The Incessant Violation in Aronofsky's 'Mother!' Makes Me Mad in a Good Way
The house, wife, and their shared outcry against violation are dangerously tied to white feminism. Viewing Mother! from a racial context circumscribes the power of its possible feminist message.
Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film Mother! is impressively divisive. It is one of only a handful of films to garner a “F grade” from CinemaScore. While the film incited a caustically angry response from many critics and audiences across social media and traditional press, the film has a few ardent supporters, like The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw who writes, “Mother! does what movies are supposed to do: intrigue, baffle, revolt, amuse, excite and have people talking on the way out of the cinema. I’m going to see it again.”
Indeed, since its debut on 15 September, Mother! has elicited a myriad of readings. From one angle, the film articulates a white, neo-fascist, stand-your-ground “cry for help” from the political far right that sees itself as fighting off an impending hoard of immigrants and welfare recipients. A particularly popular interpretation is that the house is an allegory for the environment. What I’m offering here is one possible feminist reading that exists in the growing constellation of analyses that Mother has spawned. Whether good or bad, like it or not, the film clearly hits a cultural nerve.
Mother! is the story of a famous writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who live in a remote cottage in the country that she has painstakingly refinished to its former glory. The house is a tasteful symphony of stripped wood and taupe and sandy hues. Out of the blue, an obsessed fan (played by Ed Harris) shows up at the door under the auspices of being lost and the writer offers him a bed for the night. As more of the fan’s family shows up, violence and chaos envelope the house and the couple.
For the remainder of the film, the wife and her prized home are subjected to all sorts of unspeakable brutality. Moreover, she is publically shamed and punished when she protests the throngs of unwanted guests who encroach upon the house and, ultimately, the birth of their child. The film becomes exponentially surrealist and manic in pace. After the writer’s fans cannibalize the newborn as a ritualistic means of celebrity worship, the wife destroys the house, dies, and then the writer harvests her heart, rebuilds the house, and finally replaces her.
The wife and her house are clear metaphors for femininity in the context of millennial patriarchy. The film foregrounds gender from the beginning, which features shamelessly graphic shots of Lawrence’s visibly naked body underneath a sheer white nightgown. I’d argue that in the contexts of the sexy icon’s star-image and her highly publicized romantic relationship with Aronofsky, the shots of Lawrence are self-reflexive in their gratuitousness.
When Harris’s crazed fan character enters the story, the wife walks in on a very “manly”, sexual discussion between the fan and her husband while serving them tea. The visitor, who happens to be a doctor, recounts a particularly memorable medical case of a woman whose knees were severely anatomically deformed to turn inward so that she could only spread her legs a foot wide. Mother! thematizes the sexual and emotional accessibility of women as the wife and her home are repeatedly expected to tend to visitors’ social expectations of what it means to be a good host, a good citizen, a good woman, and a good mother.
The wife’s intimacy with the house is established early on, with shots that show her achieving a kind of organic union with the house by placing her hands against its walls and listening to its heartbeat. She experiments with shades of yellow paint in striking reminiscence of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wall-paper”. Gilman’s story narrates a housewife’s mental unraveling and emergent feminist anger as her husband confines her to a yellow wallpapered room to recuperate and reintegrate into Victorian expectations of femininity. In both Mother! and “The Yellow Wall-paper”, the physical spaces are closely aligned with the female bodies at the center of their stories. Mother! describes a world that socializes women to build a “home”, to carefully craft, remake, and tend to versions of themselves, self-images modeled on expectations and an exhaustless love for other people. Women are asked to build this house, then let the world walk into and through it.
In Mother!, the wife is expected to tend to people’s needs, to listen them, and to support her husband’s career aspirations. When she expresses concern at these intrusions, she is physically and verbally abused. One small social exchange describes the vitriol that her protest incites: A strange man approaches the wife as she is asking visitors to refrain from sitting on an unbraced sink. He asks her to go into the woods with him. She explains she is married. He responds he doesn’t care. When he leans in and she tells him to keep a distance, he calls her a cunt.
People in the film do not address the wife, they address her husband. Likewise, patriarchal masculinity does not acknowledge or show interest in anything but itself. Patriarchs do not address women, they address their male-bodied partners. They either look past or predatorily at women. They talk over women at meetings and social gatherings and then accuse women of dominating conversation for speaking at all. When women don’t like it, they are "cunts". Women, according to Mother!, are told how to dress, how to have sex, how to cum, how to mourn, if, when, and then how to have children, how to give birth, how and where to nurse. In the film, the house and a woman’s body are treated as things she has no ownership of or voice within.
The house, wife, and their shared outcry against violation are dangerously tied to white feminism. Do feminists of color have protest as a viable option when people invade their houses? Or is routine and incessant violation just part and parcel of living within white patriarchy to the point that this wife’s “shock” is an alien experience to feminists of color -- one that smacks of the white privilege of presuming society’s respect? Viewing the film from a racial context circumscribes the power of its possible feminist message.
Mother! coheres a moment in current feminist consciousness that is tied to the Trump-Brexit context. Indeed, the film marks a strange presage of the media revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s institutionally tolerated record of sexually predating countless women. Mother! suggests white patriarchy cannot be bargained with, it cannot be appeased, we cannot share space with it, and we cannot tactically choose the “right” battles -- women need to take either back the house or burn it down.
Emma Stefansky, “Darren Aronofsky's Mother! Joins the Ranks of F-Grade Cinemascore Films”, Vanity Fair, 16 September 2017.
Peter Bradshaw, “What the F? How Mother! Joined the 'Bad Movie' Club”, The Guardian, 18 September 2017.
Melena Ryzik, “Making 'Mother!,' the Year’s Most Divisive Film”, The New York Times, 19 September 2017.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-paper”, The New England Magazine 11, 5 (1892): 647-57.
Alex Bevan has a PhD from Northwestern University’s Screen Cultures program. She’s a Lecturer at Massey University’s School of Design in New Zealand. As of November 2017, she’ll be a Lecturer of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her forthcoming book, The Aesthetics of Nostalgia TV: Production Design and the Boomer Era, is under contract with Bloomsbury.