From Tanya Horeck (Anglia Ruskin University ) a reflection on motherhood and mediating functions that risk limiting our visions of kinship, especially under lockdown.
In this enforced period of social isolation for Covid-19, when we are bound to our homes without the usual social supports that help to sustain us, discussions of the gendered imbalances of domestic labour and childcare have resurfaced. Single parents, the majority of whom are women, are facing a particularly heavy burden. Reports have emerged of working mothers struggling to keep up with the demands of work and home life. And, while the injunction to ‘stay at home’ promotes a vision of the home as a safe haven, reports of domestic violence and a rise in image-based sexual abuse following increased screen time during Covid-19, puts considerable pressure on an idea of domestic bliss. The economic and capitalistic structures that produce and support the ‘private’ conditions of home life need to be critically interrogated. As Jilly Boyce Kay has argued in a recent essay for Feminist Media Studies, ‘the family in its current historical manifestation is not a “retreat” or a “haven” from the vagaries of the market economy, but rather a model of privatised care that functions as a resource for capitalism, at the same time as it insidiously constrains the possibilities for more expansive and collective models of love, care, and kinship’.
Now is the time for critical reflection on different models of collective care and forms of solidarity. (And for reading on that, check out ‘Covid-19 Pandemic: A Crisis of Care‘ by The Care Collective.)
As a single mother with a full-time job, it probably doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out why, during quarantine, I might be drawn to a subgenre I have decided to call ‘single-motherhood-struggle-for-survival’ texts. My themed playlist centres around representations of single mothers on film and TV which I find compelling for the ways in which they invite empathy and resist judgement. But, while my chosen texts may focus on single mothers, their resonance is much wider than that; what unites the cultural objects on my list is that they refuse the rights and wrongs of morality. Instead, they create a space for an ethical questioning of how we come to hold particular views and positions, and what it might take to rearticulate the terms by which we encounter and support others.
Room (Lenny Abramson, 2015)
As I attempt to find ways to fill these lockdown days with activities for the children in order to keep them distracted from the overwhelming sense of impending doom, I find myself thinking of the film Room. Directed by Lenny Abramson (who also, incidentally, directed six episodes of the pandemic hit TV series Normal People), Room recounts the daily routines devised by a young woman (Brie Larson) to help her and her five-year-old son who was born into captivity (Jacob Tremblay) survive the horrific experience of being held prisoners for seven years in a garden shed they call ‘Room’. What stays with me the most is the mother’s attempt to provide a sense of structure and purpose to her child’s life in the midst of the unspeakable.
Better Things (Pamela Adlon, 2016-)
Better Things is a TV dramedy which follows the life of a white middle-aged single mother, Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) who lives and works as an actor in Los Angeles while also raising her three daughters. Based on Adlon’s own life, the first two series were co-written and produced with Adlon’s former writing partner Louis CK. Following revelations of CK’s inappropriate sexual behaviour with female comedians, he was dropped from the series (something which, for me at least, came as a relief). The third series is helmed by Adlon on her own, and it begins with an episode that shows Sam’s experiences of menopause. It’s a show that doesn’t sugar coat the struggles of single motherhood and what it does very well is demonstrate the co-existence between moments of fun and warmth and moments of strife and melancholy. While Sam has her fair share of sexual encounters, the series is not fixated on finding her a romantic heterosexual partner; instead, it shows the importance of an alternative, chosen family of friends.
The first three series of Better Things are available on BBC iplayer
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
The directorial debut of Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is an Australian horror film about motherhood. The female protagonist, Amelia (Essie Davis), is a widowed single mother of a young boy, six-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman), who was born after her husband died in a car crash en route to the hospital. An exhausted Amelia becomes more and more isolated as she struggles to cope with her son’s increasingly difficult behaviour and his anxieties around whether the monster ‘Babadook’ of his fairytale book might, in fact, be real. There are few films that evoke the sense of entrapment in the home as chillingly as The Babadook, and its themes of insomnia, mental illness and desperation take on all kinds of new resonances in our current cultural moment. As with my other choices, The Babadook is a text that sympathetically reflects on the ambivalence of motherhood.
Wasp (Andrea Arnold, 2003)
Wasp is a short film by British director Andrea Arnold about a poor, young, white single mother of four children, Zoe (Natalie Press), as she attempts to grab a moment of happiness for herself by going on a date to the pub with an old boyfriend (Danny Dyer). I love Arnold’s films for how they resist the didactic tendencies of the social problem movie, and work on the level of affect and sensation: it is through their non-narrative, affective moments that they most powerfully implicate the spectator. Though the film shows the mother making some dubious choices, the camera work positions us in close, visceral relation to the young woman and her children and opens up a space for a form of ethical, empathetic spectatorship. As with Arnold’s other films, Wasp compels the viewer to check any judgments (rooted in notions of class and gender) that they may have previously made about the mother. It is notable the extent to which we are worried about the young children – the film is extraordinarily suspenseful – at the same time as we are sympathetic to Zoe and her sexual desires.
Wasp is available for viewing on YouTube.
The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
The Florida Project is another film about a struggling young single mother that privileges empathy over judgment. Directed by Sean Baker, the film is set in a welfare motel on the outskirts of Orlando, just outside of Disney Land. It begins with a shot of two young children sitting outside, leaning up against the lurid purple wall of the Magic Castle motel, as Kool & the Gang’s disco classic ‘Celebration’ begins to play over the opening credits. There is not a plot to speak of, and yet it is totally absorbing to follow these children on their naughty escapades around the motel and its environs. The film builds towards one final, emotional crescendo that is truly stunning for how it pulls the viewer into the complicated coordinates of the moment.
Little Fires Everywhere (Liz Tigelaar, 2020)
Executive produced by five women (Kerry Washington, Reese Witherspoon, Liz Tigelaar, Lauren Neustadter and Pilar Savone), Little Fires Everywhere explores motherhood through the critical lens of race, class, and socio-economic status. Thoughtful depictions of black single motherhood in mainstream culture remain rare, and Little Fires Everywhere attempts to disrupt stereotypes. We can debate the show’s melodramatics and heavy-handedness but it has important things to say about white privilege and the rhetoric of ‘choice.’
Little Fires Everywhere is available to stream in the UK n Amazon Prime.
One Day at a Time (Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, 2017-)
Please don’t let the laugh track put you off. Netflix’s One Day at a Time is a fiercely political and very affecting remake of the original sitcom (which ran on CBS from 1975-1984). This new version centres on a divorced single Cuban American mother (Justine Machado) who lives in an apartment with her two children (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz) and her mother (Rita Moreno). It ran for three seasons on Netflix before being axed, (much to the horror of the show’s loyal fans), but it has since been rescued by Pop TV, which is running its fourth series. On June 16th, 2020 it released a special animated episode, ‘The Politics Episode’ (see sneak peek below).
Series 1-3 are available for viewing on Netflix.
Tanya Horeck is a reader in Film, Media, and Culture at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. She is author of the book Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film and the newly released Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era.