Movies about relationships get made all the time. I mean, why wouldn’t they? The desire for connection drives human behaviour and it’s a universal experience. The majority of relationship dramas released on a wide scale are heteronormative, but the film industry is slowly trying to diversify. Slowly. Very slowly. I don’t want to discredit the efforts that are being made, but when movies like Phantom Thread and Mother* get the level of award nominations, praise and attention they did while thematically subjugating their female characters, I feel like I can point out the hypocrisy.
A lot of people, like me, don’t like Mother, but I don’t understand the love for Phantom Thread. It’s hard not to be disappointed in two films that were marketed as the ultimate highbrow cinematic experience of the year, but if that’s the bar they set then I expect to be blown away. Instead I found both films overhyped, boring, bloated, under developed and, worst of all, pretty damn sexist. I can’t complain about the technical mastery of these films because they’re both well shot, but oh my god do they fail their female characters.
Let me break it down further to illustrate what I mean:
Women Without Depth or Agency
The lack of agency is what I take issue with the most. Who is Mother? I still have no idea and I think it has to do with the fact that she doesn’t take any significant action. Everything just happens to her. She doesn’t have any say as to who is invited into her home. She can’t stop people from ruining her things. Even when she torches herself in a fit of rage, her powerful statement is rendered moot – not only does she continue to love Him, she gives Him her heart so he has inspiration for his next book, dies and the cycle begins again in exactly the same way with a different woman. So her actions make no difference to the story. Why does she love Him? Why does she want to give Him everything she has? We never find out because she never does or says anything.
In Phantom Thread, Alma seems to have more agency when she poisons Reynolds. The first incident does shift the film and gives her more power in the relationship. But that power is an illusion. It’s clear by the end of the movie that Reynolds knows exactly what she’s doing and, luckily for her, consents to it. Is it agency if she has her husband’s permission? I don’t think so.
Before that, Alma is little more than a mannequin for Reynolds. For their first date, he takes her home and uses her body as a stand to drape fabric. She silently submits. He takes her to parties where she wears his frocks and watches him in quiet adoration. When she models, she follows his direction. Why is she so obsessed with Reynolds? If she dislikes the bourgeois fashion world, why does she enjoy wearing his clothes and want to be with him?
Without active participation, it’s impossible to know anything about these characters. They’re cardboard cut-outs, allegorical symbols instead of living people, below their male counterparts because they have no room to take decisive action. Their existence is dependant on what their husbands are doing. And isn’t that the ultimate fantasy for regressive men – women who are silent and complying?
Women As Uncreative
Mother works on renovating their house so it looks like it did when Him was a child. There’s a throwaway line in Phantom Thread where Reynolds comments on a dress Alma designed and crafted herself, but that’s the last time we see her making something of her own. The rest of her time is spent taking care of Reynolds or working in his design house.
Of course women can find self-expression and creative fulfillment in domestic work, but am I really supposed to believe that these women want to cater to their male partners’ every whim and need? That they don’t yearn for self-expression is a male point of view that doesn’t attempt to explore a woman’s inner world, which is not only sloppy writing and poor character development but also obvious sexism.
In Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes how women have a deeply creative nature and not expressing that causes a significant amount of pain. So no, I don’t believe that the women in these films are happy in uncreative roles – not for one second. Why do men get to be creative geniuses while their wives are rubes standing on the outskirts of the creative world? What an out-dated comment on women and relationships.
Women As Idealized Child-Mothers
Like almost every movie ever made about romantic relations between women and men, the women are significantly younger than their husbands. Jennifer Lawrence is 21 years younger than Javier Bardem. There’s a 26-year age gap between Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps.
On top of that, Mother and Alma behave like children and are treated as such. Alma eats loudly and clumsily. She throws a temper tantrum when Reynolds won’t let her win a game. She sulks and pouts. Mother is told by Him that strangers can stay as long as they like in their home, treating her like a child not an adult with equal say in their partnership. Mother also constantly speaks softly and politely like a good little girl.
These movies also heavily suggest that men, especially creative men, want to be mothered by their partners. Mother cooks and cleans for Him. Having a baby is what fulfills her. Alma cooks for and takes care of Reynolds. He has a vision of his late mother while Alma is there, signifying his mommy issues and positioning Alma as his mother/wife – he asks her to marry him as soon as he gets better. Even Ceril takes care of Reynolds like his Mommy, catering to his mood swings and ensuring no one upsets him.
These women are both mother and child to their husbands and it’s gross. It only emphasizes the out-dated notion that all women can be are caregivers. We know that this isn’t true and yet, those are the only options we get with these films.
Women As Punching Bags
In the case of Mother, women are literally punching bags. First there’s an aggressive physical confrontation between Him and Mother that becomes sexual, but instead of exploring that the film just moves on by making Mother inexplicably elated to be pregnant from the encounter. And then after having her home ruined and her baby eaten, Mother is literally stomped on.
Alma doesn’t get hit, but she has to withstand emotionally abuse – passive-aggressive comments about her body and taste, the silent treatment, being blamed for Reynolds’ lack of creative spark.
Of course violence against women and abusive relationships can be explored, but it comes off as hollow from these male perspectives. It’s a shallow “women have it tough, am I right?” sentiment that doesn’t carry any weight because the female characters have no depth.
Ultimately, while these are very different movies in terms of tone and subject, they’re essentially the same. They both have egotistical male artists at the centre that are loved and supported by uncreative wives who coddle them so they can lead their best lives. The women withstand mood swings, condescension and overall disinterest because…I’m not really sure. Men, I guess?
That’s the issue – I just don’t know what the point of it all is. As a woman who loves film, I’m tired of watching this narrative. It’s fine if auteurs want to explore relationships that are abusive because they exist and should be talked about through art. Even though I love other films made by both of these directors, I don’t think men are the ones who should be exploring this subject, especially if they’re not going to flesh out their female characters beyond an allegory. It’s dehumanizing and dismissive when female characters are nothing more than a feminine ideal for non-woke heterosexual men: silent, compliant, doting and devoted above all else – even their own happiness. Considering all the examples of sexual harassment and abuse that keep coming to light in the film industry, is this really a story that we need to not only keep telling, but also revering? We are past this myth that’s typical of the male gaze. It’s antiquated and dangerous.
Even though the film industry trying to make things right and give women more opportunity, it’s disingenuous to me to then celebrate films (Phantom Thread more than Mother to be fair) that have such inactive, uninspired, undeveloped female characters that the male leads get to abuse because they’re fucked up artistic virtuosos. Both directors are capable of more than this or at least I thought so. But these films are an example of the bare minimum well-known directors have to do in order to get attention and accolades – retelling the same old-fashioned relationship drama that takes no interest in its female characters and refuses to see women as a creative force in and of themselves.
If the film industry wants to do better by women, can we have more than one movie made by women about women nominated for a Best Picture award this year? Can we also stop celebrating films that don’t give a shit about their female characters? These films are just another example of a system that constantly rewards the same (male) directors because they’re established without challenging or critiquing the problematic messages in their work.
“I got through about three minutes of [Phantom Thread]…. I mean, is it just about clothes? Is he kind of like a narcissistic sociopath, and he’s an artist, so every girl falls in love with him because he makes her feel bad about herself, and that’s the love story?…. I’ve been down that road, I know what that’s like. I don’t need to watch that movie.”
I hear you, girl. I definitely hear you.
*: Look, I know the film is officially titled mother! but I can’t handle having a damn exclamation point in the middle of a sentence. That and there are too many green squiggles in my Word doc and it’s distracting. I hate this movie for many different reasons, it’s stupid-ass title styling being one of them.
Also if you want to hear me complain about Mother some more, you can check out this episode of our podcast I Watch, I Read.