The hand that robs the cradle: why does cinema still demonise grieving mothers?

The hand that robs the cradle: why does cinema still demonise grieving mothers?

In The Huntsman: Winters War and The Ones Below, unspeakable deeds are done by girls driven crazy by the loss of a child. Decades of movies suggest they are incapable of rational heartbreak, while men are let off the hook in the heroic pursuit of revenge

Heres a 36 -year-old spoiler. The rogue in Friday the 13 th is not Jason, presumed dead after drowning aged 10 , now back from the ashes and mad as hell. Rather its his mother, Pamela, a summer camp cook who sorrow has turned bloodthirsty. While her son, alongside stablemates Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Norman Bates, is afforded complicated psychological motivating for his later killing sprees, sensibly garmented Mrs Voorhees is just a woman entirely unravelled by the loss of her offspring.

This is horror-movie shorthand. It was, after all, shamelessly recycled for Laurie Metcalfs character in Scream 2. But it is also, it is about to change, a template alive and kicking in todays biggest blockbusters and classiest dramas. There were shades of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle( bereaved babysitter breastfeeds young charge, then tries to top its mom) in last months London-set Polanski-esque thriller The Ones Below. That film involves a woman who miscarries hatching a complex plot to steal her neighbours baby after indulging in icky selfies while faux-suckling.

This week, we have The Huntsman: Winters War, in which Emily Blunt is literally turned into an ice queen by the death of her daughter, then sets about creating child soldiers and waging war on those who dare to believe in the idea of household. We also have Couple in a Hole, a fascinating drama in which heartache results parents to go feral in rural France. No prizes for guessing which of the pair is more dedicated to the scheme

There is still a romanticised notion of motherhood in our culture, says Denise Turner, a lecturer in social work at the University of Sussex whose research focuses on bereaved mothers. To be an archetypal mom is to be selfless: endlessly loving and without negative emotion. To be a good mom is also to nurture your children certainly not to let your child die. There are ever-increasing expectations on mothers to entertain and nurture children, often to impossible standards. Therefore, death is the ultimate failing of motherhood.

Targeted by a grieving mother fixated by her foetus Isla Fisher in Visions. Photo: Allstar/ Chapter One Films

The scant option of female backstories offered by cinema and the offensiveness of many of them can be seen as one of the more obvious iterations of a longstanding inequality that is being addressed in the current diversity debate. But it is also one of the most insidious. Identical ideas are transferred from cinema to film, regardless of genre or psychological aspiration, and as cliches become tropes, so they move further into the realm of received culture wisdom. The Ones Below, for instance, is a sister to 2007 French thriller Inside , and last years Isla Fisher vehicle Visions, both of which have pregnant women targeted by grieving mothers fixated with their foetuses.

Many women and some men who have experienced miscarriage can feel very jealous of women with newborns, says Ruth Bender-Atik, national director of the Miscarriage Association. But there is a world of difference between wanting that baby to be yours and actually taking it. Fictional media and to some extent the print and broadcast media can still be driven by exaggeration and shock.

The message from cinema is clear: women whose children have died are dangerous and if they wont try and steal someone elses, they will attain life hell for any functional family.

I believing that culturally we need moms to go mad because it is unthinkable to us that children die mothers cannot survive this event because we cant survive this event, says Turner. Its also possible that there is a culture remorse in mothers running mad its their penalty for letting their own children die.

Turner lost her own son, Joe, when he was 19 months old. In the past, she has suggested that mothers may not be broken by the death of a child and that with time, they can find strength. Yet this, she believes, is an unacceptable thing to say, culturally.

Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle( 1992 ). Photograph: Allstar/ Cinetext/ Buena Vista

Film perpetuates the notion that, rather than gaining strength from their heartache and ultimately learning to live with their loss, girls are transformed into something monster, rob of the soften glow that motherhood traditionally brings. In Young Adult, Charlize Therons vicious ex-prom queen tries to pull apart her childhood sweeties happy young family, ultimately revealing in a scene involving a symbolic spilt glass of red wine at a newborn naming ceremony that a miscarriage prevented her from being a mother. In Serena, Jennifer Lawrences loss curdles her into a killing machine, dead set on constructing others especially healthy infants suffer.

Such characters are assured to have, by virtue of their own tragic circumstance, transgressed and abandoned the norms thrust upon them. They have become the other in comparison with women who do have children. Male characters, too, are frequently seen as transformed by grief many of them spurred by the death of a child down equally bloody paths.

Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender in Macbeth( 2015)

But there is a key difference. The reaction of men is generally presented as rational if over-energetic driven by an honourable and even aspirational thirst for justice. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gladiator, Edge of Darkness and, most recently, The Revenant, it is made easy to root for a daddy wishing to see his childs demise avenged. The legality of the quest is rarely questioned. Indeed, it is turned into verse. Leonardo DiCaprios hallucinations of his dead household are sublime , not ridiculous.

But when the same thing happens to a woman, her journey is present as lunacy. Rather than attempting the restoration of some balance, she is an agent of chaos. This is why you will often ensure a wildly differing reaction within the same cinema. In Lars von Triers 2009 horror Antichrist, Willem Dafoes grieving father suffers, but it is nothing compared with Charlotte Gainsbourgs character, who objective up torturing him and mutilating herself. Last years update on Macbeth chopped out much of the text, but added something new: a baby, buried in the opening scene, to better explain Marion Cotillards afterward excesses.

As part of her research, Turner collated the answers to this grieving process from both genders. She then presented them to groups of women and found a similar difference. The group that looked at a humen account of child demise were very empathetic and sympathetic to his apparent helplessness, while those who looked at some of the female tales became angry with the mothers who were not behaving as they should.

Its largely OK for men to be angry or vengeful look at the hero myth and if they feel vulnerable, thats endearing. Women dont have those culture permissions and these things get acted out crudely and stereotypically in film.

Betsy Palmer as Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13 th( 1980 ). Photograph: Moviestore/ Rex/ Shutterstock

While expecting fiction to authentically represent reality is unrealistic, and ultimately undesirable, the persistence of some stereotypes suggests a number of regressive opinions show no sign of going away. Grief is a multi-layered and deep personal process with no correct expression. And yet film continues to insist that the loss of a child turns a woman into a ogre. The subversive effect, says Turner, can be devastating and undermine a woman at one of the most vulnerable populations moments in her life.

In my experience, girls may be angry, they may be feisty, they may be very protective of themselves and other children, she says. Above all, the objective is people affected by other parts of their identity and life experience. They are never simply bereaved. And the lack of culture permission to be anything but bereaved which is to say mad, terminally mourning or depressed can make it difficult for women to have any role model for what its own experience can look like.

At the moment, cinema serves those in this position with the likes of frosty Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron hissing bitchily and Charlotte Gainsbourg doing unspeakable things with a pair of scissors. And looming over them all, the godmother: grief-stricken Pamela, with her neat perm and perfect teeth and massive glitter knife.

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