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Her mother did not approve

In films and literature we often come across the archetype of the horrible mother. These films and books are usually about young women who are looking to defy convention in some sort of way and find that their mothers are one of the greatest blocks to this. Often they have vaguely ineffectual fathers – fathers who support them to some extent, but are generally bent by the will of the mother, until some defining moment when they side with the daughter much to the mother’s horror.

Pride and Prejudice is one of the prime, and possibly earliest, examples of this kind of archetype, although Mrs Bennett is often just stupid rather than being strictly restrictive. Watching Miss Potter the other night it was there in buckets. Mother wants her daughter married; mother doesn’t approve of her daughter’s experimentation, mother does not approve of her new friends social connections etc etc etc. To the point when in the after-titles it has to be pointed out that “Her mother did not approve.”

While this trope appears often in period movies, it is also present in a bunch of modern ones too. There are also a number of variataions on the theme, but the usual general gst is: mother= blocker; dad saves the day.

I rather resent these depictions. What we have going on here is a lot of ideological work to conceal the actual limitations on women doing there own thing in society. Sure, once can argue that the mother in Miss Potter is the embodiment of society, culture and its expectations, but why does it have to be embodied in the female parent? The limitations place on women both historically and in the present are not the fault of other women. Women can be carriers and enforcers of the age’s dominant hegemony, but they are far from alone in that. In Miss Potter‘s time it was the nature of a male dominated literary establishment, of the structures of a highly patriarchal society which resisted her ambitions. Not her mother.Her mother may have been exactly as depicted, but unless we understand the mother in her historical context, we do the many mothers of successful and achieving women a disservice. For many women who have gone on to break barriers, their mothers have been their inspiration and their support. They have been the ones who have worked to ensure their daughters had the appropriate education and opportunities.Instead the predominant trope in many of these depictions is the mother as a limiter, another way of demonstrating that it is women who keep women down, not patriarchy.

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2 responses to “Her mother did not approve

  1. Bells

    it just so happens I agree with you – mothers are probably demonised too much in literature and film. I remember when American Beauty came out, my writing teacher said ‘god if I see one more film where a neurotic mother is to blame for the ills of the family!’

    That said, my background reading on Beatrix Potter was that she broke with her parents for a long time because of the disapproval of her engagement so her mother was probably as difficult as portrayed.

    And I reckon there are loads of examples in literature of demonic fathers too – if we stopped and thought about it. The Mayor of Casterbridge comes to mind; the father in Tess of the D’urbervilles. Oh look, both Hardy novels! The father in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is a chilling example too.

    • Melissa

      It is true that there are certainly plenty of evil fathers about. I think they tend to play a slightly different role. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Beatrix Potter’s mother was much as she was depicted. But her mother was only as she was because of the social pressures upon her and the environment in which she lived. Which is a complex idea to ppotray in a film, but occasionally I am hopeful!

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