The true meaning of ‘mother!’ lies in the film’s feminist influences
Warning: Spoilers for mother! ahead.
mother! isn’t just the name of the most WTF movie in theaters right now — it’s also what critics are cursing under their breath (followed by a modifier rhyming with “trucker”) trying to understand what the hell Darren Aronofsky’s even saying with his latest film.
The most popular theories suggest:
– It’s actually just a biblical allegory!
– It’s just a meditation on the relationship between artist and muse!
– It’s actually a cautionary tale against climate change!
– It’s actually just a shitty movie!
– It’s actually just pop culture’s most intense Rorschach test!
But with Aronofsky, it’s never just one thing. And this time, even he may not understand what actually makes his film so powerful.
Oddly, one of the least-parsed ideas is what mother! says about, well, motherhood. And women, and creation, and domesticity, and femininity.
Possibly, it’s overlooked because, for one, Aronofsky won’t stop running his dam mouth about how we should interpret his movie. For another, it’s so literal (see: the movie’s title), critics seem hard pressed to explore anything so obvious in a film as enigmatic as this one.
But unpacking these themes shed light on some of mother!‘s greatest accomplishments.
Whether intentional or not, the film is — at its best— a descent into the madness of idealized female domesticity. It borrows heavily from the symbolism of pioneering feminist writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf, both of whom paved the path for Aronofsky’s uniquely feminine horror.
Jennifer Lawrence, a young wife known only as “Mother,” pours her heart into renovating her husband’s burned-down home. Javier Bardem’s “Him,” an esteemed poet, feeds off her painstaking labors, only to take credit for them as they fuel his ego-driven creative pursuits.
The camera obsesses over Mother, unwaveringly, using tight close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots. It’s a rare example of conveying the female gaze in film, and it’s integral towhat makes mother! so visceral.
Aronofsky himself hasn’t been shy about his intentions for the film as an allegory for man’s destructive relationship to the environment, casting Lawrence as the “spirit of mother nature” itself.
When that’s scrutinized even a little, though, the whole movie falls apart into a ham-fisted and confused metaphor. The internal logic of a biblical allegory for religion that’s also a firsthand account of climate change from nature’s perspective just doesn’t track.
But in viewing Lawrence’s character as an encapsulation of domestic feminine ideals, a much clearer and more intimate meaning emerges (with character arcs that actually make sense).
For example, Mother is exclusively confined to (if not downright imprisoned in) the home. Interpreting this through the lens of Virginia Woolf, that symbiotic relationship makes total sense. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes:
“…Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force.”
If Aronofsky intended for Lawrence to be seen as the environment, he did a bad job of telling that visual story. Powerless and compliant, Mother can’t even take a step outside into nature and is never once associated with the color green or any other earthly motifs.
Though Mother creates the domestic sphere, it is still His house
More than anything, Mother instead resembles the feminine ideal (popularized in Victorian literature) called the “Angel in the House.”
As characterized by Woolf, “every house had its Angel.” This Angel of a wife was the picture of purity, grace, subservience, and charm, who blissfully “sacrificed herself daily” on the alter of domestic duty.
Early on, Aronofsky’s Mother explains that she “want[s] to make a paradise” out of His home, pouring her soul into the restoration — constantly decorating, cooking, housekeeping. Always dressed in flowing virginal whites, she’s gracious, meek, selfless, obedient.
She withstands blow after blow of Him undermining her work on the house, as he sacrifices every one of her labors to total strangers.
“All I’m trying to do is bring life into this house!” he insists when Mother asks Him to send the swarm of worshippers that invade their home away — forgoing any care that it’s she who bore the house life. Because even though Mother creates the domestic sphere, it is still His house.
“You give and you give and you give and it’s just never enough,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, credited as “Woman,” tells Mother while pressuring her to fulfill yet another feminine duty. “Have kids, then you’ll be creating something together. This is all just… setting.”
The mindless self-sacrifice of the domesticated woman isn’t only taken for granted, but also robs Mother of her very humanity. She becomes a concept: the Angel, a muse, His goddess, an inexhaustible resource of sympathy to soothe the man of the house.
As Woolf might’ve warned Mother, becoming the proverbial Angel in the House is a fatal course — especially for women’s capacity to create for themselves.
“Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer,” Woolf said. “Had I not killed her,” Woolf continued, speaking of the spectral Angel of Domesticity that hung over her, “she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
And inevitably, Lawrence’s Mother does have her heart plucked out — even after she has “nothing left to give.” Her final sacrifice rebirths the cycle, creating a new women (or Angel) in the House, until she too will eventually be used up, deteriorating into nothing more than a crystal of reflective glass — her love acting as a mirror for His ego.
Woolf had a thing or two to say about men, women, and reflection, too:
“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
The common theme throughout mother! and its feminist forbearers is the concept of female creation as an ultimate sacrifice, that men use as an expendable labor for their fulfillment.
By binding herself to the physical home at the end, Mother joins a tradition of women entrapped (and ultimately suffocated) by domestic norms. She becomes a shadow of herself, reduced to a pile of ash.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper alsotells the story of a wife caged inside a deteriorating home by her esteemed physician husband. After the birth of their child, he diagnoses her with “female hysteria,” confining her to a bedroom with instructions to only concern herself with domestic life as a cure. Importantly, he forbids all other activity, including even writing in a journal.
Devoid of stimulation and creative expression, the protagonist descends into madness, becoming obsessed with the room’s decaying wallpaper. She begins to see the creeping shadow of a woman trapped behind the wall. In the end, the yellow patterns devolve into bars, and she finds herself and countless other women imprisoned behind its domestic confines.
In mother!, Lawrence is seen plastering a wall with white paint, before pointedly choosing yellow instead. As she works, she feels the beating heart of the house for the first time, withering and dark, thumping beneath the wall.
Aronofsky’s been uncharacteristically cagey about the significance of the yellow substance Mother ingests throughout the film. But it appears to bring her equal docility and derangement — kind of like how the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper mistakes his wife’s madness for tranquility.
And there it is: As a tale about the devaluation and oppression of female creation, mother! is a singular success. It might retread themes women have been writing about for generations —Sylvia Plath, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton — but the fact is that there’s no other contemporary film like it.
And despite Aronofsky deeming it a crafty political message at heart, the movie’s ultimate truth might be even more alienating to potential moviegoers than a metaphor for environmentalism: That women’s art, humanity, and ability to create is constantly co-opted by men who abuse their labor to make themselves feel like God.
To that end, you can go with a man’s artful, political, ultimately self-important interpretation.
Or you can take mother! — a thriller in which a man disassembles a woman piece by piece until she completely loses all sense of her self and life—at its most face-value, literal word.