to say the least. Some praised it for its unabashed romanticism, extravagant special effects, and return to the lost grandeur of Hollywood's Golden Age. Others welcomed it as a respite from "shallow postmodern irony" (Lubin 1999, 10). Still others slammed it for its anachronisms, dialogue clunkers, and melodramatic flourishes. (Billy Zane, for example, wearing eyeliner and costumed in black, plays Rose's upper-class fiancé Cal in a performance evoking the dark-cloaked, mustache-swirling villains of the earliest melodramas.) But there is no question that the film was an extraordinary phenomenon, both a prestige pic and super-expensive blockbuster with an array of statistics as impressive as the ship that was its subject. It was the most expensive movie ever made and won eleven Academy Awards, including best picture. It uniquely positioned itself for a global market by opening in Tokyo, then demonstrated record-breaking worldwide appeal.


Clearly the film captured the historical moment of its release, and in several interesting ways. First, it spoke to the enduring power of melodrama to move audiences, especially during a period—four years before 9/11 shook the emotional core of the United States—when the tone of movies tended more toward postmodern irony. Titanic celebrated emotion, moral certainties, and spectacle in a nostalgic package recalling old Hollywood's epic romances, such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).


Titanic also signaled something new: the rising power of teen girls as a demographic group to be reckoned with. This power, a likely legacy of feminism's Second Wave, was recognized by cultural critics and named variously "Girl Power" or "Girl Culture," after the terms used by riot grrrls and then the Spice Girls. The film's unexpected box office success was credited to its teen-girl fans, who came in groups to theaters for multiple viewings. Critics and the fans themselves attributed the film's teen-girl appeal to Leonardo DiCaprio's star power. However, the character of Rose, who dominates the narrative, offered an image of femininity particularly suited to the times. With her feisty rebelliousness, she evokes the tradition of female unruliness I mapped in my first book, The Unruly Woman. Yet with her faith in romantic love and individual freedom, she also embodies the contradictions of postfeminism, a phenomenon associated with young women who have benefited from the gains achieved by feminism's Second Wave, but often disavowed the movement itself, or redefined it in ways that are not always clear to their mothers.


If Titanic pointed to something new, it also recalled something old, an enduring ambivalence about mothers, motherhood, and mother-daughter relations that dates from the earliest myths of Western culture and persists into media today. Since the late 1990s, motherhood has become an increasingly charged site on which unresolved conflicts about ideologies of gender, race, and class collide.


Consider the new "momism," a cultural trend that surfaced in the 1990s and purports to celebrate motherhood, but by making mothers subservient to their children rather than their husbands. Judith Warner describes this pursuit of perfect mothering as the road to "perfect madness," the title of her book on modern motherhood. This new "mommy mystique," which is very much a white, middle-class phenomenon, ties good mothering to consumerism. It also recalls Betty Friedan's concept of the feminine mystique, or the bondage to which women unthinkingly submitted, especially during the 1950s, a time since associated with Stepford Wives. The very term "mom" infantilizes mothers by naming them with a term of address used by children. It also figures in the so-called "mommy wars," which have encouraged women to turn their frustrations toward each other rather than toward the social institutions that continue to fail mothers and families.


Titanic is a rare example of a major film focalized around a woman's point of view. Indeed, Rose's subjectivity, often conveyed through the powerful form of voice-over, anchors the film, conveying not only the story of her life but also that of the Titanic, one of the defining events of modernity. However, even though the film encompasses the span of her long life and includes her granddaughter in its frame story, Rose's voice is always that of the daughter, the girl who in taking Jack's name refuses to keep the name her mother took and who makes a life for herself as Jack's widow. Through narrative and visual means, Ruth is relentlessly aligned with Cal in opposition to her daughter's happiness, and we never hear her story.


Finally, Titanic is a story about a historical event, told with a certain awareness of the act of remembering and recording the past, thus telling us something about the pull of history even in an age noted for its historical amnesia. As such, it resonates with the struggles of a new generation of women to place their own lives and priorities in relation to those of the generations that preceded them. The girls who came of age during a decade of Girl Power generally considered feminism to be dated and irrelevant to them. And the feminism that emerged in the 1990s, generally called the Third Wave, occurred in the context of intense debates about the relation between the past—especially the Second Wave—and the present. As Astrid Henry has argued in Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, feminism, for better or worse and perhaps inevitably, has understood itself and its history in generational terms through use of the metaphor of the mother-daughter relation, which she refers to as the "matrophor." More often that not, the matrophor has created deep fissures within feminism as both an activist movement and as a now-institutionalized body of knowledge.


This book takes as its starting point the ambivalence around mothers that persists in widely consumed forms of popular culture today, not only in such award-winning films as Titanic and American Beauty (1999) that are aimed at mass audiences, but in films and television shows directly targeting young female audiences, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) to Clueless (1995), Scream (1996), and Mean Girls (2004). My purpose is to consider the ways feminism has absorbed this ambivalence when, in renewing itself, it has distanced itself from the generations that preceded it, thereby replicating that very misogyny it wishes to eradicate. What does it mean that Rose's vibrant, unruly independence can come only by repudiating her mother? At the same time, to what extent do older feminists widen generational gaps through their own failures to understand new models of femininity and feminism that in fact may be expressions of unruliness for a new age?


The issue of motherhood has haunted Western feminism from its outset, in its struggle to free women from a biological determinism that links female bodies to reproduction. Indeed, ideologies of femininity are nowhere more intensely charged than around motherhood. Concerns about the dangers of essentialized identity categories (such as "woman" or "mother") have caused feminists, especially after the Second Wave, to be wary of universalizing terms that can minimize or conceal the differences among us. This retreat, however, has coincided with a turn in the political sphere toward social conservatism that has increasingly challenged feminism to face and name the injustices suffered by poor women and working women of all classes and races. Many of these women are mothers and carry a disproportionate share of responsibility for the oldest and youngest among us. The feminist struggle for social transformation and justice can only benefit from our continued willingness to think about the institution of motherhood, and to reflect on and strengthen our generational connections.


Feminism's Mothers, Teen Girls, and Popular Culture


The 1990s might well be remembered as the decade of Girl Culture and Girl Power. New phrases began sounding in the air and new images surfacing in the media, changing the face of popular culture in a decidedly more youthful and female direction. This change had already been anticipated by the rise of shopping malls in the 1980s as a place where young people congregated, and the related spread of multiplexes showing movies catering to young audiences. In 1994, Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia helped put the issue of teen girls on the national cultural agenda. Indicting our "media-saturated culture" for "poisoning" our girls, the book sold 1.6 million copies. In cinema, teen girls created surprise hits out of not only Titanic but also the low-budget romantic comedy Clueless and the slasher parody Scream. Clueless's success was followed by a television spin-off and a wave of romantic teen flicks, and the cult around Scream led to two sequels and the parody Scary Movie (2000), with its own sequels (2001, 2003, 2006).


On television, more programming than ever began featuring teen-girl protagonists in situations ranging from the everyday (Felicity and Dawson's Creek) to the fantastic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, based on a 1992 movie of the same name). In music, phrases such as "Girl Power," first articulated by the underground riot grrrls, moved into the mainstream with the international if short-lived phenomenon of the Spice Girls, adored by very young girls, if reviled by almost everyone else. "By sheer bulk," according to one studio executive, "young girls are driving cultural tastes now. They're amazing consumers." Girls now control enough money to attract attention as a demographic group. This may or may not represent an advance in terms of girls' actual social power, but it does indicate that cultural producers are taking them seriously.


That hasn't necessarily been the case, however, for people with far more compelling personal and political stakes in understanding young women: their mothers, their teachers, and feminist thinkers in general. During the 1990s, academic feminists began to examine the relation between feminism and youth cultures, but these investigations focused more often on alternative, independent, and subcultural venues, such as riot grrrls, than on mainstream popular culture. Like Mary Pipher, educated and liberal-minded adults from widely differing backgrounds have more often felt a deep unease about the connections between girls and popular culture, especially youth-oriented genre films and TV.


Let me cite a few examples. During the emergence of Girl Culture in the 1990s, I spoke many times to academics and other professionals who work with girls about the ways such media icons as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena the Warrior Princess, and the Spice Girls challenge familiar representations of femininity by affirming female friendship, agency, and physical power. While my audiences were usually entertained by my examples, many could not see past the violence, overt sexuality, and commercialism in the clips I showed and were troubled by my argument. Similarly, mothers in my classes acknowledged that they battled with their daughters over their tastes in popular culture. Scream was a particular flashpoint. Despite its influence among teen girls, these women discouraged or even forbade their daughters from watching it, and they certainly avoided watching it with them.


These responses speak to real fears about the effects of popular culture on young people, and to sincere desires to protect girls from those effects. More important, however, they stand as poignant examples of missed opportunities for women of my generation—the "mothers" of contemporary feminism, or feminists of the Second Wave—to learn more about our daughters and to mend or at least better understand some of the rifts that divide us. For, despite the preferences of many educated adults for more refined examples of culture, choosing Jane Austen's Emma over Amy Heckerling's Clueless, or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein over Wes Craven's Scream trilogy, popular culture infuses the world in which today's young women live, and the face of feminism today, for better or worse, is being written across media culture. Over the years, Time magazine has heralded the end of feminism on numerous occasions, but the cover of its June 29, 1998, issue was especially suggestive. The image depicted succeeding generations of American feminism with the faces of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem in black and white, followed by Ally McBeal, TV's most popular female character that year, in "living color." The headline "Is Feminism Dead?" suggested that if feminism lives, it does so in the fictionalized characters of popular culture.


The tension I've observed between mothers and daughters on the issue of popular culture resonates elsewhere in the U.S. feminist movement today. On the one hand, since the 1990s, "Girl Power" and "Girls Kick Butt" have became familiar phrases on magazine covers, bumper stickers, and T-shirts, one sign of the ways the Second Wave has changed the world our daughters are growing up in. On the other hand, feminism itself seems most evident as a structuring absence for middle class young women attempting to define their identity. "I'm not a feminist, but . . ." has become the most ubiquitous reference to feminism today, heard in university classrooms, the popular press, and a wave of recent books on contemporary feminism.


Brought up during a period of social conservatism, young women are reluctant to identify themselves with any political movement and instead more likely to place their faith in free-market individualism. This resistance to thinking collectively, however, has serious consequences at a time when collective action remains necessary not only to advance feminist goals in an age of globalization but to protect its still-vulnerable achievements in the areas of abortion rights, affirmative action, education, and healthcare, not to mention maintaining a social safety net for poor women and the families of illegal immigrants.


Thinking collectively requires both real and imaginative models of productive relationship, which have been hard to come by for girls and women in both high art and popular culture. Sisterhood was the rallying cry of the Second Wave, and while representations of sisterhood or female friendship have begun to appear with more frequency in popular culture, the mother-daughter bond, a key model of female connection, remains invisible and unexplored. With a few important exceptions (including the Alien films, especially the second and fourth, Species II, and a handful of more recent examples), movies dispatch mothers with a vengeance, relegating them to sentimentality (Stepmom), hysteria (American Beauty), monstrosity (Titanic), or mere invisibility (Rushmore). As a result, girls have been hard pressed to imagine what female collectivity might look like among women of their own generation or across time. Sentimentalizing sisterhood as an ideal is not the answer, especially when that ideal obscures real differences among women and the power differentials that accompany those differences. However, without models of common goals and action, the ideology of free-market individual power can and does thrive.


Women who care about the next generation of girls need to learn more about the popular texts they're drawn to, whether they are Sex and the City or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight books or MTV. Productive conversations about the future of the feminist movement must take place on the terrain of popular culture, where young women are refashioning feminism toward their own ends. As Australian feminist Catherine Lumby argues, "If feminism is to remain engaged with and relevant to the everyday lives of women, then feminists desperately need the tools to understand everyday culture. We need to engage with the debates in popular culture rather than taking an elitist and dismissive attitude toward the prime medium of communication today" (Lumby 1997, 174).


Female Unruliness Redux


Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers continues the work I began with The Unruly Woman, which was shaped by my own roots in the Second Wave. Highlighting the framework of generation and history, this book looks at unruly girls who rebel in ways suited to their own times, and at unrepentant mothers who refuse to be sentimentalized, demonized, or forced to disappear, the typical fate of mothers in popular culture. In contrast to The Unruly Woman, however, which emphasized the transhistorical figure of the unruly woman, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers emphasizes a single historical period, beginning in the early 1990s, a period that saw the emergence of Girl Culture and Third Wave feminism, but also a strong turn toward conservatism.


As with the earlier book, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers builds its argument from several sources. The first is popular culture, which I limit primarily to film and television. The second is the broad field of journalistic discourse, which creates and contests ideologies around the topics, such as romance, motherhood, and heroism, explored in popular culture. The third is feminist cultural theory, which applies to both a politicized analysis of gender, class, race, and other identity categories. Film and television are significantly different objects of study because of the industrial, technological, and economic factors that influence their production and reception. However, with increasing media convergence worldwide and the new delivery systems made possible by digital technologies, the boundaries between the two forms continue to soften. In looking at various film and television texts, I consider how the meaning of each is shaped by the aesthetic and narrative properties of its medium.


As I argued in The Unruly Woman, comedy as a narrative and performative mode is a key site for examining the transgressive power of female unruliness, which in romantic comedy confronts and challenges the ways the institution of (hetero)sexuality maintains unequal social power. In addition to its other social functions, melodrama has long been the primary popular narrative form available for examining mothers and mother-daughter relationships, and in this book I turn more fully to melodrama for its explorations of unruly women in relation not just to romantic partners but to each other, as mothers and daughters. In doing so, I take inspiration from a generation of feminist scholars who built the foundations of feminist film theory on melodrama: Julia Lesage, E. Ann Kaplan, Ellen Seiter, Christine Gledhill, Linda Williams, Mary Anne Doane, and others.


In returning to female unruliness, I also have the good fortune of following the lead of scholars who have extended my ideas beyond my initial focus on gender and class to differences of race and sexual orientation. Like The Unruly Woman, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers draws primarily on mainstream popular culture, which continues to reflect the hegemony of whiteness in American culture. However, in bringing a heightened awareness of how the cultural texts I study help maintain that hegemony, I hope to help expand the concept of female unruliness in terms of not only generation and age but also racial and sexual identity.


I have also been inspired by independent filmmakers in the United States, such as Allison Anders and Julie Dash, and international ones such as Pedro Almodóvar and Marleen Gorris, who have turned to melodrama to reimagine women's connections across time. While all of these directors do not figure in this book, work by them and others begins to free motherhood and mother-daughter relations from the claustrophobia of the white, middle-class family, which limits the very idea of mothering to the mother-daughter dyad—a figuration rooted in the nineteenth-century middle-class European family. Similarly, scholarship associated with the Third Wave, transnational, U.S. Third World, and other forms of feminism offers powerful perspectives on the family that help "unthink" the Eurocentrism of academic white feminism while stimulating new ways of imagining generational relations among women.


In The Unruly Woman, I defined female unruliness as a cluster of attributes that challenge patriarchal power by defying norms of femininity intended to keep a woman in her place. The unruly woman creates disorder by dominating men and refusing to confine herself to her proper place. Her body is excessive, especially in terms of fatness, and her speech breaks conventions of female decorum. She may be androgynous, drawing attention to the social construction of gender by exaggerating or challenging its signifiers. She may be old, a masculinized crone who refuses to become invisible. Her behavior is defined by looseness, including sexually, and she may be pregnant. Associated with dirt, liminality, and taboo, she is above all a figure of the grotesque.


Within this conceptual framework, the term grotesque is not negative but rather ambivalent, deriving its representational and social power through its embrace of conflicting poles of meaning. By this definition, unruliness is implicitly feminist because it destabilizes patriarchal norms, although that connection may not be overtly acknowledged. This book seeks to understand the ways the Girl Culture of the 1990s and early 2000s takes up female unruliness while overtly distancing itself from feminism.


Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers rests on the grotesqueness of the maternal body, the female body that is always defined by its relation to reproduction, coded as pregnant or potentially pregnant during its childbearing years and as nonsexual or masculine thereafter. The pregnant body epitomizes the grotesque by destabilizing the boundaries between inside and outside, self and other. The disruptive power of Roseanne Barr's persona in her standup comedy and sitcom (1988–1997) arose from her refusal to conceal the reproductive aspects of her fat, menstruating body and the consequences of her sexuality—in a word, her children, and the necessity of assuming primary responsibility for their day-to-day care. The pregnant body has returned to popular culture in a series of films and TV shows about unplanned pregnancies: Waitress (2007), Knocked Up (2007), Juno (2007), Baby Mama (2008), Fox's TV series Glee (2009–present), which also includes a faked (or "hysterical") pregnancy.


If Roseanne's fertile body bore the signs of one aspect of the grotesque, the enforced invisibility of old women suggests yet another, deriving from the potential power inherent in their aged bodies. The category of the mother, especially in her postmenopausal years, warrants more study from the perspective of female unruliness, and I will return to the old woman in chapter eight, the concluding chapter of this book. Sadly, even more than mothers of daughters, the old woman in popular culture, as in this book, is largely a structuring absence. Yet throughout, I seek to hear the suppressed voices of mothers I call "unrepentant," a term that suggests unruliness over time, the stubborn refusal of women later in life to apologize for who they were or have become.


In an astute analysis of the ways the discourse of the bad mother is used against the mothers of celebrities, Shelley Cobb explains how the mothers of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton have been harshly criticized for including their own desires in their ambitions for their daughters. "Worse, perhaps, is that they refuse to apologize for their unconventional behavior," Cobb writes. By making spectacles of themselves (they have "gone wild") and not being "suitably, exclusively maternal," these mothers recall Stella Dallas, the iconic heroine of the maternal melodrama of that name, who was also punished for refusing to rein in her own desires to have a good time, to seek a better life for herself and her daughter, and finally to be "something else besides a mother."


I limited my earlier exploration of female unruliness primarily to comedy because of its affinities with the carnivalesque and the grotesque as well as its neglect by most feminist film scholars at that time, and comedy remains an important site for unruly teen girls, as I will show in chapter three. However, romantic comedy and melodrama are closely bound to each other. Both turn on the ideological tensions that occur around female unruliness, or expressions of female desire that exceed cultural norms.


Melodrama, of course, deals with how men as well as women are victimized by patriarchy, but the form is particularly well suited to explore the pain of the banished mother, or the bride the morning after, or any woman who insists on leaving the pre-Oedipal mother-daughter bond intact, thereby violating culture's primary taboo. As such, the form has been effective in dramatizing the costs to women of pursuing unruly desire, and it remains an uneasy reminder that the unruly woman's power is fragile and subject to social and generic forces that would shift her outrageousness from comedy to pathos. In poet Adrienne Rich's words, the rent between mother and daughter, ignored in our culture, is "the essential female tragedy." Developing a better understanding of this tragedy is the project of this book.


Goddesses, Monsters, and Other Mythic Mothers


Some of the tension within contemporary feminism has arisen from a perceived failure by the Second Wave—the "mothers" of today's young feminists—to listen to their daughters, but meaningful cross-generational conversation among girls and women has also been stymied by a massive set of cinematic conventions establishing mothers as having nothing to say. In popular culture, especially in the more prestigious forms of film and primetime television, women have rarely existed as interesting characters once they are mothers, especially mothers of daughters. While occasionally sentimentalized and idealized, they are more often incompetent, monstrous, or just not there.


Cinema's visual vocabulary of motherhood, established in the earliest years of film history, reflects enduring moral polarities that structure Western thinking around motherhood. This polarity begins with the severing of body from mind, which, as feminist thinkers such as Jane Gallop and Jane Flax have argued, has provided the foundation for associating the feminine with the body and the masculine with the mind. From there, it is a small step to "abjecting" motherhood (and procreation) in order to uphold the more esteemed categories of the mind and creation. This mode of thinking helps explain why melodrama, driven by Manichean oppositions, has long been the generic home for stories about mothers. Bad Mothers loom large in the imagination of men, who fear their power to punish them. The specter of the Good Mother, in contrast, highlights what is missing from popular representations of motherhood: good mothers who are also sexual; good mothers who enjoy affectionate exchanges with their daughters; and most tellingly, good mothers, period. Where in film history is Marmee, the strong and beloved mother of four daughters in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women? The 1868 novel has been made into movies numerous times, but failed to inspire other, similarly rich treatments of mothers and daughters.


Since the 1990s, cinema has silenced mothers in new ways, revealing cultural anxiety about the empowerment of white middle-class women of the baby boom generation as a result of the Second Wave. As Elaine Roth notes, in popular films, advertisements, and television shows, mothers, especially older ones, may appear physically more present than ever, but they are also "cognitively and emotionally" more absent. Mute, abjected, and often institutionalized, these mothers are "portraits of utter passivity and incompetence" (2005). For example, in ABC's drama Grey's Anatomy (2005–present), which is immensely popular among young women, the brilliant, once-accomplished mother of protagonist Meredith Grey suffers from Alzheimer's disease. But these mothers are also figures of ambivalence who often motivate their adult children to necessary action. And their painful visibility forces audiences to confront cultural anxieties around aging but still powerful women.


Consider also the wave of monstrous and otherwise compelling mothers who have appeared on HBO during this period. The Sopranos (1999–2007), one of TV's most acclaimed shows, includes interesting maternal figures such as Carmela, "capo" gangster Tony's wife, and Dr. Melfi, his shrink. However, Livia Soprano, his sour and overbearing mother, provides the driving narrative force behind the series. The key to her son's neurotic psyche and the author of a failed attempt on his life, she was dubbed by critics "the Medea of North Jersey," evoking her mythic stature. Six Feet Under (2001–2005), set in the grotesque space of a funeral home, dramatizes the saga of a family of undertakers headed by the widowed mother of two adult sons and a teenage daughter. At the beginning of the series, the mother (Frances Conroy) is infantilized and annoying, but soon begins to take lovers and otherwise violate her children's expectations of her. The female protagonists of both series are unrepentant mothers, mothers who make no apologies for who they are.


The more recent Big Love (2006–present), tells the story of a white suburban family that is utterly ordinary except that it is polygamous. As the series unfolds, the web of relations among the wives begins to eclipse the trials of the husband, who appears increasingly victimized despite his economic power and sexual privilege. The series slyly exposes the isolation and pain mothers have endured within the conventional nuclear family.


Yet another recent expression of ambivalence around motherhood is The Da Vinci Code, which was first a best-selling novel (2003) and then a film (2006). If momophobic movies express the urge to squelch maternal power, The Da Vinci Code shows the impulse to fetishize it, probing deep into the religious traditions of Western culture. A worldwide bestseller with more than sixty million copies in print and translated into forty-four languages, the book tells the story of a professor who tries to help a young woman decipher a cryptic message left by her grandfather before his violent and mysterious death. The answer involves legends of the Holy Grail, secret societies, initiates, codes, bloodlines, and esoterica covering two thousand years of Western art, philosophy, and religion. The book concerns what it considers the greatest erasure of maternal power in Western history: the Catholic Church's two-thousand-year cover-up of Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene and the bloodline descending from their union. This erasure has worked by substituting the virgin mother Mary in her place, a figure that became the Christian model of desexualized, disembodied, and passive femininity underlying Western ideologies of gender and whiteness. According to this story, Magdalene is not only the mother and real heart of the church but she is also descended from archaic pagan roots in the Goddess.


The Da Vinci Code speaks to anxieties of the post-9/11 years, when news about conspiracies and domestic surveillance had become a part of everyday life. Like Titanic, it suggests a desire to uncover repressed historical truths and authenticity, a nostalgia for a lost innocence central to melodrama. Typical of popular culture, it mixes progressive messages with reactionary ones, here conveyed by the tired trope of a wise male professor who educates a wide-eyed young woman about the alluring mysteries of female wisdom and power.


As The Da Vinci Code shows, Western thinking about mothers and motherhood is rooted in ancient mythologies that have influenced canonical literature, philosophy, and other forms of art and popular culture for centuries. The myth of Oedipus is the most obvious example of how Greek sagas of conflicted families endure and lend themselves to contemporary interpretation. According to Marianne Hirsch, patriarchal versions of the myth, from Sophocles to Freud, focus on Oedipus, the son, at the expense of the story's female figures—his wife/mother Jocasta and the mysterious Sphinx (1989). Even feminist retellings of the plot, such as those of Teresa De Lauretis and Muriel Rukeyser, give precedence to the Sphinx over Jocasta. Describing the Sphinx as "enigmatic, powerful, monstrous, terrifying," and Jocasta as "powerless, maternal, emotional, and virtually silent" (2–3), Hirsch asks, "What earns the Sphinx, the nonmaternal woman, privilege over Jocasta, the mother?"


The related story of Elektra is often offered as a competing model to Oedipus. Elektra inspired her brother Orestes to kill their mother Clytemnestra to avenge Clytemnestra's murder of their father Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is typically seen one of mythology's monstrous women, although her motive was avenging Agamemnon's earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to ensure his success in war. As Hirsch notes, Elektra, serving as the passion behind her brother Orestes, is male-identified (31), and her story is generally told in terms of her relation to her father and desire to avenge his death, not her struggle with her mother. Antigone, Oedipus's daughter, offers yet another challenge to Oedipus, and her defiance of the state has fascinated philosophers from Hegel, Lacan, and Irigaray, to Judith Butler (2000). In burying her brother against state sanctions, Antigone demonstrated her allegiance to the claims of a more ancient system of law, and her story is often seen as mediating the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy. Yet she herself is not a mother and in fact derives her power from her liminal status in patriarchal law.


Shakespeare's treatment of mothers is notorious, with mothers conspicuously missing from his major romances, tragedies, and problem plays, as well as many of the romantic comedies. During the social and economic upheavals of the Renaissance, Protestantism ushered in a new emphasis on the individual that empowered women and mothers. Maternal power has generally originated in a woman's ability to assign paternity and thus control the transfer of property, but in Mary Beth Rose's account, as women began to assert more influence in choosing their own husbands or those of their children, their ability to effect cultural change became both widely recognized and feared (1991, 310). The resulting anxiety led to increasingly severe laws about infanticide and adultery, as well as endless jokes about cuckoldry. These seismic social clashes were played out in the great dramas of the era, in which, as Rose demonstrates, "the best mother is an absent or dead mother, and the ideal society is based upon the sacrifice of the mother's desire" (307)—a description that continues to ring true in much of today's popular culture.


Narrative conventions for telling the stories of women's lives remain stubbornly fixated on fathers and sons, with no enduring recognition of mother-daughter "passion and rupture," in Adrienne Rich's words. Similarly, Hirsch calls for a transformation of the narrative conventions that have shaped canonical Western literature to make space for the voices of mothers and daughters, speaking for themselves and for each other, but most importantly to each other (1989, 8). An obvious source of new models lies in traditions outside the Eurocentric framework that has so powerfully circumscribed Western thinking on mothers. Rich turns to texts by nonwhite women influenced by other traditions and collective experiences, as I will later in this book, for visions of motherhood and mother-daughter relations based on different traditions and social values.


Other answers lie in strains of Western mythology that have been repressed from patriarchal retellings, such as the story of Demeter, found in a Homeric hymn set in a period that preceded the arrival of the Olympian pantheon. Demeter, the goddess of Mother Earth, fertility, and grain, is best known for her fearless and protective love for her daughter Persephone. After Hades abducts Persephone to become queen of the underworld, Demeter, wild with grief, lets the earth begin to die. Zeus takes pity on her and allows Persephone to return for part of the year, instituting the cycle of the seasons. Demeter exists at the edge of representation and, like Clytemnestra, points to the deep anxieties around maternal agency and anger—Demeter, the mother who can destroy the earth, and Clytemnestra, the wife who can kill her husband and punish her children. Like Clytemnestra, Demeter stands as a figure of female rage and impassioned desire, validating a mother's grief at the loss of her daughter while also acknowledging the inevitability of that separation, as well as the daughter's own desire. In its cyclicality, with the annual return of Persephone from the underworld, the Demeter myth offers an alternative model to the linearity of Oedipal plots, and it resonates in Antonia's Line, the beautiful film that is the subject of this book's final chapter.


The traditions and conventions I have touched on above have had enduring traction not only in high culture and art films such as Antonia's Line, but in the more popular texts of Girl Culture. Romeo + Juliet (1996) and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which is a remake of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, as well as Jane Austen's Emma, remade as Clueless (see chapter three), are obvious examples of Generation X's taste for "classics lite." Other allusions exist as well, including ones to Elektra, who figured not only in art films such as Ingmar Bergman's angst-ridden, mother-obsessed Persona (1966) but in Wes Craven's Scream trilogy (discussed in chapter four), which is also obsessed with a mother, but from the perspective of a daughter who comes to understand her and avenge her death. And in Titanic, the heroine Rose recalls the pagan and proto-Christian mythologies explored in The Da Vinci Code, both in the grail-like quest of the contemporary explorers for the Heart of the Ocean diamond and in her name, which according to The Da Vinci Code refers to Magdalene, who is still worshipped "to this day . . . as the Goddess, the Holy Grail, the Rose, and the Divine Mother."


What Is a Mother? Who Is a Mother?


Motherhood has been as contentious and difficult an issue as any that feminism has had to navigate. The struggle to understand and transform the institution of the family, and women's place in it, was foundational to the First and Second Waves of feminism, yet many women with children did not identify with the Second Wave because they did not see what it offered them as mothers. Media depictions of the Second Wave's agenda included such issues as sexual and reproductive freedom, reallocations of household and childrearing labor, and matters of personal dress and grooming. But the push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment dominated the public face of the movement, and the benefits of transforming the workplace did not appear obvious to white middle class mothers who did not work outside the home. Nor did the movement speak effectively to women of color who were alienated by its failure to integrate race and class into its analysis of gender.


In seeking to understand its relation to its past, today's young feminists have resisted identifying themselves as part of a new generation of feminism in part because the concept of generation brings to mind the mother-daughter relation, which many see as overly fraught with ambivalence. In this book, however, I choose to use the language of generations and mother-daughter relations with political intent. First, the idea of generations puts the erasure of mothers from representation within a broader political order that tends to erase all historical consciousness through the workings of capitalism, especially in postmodernity. Second, given the cultural tradition of mother-blaming as well as the expectations that older women "disappear," I believe feminist scholars should not shrink from using the matrophor, despite its inadequacies, to conceptualize women's relations across time. Not all of us are mothers, but we all have mothers. And we all have a stake in the future of girls and young women, whether we see them as our daughters or not.


Here I would like to return to Mary Russo's "Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory," an article that was foundational to The Unruly Woman. Russo begins with an anecdote recalling a phrase she heard in her childhood, spoken by "the mother's voice—not my own mother's, perhaps, but the voice of an aunt, an older sister, or the mother of a friend. It is a harsh, matronizing phrase, and it is directed toward the behavior of other women: 'She [the other woman] is making a spectacle of herself'" (1986, 213). When thinking about comedy and the unruly woman, I was compelled by the idea of spectacle-making in the embedded quotation. Now the words framing that phrase leap out at me for the generational tension they convey. That framing voice is the daughter's, bristling at the censorious gaze of the mother. Russo identifies the maternal and aging body as quintessentially grotesque, but mothers themselves—colonized by patriarchy—occupy a more shadowy position in her analysis. This is the dynamic between Rose and Ruth in Titanic. One could imagine an empowered Rose replying to that matronizing voice as she does to her own mother in the film, with barely suppressed anger: "Oh, Mother, shut up."


This conflicted and often hostile attitude toward the mother characterized much academic feminism of the Second Wave and still haunts the Third. In 1979, Audre Lorde exposed the entanglements of matrophobia, Eurocentrism, and race when she asked Mary Daly, in an open letter, why she omitted Afrekete and the other great goddesses of African tradition from Gyn/Ecology, Daly's influential 1978 work on religion, mythology, and radical feminism. In 1981, not long after Rich's Of Woman Born, Marianne Hirsch charged much of the Second Wave with theorizing "at a distance from the maternal" (25) and exclusively from the position of daughters. She argued that there would be no systematic study of women's oppression that did not take into account women's roles as mothers and daughters and their relation to previous and subsequent generations of women in patriarchy. In 1997, Ruthe Thompson wrote that feminists, academic and otherwise, were still failing to seriously engage with the issue of motherhood, despite a proliferation of articles, books, and conferences on the subject (199). And in 2004, Astrid Henry, writing from the Third Wave, argued that feminism has continued to undermine itself through inadequately understanding its own relation to previous generations.


To move beyond this impasse requires analytical steps that are basic but not always simple, such as defining terms: what, and who, is a mother? Motherhood, of course, has not meant the same thing at all times. In the United States today, the ideology of the (white, middle-class) family is in particular flux, challenged by the influence of the religious Right as well as the claims of single women and same-sex couples to the rights of parenting. And new reproductive technologies have provided dramatic opportunities, from in vitro fertilization to postmenopausal pregnancy, for people with the financial resources to afford them (Orenstein 2007). Like other liberation movements, feminism has long struggled with the consequences of trying to create political solidarity around an identity based on a universalized definition of "woman" rather than on the experiences of particular, historically situated women. These consequences weighed particularly heavily on women whose perspectives were marginalized by other women more privileged by race and class. Poststructuralist theory further challenged identity as a theoretical category and a basis for political action by striking a powerful blow against the belief in any transparent relation between the body and subjectivity, thereby helping to usher in the age of "postfeminism," "post-race" and "post-queerness" (Greene 2002).


Feminism needs to find a way to talk about motherhood and the lives of real women and children without undue fear of taking a position that is deemed essentialist or that can be co-opted by the religious Right. Similar issues have vexed feminism in the past, and notions of not only gender but also race and sexual orientation (not to mention national identity, at a time when the status of the nation-state is in flux) remain contested. However, as Biddy Martin and Chandra Talpade Mohanty remind us, "the claim to a lack of identity or positionality is itself based on privilege, on a refusal to accept responsibility for one's implication in actual historical or social relations, on a denial that positionalities exist or that they matter" (1986, 208).


One route out of this impasse draws on Rich's distinction between motherhood as an institution, shaped by the interests of patriarchy, and motherhood as any woman's potential relation to her own reproductive powers and to children under her care. Both pave the way toward understanding that motherhood, like any other identity category, derives not from an "essential" biological condition or relationship but from a set of historically specific conditions. Women who identify unquestioningly with the institution of motherhood become patriarchy's cops, raising daughters who support the status quo not only by becoming "good girls" but also by internalizing patriarchy's matrophobia. In Titanic, Ruth can see no other way to ensure her own survival and that of her daughter than by following the rules. Rose chafes at those rules and contemplates jumping off the ship rather than marrying the fiancé Ruth has chosen for her. Her rebellion against patriarchy, then, necessitates her rejection of her mother.


Yet another suggestive perspective considers motherhood as the active labor involved in caring for children. For feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, using the term "maternal" in place of "mother" shifts the emphasis from biology toward the work done by people who care for children as fully human beings demanding "protection, nurturance, and training" (1989, xi). This concept nudges theories of motherhood beyond the mother-daughter dyad toward larger questions of community and ethics, governing how we care not only for children but for the aged, and not only for the people in our immediate circle but for the planet that sustains us all. This view transforms mothering into a broad-reaching and profound political practice.




Titanic was among the first films identified with Girl Culture, and it valorized a model of unruly femininity that spoke to teen girls. As I will show in the next chapter, it is also an exemplary postfeminist text. But it did not offer the only or the last word about unruly daughters and mothers. Despite its extravagance and breadth, its vision of unruliness is narrow, based on outworn ideals of romantic love and impoverished notions of female connections across time. Much of what follows in this book considers works that, like Titanic, have had wide influence either in the culture at large or among teenage girls, but that may question, often covertly, the unthinking matrophobia that undercuts Titanic's well-intentioned efforts to celebrate female independence.


Because it is difficult to talk about unruly girls and unrepentant mothers without at least touching on the boys and men in their lives, I will lightly trace a second thread through these texts, a character type that showed up in the 1990s and that bears an interesting relation to the unruly girl. This type is the slacker, the male teen or twenty-something who refuses normative adult masculinity, although this age category can extend even higher, as in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). While some recent films have explored male fantasies of extreme violence (Fight Club [1999], American Psycho [2000]), I am more interested in the male turn toward passivity and regression. Hints of the slacker might be seen in Titanic's Jack, but the type appears most vividly in the films of Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Judd Apatow, that are addressed to adolescent males. Slacker cinema may be small in numbers, but its influence is not. It can be found in the cultural impact not only of comics-loving fanboys on blockbuster super-hero movies, but also in the cultural cache of movies about middle-aged men who flirt with or embrace the slacker syndrome: The Big Lebowski (the Coen brothers, 1998), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004), and Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005). These films about infantilized boys and men made anxious by strong women exist in interesting tension with recent expressions of female unruliness.


Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers begins by laying out cultural contexts that have influenced both contemporary feminism and popular depictions of mothers and daughters. Chapter one, "Postfeminism and the Third Wave: Titanic," considers motherhood in relation to postfeminism, a key determinant in contemporary depictions of girls and their mothers. As seen in Titanic, the postfeminist sensibility appears to advance the cause of teen-girl empowerment but simultaneously romanticizes traditional femininity and undercuts the figure of the mother. This chapter also examines Third Wave feminism as both a response to the Second Wave and a politicized articulation of postfeminist values.


Chapter two, "Trouble in Paradise: American Beauty and the Incest Motif," digs deeper into the roots of contemporary matrophobia by exploring the psychic drive behind the desire to demonize the mother and drive a wedge between her and her daughter. That drive involves a scenario of father-daughter incest dependant on a trio of character types that appear in both contemporary culture and clinical psychology: the eroticized daughter, a nymphet who is sexually attracted to her father; the long-suffering middle-aged man victimized both by his desire for his daughter and by his strong, castrating wife; and the collusive wife and mother, resented by both father and daughter.


Arguing for the enduring power of comedy as a genre sympathetic to female unruliness, chapter three, "Girl World," studies Clueless, Mean Girls, and The Devil Wears Prada (2006) as expressions of unruliness for a new age. In these films, Girl World becomes a space in which teen girls explore female pleasure and power. Chapter four, "Final Girls and Epic Fantasies: Remaking the World," examines the more epic and apocalyptic visions possible in such genres as fantasy and horror. Both the Scream films and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer create models of femininity that break new ground. Chapter five, "How Reese Witherspoon Walks the Line," is a case study of a star who captures the contradictions of the postfeminist era. In films as varied as Election (1999), Legally Blonde (2001), and Rendition (2007), Witherspoon has established a persona that combines postfeminism's attraction to traditional femininity with the Third Wave's interest in power.


Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers concludes with works that look more closely at the separation between teen girls and their mothers, make greater use of melodrama, and begin to look outside the white mother-daughter dyad. Chapter six, "Teen-Girl Melodramas," begins with the TV series My So-Called Life, which inspired the first major Internet community of teen-girl fans with its sympathetic depiction of teen-girl angst. Whereas its alienated protagonist lives secure in her middle-class family, a decade later the film Thirteen, co-written by a girl of that age, locates that angst in a culture marked by downward mobility, fractured families, and the toxic influences of materialism. Here, the rift between a teen girl and her single mother is healed, at least temporarily, by the force of maternal love.


Chapter seven, "Girls of Color: Beyond Girl World," looks at the ways girls of color engage with Third Wave feminism, Girl Culture, and their mothers. The works I examine, from Love and Basketball to Real Women Have Curves, depict nonwhite girls in vexed but close relationships with their mothers and mother figures, whose responses to racism, poverty, and sexism inspire respect from their daughters for a feminism that is lived, if not owned by name. The chapter concludes with Saving Face, a romantic comedy that challenges the boundaries of not only race but also sexual orientation, national identity and age.


Finally, chapter eight, "The Motherline and a Wicked Powerful Feminism," returns to Dutch director Marleen Gorris, whose film A Question of Silence (1982) I discussed in The Unruly Woman. I conclude with Gorris's later film Antonia's Line (1995) because of its inspiring vision of a feminism built on women's solidarity and love across time. This chapter considers the grotesque power of the old woman and new theories of aging that seek to empower women as they age, rather than diminish them. The route to this utopian vision, however, must begin with a closer look at what has inspired it as well as what stands in its way, and I turn now to a series of films and television shows that have honed the shape of desire for a generation of girls.


“This is a remarkable and deeply trenchant book, absolutely immersed in the cultural phenomenon it seeks to examine. Karlyn is a superb writer, and this lavishly illustrated, deeply thoughtful volume is a significant contribution to the existing literature on the subject.”


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