Two prominent current films - Tangled and Black Swan - focus on mother-daughter relationships that out-Mommy Dearest Joan Crawford.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 9, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Motherhood Isn't What It Used to Be

Two movies, both focusing on daughters' intense relationships with their mothers, are now prominent in American movie theaters. And not since Mother Dearest have on-screen mothers been this evil.

One of the films is Walt Disney's animated feature, Tangled, about a girl with long, magical hair - Rapunzel - stolen and imprisoned in a tower by a witch, whom Rapunzel regards as her mother since she was kidnapped just after she was born.

This mother belittles and undercuts Rapunzel, depicts a horror-filled bizzaro-world outside the tower, and physically attacks the girl when necessary to restrain her. I remembered Rapunzel's hair - but I didn't recall the maternal abuse.

Am I overstating the case? Here's how the Times reviewer describes this mother-daughter relationship:

The Disney pantheon is full of evil stepmothers, though none quite match Mother Gothel for sheer sadistic intensity. A classic underminer, she has brainwashed Rapunzel into loving her, and her brutal selfishness is camouflaged in sweet-voiced expressions of solicitude.

And I might have missed much of this - except that the woman I saw the movie with had had a problematic stepmother. In the film, Rapunzel is ripped - often comically - between her emotional attachment to "mom," and the need to escape her to survive. Heavy. To my surprise, the woman I was with was wound into an emotional knot by the film, and couldn't leave the experience in the movie theater.

But Tangled was a piece of cake (after all, it is a "cartoon") compared with Black Swan, a psychological horror film from which I averted my eyes repeatedly. Natalie Portman plays a deranged ballerina whose entire off-stage life is monitored and controlled by her mother. This mother too - and she's not a step or adoptive mother - smothers her daughter with love and attention: the scenes where she cuts her daughter's nails are harder to take than Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Portman character can't even escape her mother's pervasive presence in order to pleasure herself!

This mother not only lives through her child, she is jealous, emotionally possessive, even sexually obsessed with her. And, like the mother in Tangled, she is preoccupied with men who might take her daughter from her - that her daughter might leave the nest in which she is trapped for any reason.

Think I'm overreacting again? The Times critic describes this mom as "a smother-mother who out-crazies Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford in the mommy dearest department." (Here is PT's treatment of the film.)

Where, dear reader, do you think all of this is coming from - daughters whose sole intimate relationships are with mothers who dominate them and refuse to allow them to grow into independent social and sexual beings? I thought young women had more freedom than ever before in history?

Or do I have that wrong?

P.S. Per the great Hara Marano, I am being ironic in saying daughters have more freedom - sexual and otherwise - than ever before in history. I don't believe that children are more emotionally liberated from their parents than ever before - I think they are more enslaved, debilitated, and emotionally dependent, up to and beyond adulthood (both Rapunzel and the Portman character are of marriageable ages).  And thus I suspect that these films are appearing as a response to this changed parental emotional landscape.