How does Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) dramatize the theme of mother-blaming that we began to consider last week?
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How does Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) dramatize the theme of mother-blaming that we began to consider last week?
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The idea of mother-blaming in Imitation of Life has some parallels with Freud’s concept of mother-blaming, while also introducing new forms of mother blaming. The start of the film initializes this when Lora is looking for her daughter at the pier; while it could be a simple honest mistake of a child running off, Steve Archer takes notice of this. His body language and facial expressions at the start of the film show slight signs of disbelief and disappointment. When Steve comes to Lora’s apartment later in the film, he presents Lora with a picture he titles, “Mother in Distress” and speaks to how it is a good picture. While Steve may be motivated by romantic interest for Lora, he does somewhat benefit from Lora’s mothering skills in the form of that picture. While Freud’s idea of mother-blaming stats that a female child will grow hateful towards their mother over the lack of female genitalia, Imitation of Life introduces the concept of a child being hateful towards their mother because of racial dynamics.
Specifically, Annie’s Daughter Sarah Jane, who is ‘light-skinned’ or ‘white-passing’, shows a-lot of anger to her mother during the school scene. As Sarah Jane has a lighter complexion, she passes of as white in her class, and when Annie brings food/clothing for Susie at her school, the teacher and class are in disbelief as there were thought to be no ‘colored-children” in the class. Sarah Jane storms of the class and proclaims hate for her mother as her true identity has been revealed. Sarah Jane struggles with her identity throughout the movie; she is attacked by her boyfriend and fired from her job. This fuels her ongoing battle with her racial identity and eventually leads for her to separate from her mother completely. She does not acknowledge her mother, and only at the very end of the movie does she feel riddled with guilt and is apologetic.
Thus, the only thing in-line with Freud’s mother-blaming, is a child having anger towards a parent, however the reasons for this are drastically different from what Freud thinks they are. Sarah Jane is angry at her mother due to struggles of racial identity; Susie, who has a more positive adolescent relationship with her mother, grows somewhat resentful as Susie has taken a romantic interest in Steve Archer. Thus, Freud’s ideology does not hold up here and conflict between mother and daughter must be attributed to separate issues.
In Imitation of Life the theme of mother blaming was prevalent throughout the film. Two of the main characters portrayed in the film, Lora and Annie, play two different mother roles that are explored throughout the film, and often shown in a dramatic light that highlights themes of mother blaming.
Lora, a white woman and single mother widow is one of the main mother characters. From the beginning of the film, Lora is shown to be a less than adequate mother. She loses her daughter Susie at the beach in the opening scene portraying her as incompetent in her motherly, protective role. She is shown to fail at the bare minimum motherly task of protecting her daughter. We quickly see that Lora has other struggles, that she cannot pay her bills and keep up with other home duties expected of a traditional mother figure. Because she is the only parent in her home, all of the blame for these home and mother issues fall of Lora. But the main ‘problem’ with Lora as a mother that is explored throughout the film is that she has big dreams of becoming a successful actress that she prioritizes over more homely and motherly duties and jobs. She rejects Steve Archer, an eligible bachelor who wants to provide for her and Susie and their home, in order to continue to try to become an actress even though she is in a current position of struggle. This choice dramatizes the position she is in choosing between career and motherhood, and her prioritization of work as a problem. Later in the film Lora does become very successful. In this new role she finds monetary and social success. She speaks to how she is now able to provide for Susie in all of the ways that a mother should. However, this new work position only opens up another opportunity for mother blaming, as she becomes a bad mother because she has no time for her daughter. The viewers see that Lora misses many important moments in Susie’s life, as Susie begins to treat Annie as more of a trustworthy motherly figure than Lora. This is exacerbated at the end when Susie is in love with Steve Archer and the mother and daughter experience intense conflict. Susie decides to move away from Lora, portraying Lora in a light of being a failure of a mother. There is blame placed on Lora for the mother role she fails to properly fulfill at all points of her life in the film.
Annie, the other main mother, is a black single mother with a white passing daughter named Sarah Jane. Also from right off the beginning of the film Annie is shown to now be able to provide a place to live and money to help her daughter. Even though Annie takes care of Susie at the beach, the failed mother blame is apparent in her inability to provide for Susie as a good mother should. Annie plays a much different role throughout the film as she acts to perform many of the home and motherly duties for both Susie and Sarah Jane. We see Annie to have high morals that she tries to instill in both girls as she cares for them. However, there is constant conflict between Sarah Jane and Annie as Sarah Jane wants to pass as white in order to live the life she believes she deserves. As a result she pulls away from Annie and acts in secret. The blame for Sarah Jane acting out, having a secret boyfriend, dancing in clubs, and other similar acts is placed on Annie. She is the mother, and so if Sarah Jane doesn’t turn out ‘good’ then it is Annie who is to blame for her daughter’s actions. Sarah Jane’s dramatic choices and the conflict and consequences that result act to significantly dramatize the mother blaming on Annie, as she often screams her blame at her. In the end, this culminates in Annie appearing to die of eventual heartbreak because Sarah Jane disowns her in order to be white. Sarah Jane blames Annie, and as Annie dies we see Annie blame herself, in a very dramatic scene of intense mother blaming. Both characters show dramatic and different experiences of the mother blaming theme we have been discussing.
In Douglas Sirk’s 1959 movie, Imitation of Life, the theme of mother-blaming is highlighted throughout the film. Lora, the main character of the film has the dreams of becoming a famous actress in Hollywood. Despite her “late” start, she quickly becomes the successful actress she has always dreamed of becoming. To complicate Lora’s narrative, she is a widow with two daughters. With the help of her maid Annie, life is made a little easier. In the film we see Lora, a career driven woman, face the challenge of raising two kids while also chasing her actress aspirations.
In one of the first scenes of the film, we see Lora looking for her daughter Susie at the beach. Lora temporarily loses Susie but quickly discovers she is with her maid Annie. Immediately, the viewers are made to think that Lora is a careless, forgetful mother. Throughout the movie, Annie takes on the role of becoming a mother figure to Lora’s daughters while she is busy with her job. Lora’s youngest daughter Susie even mentions at one point that she wishes she was raised by her own mother, not Annie. The dynamic between Annie and Lora’s daughters was a unique one at this time (1959). Mother’s unlike Lora had very traditional roles in the house, raising the kids and being a caretaker to the family. However, given Lora’s widow circumstances, she was the breadwinner.
This film highlights the bigger theme of how mother’s even today are put in the position to have to think about whether they will be a career woman or be a mother that stays home with the children and takes care of the house. The idea of being a career woman and a mother seldom are connections made to go together it appears without consequences. In this case with Lora and her daughters, resentment towards their mother Lora. Today, we see a shift where more mothers are working (doing both), but they still have to weigh the options and are put in a position to make a decision.
Mother-blaming is extremely prevalent within the film. This is at first physically represented when Lora loses Susie at the beach, as her character is directly compared to Annie’s benevolent care for her daughter in this scene. We see two sides of the same coin, as Annie is punished merely for being a black mother, versus Lora is punished for her choices to focus on her career. However, it is my impression that the audience is supposed to sympathise with Annie’s position as she did no wrong – famously on her death bed apologising for simply loving her daughter too much. As such, Annie is a deemed a ‘bad mother’ because her race limits her daughter’s opportunities, whilst Lora is shown as selfish for taking advantage of the opportunities presented to her. Therefore, the film exposes the catch-22 nature of motherhood, with mothering figures constantly scrutinised for how much they seem love their children. Even though Lora does not appear to be particularly money-hungry, she simply has always wanted to be in the theatre, she is criticised for not making Susie her sole priority. The title is also an interesting choice as it suggests that Lora’ career is worthless; that her acting is simply a false life or distraction from her ‘true’ life instead of being a legitimate career that can make up part of that life.
Furthermore, the romantic element between Susie and Steve positions Lora as a villain once again impeding Susie’s happiness, even though to the contemporary audiences I would hope that the concept of Steve pursuing a relationship with Susie after having helped raise her would be quite disturbing.
In addition, Annie’s story arch shows her being seen as a bad mother despite abiding by conventional expectations for womanhood to the best of her capabilities. The only real luxury she affords herself is in death through her lavish funeral, emphasising how little care she placed on herself – even her mink scarf was ‘always thought to be fake’. Therefore, we see black motherhood to be synonymous with bad motherhood in this film despite Annie’s impossibly angelic disposition in which she lives to only serve others and never herself.
From the very first scene of Imitation of Life, in which Lora loses Susie on a crowded beach in Coney Island, Lora is portrayed as a bad mother. Annie, on the other hand, is a doting mother—or mother figure— to both Susie and Sarah Jane throughout the film, which also starts in that first scene as Annie waits with Susie until Lora finds her daughter, initially connecting the two mother-daughter pairs. While it is clear that Lora loves Susie and Sarah Jane as well, the film portrays Lora as always choosing her acting career over her daughter; at the beginning of the movie, Lora repeatedly says that she “wants more” in life and wants to chase her dreams. The writers of Imitation of Life dramatize the theme of mother-blaming as they continuously show Susie yearning for her mother’s love and depict Annie as trying to fill that role for Susie. At the end of the film Susie even tells her mother that Annie was a better mother to her, but then apologizes. The writers make it seem like a woman cannot be a good mother and have a successful career, and they also blame both Susie and Sarah Jane’s shortcomings on their mothers. Near the end of the film, Annie tells Lora that she was not around enough, and as such she did not notice Susie becoming unhealthily obsessed with Steve, Lora’s love interest. Additionally, Sarah Jane blames her blackness on her mother—which is a focal point throughout the film—and only at the end, after Annie dies, does she apologize for it. Moreover, the writers of the film also write Annie as being too active in her daughter’s life.
Mother blaming is at the forefront of this film through the way Susie and Sarah Jane’s issues are a result of their own mothers direct and indirect actions.
The first major event of the film, where the two families meet, is due to the actions of Lora losing her daughter on the beach, establishing her as a somewhat scattered and absent mother. Her ambitions mean she is absent from her daughter’s adolescence, causing Susie to turn to Annie for this type of affection. Susie moving away due to her crush on Steve can be traced back to Lora not discussing relationships with her daughter when she was curious about them, leaving her to make bad decisions on her own. In this case, Lora is being blamed for Susie’s bad choices because she wasn’t present in her daughter’s life.
On the other hand, Annie is blamed for being too present in her daughter’s life, as her love for Sarah Jane is framed as overbearing. While the narrative of the story blames Lora for Susie’s issues indirectly, Sarah Jane blames her mother directly multiple times throughout the movie by not letting her live as a white woman. After her boyfriend beats her for being black, she blames Annie for telling everyone Sarah Jane is her daughter, despite the fact he never mentioned her mother saying anything to him or anyone he knew. Furthermore, it can be argued that Annie’s refusal to let Sarah Jane live as a white woman is why she left, as she didn’t want to be anywhere where people could recognise her as the daughter of a black woman.
The key difference between Lora and Annie is that Annie cares only for her daughter, while Lora cares for her daughter and herself. Lora worked hard to create a life that would support her daughter while letting her live her dream, Annie did everything for her daughter, sacrificing her own happiness in the process. In fact, her life was so centred around her daughter that Sarah Jane’s disapproval lead to her death. By framing both mothering styles as ineffective and as the cause of their daughter’s troubles, this movie is sending the message that no matter what a mother does, their child’s unhappiness will always be their fault.
The Imitation of Life dramatizes motherblaming through two narratives on motherhood. Lora Meredith, a white widow, strives for success in her acting career at the expense of quality time between her and Susie, her daughter. Towards the end of the film, when Susie confides in Annie, a Black mother in the household, she builds resentment towards her own mother for not traditionally showing up with a mother’s love. Lora is put in a difficult position of being the breadwinner and a “good” mother, because women building successful careers, instead of giving their life for their children, are frowned upon. Annie also suggests that Lora’s lack of traditional motherhood was the main contributor for Susie’s resentment. Interestingly, the film includes Freudian influence in their image of Susie’s love for Steve, Lora’s lover. The conflict between Lora and Susie further perpetuates the impression that women are emotional and jealous.
The film also follows Annie’s parenting on Sarah Jane. Annie fulfills the expectations on her, as a mother,by attending to Sarah Jane’s needs in every capacity. In contrast with Lora Meredith’s parenting, Annie was constantly available to Sarah Jane. When Annie is overwhelmingly worried and chases Sarah, Sarah asks to be left alone and forgotten. The film suggests that the overprotective mother that Annie represented also drives away her child. Thus, motherhood, as seen through the overprotective mother, is also frowned upon.
From the storylines of Lora and Annie, motherhood, represented through the breadwinner and housewife image, has its apparent drawbacks – both mothers raise children who resent them. The film never emphasizes the father’s absence and instead blames the anxious behavior of the daughters onto the mothers. Woman blaming, as seen in the contrasting ideals on women in the Bundesen and Farnham and Lundberg readings, is a manifestation of the many societal expectations on women – which may sometimes contradict. Thus, motherhood will always be criticized, because the “rubric” on “good” motherhood is already flawed.
Imitation of Life does a great deal of mother blaming throughout the entirety of the film. If we start by looking at Lora and her relationship with Susie, the film portrays Lora as being a “bad” mother because she has ambitions when it comes to her acting career which in turn leaves no space for her to be a “good” mother. Essentially, the film conveys the idea that a mother with a successful career is too ambitious and by having a career, Lora in this case lacks any ability to provide her daughter Susie with love. Throughout the movie, Lora is rarely home once her acting career takes off, and this leads to Susie constantly yearning for her mother to be home and feeling like she never gets to see her mom. Susie actually says to Lora at the end of the film that Annie was more of a mother to her than Lora ever was because she was at home. This type of mother blaming is very reflective of the writings by Farnham and Lundberg that we read last week, in which they argued that if women are working outside of the home, that automatically their jobs at home such as caring for their children will come second and their work will cause serious damage in all of their relationships like their children feeling neglected.
Imitation of Life not only portrays Laura for being a “bad” mother, but the film also criticizes Annie for being a too involved or overbearing mother with her daughter Sarah Jane. With Annie, the film constantly shows Annie interfering with Sarah Jane’s life whether this be showing up at her elementary school to bring her her boots or showing up to her work in NYC when she was a dancer. Sarah Jane was always furious to see her mother because she didn’t want anyone to know that her mother was black and wanted to try to live her life by convincing everyone that she was white. By Annie being so overbearing in the film, this pushes Sarah Jane away from her and to eventually move out and run away and her asking for her mother to never come to find her. In this situation of mother blaming which is similar to the work we ready by Bundesen, Annie pushes her daughter fully out of her life.
While these are two different situations with Lora and Annie, there are constant examples of mother blaming seen throughout the film.
Imitation of Life dramatizes the theme of mother-blaming throughout the characters of Lora Meredith and Annie. Lora is a widow and is a single mother to Susie. Lora’s ambition in her career is the driving factor that has led her to become a so-called “absent” mother. At the end of the movie, Susie wishes to move away from her family and go to college in Denver. This is partly due to her feelings for Steve. However, Susie also blames her need to be far from home due to her mother not being there throughout her childhood. It was Lora’s career that forced her to be away from home. During this time, a woman had the expectation to take care of their children, as Lora was unable to fulfill such a role while working. Lora prioritized her career, and by doing so it drove Susie away. This sends the message to mothers that they should not make the same “mistakes” Lora made, which was pursuing a successful career, instead of prioritizing taking care of her family and household. And by doing so, her daughter ends up resenting her for being a “bad mother”. In fact, Susie says that Annie was more of a mother to her growing up. While Lora was away, pursuing acting, Annie took care of Susie. And so, Susie’s mother figure became Annie throughout her childhood. This dramatized consequence of the price of success for a woman is a clear representation of mother-blaming. Annie’s domestic job as a maid allowed her to become a present, “good” motherly figure to Susie. However, Annie and her own daughter, Sarah Jane, have a different sort of dynamic. Sarah Jane resents Annie for being black, and therefore she tries to run away from Annie. Annie’s race has an important part throughout her characterization and therefore is the reasoning behind her estranged relationship with her daughter. These two characters, although have different storylines, both dramatize mother-blaming.