The Problems with “Mama”

I honestly think that the Number One thing that keeps me from enjoying horror films is my unavoidable and completely sincere tendency to view anything and everything through a feminist lens. Well, that, and glaring plot holes.

Poster for the film Mama

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?

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

11 replies on “The Problems with “Mama””

Also important to note: being an unwed mother from non wealthy families at the time? Would have been grounds enough for institutionalization, especially if you were of certain ethnicitys. And at the time, the thing that pushed institutionalization to the main stream wasn’t violence as much as producing further unfit offspring. Apparently us “undesirables” were seen as more fertile than “decent” people. Yep.

I saw Mama last weekend. It wasn’t my favorite horror film — I’m not sure that I’d even call it a horror film, except that my tolerance for the genre is much higher than most others so I have a hard time gauging what most audiences find scary. I agree that there is the unfortunate theme of ‘woman learns to love mothering, love children’ though I’m not sure that Annabelle loves *children* as much as she loves *those* children. Sort of. She never actually responds when the kids tell her they love her and fighting to keep a monster from running off with/murdering children could be just a ‘decent thing people who aren’t psychopaths do’.

I’m going to disagree on two points though.

I didn’t read Mama as someone with Down’s syndrome and I don’t think she looked like someone with it. She was long — long everywhere, long faced, long limbed. We get very few glimpses of Mama-as-human and in none of those glimpses did the actress appear to have Down’s (to me). I did just try to google to see if I was misremembering, but there don’t appear to be stills online from that part of the film.

“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.”

Because she loved him. It was what he wanted, and more than that, it was what he felt was right. These aren’t some distant cousins they’re taking in. They’re the children of his dead twin. She wasn’t heartless — she just didn’t want kids, and she wasn’t good at the ‘domestic’ stuff (the house remains in boxes weeks after they’ve moved in, her cooking skills are obviously suspect, her parenting/nurturing skills are rough around the edges). We don’t know how long they’ve been together or if she met him after the kid disappeared, but he’d been looking for them for a long time, so one assumes the ‘what do we do if we find the kids’ conversation had probably been had at some point. (She says early on that she ‘didn’t care’ if he spent all their money to find them, so its not like she was in the dark on things.)

We don’t see women like Annabelle in movies where we’re supposed to sympathize with them. And we were. We were supposed to understand how lost and overwhelmed she was, raising feral children on her own, without wanting — its not a subtle analogy, and we’re not expected to vilify her for having a tough time with it. Is the film ‘feminist’? No. But its unusual.

I was more struck at the end that the ‘one who stays behind’ is the one of the pair its easier to love. Or rather, less of challenge to love.

The thing about DS is really just a theory of mine, and I admit that I could be totally wrong. I think I have a certain sensitivity to it since I work with a lot of kids and teens with DS. I saw the film with some friends who also work in mental health/special ed and it was the thing that we were all kind of thinking but didn’t want to say until somebody else did. I’m not sure if we were supposed to get that impression, and I actually hope that my friends and I were reading too much into it!

You definitely have a point about Annabelle and Lucas. I know she stayed because she loved him and cared about him and how much he was invested in his nieces. It was a very human thing to do. We can’t all be feminist heroines or expect everyone else to be. I think it would have added a lot to the film if we had been shown more of their relationship.

I do like seeing atypical representations of motherhood in film, but I’d really love to see a movie (especially a romantic comedy or something of the sort) where there is a woman with tattoos, piercings, alternative clothing, etc. who is very into a maternal role. I feel like every time I see an alternative woman, she’s always like “Ewwww kids!” and I’d like to see someone smash that stereotype.

It’s really interesting about the kid who gets left, isn’t it? She’s adapted to ordinary life more easily, has more social skills, etc. Like we as the audience are supposed to be like “Well thank gid! They got the good kid!” since I think we are also supposed to have less love/sympathy for the girl still attached to the “villainous” Mama. There’s a lot to say there about the worth of special needs children.

I really do wish they had some images of the human version of Mama. I was struck by her looks, which were unconventional. They had an actual person playing ghost Mama — Jamie Lanister said in an interview that the guy had the longest limbs of anyone he’d ever seen — so I wondered while watching it if it wasn’t the same guy in ‘drag’ for the human role, except the human mama definitely presented as female. Its a real interesting think you picked up on; it might be something easier to answer when it comes out on Netflix.

I agree with you on the alt mama thing too. I’m invested in the punk community. A lot of my friends are those pierced and tattooed mamas, and there’s a bunch of them that are really interested in mothering. They do a lot of what we would think of as ‘traditional’ mothering, except they don’t look like it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone like that in popular media.

There’s something about the whole child that was left that really bothers me, and I can’t quite put my foot on it. Partly its just that its weird that they didn’t really fight for the other one? Like, they didn’t even reach out for her? And her sister didn’t fight for her either. And to complicate it, it was the ‘difficult’ one that Annabelle had the breakthrough with. It was just.. a weird resolution.

There have been a few things I have seen people complain about or that they disliked or didn’t get about the movie that I think I saw, maybe, from a different perspective.

For one, I didn’t see Mama as quite the villain as other people did… yes, she killed several people but it was more in defense of her girls or jealousy. If you take into account she was both insane (or sad) and traumatized, it makes her actions, at least, understandable.

And, for instance, when Mama threw the remains of her baby she had been searching so long for off the side of the cliff I saw many people upset about this. It happened after she saw Lily in distress and even though the remains were of her own child she spent more time with Lily, raised her, protected her etc, making Lily more of a real child to her than the infant ever was, and the infant had become more of an obsession.

Second, I felt Annabelle did everything she could, as she was supposed to be hurt and crawling after the girls. She begged for Mama to bring Lily back.

My personal feelings toward the ending of the movie was that it was beautiful. I cried every time I saw it. The pure love on Lily’s face for Mama tore my heart out. The only time she laughed or smiled in the entire movie was with Mama and Annabelle was little more than a curiosity at best of times for Lily. I don’t think she wanted to be with her sister more than she wanted to be with Mama, as some people have argued to me but I don’t agree. I think she wanted her sister to join them but her sister made her choice and Mama knew it.

I don’t think she would have ever made the transition into normal society and it was fitting she go with her Mama and help her tortured soul find peace, together.

Maybe it was just me but I thought it was a beautiful and heartfelt ending and wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way, though I feel sorry for Annabelle and Lannister, they are going to have some problems answering some tough questions later!

I *love* horror movies, but I always feel at least a little bit conflicted about the way women are portrayed (i.e., the slut, virgin, bitch, or victim game). It’s…complicated.

I felt like Del Toro did very well with “The Orphanage”, especially compared to similar haunted-house and lost-child horror movies; Laura is terrified, but still determined to find out what happened. She’s so afraid that she’s physically shaking, but she keeps going. I’m interested to see what he’s done with “Mama”. Of course, one was filmed and produced in Spain and the other is a Hollywood production.

The Orphanage was such an amazing film. I loved the depth in storytelling, and it scared me so badly that I had to sleep with the light on the night I saw it! I wish that de Toro had actually written and directed this movie- I think it would have been much better.

I haven’t seen Mama yet, although I was thinking of watching. I’m not a big horror movie fan, but this one seemed different than most. After reading your review though, I don’t think I’ll bother. Thank you for taking the time to point out the problematic elements!

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