Depicting Mom in Entertainment, Part 3

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Mom in Large FamilyOn our company blog a couple of months ago, I wrote a post entitled “Depicting Mom in Entertainment.” It quickly found its way to the top of the most popular posts’ lists and has remained there since. Then last weekend, I received an email from Pam Eichner, an actress who had just played the part of “a REAL mom” in an upcoming film entitled Father in Israel. Having seen several clips from the film, I could agree with her that this role was distinct from the typical depictions of Mom in movies. She read the post and described it in these words: “Wow! You were scary accurate in what you say about the way moms are portrayed on film!” Because of the response to this first posting, I’ve treating the topic here with a little more detail.

This post was originally prepared as a Guest Post for the blog: Light Refreshments Served.

Mom in Large FamilyOn our company blog a couple of months ago, I wrote a post entitledDepicting Mom in Entertainment.” It quickly found its way to the top of the most popular posts’ lists and has remained there since. Then last weekend, I received an email from Pam Eichner, an actress who had just played the part of “a REAL mom” in an upcoming film entitled Father in Israel. Having seen several clips from the film, I could agree with her that this role was distinct from the typical depictions of Mom in movies. She read the post and described it in these words: “Wow! You were scary accurate in what you say about the way moms are portrayed on film!” Because of the response to this first posting, I’ve treating the topic here with a little more detail.

Recently, a group of friends and I (all men) were discussing how to effectively define and execute the role of mother in a media entertainment project which we are developing about family life. We were discussing the differences between two classic iconic depictions of mother, June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver and Maria from The Sound of Music (Julie Andrews).

From personal, first-hand observations of a mother in action, I quickly leaned to the side of the “Maria” depictions in film, where the mother figure is active, engaging, and involved hands-on in the rearing of the family. I honestly had a hard time finding a memorable performance of mother in an unbroken family in any movie that I could reference. Maria was about as close as I could come.

Later, as my wife and I discussed this idea, we came up with a list of only four films that we could recall that had a strong traditional mother figure: Fiddler on the Roof (1971), The Secret of Nimh (1982), The Road Home (1999), and To Live (1995). These last two are Chinese films. All are fictional stories, yet their humanity and entertainment value comes from a real depiction of mother. For the benefit of the discussion, I will briefly describe the Chinese films mentioned here.

The Road Home is the story of a son’s struggles to understand his mother’s request to comply with an old Chinese custom at the death of his father. With a flashback into the mother’s youth that occupies the bulk of the film, her son learns why her request has so much meaning beyond just the fulfilment of an obsolete custom.

To Live is an epic film that follows a husband and wife through their lifetime together. The film starts with the young mother, with child in arms, leaving her husband who is addicted to gambling. After a season of separation, wherein the young father loses everything, the two are reunited. One of the most memorable scenes of this film is their reunion. When he finally returns home, he finds her in the streets of their little town working to deliver hot water to the doors of the sleeping townsfolk. She pulls a small cart with hot water while carrying her baby strapped to her back and her older child standing by her side.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the way in which the mother figure is treated in a film and the film’s overall adherence to moral principles are directly related. It is curious that of the four films with strong mother figures in dominant roles, each of these films also enjoys an inherent sense of order – an unspoken sense of what is right and what is wrong.

Really, we’ve seen so much of the other depicted in our movies — stately housewives who are always perfectly dressed ready to attend to the need of their children and husbands. I’m obviously addressing a classical era, Hollywood stereo type. The alternative is to make the mom either the unattractive villainous type or, even more commonly, remove her altogether from the storyline.

The alarming and disturbing absence of the mother in our most popular cinema is prevalant in our time. There was the string of Disney princess films that came out in the 1990’s. I can’t criticize the films for their entertainment value, but it is curious that the mother figure is absent in each, except The Lion King (which wasn’t a princess film).

I submit that a very dynamic and engaging entertainment experience is being removed without Mom involved in the story. This isn’t being done deliberately, but with Mom out of the picture, there is very little else left to defend a true moral order in film. Perhaps the absence of Mom is synonymous with the absence of any moral bearings in our entertainment.

Thinking about my own experiences with motherhood (as a husband, father, and son), there are few roles that are more important yet more misunderstood. We were recently again reminded in our own home of the pivotal importance of Mom being there at the “crossroads” of our children’s comings and goings.

Working from home, I am exposed to my wife’s daily struggles to maintain order in the chaos of a growing family. Occasionally, I become the recipient of her frustrations. More frequently, I am blessed to witness her enjoyment and interaction with our children. Indeed, I am witness to the simple truth that the greatest joys available to us are found in family life.

Yet, in what we call entertainment–material designed for our engagement, enjoyment, and recreation– whenever a depiction of Mom is attempted, she is squeezed of her vibrancy and energy and considered to be either too flat, too stiff, or altogether irrelevant to any major plot.

Then there is Golde, the mother from Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Golde becomes, as the film progresses, the one stable figure upon which all the world revolves around. She is the only member that remains in tact in a swirling chaos of change in her family unit. Surely it wasn’t Tevye that kept the family together. He was caught up in his social drinking and obsession over his daughters’ violation of traditions. This film is ultimately a tribute to family, which allows it to rise above its Jewish faith to address that universal theme of family. It is a tribute to those that will always fight harder than anyone else to keep the family unit in tact, the mothers.

But what else is there? Where are the really good depictions of Mother in the movies that we view? I am especially looking for examples where the mother plays the lead or a very strong secondary support. I would like to know why in your opinion this is a good example of motherhood and why it resonates with you.

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About the Author: Brent Leavitt is a producer of children’s media. He has almost completed the pilot project in a series of six short stories adapted from The Friend magazine. Each story focuses on social values or moral leadership at home and in the community. To learn more about these projects, visit http://www.sunswingmedia.com/animation/

Brent also manages a blog about LDS cinema for a global audience at http://www.sunswing.org/

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Brent is married to a very supportive woman, is father of a large family, and went into business for himself in 2006.

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