Moms on the big screen

May 12, 2017

English faculty member’s book explores how the world looks at mothers in film

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world—when you see a mother on the big screen, she’s likely to be filling one of two stereotypical roles, says Dr. Asma Sayed, faculty member in the Department of English: the glamorized “sacrificial” mother who is enthusiastic and will give up anything and everything for her children, or the “demonic” mother who won’t.

“Most film doesn’t present motherhood as a day-to-day normal part of a woman’s life, but rather as one of these situations,” she says. Asma spent three years as an editor working on Screening Motherhood in Contemporary World Cinema, the first book to explore how mothers are portrayed in multiple cinematic traditions.

While there has been some change in the way mothers are represented in film—she cites the Hindi cinematic tradition, the one she grew up with and now studies, as one example—there’s still a lot of room for growth.

“Over the last 20 years, Hindi cinema has evolved. It used to portray sacrificial mothers who fought against all odds to raise their children—even if they were young women, they were made to look old to reflect their hard work as mothers. It’s a very sad representation, in a way, yet one that is supposed to be satisfying.”

In today’s Hindi films, she says, modern mothers are more likely to be on-trend when it comes to fashion, but less so when it comes to other parts of their lives.

“She’s still willing to give up everything for her children,” says Asma. “A woman who wants a career for herself, for example, is not embraced in mainstream popular Hindi cinema.”

“ When we only see a simplified picture of motherhood, the real issues get buried.Asma Sayed 

Seeing that change made Asma wonder how motherhood was represented in other film cultures, but when she looked for a book that approached the subject from a global context, there was nothing.

“I found books about motherhood in specific cinematic traditions such as Mexican cinema, Indian cinema and in Hollywood, but none that looked at the international, interlinguistic, intersectional dimensions of motherhood.”

So she set out to put one together. In the process of requesting contributions and doing her own research, she discovered films that stretched beyond the stereotypes, but they tended to be few and far between—and not usually big-banner movies that made their way into mainstream theatres. Why does that matter?

“When we only see a simplified picture of motherhood, the real issues get buried,” says Asma. “Mothering is nuanced, and the glamour that films attach to motherhood is somewhat detached from reality.”

Studying mom

Motherhood studies is a term coined just over a decade ago by Andrea O’Reilly, a professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at York University in Ontario.

“It’s a new and quickly developing field,” says Asma, who started exploring the area while teaching a course on women’s literature that included Indo-Canadian author Anita Rau Badami’s novel Tamarind Mem.

In her classes, Asma is careful to make sure her students understand the difference between motherhood and mothering.

“I remind my students that motherhood is an institution that is situated within a patriarchal structure where women often carry a double burden—working outside of the home while doing the majority of the work at home—and are constantly pushed to aspire to be ‘good’ mothers. Mothering, on the other hand, is a choice, an experience.”

It could be argued that the role of movies is more entertainment than social commentary, but Asma thinks it's important to dig deeper into what we are consuming on screen.

“Film is a tool that allows us to look at the broader socio-cultural, political and historical representations and expectations tied to motherhood,” says Asma. “I think of this book as an attempt to push boundaries. It’s a reminder to continue to push for the social infrastructure needed to raise our next generation. We should question all productions—whether film, media, social media or even things like Mother's Day gifts—and consider what the commercialization of something very natural and integral to us all is saying about mothers, what we expect from them and how we represent motherhood in the public sphere."

And while change might come slowly—after all, film is a commercial venture and filmmakers are understandably hesitant to mess with a formula that sells—Asma hopes the book starts a conversation.

“We need to see more nuanced ways of representing mothers,” she says. “I hope we see producers and directors think about how mothers in film are represented, and start to take more chances and push boundaries.”

Although Asma’s study of motherhood began as a purely academic interest, her scholarly pursuits are starting to cross over into her personal life. She is working on a memoir that explores how the relationships with the women in her life—her grandmother, her mother and others—have affected the person she is today. Read an excerpt from “Zohra – My Mother,” a chapter  Asma is working on with support from the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Borderlines Writers Circle program.

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