Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre

Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre

by Lucy Fischer


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Noting that motherhood is a common metaphor for film production, Lucy Fischer undertakes the first investigation of how the topic of motherhood presents itself throughout a wide range of film genres. Until now discussions of maternity have focused mainly on melodramas, which, along with musicals and screwball comedies, have traditionally been viewed as "women's" cinema. Fischer defies gender-based classifications to show how motherhood has played a fundamental role in the overall cinematic experience. She argues that motherhood is often treated as a site of crisis—for example, the mother being blamed for the ills afflicting her offspring—then shows the tendency of certain genres to specialize in representing a particular social or psychological dimension in the thematics of maternity.

Drawing on social history and various cultural theories, Fischer first looks at Rosemary's Baby to show the prevalence of childbirth themes in horror films. In crime films (White Heat), she sees the linkage of male deviance and mothering. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The Guardian, both occult thrillers, uncover cultural anxieties about working mothers. Her discussion covers burlesques of male mothering, feminist documentaries on the mother-daughter relationship, trick films dealing with procreative metaphors, and postmodern films like High Heels, where fluid sexuality is the theme. These films tend to treat motherhood as a locus of irredeemable conflict, whereas History and Memory and High Tide propose a more sanguine, dynamic, and enabling view.

Originally published in 1996.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691608594
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #339
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lucy Fischer is Professor of Film and English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she directs the film studies program. Her books include "Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women's Cinema "(Princeton)," Imitation of Life, "and "Jacques Tati". She has worked as a curator at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Read an Excerpt

Cinematernity Film, Motherhood, Genre

By Lucy Fischer


Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03775-2




The Mother of Invention

[T]he peak of Victorian aesthetic activity, with its highly pictorial bias in the arts ... coincided with the final phase in the invention of the motion picture. The relationship suggested by these chronological parallels is significant. It would suggest the well-known adage: "Necessity is the mother of invention." The motion picture ... was deeply rooted, even during its long period of incubation, in the social needs of the times.... Cinema was not born simply with the invention of Eastman's celluloid film nor with the arrival of the motion-picture camera... its conception ... occurred simultaneously with analogous advances in the theatre of realism and romance.

(A. Nicholas Vardac, my italics)

As this quotation from Stage to Screen reveals, artists, theorists, and historians have long conjured metaphors of motherhood to explicate or situate the cinema. In Vardac's case, he casts the motion picture as the "child" of a "maternal" cultural necessity—the alleged "need" for creating machines of realism in the nineteenth century. Alternatively, Sergei Eisenstein fashions an image of parturition to proclaim cinema's ties to the other arts. As he notes, "It is only very thoughtless and presumptuous people who ... [proceed] from the premises of some incredible virgin-birth of this art!" (232). Likewise, Siegfried Kracauer fancies the photographic process (upon which cinema is based) as developing "like the embryo in the womb" from a variety of social and scientific sources (7). Finally, for poet Philip Dacey, it is the cinematic apparatus that is maternal. He imagines sitting with his children before a theater screen as

Something large enough
to be our mother
embraces us
with light, shadow and sound,
making us one.

Significantly, some of the first cinematic images that people would have seen had, as Dacey imagines, a decidedly maternal cast. Among Eadweard Muybridge's famous "animal locomotion" studies were three apparently on the theme of motherhood—ones that seem, retrospectively, to lay bare central cultural and psychic conceptions of maternity.

In his Plate 52 (1887), we find a sequence of images depicting the perfect Victorian mother—formally coutured, with her two costumed children. In Plates 465 and 527 (both 1887), however, we find maternal polarities worthy of the childhood Unconscious. In the former, a bare-breasted "Good Mother" receives a bouquet from a little girl, whom she kisses in gratitude. In the latter, an unclothed "Bad Mother" (surveyed in a 360-degree "pan") spanks a naked boy unrelentingly. If we envision the animation of these photographs by Muybridge's zoopraxiscope, we have a scene of the very "mother" of cinematic invention producing the first (yet archetypal) maternal images.

Cinematernity (a title that bespeaks the cultural "fusion" of film and motherhood) seeks to extend and examine the relationship between these terms through an investigation of the mother's status as a figure in fiction, experimental, and documentary film. As its subtitle indicates, the book places this issue within a broader context. While it makes no claims to be a study of genre, per se, it makes "strategic" use of that notion as a fundamental organizing principle—as a means of structuring the text beyond the framework of a formless series of essays. The sense of genre that the study employs, however, is an open one that acknowledges the limits of proposing rigid definitions. As Andrew Tudor has written, "genre is a conception existing in the culture of any particular group or society; it is not a way in which a critic classifies films for methodological purposes, but the much looser way in which an audience classifies its films" (Nichols, 123).

With this "commonsense" notion of genre in mind, we will pursue certain analytical avenues If, as Thomas Schatz informs us, "a genre film involves familiar one-dimensional characters acting out a predictable story pattern within a familiar setting" (6), we will want to trace the outline of the maternal heroine and delineate the narrative and mise-en-scène she regularly inhabits At every turn, though, we will be cognizant that not all cases fit the mold and that stereotypes are culturally and historically determined

This book's invocation of genre also reflects the perception of a certain paradoxical absence (yet excess) within film studies Where issues of motherhood have been confronted, work has primarily attached itself to the realm of the maternal melodrama—to the exclusion of other modes This tendency is, of course, logical, given that the "woman's picture" has been one of the few commercial paradigms to authorize a complex female protagonist

Nonetheless, Cmematemity seeks to move beyond the privileged generic circle of melodrama by querying the status of motherhood in other established cinematic modes the trick film, the horror film, the crime film, the comedy, the thriller, the postmodern film, the documentary, and the experimental film While there has been pioneering work in many of these areas (Tama Modleski on mothering and comedy ["Three Men and Baby M"], Barbara Creed on reproduction and horror, Robin Blaetz on motherhood and war films ["You're Going to Live"], Lon Shorr on childbirth and the documentary), no single text has systematically explored the representation of maternity across diverse generic patterns, nor argued for the centrality of the subject beyond the confines of melodrama Where certain genres are omitted (science fiction, for exam pie), it is because they have already been analyzed rather thoroughly by other feminist critics

Gender and Genre

The relationship between gender and genre is at present only vaguely perceived once these two concepts are together opened to inquiry, they become central to the process of interpretation and their changing relationships afford a key to understanding

(Mary Gerhart)

In implicating numerous genres, Cinematernity reveals an interest in the broader question of gender and genre how narrative and cultural forms imply a specific sexual politics In confronting this issue, my work builds upon a body of research that has transpired in the fields of both cinema and literature. Writing on the latter, Mary Gerhart highlights the etymological connections between the words genre and gender.

When we locate the term[s] etymologically in a family of meanings across several disciplines, we find that they share family resemblances. The family to which both genre and gender belong includes words such as general, gender, genre, genes, genus, generic, generation and generative. This family of genre and gender carries two general senses: the categorical and the productive. The categorical sense pertains to the meaning "of a kind or sort." ... The productive sense means "of or pertaining to the act of rooting, begetting, bearing, producing." (98)

For Gerhart, the sense of genre as "classification" has eclipsed its valence as "production," a fact she views as a critical "aberration" (98). Clearly, in the repressed sense of genre as "rooting, begetting, bearing," we find an intimation of maternity at the very heart of the word. Significantly, the privileging of genre's scientific cataloging role has been seen by certain critics as aligned with a masculine perspective. As Paula Rabinovitz notes:

genre is inevitably linked to the order of genealogy ... and to the patriarchal order—to the Law of the Father, to masculine authority. The law of genre, then, is also the law of gender: that system which demarks the boundaries of and ascribes meaning to sexual difference. And anything that steps outside of those boundaries risks "impurity," it becomes bastardized, a "monstrosity"—or put more politely, "implausible" within the codes of difference of either genre or gender. (68)

One finds a rather rigid view of genre and gender implicit in traditional film scholarship. In his seminal work on Hollywood cinema, Thomas Schatz links particular genres to either masculine or feminine poles. Western, gangster, and detective films are characterized by a male hero and a "macho" ethic of violence and isolation. By contrast, musicals, melodramas, and screwball comedies are "female dominant." They are marked by a couple-hero and by a "maternal-familial code" valorizing emotion, domestication, civilization, and community (35). While we recognize the validity of Schatz's assertions (which are echoed by numerous other scholars), his neat classification, so easily reduced to a chart, tends to calcify forms, and to mask their potential interrelations. Hence, the schema may encourage the critic to ignore the role of the mother in the crime film, or to miss a maternal subtext in the masculine "thriller."

Countering such established binarisms, Stephen Neale ends his book Genre with a section titled "Genre and Sexuality" (56–62). In it, he reminds us that while mainstream cinema has always aimed its work at a gendered audience (women for musicals, men for westerns), it has also attempted (for economic reasons) to please both groups at the same time, thus maximizing profits. Hence we cannot so easily diagram genres along sexual lines. Citing one example, he notes how the western (conventionally aligned with machismo) is actually a site to "privilege, examine and celebrate the body of the male" (57). Likewise, melodrama (traditionally linked to the female) requires a "feminized" male at its center (59–60). Thus Neale argues for a more fluid conception of genre, one released from stark gender stereotypes.

Primary among those voices to confront gender and genre have been feminist scholars, who have insisted on introducing the "woman question" into critical discourse. E. Ann Kaplan edited an innovative anthology entitled Women in Film Noir (1978), opening up a discussion of the crime film's resonant femme fatale. Diane Waldman investigated the Gothic subgenre of the thriller—a form centered on a female victim rather than on a male detective. Judith W. Hess mocked the classic western for offering only "bar girls" and "eastern school teachers" (56).

But early work on film genre nonetheless favored Schatz's "masculine" forms. Attention was first drawn to the western and crime film (Warshow, Kitses, Cawelti [Adventure, Mystery, and Romance and The Six Gun Mystique ], Buscombe, Tudor, Collins, Braudy [The World in a Frame and "Genre"], MacArthur, Griffith). Later, it shifted to the musical (Altman, Fischer [Shot/Countershot, 132–71], Feuer) and to romantic comedy (Gehring, Screwball Comedy: Defining and Screwball Comedy: A Genre)—more egalitarian narratives in their gender orientation. Most recently, feminist criticism claimed the melodrama as the preferred site of generic interrogation.

Cinematernity argues for a broader exploration of filmic categories, whereby questions of maternity can be located outside of their assumed generic "home." For, as Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy write: "The boundaries between genres are fluid.... Therefore ... in the process of redefining mothering it is also necessary to redefine genres and their conventions" (12).

Motherhood and Mass Culture

There is another issue in the dynamics of genre and gender that bears scrutiny—one that exists below the more obvious surface. While criticism has superficially privileged male paradigms (westerns, policiers, war epics, sports sagas), ironically, the genre text itself has been seen as a "feminized" cultural form. Here, again, we veer away from genre's "patriarchal" role as cataloger to its "maternal" task of endless propagation and proliferation.

Several critics have commented on the ties between popular entertainment and the "feminine." Andreas Huyssen writes that "mass culture is somehow associated with woman while real, authentic culture remains the prerogative of men" (191). Significantly, in the film studies literature, genre is linked to such "feminine" qualities as innocence, emotion, equivocation, moral instruction, and communality. For Leo Braudy, "Classics set up a distance between themselves and their audience, compounded of awe and emotional disdain, but genre films, in their unpretentious and often ambivalent way can be more effectively didactic.... The success of genre films argues a community of feelings about the world" (The World in a Frame, 181).

Beyond such broad feminine references, a submerged association between genre reception and motherhood is found in a critical discourse that positions the film consumer as an anxious, insecure child. First, there is the way that scholars connect genre to "the familiar," configuring it as the comforting aesthetic "home." Stanley Solomon writes that "[g]enre ... has much to do with the familiar" (6–7). Leo Braudy finds that "[t]he genre film lures its audience into a seemingly familiar world, filled with reassuring stereotypes of character, action, and plot" ("Genre," 449). John Cawelti asserts that "[a]udiences find satisfaction and a basic emotional security in a familiar form" (Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, 9).

Second, many critics have linked genre works to modes of storytelling performed by mother for child. As Braudy observes, "In genre films the most obvious focus of interest is neither complex characterization nor intricate visual style, but pure story ... [l]ike fairy tales or classical myths" ("Genre," 452). (Significantly, in White Heat, Cody Jarrett's plan to rob an oil refinery by hiding his gang inside an empty tank trunk is inspired by the myth of the Trojan horse, a tale told to him as a youth by his mother.)

Scholars have also likened the reader's engagement with genre to a naive, ludic fascination. As Cawelti notes, "[T]he escapist aspect of formulaic art makes it analogous to certain kinds of games of play" (Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, 19). Finally, critics like Braudy have employed the word infantile to describe the response of the gullible genre audience: "Genre films essentially ask the audience, 'Do you still want to believe this?' Popularity is the audience answering, 'Yes.' Change in genre occurs when the audience says, 'That's too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated'" (The World in a Frame, 179).

If the genre audience is childlike, the genre author is procreative. As Cawelti remarks, "For creators, the formula provides a means for the rapid and efficient production of new works.... Thus formulaic creators tend to be extremely prolific Others have an even more spectacular record of quantity and production" (Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, 9, my italics)

Hence, while genre works and their critics have favored masculine perspectives (obscuring issues of womanhood and maternity), the concept of genre has been feminized in its theonzation—and subject to a series of maternal/familial metaphors Thus the category of genre has been positioned in the realm of the cinematic Imaginary, outside the sphere of the masculine Symbolic

Motherhood and Film Criticism

While it is likely that, throughout film history, critics have touched upon the issue of maternity in the course of discussing particular movies (Sunrise [1927], The Miracle of Morgan's Creek [1944], or Penny Serenade [1941]), the topic has often been ignored Hence critical discourse has suffered the same kind of "amnesia" about the mother as that which poet Adrienne Rich (quoted in the book's epigraph) detects in Citizen Kane Only recently has serious attention been paid to motherhood And, clearly, this scrutiny coincided with the rise of the women's movement and of feminist film criticism, two fields that burgeoned in the early 1970s But, as Maureen Turim has noted, early scholarship often "implicitly or explicitly attacked motherhood as a by-product of the attack on marriage as institution" Only later did feminist criticism valorize issues of "maternal creativity and power" (24)


Excerpted from Cinematernity Film, Motherhood, Genre by Lucy Fischer. Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction: Motherhood and Film: A Critical Genealogy 3

2 The Trick Film: The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic, and the Movies 37

3 Silent Melodrama: Way Down East: Melodrama, Metaphor, and the Maternal Body 56

4 The Horror Film: Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary's Baby 73

5 The Crime Film: Mama's Boy: Filial Hysteria in White Heat 92

6 Film Comedy: "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child": Comedy and Matricide 111

7 The Thriller: The Hand That Shocks the Cradle: The Maternal Thriller 131

8 The Postmodern Film: Postmodernity and Postmaternity: High Heels and Imitation of Life 162

9 The Nonfiction Film: "The Reproduction of Mothering": Documenting the Mother-Daughter Bond 179

10 Epilogue: Maternity and the Artist: "A Remarkable Zoological Species" 214

Index 231

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"This engaging book makes for a unique contribution to film and women's studies.... Lucy Fischer puts forward intelligent arguments and writes in a literate, down-to-earth style."—Virginia Wexman

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