Hereditary and Hollywood’s Obsession with the Devouring Mother

Hereditary, the title of Ari Aster’s eagerly anticipated new film, has got horror fans sitting up and paying attention. Rumours of psychologically broken actors suffering from PTSD and promises of a film set to be this generation’s The Exorcist, Hereditary is already guaranteed to secure a place on the IMDB Top 100 list. Motherhood is as prevalent a theme in horror as death, sex and mental illness; indeed, the most monstrous incarnations manage to assimilate them all into one.

If you take a sweeping glance across the horror genre over the last decade, you’ll notice that mothers have had a pretty bad rap. Angry, over-bearing, sexually repressed, possessive; the devouring mothers depicted on-screen are Freudian nightmares. In the flesh, in spirit, male, metaphorical or metaphysical – the devouring mother archetype manifests in a wildly vast number of ways.

Freud reminds us that the devouring mother is the selfish lover to her children; shielding them from the terrors of the real world to the extent of infantalisation. She is loving to the extent with which her children are subservient and will become hateful, cruel, and often murderous when they rebel.

It goes without saying that the archetypal blueprint for all horror mothers is Mrs Bates. She ticks all the boxes: possessive, jealous, murderous and maniacal. The mother is the root of all evil; often inadvertently responsible for the bloodshed caused by her children, through her bad parenting.

Horror mothers aren’t necessarily born monsters; it’s motherhood that makes them that way. In the terrifically tense The Babadook (2014), Essie Davis’ weary-eyed and wired portrayal of a single mother dealing with the loss of her husband, who tragically died on the night she gave birth to her son. For seven years she exists in a profound state of mourning, unable to cope with her son’s frequent, and often violent, attacks of anxiety. The monster in The Babadook is a triple threat; a physical manifestation of grief, post-natal depression and motherhood.

For women, societal pressures dictate that motherhood should come easy, that the mother should be capable of super-human feats of altruism, putting aside her own grievances, doubts and worries for the sake of the child and all with a sunshine smile. In horror, any mothers who fail to live up to such expectations must be punished.

The mother doesn’t necessarily have to be possessed to be bad, merely neglectful. The workaholic parents in It Follows (2014), for example, are blissfully unaware of the woeful ordeals of their children. Well-meaning mothers who have their child’s best interests at heart are often their downfall, as their children fall prey to the monsters under the bed.

Even when the mother is given a chance to be the hero, they are never forgiven their past, or their flaws. In the classic horror Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) ,our final girl Nancy Thompson discovers that Freddie Kruger is after her partly because of the instrumental involvement her mother Marge had in Freddie’s death. Marge is perpetually boozed-up, fragile and haunted, wholly incapable of shielding her daughter from the consequences of her legacy. In Friday the 13th (1980) we see the genetic legacy Jason Voorhees inherits from his mother, Mrs Voorhees, who exercises her murderous predilection long before Jason is mysteriously revived from his early grave.

The bond between a mother and her child is one of the most primal, most enduring bonds in nature, which makes it no surprise that film-makers (mostly male) use and subvert this bond to provide explanation for the mother’s eventual descent into madness. Motherhood is a uniquely feminine experience, arguably a wildly different experience from that of the father. It is only the mother that must under-go physical, as well as psychological change. Even in today’s world of advocating for shared parental responsibility, it is still usually the mother who must bear most of the burden. Horror movies simply amp up these pressures to a hundred and showcase the aftermath.

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) takes a biblical look into the concept of the mother in a deliriously debauched allegory about humanity’s mistreatment of the mightiest mother of all: Mother Nature. Whilst there have been many comparisons comparing mother! with Rosemary’s Baby, the movie is a clear metaphor for the impending destruction of the natural world and humanity’s exploitation of Earth. Hidden beneath Aronofsky’s grandiose, in-yer-face metaphors lies a sinister observation into a mother’s compulsion to sacrifice everything to accommodate for her children, in this case her children being all of mankind.

Grief is so often a theme in horror; whether it be grief over the death of a child or the death of a parent. In Hereditary, it’s both. In her grief, the mother Annie (Toni Collette) is at the mercy to the deepest, darkest fears lurking in her subconscious; the gnawing, niggling fear that she is incapable of being a good mother. Even before her own mother’s death, Annie showcased signs that perhaps motherhood wasn’t her bag. In one nightmare sequence we discover that whilst sleepwalking, Annie had dowsed herself and her two children with paint thinner and struck a match.

There are a few outstanding examples of to be a good horror movie mother. Pregnant widow Sarah (Alysson Paradis), from the 2007 French home invasion horror Inside, goes to extreme lengths, however futile in the end, to save her unborn child from a maniacal scissor-wielding intruder. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) maintains her maternal instinct all the way to the end, even when she finds out that her baby is, in fact, the spawn of Satan. Perhaps, if there were to be a Rosemary’s Baby sequel, we would find that the genre had found a way to punish Rosemary, despite her motherly goodness. But for now all that we can hope is that maybe, with the right upbringing, she manages to raise her satanical baby to be halfway decent, although horror history tells us he’ll probably end up an evil, homicidal monster.

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Interview: Dr Sarah Rugheimer

Long before she entered the world of academia, Dr Sarah Rugheimer believed that the battle for gender equality was already won. Now, the astronomer and astrobiologist who is currently a Simons Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of St Andrews believes that the fight for equality has only just begun. I chatted with Sarah to find out more about her research into the challenges faced by young women in STEM today. 

What first inspired you into pursuing your chosen career?

Well, it’s funny really because, in high school I never imagined I would end up doing science. I loved to write, I loved to dance; in fact most of my energy was poured into dance. I competed nationally in Irish dancing and thought about opening up my own dance school. It was only when I went to a community college in Montana that I realised how much I loved physics and decided to do a physics undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary. Because of my non-traditional path of going to a community college first, I didn’t think that I would be able to get into a place like Harvard and I almost didn’t apply. I remember sitting at the computer for 5 minutes, staring at the submit button, asking myself why I should spend $90 on an application to a place that I had no chance of getting into. I hit submit and quickly closed the laptop. To my surprise, I was accepted to the Harvard and finished my PhD in astronomy & astrophysics there last year. Now I live in Scotland, with a Simons Origins of Life postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of St. Andrews working in a geoscience department.

What, if any, are the difficulties you’ve faced working in STEM?

I’ve had increased caring responsibilities (caring for an elderly father) which largely falls on women and delayed my research. I’ve been told, “you are pretty smart for a girl” by one of my physics research advisors. At a job interview recently I was asked “will your husband follow you.” And when I said, “Yes” they responded, “Oh! That is unusual. Usually the wife follows the husband. Modern family! Hahaha.” I’ve also been asked at an interview if I had kids or was planning to have kids. I’ve heard several times of people putting down other famous female scientists by saying “they are only famous because they are a woman” and have a general sneering attitude. I’ve heard of men saying about a women’s advice on a thesis topic “well, she is a women and less ambitious. But we are men and we will do the more ambitious project.” (which wasn’t as good for the student to set them up for success). I’ve seen times where a women’s loss of weight was discussed with concern when the same loss by a male was ignored. I’ve seen on panels someone leave because they “already knew the men’s work but not the women’s work.” That all said, I feel like I’ve escaped most egregious harm. I’ve never been sexually harassed unlike many of my female colleagues.

Why do you think there is still such disparity between the numbers of men and women in STEM?

I think largely the difference is from societal gender roles which are very entrenched. Both men and women are equally prejudiced against women. I think that is important to remember. This isn’t a case of white old men being discriminatory, it is our general societal expectations of women. I remember hearing about two students, one with perfect class scores and exceptional research, and about another student who was more average. I immediately in my brain had that first “perfect” student pictured as a male and the second as a female. And this despite all my awareness and efforts to combat gender inequality and despite being a woman scientist.

How do you think progress can be made at closing the gap?

There are many efforts currently underway and I largely think all of them are great. Increasing female scientists’ visibility. Increased representation in stories and movies. More visible role models. More Wikipedia pages for women scientists, increased awareness of implicit bias. Awareness of how letters of recommendation differ. Awareness of how we tend to evaluate people based on perception and their confidence rather than on their actual ability. All of these things I think will ultimately close the gap. Though I read recently that it will take over 200 years to close it at the current rate of progress. I hope it is faster than that. But when I read feminist literature from early 90’s, it is stark to realize how they are basically talking about all the same factors we are still talking about today. It will be a long road, and it is coming on top of thousands of years of gender history. I want us to just do the best we can while recognizing that gender equality not only benefits women, but also men as well. Note all of these comments could be made about racial bias and disparities in STEM too. In fact I went to this talk in the UK about “why my professor isn’t black” and was surprised to learn that the same effect size (about a factor of 3 worse for blacks than whites) is both true in the US and the UK. I thought the UK was better, it is not.

What do you make of the view that we should aim for equality of opportunity but not necessarily strive for equality of outcome?

I think this is a difficult question and those that come down hard on either side I feel are not giving proper consideration to the nuances involved. For example, to get equality of outcome in terms of the number of female professors in physics, we’d essentially not be able to hire any males at the faculty level for decades. This would be unfair to those men. Astronomy for the first time ever is now hiring women at the junior faculty level at the same rate as the applicant pool. I think that is excellent. But it won’t yield an equality of outcome for a long time since only 30% of PhD’s and applicants in astronomy are women. To only strive for equality of opportunity though misses some of the real barriers to women that are from a societal gender role pressure level. By striving for equal outcomes, we are recognizing there are systemic barriers which still need to be overcome. But ultimately in an ideal world, we’d have equal opportunities. I just don’t think we are at the social awareness yet, there is still too much implicit bias to only advocate for equal opportunities.

The Forgotten Suffragette

Jessie Boucherett was a little known suffragette with a remarkable story. Anne Bridger is the academic who finally brought her to life. In an interview with Anne at her home in Reading, I talk to her about Jessie, her legacy and girls in STEM.

It’s late in the evening when I arrive into Reading station to meet Anne Bridger, feminist historian and retired educator. Though we have never met and, barring a handful of phone conversations, know very little about each other, Anne invited me to stay with her to conduct my interview and how could I refuse? The former headteacher and Ofsted inspector became one of the first in the country to launch industry days for girls, encouraging young women into STEM subjects. At 83, Anne now dedicates her life to giving a voice to the unsung heroines of the suffrage movement. One heroine in particular has been the focus of Anne’s attention and the subject of her doctoral thesis which she achieved four years ago, aged 79.

“I’m so glad you made it, I can’t wait to tell you all about Jessie!” she exclaims, embracing me as I meet her at the station barriers. Taking my arm to lead me towards her car, she then warns me of her proclivity for garrulity when it comes to her research. “You must stop me if I ramble on, I have a tendency to get carried away especially when talking about Jessie.”

Born in 1825 in North Willingham to a wealthy family with philanthropic traditions, Jessie Boucherett was a self-educated humanitarian whose dedication to helping those less fortunate than herself began at an early age. “She was born into a family of radicals” Anne tells me as we sit at her dining table for breakfast the day after I arrive. “Her father was a unitarian and I believe in that way he raised his children to be much more open to the world, and giving.” It was in her early thirties that Jessie inherited her family’s estate –  her two younger brother died in their teens, and her father and older brother died shortly after her 30th birthday birthday – leaving Jessie financially independent. During this time, groups of mainly upper-middle class women in London were beginning to come together over issues like women’s employment and rights to independence.

“There were over 3 million women in the UK at the time who had no men to support them, through either death or divorce, and no access to work. These women were starving. Literally starving to death,” says Anne. “At the time, the only two options for women were dressmaking or governess. These professions were completely saturated meaning wages were low and jobs were few.”

It was after reading an article published in the English Woman’s Journal (EWJ) by journalist Harriet Martineau, that Jessie, then 33, became deeply affected by the plight of these women and made the decision to travel to the EWJ head offices in London. From there she met several other prominent figures including Barbara Bodichon, Matilda Hays and Adelaide Proctor. Jessie was then able to use her inheritance to set up SPEW, the Society for Promoting Employment for Women which was formally established in 1859. I asked Anne how influential Jessie had been in getting more women into work.

“Oh immensely! In a way you could say it was all her,” she smiles as she pours me our third coffee of the morning. “As soon as she arrived in London, she made an immediate donation of £2000 to get the society off the ground, and recruited the fellow women from the EWJ. She set up evening classes for young women and girls to gain the skills they needed for the workplace. She played an active role in persuading employers to take on girls as apprentices. She carried the greatest weight of the project.”

For Jessie and the many other women involved with SPEW, their biggest challenge was that of the overcoming the deeply rooted misconceptions held about women at the time. As the society started to gain publicity and attention from influential figures in London, including Lord Shaftesbury, a backlash was beginning to emerge. This included a number of vitriolic letters sent to the press and a vicious public campaign aimed at shutting the society down. “The idea was that women couldn’t do ‘mental’ work as well as reproductive work. That was the subject of the letters written to the press from the public – that a woman’s reproductive role is the reason they were put on Earth, there’s no use trying to think they have a brain as well” says Anne.

By the 1870, the success of SPEW had inspired the formation of a number of sister projects, including the opening of St James secretarial college. Gradually, the focus of the society would shift from taking a leading role in opening up jobs and apprenticeships to helping women afford those apprenticeships. Today, under the new name Futures for Women, the society continues to provide interest free loans to women who need help financially, to follow their ambitions or expand their qualifications. Currently, £1000 a year is the maximum the society can advance and only 1 in 10 applicants will be granted the loan. This is partly due to the growing demands on the society as more women than ever in the UK are seeking financial assistance. “It’s much more difficult nowadays. The society has less funding than it used to, and ever-growing demand that they simply can’t keep up with. Can we stop for a minute?” says Anne as the doorbell goes. It’s Mother’s Day and her daughter has sent her a rather lively bouquet of orange alstromeria and cerise stocks. “I don’t know why she gets me flowers” she says, arranging them carefully into a vase. “I’d prefer a good Scotch.”

As we sit back down I’m keen to talk to Anne about her experiences as the headteacher of Didcot Girls School, Oxford during the eighties and in particular, her efforts to increase the number of girls studying STEM subjects. According to the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaigns 2017 analysis of UK labour market statistics, women make up just 24% of all people employed in STEM industries.

“My generation was unfortunate in that (…) there was a culture, and perhaps still is, of thinking girls weren’t capable enough to study maths or science,” says Anne. “My job at Didcot Girls was to expose them to the different kinds of careers open to them with STEM subjects and to teach them that just because they were female they shouldn’t automatically think they can’t do it.”

And it worked. During her time as headteacher, Anne launched a number of pioneering industry days, inviting industry leaders to run workshops with the students.

“I was sent to Harwell, the atomic research facility in Oxford, for two weeks to talk to employers and arrange work placements for the girls,” says Anne. “I launched a work experience programme which ran very successfully. Come to think of it, I suppose I was doing a Jessie Boucherett and I never realised!”

As I was preparing to leave Reading for the journey home, it became apparent to me that the lives of both Jessie and Anne had striking similarities and it only seemed fitting that Anne should be the one to champion this forgotten figure who was once at the helm of women’s suffrage. As a parting thought, I asked Anne what Jessie’s legacy might be today if she were alive.

“Well Jessie was quite a retiring person, which I suppose is why so little is known of her, so I believe she would quietly find a cause she felt needed attention and throw herself into,” says Anne. “I think (…) when I look around my congregation at my local church, goodness knows there’s not a soul under 75. When you look around, it never occurs to you that the woman sitting next to you or behind you was once an eminent physician or architect. You just see a little old lady who has come for company. I think Jessie would try and change that. She’d set up a club and get us all learning again, making use of ourselves.”

As I get ready to board the train, Anne embraces me one final time and thanks me reminding her just how passionate about her research she was. “The ripples of Jessie’s work have meant that thousands of women have led very different lives as a result and I just wanted to show that in my research,” she says. “I truly hope that one day Jessie will get the recognition she truly deserves.”

The ‘B’ in LGBT

The bi-sexual woman. The magical unicorn of the queer community. Tell anybody you’re bi-sexual and they’ll have an opinion.

To my work colleagues I’m ‘greedy,’ as though I’ve simply piled my plate too high at the genital buffet.

To the porn industry my sexuality is reduced to a spectacle for the satisfaction of the assumed straight male viewer, with none of the pleasure reserved for the female participants.

To my ex-boyfriend it was just a ‘phase.’ How could I possibly sustain a long-term relationship with a woman when the pull of his gender is just so inevitable?

To Hollywood I’m a hypersexualised, mentally unstable caricature whose sexual identity is nothing more than an executive producer’s wet dream.

To myself, I am misrepresented. In the mainstream media, bi-sexual woman are oversexualised and bi-sexual men, well, they simply don’t exist. The misrepresentation of bi-sexual individuals has a detrimental effect on how the wider populous perceive bi people in real life. Bi-phobia is a real problem in both the straight and queer communities where monosexism thrives. And this bi-phobia is perpetuated by the unsettling misrepresentations we see in TV and film.

Many people, including myself, struggle to accept bisexuality as an identity. For a long time I denied my status as a bisexual woman to the detriment of my mental well-being and, at times, my relationships. I simply did not see where I fit in the gay/straight dichotomy of society. Why couldn’t I just ‘pick a side?’ Am I really just ‘confused?’ Perhaps it was just a symptom of some mental instability that hadn’t been diagnosed yet. It took me a while to realise that none of this was true. And if you’re reading this and are still unsure let me make it clear. I don’t need to choose a ‘side.’ I am not confused. Bisexuality is not a symptom.

The Bisexuality Report UK published in 2015 found that bisexual people were more likely than any other identity group to suffer from mental health problems including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. The study also found that bisexual individuals were far less at ease with their sexuality than their gay/lesbian counterparts. While I’m not here to bore you with the statistics, these results are profoundly shocking.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. It was only until 1968 that the Motion Picture Production Code in the US required bi-sexuality (and homosexuality) to be portrayed in a negative light if it was to be portrayed at all. Despite there being some (nominal) progress, when bi-sexual characters aren’t being used as sexual objects, they’re probably being used to illustrate some negative abstract concept. Bisexuality, in the world of TV and film, has become a tool to underline characteristics such as mental instability, duplicitousness, hedonistic and amoral behaviour.

We need to open the conversation. Of course, bi-erasure, lack of community and internalised bi-phobia are all contributing factors to poor mental health within the bi community. Healthcare professionals play their part too, often treating bisexuality as a ‘transitional’ stage or symptom. But I believe it all boils down to lack of accurate representation. Whether we like it or not, media consumption has a huge impact on our thinking and values. At present the only representations of bisexuality visible are those meant to symbolise the most contemptible aspects of human nature. No wonder we’re in trouble.

Without accurate representation of our stories and experiences, we are left struggling to feel the accepted and valid. Acceptance and validation are integral to a healthy mind-set. I think it’s time to start telling a different story