Big Mamas: The Devouring Feminine in Contemporary Cinema

Emily Fox Kales, Ph.D.
Department of Psychiatry
Harvard Medical School

The contemporary cultural construct of the large woman as monstrous and out of control, driven by insatiable appetites, has been located in socio-political history as the post-feminist reaction to challenges of traditional gender and power paradigms. The image of the fearsome fat woman is thus seen as the collective social response to what Christopher Lasch describes as "the aggressive overtures of sexually liberated women." A psychoanalytic reading, however, directs us to an understanding of these gendered constructs within the context of such unconscious developmental processes as the preoedipal fear of the annihilating and devouring maternal. This paper will discuss the outsize female characters in such films as What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Happiness, and Misery as embodied projections of primitive fantasies and anxieties onto the cinema screen.

Any conversation about women and weight immediately forces us to consider a series of paradoxes. It is well-documented via marriageability rates, earned income statistics, and self-esteem measures, that the overweight woman is the object of persistent stigmatization socially, economically, and psychologically; she is, in short, a victim of "oppression, recession, and depression" (Gregory, 1994). This leads us to the first paradox: despite her corporeal substantiality, the outsize woman in contemporary culture is rendered politically and socially invisible—voiceless and powerless, she is a "full-figured phantom" who at best achieves only a "negative visibility." (Goodman, 1995). Feminist writers such as Chernin and Bordo (1993) interpret the dis-empowerment of the large woman and the concomitant idealization of the super- thin anorectic/androgynous body as an expression of patriarchal desire for the reestablishment of the "waif," the childlike feminine whose fragility speaks of restraint, abstinence, self-denial, and passivity. While post "liberation" women may view their boyish bodies in male business suits as escape from their grandmother's procreative fate, in yet another paradox, their obsessive preoccupation with achieving that body shape drains them of the psychological and professional energy needed to really achieve equality in the male marketplace. For the threatened male establishment, however, while the tiny size " zero" colleague at the boardroom table neutralizes anxiety about female dominance, the big woman represents the threat of "throwing her weight around"—demanding equality or still worse, power and control, and thus taking up too much psychological and social space at that table.

While the consequent marginalization and dehumanizing of the large woman can thus be contextualized as a collective social response to male anxiety about encroachment of feminine power in their domain, a more universal understanding of her image in contemporary culture is located in analytic models of unconscious developmental processes. As E. Ann Kaplan has noted: "The cinema is the closest analog in the realm of the Symbolic to access the maternal body" (1987). To this end, I invite you to "screen" a subset of films in which the "big mama" appears, not as the object of ridicule (as in the stereotypically clumsy, apologetic, and desexualized "fat lady" in mainstream Hollywood films like the recent Shallow Hal) but rather cast in the image of a destructive engulfing man-eater. In sharp contrast to the cinematic images of the woman who represents the object of male desire, these grotesque fleshy forms are the projections of male sexual fear. In this sense, the cinema screen itself can be read as a symptom (Cowie, 1993) onto which anxiety is displaced in an attempt to regain control of disturbing early affects and intrapsychic primitive fantasies, particularly those of castration and annihilation by an omnipotent maternal figure.

The early pre-Oedipal phase of oral organization represents the child at its most vulnerable, dependent on the mother for survival and both physiological and psychological nurturance. The oral mother is both womb and breast, the mother of plenitude who is omnipotent and all-controlling; her disappearance creates enormous life-threatening anxiety in the child, and her re-appearance relief and bliss. But the oral mother is also the phallic mother, who at this early stage is believed by the infant to possess (like himself) both penis and vagina. The primitive fantasy is that in her seemingly enormous body she possesses penetrating objects which could annihilate the defenseless infant or engulf him with her monstrous and powerful capacities.

Lina Wertmuller's 1975 film Seven Beauties follows Giancarlo Giannini's desperate attempt to survive in a brutal and chaotic world as he woos the Nazi commandant of the death camp in which he has landed after a series of mishaps and comic failures as a gigolo-gangster. His greed for life propels him to dare the impossible: an absurd brazen yet pathetic bird, he warbles an Italian love song with parched and tremulous lips; like a tiny flea, he nibbles his way up the enormous mountain of his captor's breast. His eyes widen in terror and awe- much like the infant fearful of engulfment in his mother's huge vulva-- as he peeks up between her legs from his prostrate position at her knees- while she sits, a bloated Marlene Dietrich holding all the accoutrements of phallic power- cigar, whip, even a menacing cattle prodder with which she sizes up his shriveled penis with contempt. The high angle shots with which the scene is filmed intensifies the victim's insignificance, emasculating him still further as he grovels in a fetal position on a huge swastika as a portrait of Hitler gazes down from the wall. Wertmuller extends the black humor by focusing the camera on a painting on the other wall of Bronzino's Venus and Cupid—a cruelly comic juxtaposition of classical allegory with the brutal animal "courtship" proceeding on the floor below.

And in this scene the oral mother is writ large (literally) in that great orifice of a mouth as she yawns in boredom and swigs from a beer mug- -a grotesque "mother" who provides food to her victim out of a sadistic curiosity to see if he could possibly gratify her own sexual appetite.: "You make love to me, then I'll kill you with my bare hands." (This motif of the sexual man-eater will be repeated in the other films as well: in Happiness where that is precisely what the overweight Kristina does to her unlucky lover, and in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, where Gilbert learns about the mating habits of the praying mantis, who eats her mate after copulation.) Our hero's predicament recreates the primitive psychic territory of the maternal Kleinian split between the potentially life-giving nurturant "good" breast and the murderous" bad breast" who has the power to destroy him with the flick of her whip.

The conflation of food and sex is another analytic allusion in the construction of these devouring cinematic females . Classical models of infant sexuality identifies pre-oedipal cathexis of the mother's breast as the first libidinous object connecting food to sexual gratification . In the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis , Freud says: "If an infant could speak, he would no doubt pronounce the act of sucking at his mother's breast by far the most important….it is the starting-point of the whole of sexual life." (p. 389, SE). In these films, however, the food/sex connection subordinates the nurturant capacity of the oral mother to the annihilating possibilities of female sexual appetites. As the old rock song by Hall & Oates warns:." Oh-oh here she comes, watch out boys she'll chew you up—she's a man eater!" Female sexual appetite represents the threat of being eaten- consumed and incorporated in the woman- and thus must be controlled and contained. Thus these monstrous cinematic imaging of big women stand as both embodiments of this male sexual fear as well as a warning to women who would be aggressive in expression of their own sexuality. Notes Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1979): "The …aggressive overtures of sexually liberated women convey to many males the same message—that women are voracious, insatiable, " and trigger the same pre-oedipal fantasies of a " possessive, suffocating, devouring and castrating mother." The cultural subtext of these grotesque images is that true femininity requires social and sexual passivity and little appetite for either sex or food, signaled by the slender form of the restrained dieter who achieves body mastery and control.

In the film version of Stephen King's thriller Misery(1990), the oral and phallic mother takes on murderous and equally monstrous shape in the form of Kathy Bates as a psychotic nurse with a criminal history of infanticide who initially appears as the caretaker, who seeks in this case to consume the mind as well as the body of her prostrate captive, a best-selling author. She sequesters him in her isolated mountain lair, immobilizes him by literally tying him down in bed and exploding into rages like an angry demanding mom: ‘ You better start showing me a little appreciation, Mr. Man!" She is the suffocating infantilizing mother who won't allow separation, first "castrating" him by hobbling his legs in a sequence where lightning ghoulishly highlights her face in the best Gothic horror tradition as he looks up at her terrifying image, again his helplessness visually expressed by the high angle camera work. He is the prisoner of yet another phallic mother, who possesses a seemingly endless arsenal of weapons- hypodermic needles, knives, axes, and rifles to prove the point. More significantly she is the ego-engulfing mother who seeks to control and co-opt his creativity, forcing him to churn out lowbrow bestsellers-- no doubt a self-referring commentary by King on his own artistic dilemma about "selling out." The motif of the insatiable appetite of the devouring maternal recurs here as bad visual joke: the nurse trots out her pet pig, watches old Liberace TV shows in bed while "pigging out" on potato chips, and in the mortal struggle of the film's finale, is bludgeoned to death by her captive with her prized statue of a pig. Thus is sanctioned an extraordinarly brutal assault upon the controlling monstrous mother who must be destroyed to free the hero's creative energies. In the film's "happy" coda, our chastened author goes on to write his first critical success: no longer creatively drained and devoured by catering to his admiring female fans, he triumphantly avers that he wrote this new book "for myself."

The figure of the man-feeder/man-eater makes a repeat appearance in a darkly comedic performance by Camryn Mannheim (one of a very few overweight contemporary woman actresses) in the independent film Happiness (1998) in which director Todd Solandz mercilessly and dispassionately skewers the pretensions and perversions of a dysfunctional American family. Among this collection of voyeurs and telephone perverts, pederast psychotherapists, and philandering spouses, we find Kristina the lonely lady who seeks the companionship of a fellow apartment house neighbor. She confesses to the murder and castration of Pedro,.the doorman, who sexually accosts her as he brings up the bundles of cakes and fudge she was planning to devour in an all-night eating binge. Here again food and sexual appetites converge, as the unsuspecting would-be lover is first fed a dish of strawberry ice cream, and then, as he lies on top of her, spent and satisfied, Kristina breaks his neck with her bare hands. While she avers it was a "crime of passion" she also expresses her repugnance for the man's sexuality: she cuts up Pedro's body into parts and puts them in her freezer in plastic bags . The scene also draws upon the popular psychology assumption that for the lonely fat woman, food is a substitution for sex. As she tearfully narrates her confession, she takes a moment through her distress to order-and proceed to devour- hot fudge sundae.

The sequence's final image of the regressed male, curled up in a fetal position in the maternal bed, refers us on to the later developmental phase of separation-individuation, during which the traumatic realization of sexual difference, and with it the enactment of the Oedipal drama, relieves the male child of his fear of the omnipotent mother; after all, she is now "castrated" in his mind and rendered harmless, receding to her remaining lifetime function as passive nurturer but also dangerously fused with her son. Post-war analysts, including Chodorow , Chasseguet-Smirgel, and notably Kimble-Wrye, who writes of the "sticky, sensual mother-baby adhesion" (1999) posit the overly possessive engulfing mother from whom male patients must learn to separate in order to establish their autonomy in the world and engage in mature adult relationships.

It is within such a context that we are to understand the struggle of the young male protagonist (Johnny Depp) in Lasse Halstrom's coming of age film What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1994 ). Gilbert (Johnny Depp) must free himself from his mother ‘s physical and emotional neediness which threatens to arrest his adult development. Gilbert's mother (the only biological "real" mother among these films) is the biggest "mama" of them all: at 500 pounds she is literally "stuck" in the family house in which she lives with her four adolescent children (including the retarded Arnie, played by Leonardo Da Caprio). The house is built on weak foundation (literally and figuratively); its structure threatens to collapse with the sheer weight of the mother-- a metaphor for her destructive self-indulgence. Since the father's suicide, mother has embalmed herself in food and fat and sits in the living room, immobilized, while her children prepare enormous quantities of food for her to consume. Defeated and depressed at her losses, the bottomless pit of her emotional hunger and sadness is as insatiable as her appetite; she is "eating up" the freedom and autonomy of Gilbert and his siblings in a family system that doesn't allow for boundaried ego development. The massive flesh which spills over bodily boundaries represents the life-threatening nature of the " bad breast "mother who abandons her young to tend to her own self-feeding. Her withdrawal threatens to imprison her children in dead-end lives, stuck in both the decaying house and in an arrested developmental space. After devouring her meal, she demands "Get me my birthday boy"; we wonder if he is next on the menu. Only when her son is arrested does she rouse herself to emerge from the house for the first time in 7 years and storms into the county jail, a giant Behemoth bellowing for the release of her child. This would appear to be her final redemptive act: exhausted and spent, like a beached whale, the mother makes her way upstairs to die, and since it is not possible to remove her body out without calling in the National Guard for a special crane, her children decide to cremate her by setting the house ablaze— thereby finally setting themselves free to go"anywhere we want."

Ultimately, all the outsize devouring female figures in these films are destroyed, save providing the viewer with an opportunity to master the anxiety- both intrapsychic and cultural- of the sexual fear they embody. At the same time, we must also recognize some caveats in too reductionist a reading of these monstrous maternal screen images. The premise of the phallic and castrating omnipotent mother depends on a phallocentrist analytic model which in recent years has been subject to challenge. Having a penis is no longer necessarily viewed as the exclusive royal road to power and dominance, even if the imagery of contemporary cinema may still operate from that assumption. Rejecting Freud's notion that anatomy as destiny , theorists over the past half-century, from Karen Horney all the way to Carol Gilligan , have expanded understanding of gender formation and identity into social and cultural realms . Feminist critics such as Paula Caplan (1998), who writes of the psychoanalytic bias toward "mother-bashing" and father preference, continue to work toward far less polarized theories of sexual development. With the development of more fluid and flexible models of gender development and sexual difference, we may in turn see the "shrinking" of the monstrous maternal down to a more human -and humanized- image on the cinema screen.

Works Cited

Bordo, S. (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Caplan, P.J.(1998) "Mother-Blaming," in Ladd-Taylor , M & L. Umansky, eds. "Bad" Mothers: the Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America. New York: New York University Press

Cowie,E. (1993) " Film Noir and Women," in Shades of Noir, ed.J.Copjec, London: Verso Press.

Freud, S. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, SE, London.

Goodman, C. (1995) The Invisible Woman. Gurze Books.

Gregory, D. (2001). "Heavy Judgment," in American Body in Context, ed. J. Johnston, Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources.

Kaplan, E. A. (1987) "Mothering, Feminism and Representation." in Gledhill, Christine ed. (1987) Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film. London: British Film Institute.

Lasch, C. (1979) The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Warner Books.

Wrye, H.K. (1999) "Embranglements on the Maternal Erotic Playground,"Gender & Psychoanalysis 4,l