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3 Decades of the Maternal Melodrama

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

The Maternal Melodrama is a fascinating genre due, in large part, to the ways in dives into mothering relationships. Here are three examples, spanning three decades.


Gather a box of tissues, a glass or two of wine, your best bubble friend and watch these three movies: Stella Dallas, directed by King Vidal and starring Barbara Stanwyck, 1937; Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Joan Crawford, 1945; Imitation of Life, directed by Douglas Sirk, starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, 1959.

All of these films are examples of the "maternal melodrama"--both "good" and "bad" mothers are punished by their children and the world. Their daughters drain their finances, steal their lovers, murder their lovers and reject and deny them. Women who prioritize work (even when the survival of their children depends upon this work) are punished, but so are women who sacrifice everything for their children.

Representations of motherhood are impossibly murky in all of these films.


In Imitation of Life, Lora's desire to be an actress is presented as purely selfish.

Annie, her black "assistant" mother (read "maid"), in spite of years of selfless love for her lighter-skinned daughter, is ashamed of her mother's blackness and Annie is only redeemed as a "good" mother upon her death.


In Stella Dallas, Stella tries to rise above her working-class roots and her "vulgarity" but must finally leave her daughter so that she may thrive in "high society." In the last scene, Stella huddles outside in the rain and watches her daughter's wedding to the "right" kind of man.


And in Mildred Pierce, Mildred must support her family by opening a restaurant which becomes so popular that she soon opens many more and becomes fabulously wealthy. She adores her "spoiled" and "bratty" daughter, gives her everything that money can buy and is repaid when her daughter both steals and murders her lover. (It's complicated.)


In spite of these abbreviated plot summaries, the films deal seriously with race, class, and motherhood. They were marketed as "tear-jerkers," and they are (thus the tissues), but they also provide a window into popular and impossible standards of motherhood.


Have a response to these films? Share your thoughts!


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