From Stella Dallas to Lila Lipscomb: Reading Real Motherhood through Reel Motherhood *
Keller, Alexandra, West Virginia University Philological Papers
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.
Searches for "motherhood" at AllMovie.com (the more intellectually engaged of the major movie databases), produce well over three hundred entries, suggestive the breadth and depth of attention the topic has received in American moving image culture. So what follows is a very brief, selective, critical history of motherhood in American cinema, from which emerges a variety of ways that mainstream U.S. films construct codes of representation and narrative, often aided and abetted by genre, that offer paradigmatic ways women should behave, and, occasionally, ways to challenge these norms. These films are profoundly responsive to their cultural contexts. As much as they offer up idealized images of what makes a good mother, or chillingly lit images of what makes a bad one, they open up fields for debate and contestation. (3) The image of American motherhood proliferates in US cinema almost from its birth, and sacrifice is one of its central characteristics almost from the start. Other things distinguish motherhood in American films, but it is easiest to find sacrificial mothers. This suggests a chronic ambivalence--in representation and culture at large--about the fact that mothers and women are the same people.
As popular entertainment, cinema struggled early on with respectability. As if to echo the general opinion of the motion picture as a cheap thrill, one of the most compelling figures in silent film was the Vamp, centrally embodied in A Fool There Was (Lowell Sherman, 1915) by Theda Bara--her name an anagram for Arab Death. (4) This vampiric, sirenic, proto-Goth seductress, this phallic woman, whose appearance is a visual metaphor for her attempt to usurp male prerogatives, needed a foil, and that foil was the mother. It is typical of silent-era films that, while Pre-Production Code sexuality reigns supreme, sexuality and motherhood are understood to be mutually exclusive. Mrs. Schuyler, the wife of the Fool seduced by the Vamp, wears demure white to Bara's lacy, racy black, inhabits sun-bright rooms in domestic spaces while the Vamp sleeps past noon in darkened, Orientalized chambers, and gives her husband simple wild flowers while the temptress teases him with exotic blossoms. And--because she is so clearly coded as a mother--she's neither sexy nor sexual, while Bara's vamp puts Mr. Schuyler into something like a tantric trance. We are lead to the obvious question, pointing up the ridiculousness of this opposition: how did that kid get there anyway? (5)
Though almost every studio-era female star had a go at it, some were less interested in portraying mothers--centrally, Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn as a mother came later in her career, when the children in question were grown (Long Day's Journey into Night), dead (Suddenly, Last Summer), or when her character was past menopause (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Hepburn played spinster more than mother. Earlier, she either wanted nothing of it (The Philadelphia Story), or had to kill herself to save herself from it, as in Christopher Strong (1933). Indeed, Christopher Strong, directed by Dorothy Arzner, is a very peculiar matrix of feminism, motherhood, and sexuality. If Arzner was a more or less out lesbian, she was a less vocal feminist (something left for later scholars to excavate from her texts when even a long-retired Arzner wouldn't cop to it: Kay and Peary, Johnston, and Mayne). Yet, she and Hepburn would seem to promise a matter-of-factly subversive formula for progressive, atypical motherhood. Instead, Christopher Strong becomes one of the oddest texts of 1930s sacrificial motherhood. Hepburn is Lady Cynthia Darrington, a famous aviatrix. She is, in the careful language of the time, a woman who "has never been in love," and as the result of one of those large-scale scavenger hunts apparently favored by the British aristocracy, is introduced to the politician Christopher Strong, apparently the only man in England who has never been unfaithful to his wife. Atypical for a Hepburn love interest, Christopher Strong is extraordinarily boring. Typically for a Hepburn heroine, she is somewhat androgynous in her dress. Indeed, Cynthia's dress costumes are all almost parodies of women's wear, or dresses as seen by someone who finds them an odd necessity. A moth costume Hepburn wears for a ball is a costume, but at a later dance, she …
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Publication information: Article title: From Stella Dallas to Lila Lipscomb: Reading Real Motherhood through Reel Motherhood *. Contributors: Keller, Alexandra - Author. Journal title: West Virginia University Philological Papers. Volume: 51. Publication date: Fall 2005. Page number: 1+. © 2006 West Virginia University, Department of Foreign Languages. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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