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Fiona Giles

Further information

About the author

Fiona Giles teaches and administers in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. She is a well known writer and editor of six books, numerous chapters and articles in journals, newspapers and magazines. Her most recent book is Fresh Milk: the Secret Life of Breasts. Her current research is in the adult uses of human milk, and popular reprersentations of maternity and sexuality.

Publication details

Volume 22, May 2010

Mrs Robinson’s Vindication:
Hollywood Representations of the Sexually Active Mother in
Something’s Gotta Give and Laurel Canyon
(an Approach to “Herethics” in Popular Culture).

Culture at large finds it hard to cope with autonomy in a woman, even harder to cope with sexual autonomy in a woman and hardest of all to cope with sexual autonomy in a woman who is also a mother.

Petra Büskens (2002, 39)

The function of this ‘Virginal Maternal’ may thus be seen taking shape in the Western symbolic economy. Starting with the high Christly sublimation for which it yearns and occasionally exceeds, and extending to the extra-linguistic regions of the unnameable, the Virgin Mother occupied the tremendous territory hither and yon of the parenthesis of language.

Julia Kristeva (1986, 174-5)

Nobody wants to acknowledge publicly that sex has no age limit.

Erica Jong (2004, 16)

This essay makes a close reading of two Hollywood films, Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and Laurel Canyon (2002), in which the heroine is a mother, who is also a creative artist, and who is rewarded for her efforts in both these spheres with a late-flowering renewal and affirmation of romantic love. These texts are critically analysed in relation to a selection of earlier films representing maternal sexuality and younger male lovers, and are interpreted as working in contrast to earlier films which vilify or punish the maternal heroine. I argue that as examples of feminist romance, SGG and LC offer revisions to the genre enabling simultaneous fulfilment in career, mothering and romantic love. In conclusion, I suggest that these instances of popular feminism indicate a need for additional research in popular representations of maternal sexuality.

Far from being punished for taking charge of their sexual destiny, as many film and fiction narratives have done traditionally, the heroines in SGG and LC show the rewards a woman may reap if she combines motherhood with career, and a boyfriend. In contrast to work and family being an obstacle to romance, the films show that these roles can instead promote it through the enhancements they provide to character, along with age, wisdom and experience. Additionally the heroines’ mature sexiness is presented as a positive feature of their age and empowerment rather than a vestige of something held onto despite all.

More radical than they first appear within their mainstream Hollywood packaging, the two films insist on the enduring sexual appeal of the mother, her right to remain sexually active, and the ethical benefits of her sexuality as it combines with, and extends beyond her maternity. Through their actions, the heroines contribute to the task of untying the knot that binds maternity, sacrifice and a-sexuality (Kristeva 1986, Carter 1979) and illustrate the advantages of holding onto the maternal and reproductive values that are normally regarded as antithetical to sex. As Kristeva argues, the emptying out of the Virgin Mary’s sexuality has left Western culture with a burden it has yet to fully shrug off. (Kristeva 1986) At the same time, the focus of heteronormativity on reproduction, as the true end of sexual activity, truncates women’s sex lives so that they are expected to become sexually inactive after childbearing age (Carter 1979, Albury 2002).

Romance, Film, Feminism

SGG and LC belong to the feminine romance genre, participating in a narrative tradition in which romantic love represents ultimate fulfilment for the heroine. Yet the films also offer a revision of this model. While the boyfriend is still something of an ultimate reward for the heroine’s efforts, he now shares the space among her mantelpiece of trophies—he is always a part of her landscape rather than overpowering it. In contrast to the 19th century romance narrative (and its popular incarnation in the Mills and Boon tradition), these new romances move away from forcing a heroine to make a painful choice between love and duty—where there is only room for one self-identity—and offer instead a means for her to exercise a range of choices and roles. Far from sacrificing romantic love to motherhood and career, for example, it is presented as the consequence of success in these endeavours: the icing on the cake. Given her age and abilities in her chosen profession, it is clear that each heroine can cope (and has done so admirably) without a lover. However, the audience is invited to share the view, along with Jane Juska, in her memoir The Round-Heeled Woman (2004) about the recovery of her sex life in her sixties, that ‘the absence of men in her life, while bearable, is not desirable’.1(8)

As Susan Maushart argues in What Women Want Next (2006) younger mothers raised during the feminist second wave are beginning to choose full-time motherhood over careers, and are conceiving of this choice as specifically feminist, rather than counter-feminist, as might have been seen twenty years earlier. Writes Maushart, ‘Women who choose to privilege relationships over paid work are no less a feminist success story than their career-oriented sisters. And at this point in our history, we need to be clear, many women are so choosing.’(144) It has long been a defence of feminine romance that the foregrounding of relationships can be viewed as of equal importance to the promotion of equity in the public sphere (Modleski 1982, Radway 1984, Thurston 1987); and as Maushart points out, younger mothers are now taking advantage of feminist achievements to prove this point. That is, not only must women’s rights be regarded as being of equal value, so too must their cultural heritage, as much as it might be modified by the acquisition of those rights. These recent films suggest that having achieved prominence in their pubic lives, the older, second-wave heroine is now free to pursue her personal happiness, to return to romance values, and to do so with eyes wide open, an income, and grown children who are no longer dependent on her time. Like her daughters now having children, she too can choose the romance option—since there is a choice.

What is particularly interesting about both these films is that they allow for the traditional romantic reward, but within a revised framework in which the heroine is older, a mother, and overtly a beneficiary—if not a mouthpiece—of feminism. Once dismissed by 1970s feminists as ‘pornography for women’, the romance genre has since been interpreted more kindly by feminist academics, at the same time that mass market romance has adapted to the values of female independence and sexual assertiveness made possible by increased financial independence and the lessons of the women’s movement. (Radway 1984, Radford 1986, Thurston 1987, Krentz 1992) In other words, the feminine romance genre, traditionally rejected by feminists as a regressive fantasy, is here adapted and subtly altered to allow specifically for the celebration of romantic attachment within the context of female emancipation and autonomy. The completion of the contemporary feminist heroine’s work is to nurture a space in her life for a lover. After all, feminism itself, as a project for social change and self-realisation, is nothing if not a romance quest.

Formerly, feminine romance narratives, including romantic comedies, required women to choose between love and family on the one hand, or career on the other. Such a division of spoils was particularly fixed in the so-called maternal melodramas produced by Hollywood during the second half of the twentieth century. These typically required sacrifices of the heroine in order for her to prove herself an adequate mother. Films such as Stella Dallas (1937) or the later Steel Magnolias (1989) work as four-hanky weepies by requiring the mother not only to forego her alternative career or forms of self-hood, but also to prove the value of her mothering through continued self-sacrifice. (Algazi 2002)

In contrast, SGG and LC show the adequacy of the mother is enhanced by her ability to succeed in other fields; furthermore, in both films she brings her rationalism and experience to bear on the needs of her adult children during their own times of crisis. The fact that the heroine’s children are also presented as successful, though still maturing adults, attests to the heroines’ past effectiveness as mothers as well as their continued commitment to their adult children’s needs. It is clear that each mother’s complex emotional landscape benefits her children at the point when they become prepared, within the drama, to heed her advice.

In Cinematernity (1996) Lucy Fischer summarises, through a range of film genres, the ways in which female protagonists are required to prove their maternal probity by abandoning other choices, even where motherhood comes at great cost. In SGG and LC, the experience of the mothers outside mothering is instead shown to enhance their abilities as parents in a direct rebuttal of the view that motherhood and sacrifice are inevitably, normatively paired. The effect of this assumption on women’s freedom is difficult to underestimate; and its prevalence just as difficult to resist. As Toril Moi explains, in discussing Kristeva’s "Stabat Mater" (1986), “There is an urgent need for a ‘post-virginal’ discourse on maternity, one which ultimately would provide both women and men with a new ethics.” (160-1) This is a particularly important point in LC since the mother has been far from conventional as a parent. We get to see that, despite the son’s doubts and resistance, his mother is not only professionally capable but also an ethical, loving individual who is prepared to nurture and guide her son. Towards the end of Cinematernity, Fischer concludes her study of representations of maternity in film with a chapter on a small selection of texts, (in women’s film and poetry) dealing with the choice between motherhood and a creative arts career, something she sees as among the most difficult of all career choices to combine. She writes:

In recent years, women filmmakers have wrestled with the subject of motherhood and creativity. Some, like Claudia Weill, have crafted narratives quite similar to those outlined above [for example, Turning Point (1977) or The Sandpiper (1965) in which motherhood and creativity are portrayed as mutually exclusive]. In Girlfriends (1978), a poet relinquishes her writing to raise a family and type her husband’s dissertation. Significantly, however, rather than continue to portray female artists who have uneasily assumed the maternal position, women directors have chosen heroines who have rejected that option—perhaps a more honest (and less melodramatic) stance on the situation. (220)

Fischer concludes with a reading of High Tide (1987) directed by Gillian Armstrong, where the mother-artist Lily (Judy Davis) gives up her child in infancy, and returns to mothering, but only in a tentative and ambivalent way, and following a purely accidental encounter. Fischer argues that Lily’s acceptance of motherhood at the end of the film remains provisional despite the downturn in her fortunes as a singer. Even where the career choice is absent the allure of mothering for women is no longer assumed.

In contrast, SGG and LC celebrate their heroines as mother-artists, specifically in the context of show business. This speaks volumes not only in defence of the mother engaged in performance (the antithesis of self-effacing mothering) but also explicitly as a riposte to damning mainstream Hollywood portrayals of delinquent maternal divas—mothers such as Carrie Fisher’s in Postcards from the Edge (1990) or the Joan Crawford of Mommy Dearest. (1981) Such films back up Lucy Fischer’s typology of the normative, sacrificial mother in contrast to the selfish, career-oriented mother.

The two heroines discussed here are neither self-sacrificing nor selfish: Erica (Diane Keaton) in SGG is a famous Broadway playwright and Jane (Frances MacDormand) is a successful rock music producer; and both are successful parents. Here two mainstream Hollywood films speak not only of possibilities for the ordinary woman these heroines are designed to represent; the films also speak more literally of the hopes of Hollywood’s own population of women artists. The fact these films are both written and directed by women (Nancy Myers and Lisa Cholodenko respectively) is clearly no accident. By producing films which succeed within the mainstream these directors both narrativize and exemplify the plausibility of combining creative work outside the home with creative work within it.

It could be argued that in Hollywood, show business mothers are more privileged than the general population, though their careers are in many ways less compatible with family duties than most nine-to-five jobs. However, Myer’s and Cholodenko’s films depict romance heroines, that is, exemplary, larger-than-life characters to whom ordinary women might look for inspiration. Audience identification is aspirational rather than resigned. Crucially the films insist on the broadening out of a woman’s creative potential, so that her embodied, reproductive role is continuous with, rather than an obstacle to, her social, artistic one. If Hollywood has traditionally traded in the American Dream of the self-made man, these films offer a new version of the dream, with a female audience clearly in mind.

Cinematic Precedents and Archetypes

In addition to speaking against the traditions of maternal melodrama, SGG and LC also offer a riposte to the tradition of the sexually predatory older woman, as set up so memorably by Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), and to some extent by the incestuously inclined Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) of Sunset Boulevard (1950). This cinematic legacy also warrants mention as both SGG and LC involve important relationships with younger male lovers. Through The Graduate the character of Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) has become an archetype for the older woman who uses a young man for her own sexual pleasure, but whose desire is presented as a symptom of perversion, mental illness, alcoholism or—at best—marital loneliness. Fuelled by boredom within an empty marriage, Mrs Robinson’s sexual desire for the newly graduated Ben (Dustin Hoffman) who is home for the holidays, ultimately has negative consequences for all involved, including her husband. The hero escapes long-term harm only by fleeing to his own generation, specifically to Mrs Robinson’s daughter, whom he has known since childhood. Interestingly the film does show the affair initially having a positive effect on Ben’s self-esteem, and it is a means for him to escape his parents’ overbearing clutches. To an extent the lovers mirror each other as misfits, with Mrs Robinson admitting early on, ‘I’m very neurotic’, as Ben mutters that he’s ‘disturbed about things.’ Neither of them fits comfortably into the middle class suburban mould.

The Graduate also allows for Ben’s relationship with Mrs Robinson to have groomed him for her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), despite her disapproval of his desire for her. Previously virginal, Ben has been both socially and sexually inept prior to his affair with the older woman. Given Mrs Robinson’s experience and beauty, and Ben’s adult age, (since he is twenty-one, she has not committed statutory rape), her fate seems harsh, as she is increasingly depicted through the progress of the film as a bullying alcoholic. Even worse, by the end of the film she becomes just another one of them, the oppressive older generation, only better looking. At this point it becomes clear that The Graduate is as much about generational conflict specific to 1960s student politics as it is about intergenerational sex. Mrs Robinson becomes an allegory for the authoritarian conservatism of the older generation, regardless of her surface appeal. Ben is shown as being brutalized and harassed by his parents and their friends, who merely regard him as Exhibit A in the case for their own success. His escape at the altar with Elaine is as much a political rebellion as it is a sexual refuge. Nevertheless, the reception of The Graduate, and its cultural ripples continue to derive from the frisson of the intergenerational affair, and Mrs Robinson has become an icon for the older-woman lover.

When this narrative is reworked as Class in 1983, many of the political dimensions have been dropped, so that the romance between the mother (Jaqueline Bisset) and the schoolboy Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) is purely sexualised. Although there is a socio-economic class difference (and the film’s title bears a double meaning) between the scholarship schoolboy and the woman (who is wealthy) this doesn’t become apparent to the boy until he discovers her true identity as his roommate’s mother. Again the mother is blamed for impropriety within the narrative, even though the schoolboy has lied about his age and their sex is consensual. (And at the time of their affair she has no knowledge of his friendship with her son). Nevertheless, her fate, like Mrs Robinson’s, is to be hospitalised for alcoholism. Also mirroring The Graduate, the end of the film shows the hero returning to his own generation, essentially unscathed. While the younger man ultimately benefits, the woman is punished and cast out.

In 2005 the plot of The Graduate was revisited in the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Rumour Has It, in which Sarah (Jennifer Anniston), the grand-daughter of Mrs Robinson, unwittingly sleeps with the man who was once played by Dustin Hoffman, Ben (Kevin Costner), and is now a dotcom billionaire. The film does little to advance the issue of intergenerational sex, though here it is the more commonplace scenario of the older man and a younger woman lover. For a time the dramatic frisson is based on Sarah’s suspicion that Ben might be her father, but this is resolved favourably. Most interesting perhaps is the character of Mrs Robinson (Shirley MacLean) who is Sarah’s grandmother. Here she is depicted as an affluent and eccentric widow who refuses to be called Grandma, and is still fuelled by her anger towards her younger ex-boyfriend . Although she is presented as a positive figure in the end, through showing support for her grand-daughter, she is far from being socially reformist, and remains trapped in the emotional space of embittered abandonment.

Another recent film in which an older woman and mother has an affair with a much younger man is The Mother (2004), in which the Hollywood narrative is reworked, with slightly less negative results. A British production directed by Roger Michelle and scripted by Hanif Kureishi, one of whose novellas became the basis for the controversially explicit film Intimacy (2003), The Mother is a social-realist drama, and in contrast to the romance narratives of SGG and LC, The Mother is much less glittering in its portrayal of the older woman’s fate, despite the fact that she is not punished in the long-term, nor institutionalized for her affair. (While it could be argued that The Graduate and Class work as romance quests for the younger man, and SGG and LC as romance for older women, The Mother is situated somewhere in the middle, offering a measured account of both the older woman’s and the younger man’s progress towards autonomy.) Although the mother of the title suffers set-backs, the affair is essentially a liberating experience that leads her forward to new-found independence.

The story tells of a recently widowed, working-class mother Amy (Anne Reid) who spends some time with her daughter and son, at their houses in London, while recovering from the sudden loss of her husband, their father. She finds herself alone in her son’s house with his builder, who is renovating. The builder Darren (Daniel Craig) is also her daughter’s some-time, commitment-phobic boyfriend, and father to an autistic child. The mother initiates an affair with the younger man, who is in his mid thirties compared to her sixties. Their sexual relationship is depicted in touchingly positive terms, showing a flowering of her sexuality and renewal of her happiness. The younger man is himself a lothario, fully aware of his sexual powers and in no position to be exploited by the mother, despite his relative youth. But here again it is the mother who takes the rap. Once their affair is revealed to her children, through the discovery of Amy’s erotic drawings, her daughter punches her in the face in a premeditated act of revenge, giving her a black eye. Not coincidentally, the mother’s sexual reawakening is accompanied by other creative energy, as she attends a writing class and begins to draw. Having devoted her life to the needs of her children, she is tentatively experimenting with her own expressive potential and acknowledging her own needs. Nevertheless, the result of her affair is banishment to her small, empty home on a housing estate in Northern England. The builder remains relatively unpunished, though this is partly due to nothing much anyway being expected from him: according to the more materialist values of the mother’s children, he is something of a no-hoper. On the other hand, an older male character, who is by all appearances more socially upstanding than the builder, also dates Amy following an attempt by her daughter to revive her social life. Although respectable, the older man is self-absorbed and pompous, and frantically imposes himself on her sexually in a disturbing date-rape scene. Compared to the unmannerly sexuality of the man from her own age group, the younger builder’s erotic responsiveness and sensitivity are far preferable.

In contrast to The Graduate and Class, The Mother does leave us with a sense of the heroine’s reawakening as a result of her affair with the younger man, together with a harsh lesson from her children on her irrelevance as a mother. While the sexual fulfilment of the mother is seen as antithetical to her effectiveness as a parent, the film hints at the possibility that if she’d held onto her libido in both sexual and more loosely creative contexts, she might not have lost touch with her children. As a mother who has sacrificed needs to her husband and family, and who has never worked outside her home, she has nothing to offer her children in the way of emotional wisdom—in contrast to the characters in SGG and LC. Despite her own good intentions, and her daughter’s explicit requests at several stages of the film for help, the film shows that the daughter is asking for too much and the mother is offering too little. In a sense the mother is, as a result, released to now devote herself to her own needs; and the last scene shows her leaving her empty family home to embark on travels of her own. The loneliness underscoring this ending is tempered by her new-found independence and erotic potential so that it is her widowhood and lack of a professional identity—conditions of her generation and class—that is ultimately responsible for any limitations of self she takes with her. In a revision of the maternal melodrama, The Mother ends with the heroine’s refusal to continue with the sacrificial narrative she has previously lived by. Though she has yet to achieve success in the realms of either selfhood or mothering, she is shown to be moving forward.

Something’s Gotta Give

In SGG and LC each heroine is also in a relationship with a much younger man; and it is significant that in both cases the relationship is not represented as pernicious to either party. In SGG a second cross-generational affair (which remains only just unconsummated) is presented between the heroine’s daughter Marin (Amanda Peet) and Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) who becomes the mother’s lover. This too is presented as benign and mutually beneficial. Thus the heroines of these films assertively reply to The Graduate that far from being Mrs Robinson’s self-described ‘broken-down alcoholic’ who preys on students, these older women are well-adjusted individuals who are beacons to assertive, handsome and successful younger men.

SGG begins with a male’s-eye view of women in their thirties. Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) provides a voice-over to a parade of young women in their sexual prime, sauntering along the streets of New York in scenes reminiscent of a shampoo ad. Singing their praises, the narrator tells us that Harry is on his way to the Hampton’s for a weekend with the gorgeous Marin (Amanda Peet), at least thirty years his junior. But at the house they are unexpectedly interrupted by Marin’s mother, Erica Barry (Diane Keaton) and her aunt Zoe (Frances McDormand) who had also planned a weekend at what turns out to be Erica’s house. The two older women enter the kitchen as Harry, in boxer shorts, is foraging in the fridge for champagne. Mistaking him for a burglar Erica calls the police, and the classic initial antagonism of the romance couple begins at this point.

Erica and Zoe are presented as successful, educated, worldly wise career women, the product of the best of 1970s feminism, who quickly see through Harry, the classic womaniser. Yet it soon becomes clear that Erica’s daughter Marin is also wise to Harry and his playboy ways. Indeed she prefers men like Harry because she shares his fear of commitment and the risk of loss that intimacy entails. It transpires that Marin has seen her mother hurt by the failure of her parents’ marriage, and wishes to avoid a similar fate. As a result, SGG is no simple exercise in vilifying, and reforming an aging playboy. It shows that both genders are equally at risk of making wrong decisions in matters of love, as well as arresting their emotional development through devotion to work. The plot then proceeds along parallel paths as Erica and Harry gradually form an alliance, and Marin learns that she can’t escape pain by avoiding love, so that by the end of the film she too is happily partnered.

At the same time as the divorced Erica begins an affair with Harry, she is also wooed by a much younger man, Harry’s doctor, Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves). On meeting Erica, Julian exclaims that he is a ‘huge fan’ of her work, and he then proceeds to fall in love with Erica more swiftly and unproblematically than Harry. Julian is presented as an ideal lover: young, healthy, handsome and professionally successful without the commitment phobia of the older Harry. He also takes the sexual initiative despite his relative youth, his task being to convince Erica that she is attractive to him and that he desires her not only for her mind but also her body. But Harry is also on a life-changing course: a heart attack (symbolic of his change of attitude to affairs of the heart) followed by a series of panic attacks, makes it clear that his playboy lifestyle is no longer viable. (His name Sanborn implies “yet to be born” as well as being “without children” and in the process of falling in love and giving love, he is symbolically remade.) Having admitted, “I don’t know how to be a boyfriend,’ his relationship with Erica fails. But Harry cannot so easily return to his old ways. He retires from work and sets out to learn what women really think of him by contacting the many women he has previously slept with. After learning the hard way that he’s universally despised, he travels to Paris to surprise Erica on her birthday and effect a rapprochement. He finds her having dinner with Julian, and after a brief encounter, leaves them to walk back to his hotel through the snow. This is a feminising, passive position for the male lover to be placed in. And in the penultimate scene of the film, as he stands alone on a Paris bridge, he muses self-critically, ‘Looks who gets to the play the girl.’

More importantly than his willingness to behave passively, or—it could be said—give in gracefully, Harry ultimately wins Erica because he genuinely loves women and understands them. Even though he can’t at first respond adequately to Erica’s needs, he can use his considerable intelligence, insight and charm to convince Erica of the continued existence of those needs. In other words, Harry teaches Erica that she has not fallen out of the reach of love. As she says to him earlier in the film when they are gradually forming a friendship, “I can’t decide if you hate me or if you’re the only person who really got me.”

Harry’s generosity is also borne out when Marin decides to stand aside so that he and her mother can go out on a date. Marin then reports back to her mother on how diplomatically he excused her. When he later says to Erica with feeling, “You are a woman to love,” we feel not only his sincerity, but his authority: this is a man in a good position to know. Harry’s playboy past (given some alterations) is thus continuous with, rather than being an obstruction to, the romantic ending, holding on, perhaps, to the appeal of normative romance in which the wandering hero is reformed by love.

But the younger lover also gets to be heroic. SGG is in many ways a homage to men and their capacity for love, as it is a female fantasy of wish fulfilment. In the final scene, it is the ideal (much younger) lover who with high chivalry releases Erica from his relationship with her, saying, as Erica relays to Harry on the bridge, “He could see that I was still in love with you.” The film’s closing scene has Harry and Erica going out for lunch in a New York restaurant with Marin, her husband and their baby daughter. The family has been expanded as well as reunited. Significantly, the camera’s attention, along with the adults, is focused on the baby, so that the film returns to the mother’s gaze, which is also here supplemented by all the others at the table, together with the audience. The clinch on the Paris bridge is thus augmented by a glimpse of life ever after for the older lovers, one that entails the maternal values of grandparenting as well as sex and romance.

By avoiding a simplistic gendering of the good and bad characters in SGG, Myers suggests the need for both sexes to reevaluate their attitudes to romantic love—or perhaps to expand its definition. Erica has used her creative work as an excuse to avoid intimacies since the demise of her marriage. She wears polo neck sweaters in summer, hiding her body in a way that is similar to Harry’s strategy of hiding his heart. The warmth of her personality is equally hidden behind her wry, sarcastic demeanour. Harry’s effect on her is to soften her edges, and remind her of the joys of intimacy as well the inevitability of its perils. Julian’s character is equally crucial in his insistence on Erica’s physical attractiveness, and the sexiness of her intelligence and professional success. In other words Erica’s appeal is universal, not merely suited to the perhaps lower expectations of an older man. In direct contrast to other film versions of the older woman/younger man affair, Julian is in full control of his own emotional repertoire, he withstands with grace being stood up for dinner, wittily extracting an apology from Erica, and wins her over after her affair with Harry goes wrong. He then sacrifices her to the older man, without fuss or macho posturing (or—most refreshingly of all—punch-ups), once he realises her preference. Without being feminized by these experiences, Julian shows the way in which a younger man can not only avoid exploitation by an older woman but can act as an equal and a guide, firstly by convincing her of her attractiveness; secondly by recognising who she should end up with. Similarly, Harry is not portrayed as all bad, but as a product of particular socio-economic opportunities: he is successful, rich and single. Only with advancing age and ill-health has there been any reason to be otherwise. Nevertheless he brings a great deal of knowledge about women, and love for them, to his relationship with Erica; and his wisdom and insights into her condition both impresses and touches her. Crucially in both SGG (and LC as we shall see), the lover who succeeds with the heroine is the one who, each heroine says, ‘gets’ her, in all her complexity and contradictions, self-sufficiency and needs. He is the man who takes her as she is.

Additionally, Erica’s recovery from her heartbreak is to throw herself into her writing. Her suffering fuels her desire to write, first as distraction and therapy, but soon as inspiration; and the story shapes up to become one of her most successful plays. As part of the comedy of both the film itself, and the play within the film, Erica wreaks narrative revenge on Harry in her work. He becomes a thinly disguised figure of fun in her play, who is ultimately killed off. Harry learns of his fate within the process of the film’s narrative, first seeing the play rehearsed, secondly when Erica confirms that his character dies, in a delicious moment of having it both ways: the heroine can be mean in a fantasy life that gives her professional fame, but which in the real life of her romantic liaison is without cost. Erica Barry is a heroine in a position to act effectively: by expressing her anger creatively, she is shown to be in charge of her fate, and is rewarded for it.

The resolution of SGG shows not only that romantic love is still a crucial component of happiness for both sexes. It also argues that both sexes are equally in danger if they attempt to avoid connection by throwing themselves obsessively into other pursuits, whether work or casual sex. Both Harry and Erica are required to learn about their own needs and value through the course of the narrative: Erica that she is lovable; Harry that he is capable of giving love, and of ‘being a boyfriend’. It is the role of the younger characters, Marin and Julian, to help Harry and Erica by standing aside: Marin by ending her (unconsummated) affair with Harry; Julian by ending his with Erica. In a sense the hero and heroine are strategically dumped; in another sense Marin and Julian are allegorical children, who need to remove their own needs from the path of the parental generation, enabling them to become lovers. Far from being obstructive, they are instrumental in the fulfilment of their elder’s romance quest. This is in direct reversal of classical romance narrative, where typically the elders stand in the way of a young couple’s romance. (Frye 1957) As a result SGG works as both romance and subversion of romance on several levels: it asserts that a post-menopausal divorcee, mother and career woman can find love and a vibrant sex life; it asserts that intergenerational romances, though unlikely to last, are not damaging; and it holds fast to the fantasy of the reformed lothario, who can learn to love. The overall effect is to affirm the sexual desirability of the older woman and suggests that if a woman has power, her desirability increases.

At the same time, the film shows that the heroine’s effectiveness as a mother is not diminished by her affair. Initially the success of her daughter’s career testifies to Erica’s effectiveness as a parent. Later, Erica’s heartbreak is a lesson for Marin, as despite her mother’s suffering she is convinced by Erica that the risk is worth taking. Her mother both teaches and models romantic love, instead of being—as mothers in romances traditionally are—an obstructionist relic.

Laurel Canyon

The narrative of Laurel Canyon focuses more on the troubled relationship between the heroine and her son, within the context of the mother’s intensely preoccupying and gratifying career as a rock music producer. Jane (Frances McDormand) is a legendary figure in LA music circles. She is also renowned (at least in her son’s memory) for a series of equally intense love affairs. There are no father figures as such; instead the son Sam (Christian Bale), who is now working as a resident psychiatrist, remembers a series of male figures that colourfully passed through her life, and his own. But Sam’s abiding impression is of his mother’s chaotic existence and his own emotional neglect. The film offers a critique of the son’s impression in a variety of subtle and overt ways; and the resolution rests on his mother’s pronouncement that she has always loved him, despite her unconventional mothering. By showing the son to be professionally, intellectually and physically successful—though anxious and somewhat uptight—the film also testifies (as it does in SGG) to the mother’s effectiveness as a parent. The critique offered in the film is directed less at the mother or son, than at the social pressure which circles around motherhood, and middle class career expectations. Sam’s fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale), coming from a conservative East Coast, stable family background is in a better position, ironically, than Sam, to acknowledge the value of Jane’s openness. For Sam, his desire for propriety rests on a need for social reassurance that was perhaps missing—not due to Jane’s rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but to the fact that she was, despite her lovers, a single mother.

To all intents and purposes, her son is a capable and well-rounded adult. He is in a stable relationship with the Ph.D student Alex and is shown working at the hospital making compassionate and rational decisions in treating his disturbed patients. At the same time the film is careful not to suggest that parents can behave as they please. In addition to Jane’s recognition that she needs to reassure her son of her love for him more clearly, there is a crucial scene showing Sam at work counselling a teenage drug user and his irate mother. After listening to the mother’s tirade of disapproval, he states, ‘Give your values a rest for a second. Your kid’s in trouble.’ While his own mother has perhaps been short on disapproval given her more free-wheeling values compared to his, there is a sense in which he is also speaking of his own need for attention, where the competing interests and values of the parent are laid aside and the child’s needs are acknowledged to be paramount. While he needs his own mother to restate this in the course of the film, and ultimately she does, he is also presented as someone who has benefited from adequate mothering, as illustrated through his own analytic abilities and care for his patients.

Nevertheless, Sam’s unconventional mother is shown to be the more emotionally competent of the two, despite keeping show business hours, having little on hand in the fridge, and empty beer bottles in the lounge room. Jane’s rejection of domesticity is a conscious choice, marking her commitment to independence and work—and those she works with—over middle-class materialism and displays of good housekeeping. As she says to her younger boyfriend, when she is hoping to intensify their romance, “You don’t want to ruin this with domesticity do you?”

In addition to her high emotional IQ, she is clearly established as talented and capable in her work, with a kick-ass line in witty repartee which she frequently deploys in protecting her musicians from the marketing sharks. In this way she shows how maternal skills merge with both the creative and the professional. She has a child-like ability to go with the flow and embrace her creative talents, yet she also has the ability to nurture her musicians in the studio, and to be stern, both with the boys in the band, and the studio executives. And the success of her relationship with her soon-to-be daughter-in-law Alex hinges on her openness to Alex’s lay opinions about her work. She invites feedback and genuinely listens to others. Indeed Jane in many ways encompasses the new ethics, or “herethics” that Kristeva calls for in acknowledging the value of the sexual mother:

Now, if a contemporary ethics is no longer seen as being the same as morality; if ethics amounts to not avoiding the embarrassing and inevitable problematics of the law but giving it flesh, language and jouissance—in that case its reformulation demands the contribution of women. Of women who harbour the desire to reproduce (to have stability). Of women who are available so that our speaking species, which knows it is moral, might withstand death. Of mothers. (185)

It is Jane’s character, above all, that knits the small community of the Laurel Canyon household together, not through paternalistic authority and regulatory practices, but through granting the importance of flesh, language and jouissance, in equal measure.

The opening scene of LC sets the stage for the disjunction between the son’s anxiety and the mother’s benign though unconventionally expressed intentions. Alex and Sam are having sex when Jane rings from LA to check on their imminent arrival and to warn them that instead of the empty house they were expecting, she would still be there with the band, completing a record. Although Alex and Sam continue having sex while the answering machine plays the message, Sam becomes too distracted to have an orgasm while his girlfriend continues unfazed by the interruption. In other words, the son is disrupted by his mother in a way that others are not, even while being intimate with him. This sets up the premise that the son protests too much, and the rest of the film bears this out as he finally appreciates that his mother is adequate and deserves his acknowledgement and respect. A more generous interpretation of the scene allows that any intersection between a mother and her child’s sexuality (whether infant or adult) is taboo; and the film offers a subtle reversal of this assumption since it doesn’t collapse into a comic critique of the mother as intrusive and instead rests on the son’s need to become more accommodating.

Our first glimpse of Jane shows her smoking marijuana in the lounge room, continuing a party from the night before. She is welcoming and friendly to the new arrivals, having not before met her prospective daughter-in-law. Again the son’s anxiety is presented as an over-protectiveness towards Alex’s feelings, and a projection of his disapproval of Jane’s lifestyle (which—it turns out—mask his own desires for greater freedom).

Like Erica, Jane is having an affair with a much younger man, the band’s lead singer Ian (Allesandro Nivola). Unlike Erica, Jane has always been sexually active; and it becomes clear from her heated discussions with Sam, that she has always had boyfriends, and always intends to. In this sense there is an oedipal component to Sam’s grievances, as though he feels he has always had to compete for attention, not merely against one father, but a whole series of lovers. As Hanif Kureishi comments of the discomfort the sex scenes in The Mother can produce, “Our mothers aren’t supposed to be sexual; their bodies belong to us.” (Brockes 2003)

Yet the film continues to present Jane as a good parent and host, who extends her welcome to Alex by inviting her to join them in the recording studio, and asking her opinion of their currently stalled album. The friendship between Jane and Alex progresses iconoclastically, with sexual interest from Jane’s boyfriend Ian (and Alex’s own restless curiosity) resulting in a late-night manage à trois in the swimming pool. When this progresses further, however, Jane calls a halt, acknowledging that having sex with her son’s girlfriend would be inappropriate, at the same time that she accepts Ian’s attraction to the other woman. Her withdrawal from the threesome is seen as both ethical and generous.

While the course of the narrative for Jane and Ian does not follow the romance structure of meeting, losing and regaining a loved one (as it does in SGG), this narrative pattern does apply to the progress of Sam and Alex’s relationship, with the crucial difference that it is the mother’s open acceptance of the daughter-in-law, rather than any objections to her, that fuels a conflict between the younger lovers. The fate of this relationship remains open at the end of the film. Though there is a suggestion of reconciliation between the engaged couple, at the same time a colleague of Sam’s remains romantically interested in him, and he in her, leaving open the possibility that, like his mother, he may begin to be less wedded to conventionality. While this takes place, the relationship between Jane and Ian becomes stronger, and the album is completed. At the same time, Ian reluctantly accepts that Alex is out of bounds, since she is family. While the two romantic liaisons occupy much of the film’s attention, together with Sam’s flirtation with his colleague Sara (Natasha MacElhone), it is the conflict between mother and son that provides the central interest, and calls for dramatic resolution.

Following his discovery of Alex in bed in Ian’s room (though they’ve stopped short of having sex due to Jane’s intervention), Sam lashes out and accidentally punches his mother, giving her a black eye. The following morning we see him swimming laps while Jane sits at the edge of the pool, where she tells him, ‘I haven’t been a very good parent. I know that. But I’ve always loved you. You’re my baby, man.’

At the same time that Sam shows that he accepts her speech, his colleague and potential lover Sara calls his cell phone to say she’d like to see him again. He then sinks blissfully under the water, and the film closes on this image of renewal, and a new openness to pleasure. Not only does his mother love him, not only does his girlfriend want him back, but there is also interest from another woman. He too has entered into the more generous emotional universe that Jane’s life encapsulates, where multiple relationships, though unconventional, might be accommodated.

In some ways LC could be read as an anti-romance, since it proposes that love needn’t conform to the heteronormative standard. On the other hand, the ending of the film’s narrative between Jane and Ian shows an affirmation of their intergenerational affair, and his love for her is reiterated beyond the crisis with Alex and Sam. Ian acknowledges his own misbehaviour in his flirtation with Alex, and their relationship is shown to be strengthened. At the same time, infidelity is not regarded as necessarily fatal to the relationship, allowing for a more permissive definition of romantic love. Additionally, the album is completed when Ian is inspired to write a ballad expressing his love for Jane, and this lyrical, romantic song rounds out what has been, til then, a more traditionally hard rock recording. As with SGG, LC asserts that there need be no disjunction between work and love. Instead it asserts that Jane’s work makes her loveable just as Ian’s love completes his work. Their creative abilities both nurture and reiterate their relationship. With its closing scene offering rapprochement with Sam, Jane’s romantic relationship is also allowed to coexist with her parenting role, and Sam is freed from his anxieties and able to move on.

Dramatic Resolutions

In their Introduction to Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s Peter William Evans and Celestino Deleyto point out that although the broad category of love is arguably universal, romantic love is more historically determined, arising out of the courtly love traditions of eleventh century France in particular. “Whereas an emotion more or less identifiable with love is, according to sociologists, a universal phenomenon, romantic love is culturally specific, a type of relationship which appears in the European Renaissance, according to some, and no earlier than the end of the eighteenth century.” (Evans and Deleyto, 1998) The authors argue that the romantic comedies of the late 20th century have been required to adapt this traditional, centuries-old view of romantic love to post 1960s libertarianism, feminism and AIDS, resulting in a variation that allows for equality between the lovers, as well as a sense of provisionality, if not impermanence.

In discussing her book Against Love: A Polemic, (2003) Laura Kipnis’s critique of lifelong monogamy and heteronormative marriage, she states, ‘Marriage was never meant to last a lifetime. (Philip Adams interview, Late Night Live 2003) Or at least, she elaborates, what we consider a normal lifetime, which is now considerably longer than it has been historically. Here Kipnis is particularly alluding to the origins of courtly love which coincided with a period in history when the human lifespan was much shorter than it is today, and many women routinely died in childbirth. Similarly the norms and traditions regulating female sexuality and our knowledge of female sexual potential is limited by the relatively recent longevity that childbearing women now take for granted. Today’s post-menopausal generation is the first to have benefited from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, to be interested in prolonging their sex lives, and to be subject to empirical research on sexuality and aging. As Susan Maushart suggests in What Women Want Next, the reason for contradictory and incomplete research on post-menopausal sexuality has been in the past a lack of subjects. ‘A mere hundred years ago,’ she writes, ‘the average age of menopause for a British woman was 47 (it is much the same today)—and her life expectancy was 49.’ (176)

It should be no surprise, then, that there is still uncertainty about the sexuality of older women, the effect of aging on libido, and the role of sexual relationships in older women’s lives. The shift away from the Mrs Robinson stereotype, where older women’s sexuality is regarded as perverse, is increasingly fuelled by this first generation of aging women who enjoy good health and sexual confidence. The growth in the autobiographical sub-genre around sexual reawakenings for older women testifies to our curiosity about this relatively unresearched area. (Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society 2002, Moody 2003, Juska 2004) At the same time, the insistence on the act of motherhood and the career of mothering as a purely altruistic affair, rather than a pleasurable pursuit, has dampened our understanding of, and interest in, the erotics of mothering itself. How does mothering engage a woman’s libido in subtle ways through her embodied affection towards her child? And how does her experience of mothering, childbirth and lactation shift her erotic sensibility in relation to her adult lovers? These are questions ripe for both empirical and qualitative research, as much as narrative exploration.

These two Hollywood films, which focus on the loves that come after marriage and family, and the loves that grow out of the process of mothering and aging, allow for the possibility that one relationship might not meet all the requirements of one life for one lifetime, and that important loves may be transient, though no less important for that. As Jane points out authoritatively to Ian in LC, “I’m 16 years older than you. That is a lifetime of fucking. And I’m not apologising.”

Evans and Deleyto suggest that romantic flexibility works well for older lovers, since relationships past need not announce the failure of an individual as a lover, merely the changing needs and circumstances of individuals who expect to remain sexually active for the duration of a relatively long life. Laura Kipnis agrees that a relationship once finished has not necessarily failed, but just past its use-by date. Just as SGG refuses to end the narrative at the point of the lover’s embrace on a Paris bridge, these films insist on the continuation of romance in different contexts— after marriage, beyond babies, further to divorce, and into fresh fields of maturity.

The optimistic, though complex outcomes for Jane in LC and Erica in SGG, suggest that women who persist in their own creative paths will ultimately be rewarded, not only with the love and respect of their adult children, and laurels for their work, but the attentions of a desirable, and desiring man. As Erica Jong puts its, “If we will only allow ourselves to understand sex as something beyond reproduction, we will have a clue to its enormous power.” (2004, 16)


1. The Meryl Streep character in the recent blockbuster Mama Mia (2008) also portrays a variation of this narrative.


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Evans, Peter William and Celestino Deleyto, (eds) Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1998

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