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Susan Celia Greenfield

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Women and Film: Cinderella Redux at the Oscars

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 3:50 pm

Now that all the hoopla is over, I have to say I'm glad "The Descendants" lost the Oscar for Best Picture. Don't get me wrong; I love to watch George Clooney, especially when he is befuddled and heartbroken by a woman. What disturbed me was the movie's denigration of the mother-daughter bond.

Consider the broad outline of the movie's plot. The mother, Elizabeth King, is comatose and brain-dead. The explicit cause of injury is a water skiing accident. The implicit one is poetic justice for cheating on her husband. Elizabeth's oldest daughter, Alex, discovers the infidelity and reports it to her father. Then, as her mother lays dying, she bonds with him on a pilgrimage.

The bad mother-daughter bond is an old familiar story. And I mean old. Throughout narrative history, mother characters have been evil or dead or both. Daughter characters have suffered. We all know about dead mothers and bad stepmothers in fairy tales. The earliest written version of "Cinderella" descends from ninth-century China.

You might think the story is largely the province of male authors. It is not. By the end of the eighteenth century, for instance, so many novels by women featured dead mothers and their suffering daughters that Jane Austen parodied them. "Northanger Abbey" opens by announcing that instead of dying in childbirth "as any body might expect," the heroine's mother "still lived on -- lived to have six children more . . . and to enjoy excellent health." How ironic then that four of Austen's own novels feature dead mothers or bad mother-daughter bonds.

The novel that "The Descendants" is based on was written by a woman. So was the movie "The Help," which should have won an Oscar for the greatest number of dysfunctional female relatives. Even "Pariah," Dee Rees coming of age film about a black American lesbian, which was far too anti-establishment to be nominated for an Oscar, features a mother's cruelty to her daughter. Meanwhile, the father calls the heroine "daddy's little girl."

To be sure, bad mother-daughter bonds do not necessarily make for bad movies. I enjoyed all three of these films. And other family relationships have their own cinematic problems. In "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," the father is dead and the son, like Cinderella, must survive without his same sex parent.

Nevertheless, the popularity of stories about alienated female relatives bodes poorly for women's progress. A positive mother-daughter story raises the possibility that women's obligations to each other could be socially respectable and valued. It suggests that daughters can honor and inherit their mother's reproductive powers. Instead, many movies prove that the maternal body cannot be trusted. Daughters must learn to pledge familial allegiance to men. Given the current attack on women's reproductive rights, is it any wonder that the mother in "The Descendants" is in a coma or that the daughter does not revive her?

The good news here is that "The Descendants" lost the Oscar. What's more, "A Separation," which presents a largely positive version of the mother-daughter bond, earned the award for Best Foreign Film -- and this pro-woman story takes place in Iran!