Featured Guest:
Professor E. Ann Kaplan

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 this study.

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 representations.

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 other solutions.

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 postmodernism.

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 impacted upon.

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 subject.

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 this choice.

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 families.

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 for me.

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.

What’s next?

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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