I’m more than a bit of a horror movie junkie. The burst of excitement and fear I get from seeing a horror movie trailer on the big screen is probably my favorite part of going to the movies. I track release dates and plan my week accordingly, because I see just about every horror flick that isn’t a stupid slasher film or some tortureporn wank fest. I had been looking forward to Mama for months, especially after I saw Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to the picture. The man is a god amongst horror fans, and anything he so much as touches is an automatic must-see. Oh yeah, and it features Jaime Lannis- I mean Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Sold! Spoilers from here on out.
Egads, does this film have some social justice issues! Leave it to something in the genre that most seems to enjoy degrading, devaluing, and undermining women to produce yet another problematic piece. I mean, I wasn’t exactly expecting that much from a move with such a maternal title, but I was expecting the problematic content to center around the titular “Mama” figure’s maternal role. That was the least irritating thing about the movie. It’s notable, by the way, that some sites have attributed feminist values to the film. I don’t think we watched the same movie.
Jessica Chastain stars in the film as Annabelle, the reluctant girlfriend of Jaime Lannis- I mean Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s character, Lucas. The movie begins with a man, Lucas’s twin, absconding with his daughters after a murdering spree. The two small girls are soon left to fend for themselves in a wintery cabin. Lucas continues searching for his brother and nieces for years, and eventually finds them. Naturally, he wants to adopt the little girls, who have grown feral. Annabelle is less than pleased. In fact, we first see her in the film rejoicing over a negative pregnancy test. If your partner was that psyched that she wasn’t pregnant, do you think she’d want to be adoptive mom to two children with a lot of needs? Well, Lucas doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. Annabelle shows an immediate distaste for the idea of having children, but supports Lucas anyway. I honestly have no idea why she insisted on staying with a man who clearly couldn’t care less about her wishes and desires regarding children, and I was just as perplexed as to why Lucas would want to stay with a woman who was not a willing maternal figure. Or at least I was, until the midpoint of the movie where he goes to the hospital for a long period of time and leaves Annabelle as sole caretaker for the kids.
Annabelle is less than reluctant. At some points, she seems outright hostile towards the kids. I can see where she’s coming from — two kids just appear in her life, take her away from her career, uproot her from her home, and drastically alter her relationship with her partner. And she doesn’t like kids. I’d be pissed too. However, by the end of the movie she comes around and begins to show love and affection for the kids, and shows a desire to continue to be a caregiver. Because really, all women want to be mothers deep down inside! They just don’t know it! Annabelle even puts herself in some extremely dangerous situations for the sake of the girls, showing a maternal protection for them. Yes, even when only weeks ago she was clearly emotionally detached from them.
The “Mama” in the film, a very creepy ghost lady, is also pretty damned problematic. We learn that the reason she’s been haunting the cabin and surrounding area where the girls were left to fend for themselves for years is that some time in the 19th century, she died near there along with her child. The woman was institutionalized at a nearby (apparently Catholic-run, judging by the appearance of nuns) asylum, where she gave birth to a child. The child was taken from her to be adopted out, as was standard practice in the time, and the woman murdered a nun to reclaim her baby and escape the asylum. Cool, kinda feminist story, right? Given the abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church on countless unwed mothers, this makes a pretty big statement. Except that it isn’t portrayed that way. Yes, we are to think she’s sympathetic, because she’s a mother who has lost her child. We’re also to think that she’s dangerous and scary, because aren’t all mentally ill people in horror films? Eventually she is cornered, and she throws herself and her child off a cliff to a watery death. The baby’s swaddling is caught on a branch during the fall and she loses the child, who she is then doomed to search for for eternity. The Mama ghost is protective, nurturing, and playful, but also jealous and violent. Don’t forget, she stabbed a nun!
The other issue with the Mama character is unspoken, but is shown in her appearance. When the woman was alive and institutionalized, she had a very particular look. She exhibited a broad face, eye folds, and small chin, traits often found in people with Down’s Syndrome. Yes, I believe that they went there. Though there was no mention of it in the film, those who are familiar with the condition and its physical traits could easily believe that the character was supposed to have Down’s Syndrome. This is disturbingly and unabashedly ableist. It furthers the marginalization of people with developmental disabilities and perpetuates the false idea that such people are inherently violent and uncontrollable. What could have been a simple story about a wronged woman was twisted by unnecessary violence and a hearty dose of ableism. And while she is still a wronged woman, she no longer exists to the audience as a sympathetic character.
io9 sees the film as feminist because it highlights mothers who we as a society would deem “unfit,” and they are right in that regard. Annabelle isn’t wealthy, she plays in a rock band (which assumes all sorts of debauchery), she has a punk/goth look to her, and she is not warm and nurturing in manner. In short, she’s the kind of woman that the J. Crew clad, hyper-educated, lifestyle blog- writing “perfect” mothers glare at in disgust. Mama is a ghost, so most people would probably say she isn’t the best maternal figure. In all seriousness, even without the DS piece, an institutionalized woman would have no right to parent in the eyes of society and would immediately be deemed unfit whether she actually had any disabilities or not. Plus, we have to assume that an institutionalized woman would be an unwed mother and therefore an immoral harlot (though it’s more likely that she was raped). Either way, she’d be seen as unfit. Mama sees these women as valuable mothers, and that is a feminist statement.
Did you see Mama? What do you think about how it portrays mothering, feminist values, and the agency of women? What’s your take on the Mama character?