Feminism, fire, fairy tales – and “Mother!”

Sarah Pickering: Glue Sniffing Kids, 2007

I stumbled out of “Mother!” disconcerted and feeling like I was still trapped in someone else’s nightmare.

My partner and I started walking the wrong way home from the cinema and realised, startled, that neither of us knew quite where we were. 

My initial reactions to the film were physical – my body expressing unease and fear beyond simply perching on the edge of my seat and turning the wrong way outside the cinema. My body was operating according to something akin to the logic of a panic attack. It didn’t feel like I had any control over my responses or my fears…

Sometimes when a panic attack is coming on, I have felt my skin sagging away from me only to suddenly realise this is because I’ve already fallen – somehow, inexplicably – back through several layers of my own being further inside my body and I am trapped, my breathing rough and my body alien.

I have said that, watching “Mother!”, I felt trapped in someone else’s nightmare but part of this was oddly feeling trapped in my own body and developing fears which I did not think were my own. The fears which “Mother”” forced upon me were, however, tapping into many deep and shared fears expressed in stories about women and about relationships: the fairy tales that expressed other people’s and other times’ cultural nightmares.


Note: upcoming spoilers and discussion of domestic violence, assault, murder and rape.

“Mother!” is an allegorical build-up of tensions, each of which piles upon the last. The dimensions and meanings of the film defy simple interpretation. It’s about organised religion, it’s about fame and the role of the author, it’s about creativity. The director himself has said it’s about humanity’s destruction of Mother Earth. But it is also about the nightmarish fears which stem from patriarchal power.

The film is one of all sorts of layers which seem to constrict around the central Mother of the story and around the film-goer who identifies with her and sympathises with her. There’s constriction ranging from the physical confinement generated by an octagonal house with several floors which brims with people and increasingly violent visitors – ranging all the way to less material anxieties of personal control and entrapment.

The woman simply billed as Mother (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is trapped within conformity to the patriarchy-assigned role of traditional motherhood long before chaos is unleashed on the film-world and her baby conceived.

She cares for her husband, Him (Javier Bardem), and she cares for the gothic mansion of a house in which they live, performing task after task to sustain the calm running of the house while he retreats to write.

Sarah Pickering: House Fire, 2007

Where I see Mother as a cypher of the ways women are coded in society – Mother, daughter, wife, carer, cook, cleaner, maintainer, sustainer, supporter, etc… – it is important to acknowledge that the intention behind this one dimensional female heroine was not necessarily the feminist one which her character has gained in my eyes as watcher. Mother and Him are both archetypal, but Mother is presented by a male film-maker and his other characters around her as a) young b) beautiful c) caring. His female character succumbs to what the male gaze might call hysteria…

More than simply sustaining, she is in a long process of rebuilding which is almost a re-birthing – not just of house but of man. She has (we learn early on in the film) single-handedly rebuilt a house from the charred remains of her husband’s house which burnt down before they met, and she seeks to re-start his creativity too (with the fire, he got writers’ block).  

It is at the very end that we find out how the house was destroyed and, in a vertiginous realisation, that the house will continue to be burnt down and rebuilt by wives ad infinitum… Wife after wife seeing her child murdered and burning up, the flames spreading out from her body to devour the house time after time… Him reaches his hand into the charred breast of Mother in gruesome, crackling penetration to pull out her heart: a charred crystal which the nauseated film-audience recognises already. It is a familiar shape. We know it as an ornament placed on his writing desk. Her heart, we are led to understand, has survived the fire as it is controlled by the love she feels for him and her auto-immolation has turned it into a beautiful sparkling crystal. We realise now that the crystal which sat in the forbidden room by his writing table was the heart of the last nurturing Mother.

The film ends with “Him” placing the heart of Jennifer Lawrence’s Mother in his writing room. We know that Him will keep the heart safe in a forbidden room until two nosy guests appear once more, and destruction will start from the moment they appear. We know he will not heed the next Mother, will not protect her or their baby from the hoards of fans who want any possible contact with him in the final nauseatingly violent act of the film. We know that the horrors we have seen will repeat over and over again. The film ends with the same sequence with which it started: the gleaming crystal being put in place, shots of the house beginning to cleanse and come back from charred death to beautiful, bright life. This is rebirth. And sure enough, the camera pans in both sequences towards the marital bed and there lies each time a woman who will play the part of Mother.

The nightmarish feeling of entrapment “Mother!” reaches crescendo after the final 20-minute segment of pure pain and struggle in which Jennifer Lawrence’s Mother struggles to save her baby, sees him murdered and eaten by vengeful hoards – and eventually realises that destroying herself and the house is her only way to elect her own future (or lack thereof) within the framework of her world. Burning the house and her own body is the ultimate destruction of a system which has tried to devour her – the system which her husband is part of and which cares only about her domestic tasks, her caring and birthing. Her own funeral pyre is the house and as the flames shoot out from her it feels like a purification rite, a ritual sacrifice.

Running under all of this are the deep fairy tale roots to “Mother!”’s disconcerting, gendered and domesticated entrapment. Fairy tales (and their place in our cultural memories) in fact hold the seeds of the nightmarish plot of wives repeatedly being killed and their lifeless bodies hoarded.

What is this if not the deep fear that men we love might, in the end, collude with the patriarchal systems which treat us as nothing more than a body to sustain life through nurturing tasks and through childbirth?

Sarah Pickering: Insurance Job, 2007

Angela Carter (that great re-worker of fairy tales) saw these folkloric stories as tapping into our deep dreads and desires. Our deepest wants and our worst fears are passed down generation to generation – and personified in the characters.

Fairy tales are typically about rights of passage and growing up, violence and rebirth. The early fairy tales share very little with the contemporary children’s collections we buy today in Waterstones and spin us yarns of pretty princesses and helpful polar bears; early fairy tales were dark and sinister. Growing up in these fairy tales did not involve young women dancing through woodland – instead, they involved young women marrying far older men, being taken away from their mothers, and consequently they invoked all the fears which could be associated to such patriarchy-produced fears as domestic servitude, imprisonment, devourment, abandonment and even rape. Pregnancy and marriage took on ambiguous positions, sometimes desired yet also bringing these young women into worlds of danger and adulthood.

Dangers for women within patriarchy intimately linked to this fear of death are of course domestic violence and assault. The United Nations say that worldwide almost half of all murdered women were killed by intimate partners or family members. In America, where “Mother!”’s director/writer Daren Aaronofsky is based, 3 women die on an average day because of the violence of their partners or husbands. It’s a staggering number of lives lost – and just the contemporary expression of a form of violence which has preoccupied women for so long.

Sarah Pickering: Cigarette, 2007

There is a specific fairytale, Bluebeard, which is about a man who serially murders his wives and hoards each woman’s body in his castle before marrying the next. Mythographer and writer Marina Warner has argued in From the Beast to the Blonde that the Bluebeard tale could be rooted in young girls’ fears of the risks of marriage in the historical context of arranged marriages – and I think these fears of possible bad endings and inequality are knitted into the historical fabric of marriage as an institution.

It is a story with a wide appeal historically and through time. It appears across diverse geographical areas and has its very own code number in the academic log categorising which designates themes and “types” in Indo-European fairy and folk tales (the Aarne-Thompson Folktale Types and Motif Index). It has also been one of the most commonly re-invoked and re-worked through literature, from a proliferation of Victorian references to Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” story. 

I feel that Bluebeard feeds into “Mother!”. Positioning “Mother!” in relation to the folk stories about serial killing husbands helps me – and, admittedly, perhaps only me – investigate a primal fear expressed through time in our culture and which I am sure I felt that night watching “Mother!” in the cinema. For although this is not a narrative about a serial killer husband, this is a narrative about women’s serial entrapment by a man which I think shows similarities and consistencies with the nightmarish Bluebeard story.

Mother as a self-immolating woman who can assert freedom from society’s stereotypes and constraints only through self-destruction also have a precedent in literature, and curiously one who is linked to the nineteenth century’s interest in Bluebeard, too. During filming, Jennifer Lawrence has said she needed ways to unwind from the intensity of the film and one tactic was reading Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre is a novel about a young woman who fears the imprisonment of marriage and discovers on her wedding day that her partner is in fact already married – to Bertha, whom he has literally imprisoned in his attic when he deems her to be mad. Jane Eyre took on the fears of Bluebeard’s women at a time when the fairy tale had become very popular again in the 19th century. So who knows, maybe these fears pushed into the actor’s unconscious?

Bertha rather than protagonist Jane the woman in Jane Eyre who unleashes resistant power through flame – burning the house and, with it, herself. Self-immolation in this novel and in “Mother!” is a last-ditch tactic to be free of neglectful husbands and, we could even say, the guests they invite in (in the case of Bertha, Jane is the unwanted guest) has a literary precedent in narratives of women’s imprisonment, then. (But on a side note, let’s not forget Jean Rhys’ feminist post-colonial reclamation of Bertha’s life is the text which managed to reclaim her voice and truly show her agency.)

I feel that Bluebeard feeds into “Mother!”. Positioning “Mother!” in relation to the folk stories about serial killing husbands helps me – and, admittedly, perhaps only me – investigate a primal fear expressed through time in our culture and which I am sure I felt that night watching “Mother!” in the cinema. For although this is not a narrative about a serial killer husband, this is a narrative about women’s serial entrapment by a man which I think shows similarities and consistencies with the nightmarish Bluebeard story.

Of course – the revelation of the cyclical nature of this storyline in the final five minutes of the film shows the full extremity of  entrapment. Him seems bound in by the constraints of repeating history more than the agent of repeated death.  Him is taken somewhat out of the Bluebeard realm and makes us suspect that perhaps he, too, is trapped…

Perhaps he is the devil, or perhaps he is cursed by the devil.

Perhaps he is an evil man, or perhaps he is just a man ensnared in patriarchal patterns requiring care and allowing destruction to overwhelm his family in the swarm.


Photography: Sarah Pickering, work from “Fire Scene series”

Sarah Pickering is a  London-based, British artist interested in fakes, tests, hierarchy, sci-fi, explosions, photography and gunfire. She is a Teaching Fellow at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, and has exhibited work internationally. Her monograph Explosions, Fires and Public Order is published by Aperture and MoCP.

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