From Stella Dallas to Lila Lipscomb: Reading Real Motherhood through Reel Motherhood *

Article excerpt

This essay traces a history of motherhood in American narrative cinema, but I want to start with an image that falls outside those parameters, since it is documentary. Michael Moore's latest film, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) introduces us to forty-nine-year-old Lila Lipscomb. Lipscomb is from Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, which, as another interviewee points out, looks, in places, not unlike Baghdad. A former welfare mother, Lipscomb now counsels women on public assistance. Early in the film, she describes her family's commitment to the Armed Services, a commitment that, to her, involves a better future for her children. She caresses a rainbow cross she wears, explaining that it represents both her faith and her multicultural family, and at first glance she seems the kind of swing voter who defines multiculturalism by the peaceful merging of Catholic and Protestant families rather than anything broader. Lipscomb's story eventually becomes the driving force and moral center of the film, and Moore reveals that Lipscomb's twenty-six-year-old son has been killed in action in Iraq. Surrounded by her white, African American, and bi-racial family, Lipscomb reads a letter her son Michael sent not long before he died, in which he excoriates President Bush for the policies that eventually lead to his death.

Lipscomb's transformation from a military booster to the kind of antiwar protester she used to hate culminates in a moment in Washington, D.C. that elaborates in a real-life framework of some issues that become central to fictional maternal representation in American film. Lipscomb is outside the White House, trying to get resolution and closure by facing the architectural representation of the agent of her son's death. As she approaches, another woman, seeing Moore and his cameras (and knowing perfectly well what grandstanding Moore is capable of), strides up to Lipscomb and accuses her and the cameras of staging this whole visit. Lipscomb calmly repeats that she is here because she really had a son who really died in Iraq. The other woman is implacable, relentless in her attack and her suspicion of all things that look like reality TV. Only when Lipscomb furnishes the place, time, and circumstance does the woman back off, still not entirely convinced. The audience is stunned, even infuriated that anyone could be so cruel to a mother who, in losing her child, has made such a sacrifice for her country. Key here is that the two actants in the scene are both women, and, were the subject matter different, we might applaud the other woman for having such a healthy distrust of the media's potential distortion. What crucially moves us to Lipscomb's side is that she is a mother. For all we know, so is the other woman--for all we know, she has also lost children. But none of this, if true, is represented. And in Lipscomb's status as a grieving mother, we have something of a cultural absolute. Lila Lipscomb is real. But vaulted into the framework of the moving image, how the audience makes meaning of her is, for better or worse, dependent not only on our actual experience and knowledge of motherhood, but also of received cinematic codes. That is, we interpret Lila Lipscomb in part based on previous interpretations of fictional mothers like Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce, Mary Haynes and her social circle in The Women, (1) Charlotte Vale and her repressive mother in Now, Voyager, Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows, Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life, the mothers in Psycho and both versions of The Manchurian Candidate, Rosemary and her devilish baby, Alice, who Doesn't Live Here Anymore, all the mothers in The Stepford Wives, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, and Urea Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill. (2) Do we draw direct lines between all of these representations and "the real"? Not very often. But these images are in the air, they get into our drinking water, seep into our skin; they inform not only how we read a documentary image like Lipscomb, but also how we understand motherhood itself. …