By Isa Rehana Flores
Keywords: Aronofsky, Mother!, psychological horror, ecofeminism
Mother! is a psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky released in 2017. While on the surface, it is about a young woman whose peaceful home with her husband is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a problematic couple and their family, Mother! is a Biblical allegory for the abuse and mistreatment of Mother Earth. Analyzing Mother! through an ecofeminist theoretical lens provides an insightful look into how this film combines critique of how women are treated in present society with a presentation of the environmental issues that are being fought today because of climate change. The film also serves as a feminist look into family dynamics and gender roles in marital relationships. Mother! uses Biblical allegory to compare the mistreatment of women in society with the mistreatment of the environment by humans.
According to a Pacific Standard interview with ecofeminist and ecologist Susan Griffin, Darren Aronofsky was inspired by her book Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, which “draws from myth and literature to show how the patriarchy has often connected women with nature, and sought to dominate them both” (Kilkenny). Griffin explains that her book was written in 1978, which was a significant time for both the environmental movement and the women’s movement. According to Karen J. Warren, “Ecological feminism is the position that there are important connections between how one treats women, people of color, and the underclass on one hand and how one treats the nonhuman natural environment on the other” (3). Although environmental issues and feminism are usually perceived as separate issues, ecofeminism combines these issues and often compares the mistreatment of women to the mistreatment of the environment.
The film Mother! almost exclusively follows its protagonist, who is referred to as “mother” in the credits but does not have a name throughout the movie. It begins with the startling sound of fire burning, followed by a graphic shot of a woman’s face who is on fire. She boldly stares directly into the camera, her hair stiff and ablaze surrounding her badly scorched face. A close image of her vacant eyes is followed by her shedding a single tear. It is important to note that this woman is not the protagonist, mother. She is an unnamed woman that does not appear again in the film, and this opening scene serves as a foreshadowing to the protagonist’s eventual fate, which seems to be a cyclical process. A man is shown placing a crystal on a small pedestal, and the burnt, ruined house transforms into a beautiful new home. Because the film is also a Biblical allegory, the home could be compared to the Garden of Eden. The man is later revealed to be mother’s husband, who symbolizes God and who is referred to as Him. Aronofsky emphasizes this by only capitalizing Him’s name, just as it is capitalized in the Bible. Everyone else’s name, including mother’s, is not capitalized.
The scene transitions to mother waking up in bed alone, and the first thing she does is reach out to the other side of the bed to search for her husband, Him. Mother walks around the house in a white, translucent nightgown that reveals her breasts, introducing her as a symbol of fertility and purity. It is clear from the beginning of the movie that mother cares deeply for Him, although he is distant and pulls away from her when she tries to kiss him. This scene establishes that Him is a poet who has writer’s block, which is a significant source of tension in their relationship throughout the film. Talcott Parsons’ gender-role theory asserts that men are “instrumental,” or rational and task-oriented in the role of breadwinning, while women are typically assigned the “expressive” or emotional and nurturant tasks of family maintenance. Parsons claims “…the husband’s occupation was to link the family to the socioeconomic system, whereas the wife was to adapt her roles to the husband’s occupational identity” (Goldner 4). It is clear throughout the film that Him is the one who makes money, while mother is constantly seen cleaning and renovating the house. The tension in their relationship comes from Him not performing his role, which is the “breadwinning.”
The first clear indication that mother is meant to represent Mother Nature comes from the next scene, when she is seen painting a wall in the house. After she puts her hands on the walls and feels a heartbeat, she becomes inspired and begins painting the wall a new color. This scene shows that mother initially has control over the appearance of the house, which is symbolically the Earth or the Garden of Eden. Her gradual loss of control over the house begins with the arrival of a stranger in the middle of the night, who is referred to as man. This stranger introduces himself as an orthopedic surgeon who thought that their house was a bed and breakfast. To mother’s surprise, Him invites the stranger in, and mother begins to experience a sharp pain in her chest and abdomen area that occurs throughout the rest of the film. Her physical pain often occurs when strangers invade the house and shows her deterioration, as her home is mistreated and invaded. A clear imbalance of power in their relationship shows itself when Him invites the stranger to stay the night without first discussing it with mother. While Him is explaining to the man that mother renovated the house by herself, he exclaims, “Wow. So you’re not just a pretty face” (Aronofsky). Mother is constantly objectified throughout the film in similar manners, which serves as a portrayal of how women are treated in society. This scene also indicates that the crystal from the beginning of the movie is the only object left from Him’s brutal house fire.
The sudden arrival of man’s wife, woman, causes even more distress for mother. Woman is a brutally honest character who often questions mother’s decision to not have kids yet and makes rude comments about mother and Him’s sex life. While doing laundry, woman finds a pair of mother’s comfortable underwear and says, “You’re gonna have to try harder than this” (Aronofsky), indicating that it is woman’s fault that she does not have kids by not dressing provocatively enough. Women are often expected in relationships to perform sexuality in a way that caters to her partner instead of in a way that is comfortable for her.
Despite mother and Him’s constant warnings not to touch the crystal object in Him’s study, woman eventually breaks the crystal, enraging Him and causing Him to kick them out of Him and woman’s house. This is a clear allegory for Eve eating the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, a Biblical story that introduces women as inherently reckless and sinful. Before man and woman leave, their two sons, who represent Cain and Able, unexpectedly show up at the house and have a fight over man’s will. The fight ends in one of them violently dying, ensuing a chaotic atmosphere for the rest of the film. Their physical fight destroys some of mother’s house. Notably, before the fight takes place, one of the sons objectifies mother by making an inappropriate comment about her body. Their mistreatment of the house and of mother shows how misogyny and mistreatment of the environment can be linked, as the house is a representation of Earth. Following this fight, mother finds an irreparable bloody hole in the floor of the house that indicates the gradual deterioration of the house and of the environment. The “heart” of the house is shown to be turning black and ruined.
Again without mother’s permission, Him invites man and woman back to their house to have a gathering to honor their dead son. They invite their friends and family, who constantly disrespect the home despite mother’s constant reminders and pleas to stop invading private parts of their house and mistreating the furniture. In an interesting dialogue between mother and woman, mother expresses her condolences and woman ironically replies, “You can’t imagine what it feels like if you don’t have a child. You give, and you give, and you give, and it’s just never enough” (Aronofsky). When mother says that she does understand, woman still argues with her that she does not. This dialogue both serves as an observation of how mothers are treated and of how the earth is treated. It is ironic that woman accuses mother of not understanding because mother constantly allows these people to use her house as a haven, and the guests keep taking from her and exploiting the house disrespectfully, just as humans exploit the earth’s resources without respect for the environment. A.E. Kings states that “…the liberation of women cannot be achieved without the simultaneous liberation of nature from the clutches of exploitation” (70). Mother furiously kicks all the guests out of her house after they break the sink that she kept asking them not to sit on.
After all the guests leave, mother finally addresses Him and accuses him of being selfish and not caring about her wants. After an argument about his lack of writing and intimacy, they engage in aggressive sexual intercourse that causes mother to be pregnant. Their power imbalance shows itself in the way he basically forces himself on her despite her pushing him away. Her pregnancy and the presence of the guests inspires Him to finally write a wildly successful poem that gains him fans from all over the world.
Mother’s short period of happiness is interrupted when her house is invaded again, this time by crazed fans who treat Him as if he is a god to be worshipped because of his poem. Far along in her pregnancy, mother frantically pleads Him to make the guests leave. Clearly enjoying the attention and ignoring her worries, he allows the guests to continue to mistreat mother and her house. When mother asks a man not to lie down in her kitchen, she tells him, “This is my house” (Aronofsky). He laughs and replies with, “My house? The poet says it’s everyone’s house” (Aronofsky). Him’s crazed fans treat the house as if it is a spectacle that they can steal from and destroy, and the rest of the movie consists of mother pleading with the guests to stop. As both a religious allegory and an ecofeminist film, the situation symbolizes how the typically male-presented God allows humans to mistreat Mother Earth. She screams at them to stop stealing from her house and they accuse her of being stingy, telling her that she needs to share. This is a critique of how humans exploit the earth’s natural resources. This part of the movie is reminiscent of how colonizers invade and exploit land, claiming that the Earth is a free planet that can be explored by everyone. Although these colonizers treat the land as if its free for them to claim, they do not consider the wellbeing of the indigenous people who lived there before them, just as the guests do not have any regard for mother’s feelings and her house which she worked so hard on renovating.
The rest of the film serves as a critique of how destructive mankind is to the environment and to each other. As the situation in the house becomes more chaotic and violent, military forces intervene and mass executions occur. The crazed fans engage in obviously Christian rituals such as communion and putting ashes on their forehead. Although they worship Him, they constantly destroy and steal from his house. This serves as a critique of how hypocritical Christianity can sometimes be. Although Christian colonizers worshipped God, they did not always respect his creation, which is the earth. They exploited the Earth and its people even though they believe that it is God’s creation. The crazed fans worship Him but destroy his house, all at the expense of mother, or Mother Nature.
While hundreds of people destroy her home, mother eventually goes into labor, and Him ushers her into a safe room to give birth. Her screams shake the entire house, symbolizing how important mother is to the wellbeing of the house, just as women are important to the wellbeing of Earth. Him refuses to make his fans leave even after mother gives birth to their son. He insists that the fans want to see the baby and waits until mother falls asleep to take the baby from her. A violent scene following mother’s birth depicts the murder of her baby at the hands of the crazed fans in an act of sparagmos, symbolizing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Mother begins to stab the fans in a frenzied rage, and they collectively begin to beat her and call her common misogynistic slurs. Him saves her, but after he says, “We need to forgive them” (Aronofsky), symbolizing the concept of God’s forgiveness in Christianity, she screams in defiance and it cracks the floor of the house. This shows that no matter how much the fans and Him destroyed the house, she is still inherently in control of the house and can destroy it whenever she wants, as she is Mother Nature. The destruction of the environment causes the destruction of humankind. This idea is further developed when mother runs to the basement and starts a fire, destroying the house and the fans. Before starting the fire, mother tearfully says to Him, “You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you. I gave you everything! You gave it all away” (Aronofsky). This line clearly indicates how this film can serve as both an environmental story and a story about the patriarchal dynamics of relationships. Women keep giving and are taken advantage of, just as Earth is taken advantage of and harmed by humankind. As Kings states, “Ecofeminism explores the twin oppressions experienced by women and nature in an attempt to understand their shared destiny” (71). The destiny of the house, or the environment, is tied to the destiny of mother, who represents women. Both are destroyed by the end of the film. Notably, Him is unscathed by the fire, indicating his God-like status. Him carries the badly scorched mother, who asks him, “What are you?” (Aronofsky). He replies, “I am I. You? You were home” (Aronofsky). He tells her that he must start the creation process all over again, indicating that this is a cycle of trial and error by a God-like figure who is figuring out how to create a perfect home. Him pulls mother’s heart out, which is now a precious crystal object they put on a pedestal in the study. The presence of the heart signifies the rebuilding of the house and shows that the world is not possible without women.
The abuse that the protagonist, mother, suffers from her guests is comparable to the abuse Tiamat suffers in the Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish and Mother! are both creation stories of some sort, with Mother! beginning with the renewal of the house, or Earth, after a destructive fire. Tiamat is depicted as a motherly figure who becomes irritated when the gods in her stomach make too much noise and disturb her. This can be compared to the way that mother becomes irritated and enraged by the guests who invade and destroy her house. Both Tiamat and mother are ridiculed for their anger and are perceived to be villains. The end of both stories sees the destruction of Tiamat and mother at the hands of a male figure. Enuma Elish ends with Marduk replacing Tiamat as ruler of the earth, signifying the transition from a matriarchy to a patriarchy. Mother! is a patriarchal system, with Him making the money and making major decisions for the household without asking for mother’s input. The end of Mother! shows the renewal of the patriarchal system that is built off the suffering of the main woman, mother.
Mother! was and is a controversial film because it is an honestly brutal depiction of many aspects of society that need improvement. Climate change and sexism are some of the most significant and controversial issues internationally. Addressing them together in a movie via an ecofeminist perspective shows how intricately interwoven the exploitation of the environment is with the patriarchy. Combining these issues in a biblical allegory also addresses the patriarchal issues in Christianity, proving how much of an impact religion has on our treatment of the marginalized and of the environment. Kings writes that although damage of nature affects all of humankind, “…ecofeminist intersectionality recognizes that women are likely to be amongst those most affected by environmental degradation, with those at the margins of society often experiencing these effects earliest and to the harshest degree” (71). Ecofeminism is an honest way of addressing the terrifying truth that climate change affects the marginalized significantly worse and faster than it affects the privileged.
Aronofsky, Darren, director. Mother! Paramount Pictures, 2017.
Goldner, Virginia. “Feminism and Family Therapy.” Family Process, vol. 24, no. 1. 1985, p. 4.
Kilkenny, Katie. “A Conversation With the Ecofeminist Who Helped Inspire Mother! ” Pacific Standard, 20 Sept. 2017, psmag.com/social-justice/a-conversation-about-mother-with-susan-griffin.
Kings, A.E. “Intersectionality and the Changing Face of Ecofeminism.” Ethics and the Environment, vol. 22, no. 1, 2017, pp. 70-71, doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.22.1.04.
Warren, Karen J., editor. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature. Indiana University Press, 1997. p. 3.