Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Monstrous Mother, Incestuous Father, and Terrorized Teen: Reading Precious as a Horror Film

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Monstrous Mother, Incestuous Father, and Terrorized Teen: Reading Precious as a Horror Film

Article excerpt

WHEN A mother HER THROWS A TELEVISION down a stairwell in pursuit of her daughter holding her newly born son; a father rapes his daughter while the mother voyeuristically gazes from afar; and a grandmother refers to her own granddaughter, who has Down syndrome, as an animal, we are introduced to Precious, a 2009 film based on the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire and directed by Lee Daniels that provides some of the most provocative representations of black family life witnessed on screen. These scenes, among others, are so scandalous and disturbing that they invite reading the film as an extension of the horror genre. Because the film takes on taboo subjects such as failed black motherhood, incest, pedophilia, and homosexuality, turning to horror as one way by which to read these racialized representations seems called for. My intent in this article is not to avoid critical engagement with the sociopolitical issues addressed on screen or to disregard a class analysis of the obstacles faced by the protagonist, but rather to suggest that based on the way the story unfolds, the filmmakers (writer, director, cinematographer, etc.) either consciously or unconsciously drew on the horror genre in order to portray the protagonist's struggle as synonymous with a living nightmare.

Exploring the film as an extension of horror is certainly rendered plausible given that a number of reviewers and critics have associated the film with the horrific, inhuman, gothic, and animalistic.1 The film's indisputable association with horror is all the more convincing when we examine its depiction of "perverse social relations [that] breed monstrosity" (Lindsey 280); its challenge to traditional notions of family where "the eruption of violence and sexuality [enter] into the domestic sphere" (Lindsey 279); and its representation of a matriarch who wreaks havoc on her daughter because of her own sexual repression-all of which are consistent with horror.

This investigation is structured around examining the following subject areas: bad mothers, phallic mothers, collusive mothers, failed mothers/motherhood, and monstrous mothers; parallels to horror films-Psycho (1960) and Carrie (1976); incestuous fathers, sexual taboo, and rape; horror and the horrific; the body as grotesque; and dreams, fantasies, and voyeurism. To introduce each section, since the film pays tribute to literary figure Zora Neale Hurston, this article extracts subtitles from Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) to connect the novel and film and to demonstrate how Hurston's text provides an urtext to the protagonist Precious's (played by Gabourey Sidibe) search for subjectivity, a subjectivity that she shares with Hurston's protagonist (Janie Crawford).

Bad Mothers, Phallic Mothers, Collusive Mothers, Failed Mothers/Motherhood, and Monstrous Mothers

It was like seeing your sister turn into a 'gator... You keep seeing your sister in the 'gator and the 'gator in your sister, and you'd rather not.

-Zora Neale Hurston (48)

Bad Mothers

In order to examine phallic, collusive, failed, and monstrous mothers as well as black motherhood, it is necessary to address the phenomenon of "bad" mothers. Characterization of the black mother as "bad" has to be contextualized within the larger discussion of what constitutes a bad mother and the historical and political discourse surrounding the "bad" mother. "In the past few decades, 'bad' mothers have moved noticeably toward center stage in American culture," declares Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky (2). "The stereotypes are familiar: the welfare mother, the teen mother ... But mother-blaming goes far beyond these stereotypes" (Ladd-Taylor and Umansky 2). Any mothers who do not fit the kind of mother associated with the "'traditional' nuclear family," according to Ladd-Taylor and Umansky, constitute "bad" mothers and are under assault (3). This examination, however, is an attempt not to defend the "bad" mother or to further demonize the bad mother but to suggest that the filmmaker either consciously or unconsciously deployed strategies to create the bad mother image, an image that circulates in contemporary discourse. …

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