Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American
Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview,
or a conversation, with a preeminent scholar in the field of American
popular culture studies.
This spring 2005 edition, we are featuring E. Ann Kaplan, Professor
of English and Comparative Literatures and founding Director of
the Humanities Institute at the State University of New York, Stony
Brook. In addition to producing countless lectures, journal articles,
book reviews, and book chapters, Professor Kaplan has published
no less than seven books (and edited or co-edited many others) including
Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera; Rocking around
the Clock: Music, Television, Postmodernism and Consumer Culture;
Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze,
and most recently, Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and
Loss in Media and Literature.
We interviewed Professor Kaplan to talk to her about the republication
of Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture
and Melodrama. Originally published in 1992, her seminal work
was reprinted by Routledge in 2002.
You dedicate your book Motherhood and
Representation to your daughter, Brett Kaplan, and your mother,
Trudie Mercer. Tell us about them in relation to the project of
I believe that all research is symptomatic. By which I mean that
we choose topics because they have intrinsic meaning to us in addition
to our wanting to make a scholarly contribution. I think the best
research emerges when there is that intrinsic perhaps unconscious
interest propelling us towards an area of study. This in no way
affects the scholarly nature of the project, just the energy and
drive behind the inquiry.
Giving birth in 1968, and before the second wave of the feminist
movement was underway, I found myself up against many rigid concepts
about what was, and what was not, “proper” to being
a mother. I hardly dared tell my thesis director that I was pregnant,
let alone the Chair of the department where I was doing adjunct
teaching. It was clear that being a working mother was not the norm.
When I got divorced a couple of years later, I realized that it
was even worse to be a single working mother.
The idea for the book arose out of these multiple experiences and
concerns. I wanted to know more about the history of motherhood
as a set of discourses, and since I was a film scholar, about images
and narratives of mothering. I wanted to know how it was that in
the imaginary of Western cultures women were divided into “virginal”
or saintly mothers and somewhat scorned sexual beings, in a situation
where never the twain should meet. Mothers could not be sexual it
seemed; sexual women could not be mothers. Where did this all arise
in mainstream U.S. culture? Why were these old ideas retained in
popular culture? How far had the ideas been produced by (largely
but not exclusively) male psychologists and psychoanalysts? How
far were any of the discourses based in unavoidable biological “givens”?
How far did discourse take advantage of biology?
You bring an openness and an honesty to your text, uncommon
in academic writing. For example, in your preface you write, “I
could not combine sex, work and motherhood during all those years
we lived together without any kind of ‘third’ to provide
a cushion or to usefully intervene in the dyad.” Why did you
decide to write in this style?
The “openness” and autobiographical comments are only
to be found explicitly in the preface. After that, I return to the
usual academic and scholarly discourse, although, as noted above,
the intensity of my ideas and the passion one can perhaps sense
behind the prose comes from what I say in the preface. I don’t
recall actively making a “choice” about being open.
I think I wanted my mother and my daughter to know in a public way
what they meant to me: Moreover, I wanted them to know that my relations
with them were an intrinsic part of the intellectual life that had
taken me away from them. I especially wanted my daughter to know
this, since she suffered the most from my being a single mother,
living far from my family, given the prevailing discourses and institutions
of the time. Few of my female colleagues had children; there was
very little tolerance of children in the workplace; there were few
appropriate or available daycare centers, and even fewer within
my meager financial resources.
It seemed important to put in print that women scholars’ lives
cannot so easily be divided into teaching and research on the one
hand, family on the other. Male scholars perhaps could do this since
at least at that time, they had their wives as homemakers. For working
women, things were intertwined and far more complicated.
Your book was first published in 1992 then reprinted in
2002. Do you have any thoughts about the decision to reprint it?
In regard to the reprinting of Motherhood, I was not consulted.
Had I known, I would have suggested writing a new preface, no doubt
containing some of my thoughts articulated for this interview. I
believe the book was ahead of its time: Interest in motherhood from
a critical feminist standpoint was only just starting. I assume
that the publishers recognized the ongoing interest in motherhood
and saw that my book still spoke to that interest in useful ways.
For which I am grateful, of course!
Before the second wave feminist movement, psychology and psychoanalytic
scholars had continued to research and write about mothers, but
mainly from traditional standpoints. Pioneering 1970s books by Jane
Lazarre, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Adrienne Rich had started a critical
exploration from contemporary feminist viewpoints when I decided
to examine images in film and popular culture with a brief look
back at the history of mothering discourses and at select literary
The decision to reprint was most likely the result of recent discussions
in the popular press about many career women’s decisions to
quit working or drastically reduce their career ambitions in order
to spend time with their babies. The discourse comes upon the heels
of a period (roughly 1995 to 2003) when it was (more or less) taken
for granted that middle-class mothers would continue to work –
whereas working class women had always had to do so. Daycare centers,
while still not abundant, had proliferated. If their cost was often
prohibitive, middle-class women were still using them or finding
The decision of a high profile government administrator in the Clinton
era to leave her post to be with her children sparked a response
in many career women enduring a similar sort of split between wishing
to have more time for their children and demands of the office.
While my book looks back to an earlier period, the questions it
raises about the tension for women between personal fulfillment
in intellectual or other kinds of work and fulfillment in raising
children perhaps apply to more women than ever today since more
middle-class women have entered the workforce.
What drew you toward melodrama?
Since I am a film and literary scholar and my project was about
images of the mother, I chose the literary and film genres that
focused on maternity and the domestic sphere. Thus, the so-called
sentimental women’s novel, theatre, and film melodrama had
to be central in the work. In the major film genres – the
western, the gangster film, film noir, the war film, epics –
others rarely figured and, if they did, they were in minor roles.
Partly because the sentimental novel and the melodrama focused on
mothers and women’s home lives, these genres were traditionally
scorned by the male literary and film establishment.
When I studied select texts in these genres, I found that they varied
in terms of the position the text seemed to adopt in relation to
the mother and the domestic sphere to which she was traditionally
limited. Some texts accepted that the mother was a figure necessarily
subservient to a dominant patriarchal order although the narrative
positioned itself within the mother’s point of view and showed
her suffering and often unjust treatment (East Lynne was
a classic example of such a text; Stella Dallas a more
complex one with later versions). Other texts offered stories that
challenged female and maternal subservience, and showed mothers
achieving independence, having sex outside of marriage, and finding
enough autonomy to leave home, even. I called these the “resisting”
texts to indicate that they questioned ruling discursive norms.
Talk to us about the mother-paradigm shift in relation to
In regard to the U.S. (and Eurocentric) cultures, I distinguished
three predominant mother paradigms which evolved during the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries along with the industrial revolution and
bourgeois culture – those of the angel in the house (saintly,
self-sacrificing mother); the over-indulgent, over-protective mother,
and the phallic or evil one, who is jealous of or tries to harm
her children. I focused on these paradigms because they form an
historical background against which to observe contemporary motherhood
discourses. Postmodern theories introducing the concept of flexible
identities did indeed enable me to conceptualize women in the late
twentieth century as having multiple non-essentialized identities.
Instead of being locked into the fixed identities – sex object,
mother (in its three forms), blue-stocking, mistress, etc. –
women are seen to occupy many different positions and subjectivities.
Before, the fixed identities were ones imposed by patriarchal culture.
Woman was sex object, not a subject of sexuality; her roles were
conceptualized from the perspective of patriarchy and its needs.
Postmodernism together with feminism opened up new possibilities
and new ways of thinking about women. How far in any specific context
women are able to mobilize and make use of these new possibilities
is another question. But western women at least now conceive of
themselves as having multiple roles, of which being a mother is
only one, and in regard to which the earlier paradigms barely apply.
It may be the most important or insistent identity until children
are grown up. But whether as choice or necessity, most women are
now combining motherhood with some kind of work or other pursuits
or interests during child-rearing years.
You do not discuss the fourth mother, the “real life”
mother. You “believe she is ultimately non-representable as
such,” yet she is “enormously important” to you.
What I had in mind here is that the infinite variety of individual,
specifically located mothers are impossible to write about with
any authority. There is simply too much variety in the ways women
experience and perform motherhood for any discussion to encompass
all practices, or to take account of how class and cultural differences
affect mothering. But I am arguing that we can locate and discuss
pervasive social mothering discourses, including images of and narratives
about mothers. While not every woman adheres to the norms these
discourses lay out, each mother in any specific historical moment
has to deal with, or adjust to them. The discourses provide a terrain
within which she must learn to mother. Her behaviors may not be
that much affected (although surely to an extent they will be),
but she may worry that she is not doing the right thing, that she
is failing somehow to live up to a norm, she may struggle with internal
feelings opposite to the norms, and in this way her mothering is
Robert Mitchell’s 2004 film The Mother provides a
good example of a mother who had to struggle against her own disinclination
to mother in a culture where she was supposed to stay home and enjoy
this role. This is what I had in mind when I said that “women,
like everyone else, can function only within the linguistic, semiotic
constraints of their historical moment.” I would not put it
quite so starkly now: It’s more that women have to deal with
whatever constraints (including political and social ones) apply
in any particular historical moment. They can depart to a degree,
but still they know about the constraints and have to decide how
far they can endure departing from norms.
The Mother addresses many a taboo
Yes, Mitchell’s film (made from a script by Hanif Kureishi)
addresses aspects of motherhood still rarely dealt with in cinema.
The film focuses on a middle-aged mother, apparently not close to
her grown-up children or her grandchildren, who arrives at her children’s
London homes when her husband suddenly dies…One theme deals
with the complexities of the mother’s relationship to her
daughter, who feels the mother never gave her affection, and never
encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. It turns out that indeed
the mother was not drawn to mothering, and struggled with guilt
about this. But a major theme is the mother’s newfound interest
in sex: The most dramatic episodes involve the middle-aged mother’s
sexual awakening when she is attracted to her daughter’s boyfriend.
The film dares to breach several cultural taboos: that of motherhood
and sexuality; of middle-aged sexual passion; and of a mother taking
a child’s lover for herself. The film does not judge the mother,
although it does not necessarily support what she does. Rather,
it opens up questions for spectators to think about in a historical
moment when such questions become possible.
In earlier times, mothering discourses were such that a mass media
work introducing issues such as these would rarely have gotten financial
backing. Only one text in my book, a very early one at that, dares
to approach the issue of motherhood and sexuality in any way other
than totally blaming the mother, and that is Herbert Brennan’s
1926 Dancing Mothers (interestingly, this is a film in
which the mother also takes her daughter’s lover, only in
this case without knowing that the man is involved with her daughter).
While we have moved away from the paradigms noted above to the extent
that they no longer determine the only possibilities for mother
figures, these images lurk behind much contemporary discussion of
motherhood. I believe they partly account for the new books arguing
for the pleasures of staying home instead of trying to have a career
along with mothering. The rationale is now different of course:
Women are saying that this is what they choose to do, not what is
forced upon them. And that is a big shift. Yet I wonder how far
that is really the case. Would such women make this choice if society
made it more possible to combine work and motherhood by having high
quality, state-funded child care in the workplace, for example?
Or by having flexible hours for office and factory workers at all
levels? Or really integrating men into child rearing, even more
than the new fathers today are integrated? And old paradigms may
be seen in the fact that women who may not want to mother are still
viewed critically, or as somehow “lacking” if they make
Psychoanalytic theory is integral to your argument.
Some of the pioneering books on motherhood by feminists combined
a psychoanalytic and sociological approach. As already noted, I
was inspired by the work of Adrienne Rich, Jane Lazarre, and Dorothy
Dinnerstein, all of whom brought feminist ideas to thinking about
motherhood, and included psychological aspects. Of these writers,
though, only Dorothy Dinnerstein used a psychoanalytic approach
(Object Relations, in her case) as such, and none of them dealt
with cinema in depth.
It seemed to me impossible to understand motherhood and mother-child
relations without using psychoanalysis. Much in regard to individual
behavior and feelings and to collective discourses about motherhood
has to do with unconscious traces of issues between children and
mothers. My approach was perhaps unusual in combining elements of
Object Relations psychoanalytic theory (this originated with Freud
but was developed by Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott) with elements
of French Lacanian theories as taken up by French feminists.
Lacan's concept of there being two related psychic registers –
that of the Imaginary and of the Symbolic – was useful in
differentiating the individual’s unconscious fantasy or idealized
mother figure from the social category of the mother set up by patriarchy.
I used this schema somewhat reductively, but it referred to an abstract
cultural system which subjects participated in without full awareness.
The scheme was particularly useful for analyzing images of the mother
in popular culture – the main topic of my book – since
cinema as a cultural form automatically reproduced these imaginary
and symbolic mother constructs. Films about mother-child relations
were extremely fruitful for pointing out ways western culture thought
about, and positioned, the mother.
Winnicott and other Object Relations theorists like Daniel Stern,
on the other hand, were useful for thinking about lived mother-child
relations. While this was not a main topic of the book, it was hard
to limit myself only to cinematic images when I had been inspired
by my own experiences as a mother to write the book in the first
place. In any case, it is hard for any subjects to keep separate
the realm of lived reality from that of fantasy and of images that
surround us in culture. It seemed to me that what film images did
not show was the ways in which the child needs a holding environment
between the shock of being born unprepared into the world and becoming
a subject in that world. A loving, caring figure is needed as the
child struggles to come to terms with, and learn to know, objects
as distinct from herself. But this figure does not have to be the
biological mother! In earlier eras, rich families hired nannies
to undertake this position. In our day, increasingly, it's the father
or grandmother who provides the holding environment. Or mothers
share the role with such family members. Read the New York Times
essay by Anemona Hartocollis published on Sunday, October 10th,
2004 about a pediatrician’s surprise at regularly seeing fathers
rather than mothers now in his waiting room.
Men, particularly Darwin, Rousseau, and Marx, affect motherhood
discourse as well.
From time to time, a thinker comes along who latches onto subtle
cultural shifts in norms and ways of being before anyone has had
time to realize any shift was taking place. The thinker sets about
theorizing the shift, and because in a sense cultures were unconsciously
preparing for it, the thinker’s work hits a nerve, arouses
discussion, and often then contributes to the shift taking place.
All three thinkers noted here are of this type. Of course, Freud
is as well, but I have discussed his centrality to my project already.
Darwin’s ideas of the survival of the fittest – misapplied
and taken out of context when popularized – gave rise to the
nineteenth-century (now discredited) eugenics movement, putting
pressure on middle-class women to have children and refuse birth
control (including abortion) in order to prevent deterioration of
the human species by the greater reproductive activity of the poor.
Rousseau’s Emile marks the shift to a new idea of
the child as a subject in its own right, and as requiring particular
care and attention along with specific education in morality and
citizenship if democracy is to succeed. Rousseau’s insight
was crucial for Freud’s work, of course, and for western culture’s
ongoing interest in and absorption with the child, but unfortunately
it also had the effect of putting the burden of caring for the child
on the mother. So, just as the child gets newly constituted by Rousseau,
so does the mother. This has some positive aspects for her as well
– it makes her important and gives her social responsibility.
But it locks her into the domestic sphere, at least in bourgeois
And this is where Marx comes in. That is, Marx provides a class
analysis for thinking about mothering, and this was a focus I could
not develop within the parameters of the book, although I deal at
length with working class and minority mothers in select films,
like Stella Dallas (1937), and both versions of Imitation
of Life. I note at the outset that for coherence and because
of the importance of bourgeois culture in modern industrializing
nations, and finally because the most popular works dealt with middle-class
society, I look mainly at the bourgeois mother. However, King Vidor’s
Stella Dallas, about a working class mother, demonstrates
points just made in that Stella believes her child will be better
off under the care of the upper middle-class mother than under her
own working class care.
You close your book by stating, “For women, one of
the most subordinated and fetishized positions has been that of
‘mother.’ Once this position is opened up as only a
part of any specific woman’s subjectivity, not the all-consuming
entirety of it; once any specific woman is seen to be constituted
‘mother’ only when interacting with her child; once
‘mother’ is no longer a fixed, essentialized quality,
then women may be freed from the kind of discursive constraints
and burdens studied in this book.” Here in 2005, has this
change begun? Have books like yours made a difference?
Hearing that quotation from my book, I realize just how much has
changed since I started my book! I had only to recall my own difficult
experiences being a mother and a full-time professor and to compare
my situation with that of my daughter, now also a full-time professor
with two very young children, to see that the mother position is
now indeed no longer taken as the all-consuming identity it still
was in the mid 1960's. My daughter apparently freed from the discursive
motherhood constraints and burdens that I studied in the book. Most
of her many female colleagues have children and juggle work and
mothering without discursive burdens. The literal burdens of women
having many roles is something else. But even here things have changed
drastically in that all the young fathers now share as much as they
can in the work of raising children. The children are seen as the
equal responsibility of both parents, and this has been an eye-opener
From the start, my son-in-law took a major responsibility for changing
diapers, dressing and feeding the babies, playing with them, going
to the doctor etc. The new 1980s images of the nurturing father
I talk about in the book finally also had a social reality in the
millennium. I am sure there are still many families in which the
burden for childcare still falls on the mother for all kinds of
reasons. Many lower class women are single working mothers, with
very few options. But what has changed is the expectation that fathers
will share in all aspects of child rearing. The father role has
been opened up to include "mothering," as it were.
Books like mine have certainly made a difference, but the Women's
Liberation Movement and various following feminist movements have
done the brunt of the work of opening up the mother position. Women's
Studies classes have no doubt also had a big impact on raising the
consciousness of new generations of women in regard to opening out
female identities beyond marriage and motherhood. The United States
economy, and the need (as well as the desire in many cases) for
most middle-class as well as working class women to work if couples
are to live in the lifestyle they want, or just to put food on the
table, has changed motherhood discourse as well.
Would you like to make any changes or additions to the text,
now, in 2005?
When I wrote this book, I had planned a follow-up volume that would
deal with multicultural mothers. I highlighted my difficult decision
to trace discourses in regard largely to white middle class women,
noting that middle class motherhood discourse, as is so often the
case, put pressure on other women (whether of different ethnicity
or class) to follow suit. Or, to put this better: These dominant
discourses often position people unable to fit the picture as somehow
“lacking.” The tendency is to strive for what the dominant
dictates. Thus, knowing this white middle class mothering discourse
and its histories, I thought would provide a starting point for
studying multicultural women and their dilemmas or attitudes towards
mothering. Unfortunately, as so often in my work, I took a sort
of sideways path to fulfilling the project instead of confronting
it head on. My next book, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film
and the Imperial Gaze, does look at mother-daughter relations
as imaged in films by multicultural women but the context is much
broader than the earlier volume, namely postcolonial studies and
oppressive images of ethnic “others” in general. As
I write, some of my students are working on images of motherhood
and ethnicity in literature. I may return to this lapsed project
in the future. In addition, increasing visibility is being given
to gay couples who are parents. While issues already mentioned are
no doubt pertinent to these couples as well, other specific concerns
may need study.
But aside from dealing with groups neglected in the book, I would
need now to deal with the very different “culture” in
the U.S. surrounding motherhood, some of it good, some questionable.
To begin with, as I said, it’s now assumed by new parents
today that the husband will play, if not quite an equal, at least
a highly involved role with the children. Secondly, it seems that
the concept of the “child-centered” family is now being
taken to extremes. Many parents make the child the focus of attention
and set all adult routines of eating and sleeping in accord with
the child’s routines. But it’s more than that: it’s
that thinking about the child governs everything while the child
is awake in ways that did not happen earlier. It may be that this
“child-centered” home is a function of the fact that
for much of the day both parents are at work, and the child is in
day care. Thus, the home time becomes child time. This makes a certain
amount of sense. But I wonder how far the child-centered concept
enters into families when one of the parents is not working? Are
those families less child-centered in this way? It would be good
to know. What is clear is a new interest in mothers taking pleasure
in their children, and either staying home with them, if they can
afford it, or drastically cutting back on career aims in order to
watch their children grow up. I would encourage interested readers
to look through the books reviewed in the New York Times Book
Review late in October of 2004.
What worries you?
One new worry has to do with new developments in genetics, which
may suggest a greater interaction of biology and culture than has
hitherto been theorized. Motherhood may be less a “choice”
than what’s called a “biological imperative,”
namely that people have kids in order to preserve their own genes.
While the danger here is yet one more reason to reify motherhood,
these new ideas deserve proper consideration. Another new worry
is what impact recent concepts amongst adolescents of the so-called
“non-dating game” might ultimately have on mothering.
Recent studies show that adolescents are turning away from dating
to “hooking up.” This generally means enjoying evenings
together which may end with intercourse but which carry no sense
of continued relating or what used to be called “going steady.”
It’s a less cumbersome way to satisfy sexual desire. Offhand,
it seems something that young men would conjure up as solving what
used to be the problem that the girl always wanted to go steady
and think of a permanent relationship while the boys always resisted
this. In a sense, girls used to get to be mothers by going steady,
fulfilling sexual desire that ended in marriage and children. If
young people grow up “hooking up” rather than thinking
of permanent bonding, how might this impact their thinking about
being mothers? Is this new fluidity a positive development in opening
up new kinds of bonding, alternatives to the traditional nuclear
family? Or is it merely a training in irresponsibility?
Several films, like Mitchell’s The Mother, made since
I wrote the book both in Hollywood and in other cinemas evidence
the complexity of ideas about mothering in the millennium. An article
in The Washington Post on Mother’s Day (May 7, 2005)
discussed recent polls on how mothers balance children, careers
and choices, showing that ideas about motherhood are indeed complex
and in transition at the moment. Gay parenting may offer a model
for opening up traditional nuclear family gender roles in a useful
way. I would like to look into the ways in which ideas about mothering
are changing in tandem with new alternative life styles.
I am also interested in the years following child-rearing, both
in terms of women at that stage theoretically able to make work
central to their lives, or having time to pursue completely new
interests. The role/identity of “grandmother” also interests
me, as I have just begun to occupy this position. Perhaps the topic
for the next book!
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