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Questioning Maternal Instinct in 'The Mother'

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Kathleen Felli tackles the Netflix hit's representation of the fabled "maternal instinct."

 

Can assassins be mothers? Netflix’s recently released film The Mother says yes.


Quickly entering the top ten most watched films on the platform, The Mother follows the life of an unnamed assassin (Jennifer Lopez) who comes out of hiding to save her recently kidnapped daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez).


At the heart of The Mother is the notion that every person who has given birth has this “maternal instinct” that never leaves them. Prior to her pregnancy, the mother was a part of a group that smuggled weapons and was willing to kill anyone who interfered with her wealth. However, she seems to turn a new leaf as soon as she becomes pregnant with Zoe. She uncovers her group’s participation in child trafficking and – following her instinct – decides that she cannot remain there.


For Zoe’s safety, the mother decides that she must give her to another family that will be able to give her a normal life. Her exit from the smuggling group meant that she would never have the luxury of living in peace with her child. Thus, her first (and seemingly final) act of being a mother is to let her child go.


In a similar fashion, the mother demonstrates her maternal instinct by coming out of hiding for her daughter. Despite not having any contact with Zoe for twelve years, when the mother is notified of her disappearance, she refuses to let anyone else rescue her child.

The mother rescues Zoe halfway through the film, which naturally makes the audience question where the plot is supposed to go. Knowing that Zoe’s kidnappers will still pursue her, the mother takes her into hiding and prepares her daughter for the event that they come again. This is where the real tension of the film begins. The mother, while only trying to protect her daughter, teaches her how to survive on her own -- including teaching her how to use a gun. Naturally, Zoe is freaked out by having to use a weapon at such a young age. The fact that her biological mother is teaching her to use a gun provides another layer to the situation. How can a mother give life and also be willing to take it away?


The mother’s maternal instinct competes with her survival instinct – she wants to demonstrate care, but her care is informed by a life full of danger. In that sense, she is not equipped to console her daughter who has never been in danger before and would not be in danger now if it wasn’t for her biological affiliation. Zoe did not ask to be born to an assassin and resents her situation. However, that doesn’t stop the mother from following her maternal instinct and caring for her child, even if it’s not in the way she wants it to be.


By the end of The Mother, Zoe and her mother have a better understanding of each other and are able to create a bond. Of course, this bond may never reach one of a “typical” mother and daughter relationship. But, does it have to? Zoe should be allowed to have multiple maternal figures who are different in personality, but are similarly committed to caring for her. At the same time, the mother should be allowed to have pride in her identity without feeling that her motherhood is less valid if it is informed by a lifetime of hurt and survival.

 

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