Regretting Motherhood in Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014)

Curator's Note

The “taboo” subject of women who regret having children is rarely discussed. While there’s still great social disapprobation toward women who express such sentiments in the public sphere, one area where they’re able to openly explore notions of regret, terror, and aversion toward motherhood is within the domain of the horror film. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) envisions motherhood as nightmare, raising the specter of regret and disidentification with mothering in a woman who is—at times—repulsed by her own child. Amelia finds herself increasingly alienated from the role of “mother” and from her son Samuel, who is at turns obnoxious, clingy, and downright strange.

Amelia is going through the motions, attempting to be the “Good Mother”. However, this is ultimately more performative than sincere. She takes no delight or pleasure in this role. Indeed, the mundanity and repetition of her existence speaks to a kind of drab monotony that is mirrored in the mise-en-scène with its grey, muted color scheme—a symbolic leeching of vibrancy and energy from Amelia’s life. However, when Amelia lies about Samuel being sick and leaves work to wander around a shopping mall, Kent temporarily returns her to an idealized time before motherhood. The high key lighting, shifting focus, and dreamy score make Amelia’s unhurried ambling (she has all the time in the world) and enjoyment of simple pleasures (an ice cream cone) a utopian dream compared to her dreary and exhausting daily routine of never-ending caregiving to others. Returning to the parking garage, Amelia is momentarily arrested by the sight of a couple kissing in another car, which she voyeuristically watches with naked longing. Her brief reprieve from her responsibilities as a mother all speak to a fantasy vision of the “time before” she became a mother when she could have romantic and sexual desires (it’s no coincidence Samuel interrupts her masturbating earlier in the film). Amelia’s longing for a return to the “time before” Samuel is about more than her grief and trauma over her husband’s death; it speaks to another type of grief—grief over her own loss of self. 


This is a great read, thanks so much for your compelling analysis of The Babadook

It's been a while since I've seen the whole film through, so I wanted to get your insight: do you think Amelia's aversion toward motherhood is colored in a positive or negative light?  What types of implications do you think her representation has for other films (horror or outside of horror) that have alternative depictions of motherhood like this one, i.e. those films that show women not wanting to have children (against the norms of society, which stipulates that women are complete, valuable, etc. when they give birth...)? 

Thank you so much for contributing to the theme week, Dr. Wood!  Just as when I saw you present a version of this at SCMS, your suggestion that the horror film offers a uniquely transgressive way for female filmmakers to broach socially "taboo" topics is so accurate and insightful.  The Babadoock's representation of the exhausted mother makes for an especially cogent example of how the "return of the repressed" can encapsulate specific gendered nuances.

What I'm really taken with in the clip you've selected is Kent's use of reflections and refractions to visualize how Amelia experiences this brief retreat into an "idealized time before motherhood."  When in the mall, Amelia becomes split and kaleidoscopically enveloped, almost to suggest that what is truly suffocating about her present state is that she has been restrained to the singular role of "mother;" she is not allowed the multiplicity of self (to be childish, to be untethered, to be sexual) available to her beforehand.  Once Amelia returns to her car, the rear window is caked in dust, allowing no reflection or transparency; she's once again boxed into her singular role, separated from the sexual possibilities she can only stare at from afar.

It was a happy surprise to learn that you were also contributing to this theme week, since I enjoyed your presentation last year at our SCMS panel so much. It's been a long time since I've seen The Babadook, and when I think back on the film, I remember it as a high-anxiety visual and narrative experience. Amelia's difficulties with her son are constantly depicted in the muted visual style you described, but we (and Amelia) are forever on edge, waiting for Samuel's next entrance or for him to misbehave. What's so striking about the scene you describe is the lack of anxiety throughout, and I appreciate that Kent lets Amelia have this moment and ease back into her regular role rather than interrupt it with a phone call about Samuel or a glimpse of the Babadook. It stands out so powerfully in contrast to the rest of the film's tone.

I'd also like to echo Erica's comment about the representation of motherhood in the film. I have always seen Kent's representation of Amelia as neither positive nor negative, but rather depicting what might very well be a reality for many women who didn't want to be mothers, or who expected to raise a child with a partner and suddenly found themselves alone. (Incidentally, I also see Samuel as neither positive nor negative--he's not evil, even if he is extremely difficult.) I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this, Andrea. I was thinking about Rosemary's Baby as I read this, because (despite Rosemary's acceptance of motherhood at the end) I've always seen it as a similarly anxious portrayal of pregnancy (rather than motherhood--and Rosemary's anxiety is perhaps eased by motherhood). Where would you situate The Babadook within the lineage of maternal representations in horror, particularly in terms of the film's attitude toward a seemingly "bad" mother?

Thank you so much for this post, I absolutely love the close reading you're doing here with regard to the cinematography of the scene! Along the lines of Jayson's comment, I find the engagement with reflection/refraction and transparency/opacity here really interesting. I'm especially thinkinf of this scene alongside something like the mall sequence in In My Skin. I'm wondering how we can think about these two vastly different representations of womanhood/femininity across different films directed by women? How do reflection and refraction function differently or similarly in these scenes? Put differently, where are Kent and de Van instersecting and where are they diverging in their representation of women's bodily positionality?


(I know that this is a bit outside the scope of the argument regarding motherhood here, but I wonder if there's a way to connect the two?)

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