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Cross Post: In Mainstream Films, Dead Moms Don't Count...

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by Scott Mendelson
July 10, 2012 11:00 AM
11 Comments
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Incredibly Close

I had originally planned to do a spoiler-filled discussion of the various things that vexed me about The Amazing Spider-Man, but frankly my heart just isn't in it.  The film is obviously a victim of severe post-production tinkering (Devin Faruci laid it out here) and it just feels petty to further attack a film that A) I've already panned in 1,500 non-spoiler words and B) is more a disappointing mediocrity than an outright travesty. 

Instead, I'd like to use the film's release to discuss something that has bothered me for at least the last several months, something I made a brief note about during the run-up to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  If you've seen The Amazing Spider-Man (and this isn't a spoiler if you haven't), you'll know that Peter Parker's emotional trauma is partially centered around the fact that his parents abandoned him when he was a young child and then died soon after.  But as the film progresses, it's clear that Peter's journey and Peter's discoveries center almost exclusively around his father (Campell Scott).  His mother (Embeth Davidtz) gets barely a line of dialogue and no real character to play.  And that's the pattern, it would seem.  Be they dead at the start or be they dead by act one, dead fathers are often fleshed out characters while dead mothers are, at best, pictures on the bookshelf.

When Mufasa falls off a cliff at the halfway point of The Lion King, it's a devastating moment for both Simba and the audience, since Mufasa is a full-blown supporting character who is basically the second-lead for the first third of the picture.  Yet the countless dead mothers in prior and future Disney animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Finding Nemo, etc.) merit at best a cameo in the prologue before being bumped off before the title card comes up (Bambi is the rare exception, where the doomed mother sticks around long enough to be mourned). Even The Princess and the Frog, another rare animated feature to spotlight a dead father and a living mother, makes a point to keep the deceased dad in the audience's minds throughout the narrative, including a climactic flashback that concludes Tiana's character arc. 

The recently deceased mother of Super 8 merits a photo and a name, while the dad in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is played by a major star (Tom Hanks) who has a supporting role throughout the drama despite dying on 9/11 in the opening moments.  Bruce Wayne loses both of his parents in Batman Begins, yet it is only his father (Linus Roache) who gets a real character to play and more than one or two lines.  It is his father whom Bruce Wayne holds as a role model and his father who Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) constantly refer to when discussing Bruce's actions and his moral worldview.  Martha Wayne is played by Sara Stewart, but that's all I could tell you about her.

The dead dad and his impact on the hero's journey is obviously a classic one.  But the odd thing is that even when both parents are dead, the focus is almost exclusively on the father.  Peter Parker doesn't get caught up in a journey learning about his parents, but rather one learning about his father's life and his father's work.  While it's implied that both of his parents are scientists (otherwise why would both parents have to ditch their son?), we end The Amazing Spider-Man knowing absolutely nothing about Mary Parker.  And while The Descendants tries its best not to utterly villainize the comatose wife/mother (Patricia Hastie) while husband George Clooney comes to terms with her adultery, nor do they bother to give the character any actual lines or actual scenes save a brief silent moment on a boat just prior to her life-threatening accident. You can be sure that if the story revolved around a brain-dead husband and the wife and kids who cope with his flaws, the film would give at least a couple juicy flashbacks to the doomed husband/father.  It's the difference between having the mother die in the opening moments and vanish from the film (Slumdog Millionaire) and giving the father a juicy supporting role that actually wins Christopher Plummer an Oscar in Beginners.  Heck, Captain Kirk's living mother (Jennifer Morrison!) in Star Trek gets less screen-time than his doomed father (Chris Hemsworth).

There are occasional exceptions to be found. The Harry Potter series always emphasized the life of Lily Potter while detailing James Potter's school days.  While Magneto loses both of his parents in a concentration camp in X-Men: First Class, it's clearly the death of his mother that scars him the most.  But the general rule still applies.  When both parents are dead, it's the father's influence that is most felt from beyond the grave.  And while dead mothers are often mentioned but rarely seen, dead fathers often have featured roles pre-and-post death in their childrens' stories.  Both Marc Webb (should be return to direct the Amazing Spider-Man sequel) and Chris Nolan (depending on if The Dark Knight Rises even remembers Martha Wayne) have a chance to buck the trend, and it will be interesting to see if either filmmaker takes or took the opportunity to expand the character of that 'other' dead parent.  While losing a father may be some kind of alleged rite of passage in classical storytelling, losing a mother shouldn't be either ignored or used merely as a cheap ploy for emotion. If there is another Spider-Man film in this current universe, it would be nice if Peter remembered that he had a mother too.

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Scott Mendelson writes film reviews, box office analysis, and film-related essays dealing with social issues and how they relate to film and television, as well as the similarities between Hollywood and politics.  His work can be found at Mendelson's Memos and he syndicates with Huffington Post and Valley Scene Magazine.

Reprinted with pemission

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11 Comments

  • Michala | July 16, 2012 10:08 AMReply

    I think the main problem is that the lead in most Hollywood-movies is a guy and therefore the loss of a father means also the loss of a father-figure making the lead to be lost in terms of gender-roles. That's why the dead fathers keep appearing in the movies while the mothers don't seem to relevant. The majority of male leads off course reflects that males in generel have a higher status then females in (contemporary) society.

  • lea | July 13, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    The mom in Super 8 was more than a name and picture - there was old family film of her playing with him - her locket - it was all about his tie to the one parent that understood him - his mother. I think her presence/absence was well portrayed.

  • Wendy | July 13, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    This is interesting- I hadn't thought about the presence of dead fathers in movies, but the Disney examples (and action films) are all sound examples. (Lion King has been on repeat in my house for the last month). I've always been interested in the role of dead wives (who are also sometimes mothers) in films- the first off the top of my head are Sleepless in Seattle and Message in a Bottle (I might be the only one who saw the latter). There's lots of other examples, though, of female characters who represented the essence of femininity and the perfection of motherhood once they are dead (Braveheart, what else??). Of course we always revere our loved ones even more after they're gone, but it has always seemed to me that the best mothers and wives in film are the dead ones. I'm not sure what to do with these two separate but seemingly related trends...

  • Bes | July 11, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    I agree with you Zbudapest. Another misogynist genre that I can't stand is the "rape gives women strength and life purpose" genre (Sucker Punch and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Also can't stand the "underwear empowerment genre" so popular with male producers and consumers of media. There is no way to tweak this sort of crap to make it acceptable to female audiences or an authentic representation of female experience. It is off on a primal level.

  • Scott Mendelson | July 13, 2012 6:54 PM

    I have long defended Sucker Punch, as I found it to be a bitingly cynical critique of both the 'fighting f** toy'/underwear empowerment feminism and the astonishing sexism in geek culture (and general culture in general). It asks whether or not females in action fantasy scenarios can be empowering since the very image of an attractive woman doing battle is so often viewed as titillating. It's a flawed film, especially the theatrical cut, but it's a (serious) satire of the very kind of genre tropes this site discusses on a weekly basis.

  • zbudapest | July 10, 2012 3:59 PMReply

    The male gender really truly prefers each other for their attention, admiration, hiring, listening,
    role modeling,etc. Attention is a form of love. Where is the heterosexual love?? If men loved women they would pay women more then men. The core of stories would center around women. .
    What the media mirrors back to us;women are not worthy of the "high" male attention. Women are barely tolerated for giving a scent of heteroness to the story line. Just enough to show that the male characters with most of the screen presence are not gay. Gay male writers are writing for female characters if there are any. Then you wonder why is rape so beloved as a theme? Dead women raped and fetishized. Lately the murderers turn up to be female in Tv dramas .Whats next? H
    ating the female gender is a crime against humanity.

  • d | July 10, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    My apologies for the block of text. It seems the formatting wiped out all my paragraph breaks!

  • d | July 10, 2012 3:56 PMReply

    The mom is still alive in TPatF! :-) She is eventually served by Tiana at one of the tables in the restaurant, during the finale song. I want to say she is sitting next to her new parents-in-law, but I'd have to check. So that bucks the trend all the more. In speaking of bucking the trend, I thought of Star Wars (the first set, or epis 4-6). The aunt & uncle aren't too consequential, and while the dad is, well, Darth Vader, the mother is never truly forgotten, and is part of the puzzle that Luke & Leia need to unravel their lost past. Of course, that mother love of the villain is a pervasive trope. Annie becomes Vader mainly because of the pain over his mother's life & death.

    There is something though, that I wanted to bring up. Mind you, I still say we need to buck this trend. But can part of the problem lie in the more persistent stereotypes? The example I'm thinking of is also Disney: Mulan. It's been a while since I saw it, but if I recall correctly, Mulan had to choose between 2 paths: the prettified, docile wife that her mother insists on, or the warrior's path that her father doesn't necessarily advocate, but certainly represented. Mulan chose her dad's, which is so scandalous she had to more literally become a man to do it.

    Things aren't so stark in other films, but when I see this play out, I often see the father giving even more freedom to the girl to do something action, or, adventure oriented than the mother. And often the parents have the talk where the mom criticizes the father because she feels he's enabling the daughter's eventual problems down the road, if she doesn't fulfill the usual role(s). Of course the daughter doesn't, which is the crux of the story.

    So is this problematic in its overuse, but benign in theory? I can see if you have a hard-charging dad, you'd have a mom who is less so? Or, is this yet another case of a biased trope that needs to be put down? An example of that would be Daredevil/Elektra. In Daredevil, the focus of Elektra's pain is her father, and that compels her to push her already begun warrior skills (encouraged by her dad), so she can exact vengeance on his killer. In Elektra, the source of her grief is her mother - but that makes her maternal, and she becomes a caretaker to a girl and her father, before eventually leaving her violent profession (at least that's what the end implies). It would seem we need warrior women w/ children. But does that somehow require more finessing in a way a warrior father and a child does not?

    Just to end on a more positive note, while Spidey version 1.0 did emphasize his uncle, Aunt May was the crucial guardian, buoying him with both love and wisdom in all three movies.

    Thanks for this Scott!
    d

  • Bes | July 10, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    That's just one of the distortions you get when all movies are written, scripted, cast, costumed, directed, photographed, edited, etc. by men. There is no way that media reflects our culture, at best it reflects men's perception of our culture. Harry Potter was written by a woman. In fact the extremely profitable Twilight, Hunger Games, and Harry Potter series were all written by women. If making money is the goal of Hollywood it seems that it would be prudent to hire more women writers at the very least.

  • Scott Mendelson | July 10, 2012 2:47 PMReply

    I forgot to link it in, but if anyone wants the above-mentioned non-spoiler review of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN...
    http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2012/06/review-amazing-spider-man-2012-isnt.html

  • cc | July 10, 2012 11:38 AMReply

    Really interesting. I always noticed the dead disney/fairy-tale mothers (often combined with evil step-mother) trend since I grew up watching those films. But I never noticed it happening in live action movies or non-kids movies. It's not really surprising, but it's definitely disappointing now that I can see the trend.

    I will say, that although they did spend a lot of time on the father in The Princess and the Frog, she did have that scene with her mother where they went to the restaurant she wanted to buy and sang a song (I think Almost There) . But yeah, once the mother was actually dead, she was bascially forgotten if I recall correctly.

    And also, it's interesting to note that the two examples you gave of the exception to the rule were 1. written by a woman, J.K.R. (as any reader of this blog knows is pretty rare) and 2. an anti-hero at best, but basically the story's main villian (Magneto).

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