Were your parents happy or something? Friendliness, Respect and Good Parenting in Mamma Mia!

Hello and welcome to Feminism Yes But Also The Robots, a little space where we can dissect pop culture in relation to our various isms, talk about our favorite Friends episodes, and generally do whatever else we feel like doing that doesn’t quite belong on our knitting blog, including excessive use of the royal we. Today we’ll be looking to the movies for representations of good parenting, bad choreography, and men gladly doing the things we normally expect of women. There is only one place we will find all 3, and that is the 2008 film Mamma Mia!

The movie, an adaptation of the stage musical which used existing ABBA songs to anchor its plot, begins just as Sophie (Amanda Seyfreid), a 20-year-old woman who was raised by a single mother on a small Greek island, is about to get married. Her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), never told Sophie who her father is but Sophie has managed to figure out the 3 most likely candidates by reading her mother’s old diary. The 3 possible dads (3PDs) are Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Harry (Colin Firth), and Sam (Pierce Brosnan), who arrive eager to reconnect with Donna. We don’t get much backstory on why neither Harry nor Bill stuck around 20 years ago (though we’re later given enough to speculate in Harry’s case and Bill appears committed to permanent bachelorhood) but it’s clear that, while they were men Donna cared about, she wasn’t in love with them or too broken up over their parting. We do learn that Donna was in love with Sam and they dreamed of settling down to run a hotel on the island, but he was engaged to someone back home and that’s why it ended between them.

Meanwhile, Sophie’s 2 best friends have arrived to be her bridesmaids and Donna’s 2 best friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), have arrived to attend the wedding and provide emotional support and backing vocals for Donna as required. Rosie and Tanya used to provide literal backing vocals as well, back when the 3 women were known as Donna and the Dynamos. At some point after the Dynamos ended, Donna moved to Greece, conceived Sophie, worked as a caretaker for Bill’s great-aunt, and opened a hotel which she still owns on the island. The timeline gets a little muddy beyond that, but, though it pains me to say it, it’s not too important to the story for it to be super clear what happened when. Maybe someday I will show you the lengths to which I will go to satisfy my need for continuity by shoving it into places it doesn’t necessarily fit and bust out my personal interpretation of the backstory timeline, but for now we have to just soldier on.

Sophie tells the 3PDs her mother can’t know she invited them to her wedding but Donna discovers the 3PDs staying at her hotel, flips out, and reveals to Rosie and Tanya that she doesn’t know who Sophie’s father is. There’s plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings and mass confusion as Donna just can’t figure out why all 3 men who might be her daughter’s father would show up unannounced the day before Sophie’s wedding, the 3PDs forget how sex and math work and so take an awfully long time to suspect this 20-year-old daughter of a woman they slept with just over 20 years ago might be their daughter too, and Sophie can’t bring herself to tell anybody but her 2 best friends about any of this until just before the wedding.

Anyway, all is revealed at the wedding. The 3PDs are all thrilled to serve as 1/3 of Sophie’s father each. Sophie gets what she’s always wanted but in a roundabout way. She hoped knowing who her father was would help her know who she was and fill in a missing piece of her life. In the end she realizes she’s fine never knowing who her father is and she comes away with a new clarity on what she really wants in life. She accepts that she was pressuring her fiancé, Sky (Dominic Cooper), into a big, fancy wedding and a life on the island that he never really wanted but was willing to live for her sake. She calls off the wedding so she and Sky can take off to see the world instead.

There’s been a lot of I-never-stopped-loving-you from both Donna and Sam throughout the movie, but mostly through looks and songs and never really stated outright. Once the confusion at the altar dies down, Sam steps up and asks Donna to marry him (we also learn he’s now divorced from the woman he went home to marry all those years ago) and she says yes. Another song or two and a few loose ends tied up, and then we get the main cast all discoed up in sparkly jumpsuits to sing us out with a few more ABBA hits over the closing credits. It’s all terribly fun.

Seriously. I think this movie is just about the most as far as fun goes. This post is not necessarily a critique, though I fully admit there are a few things that aren’t that great – like its treatment of the townspeople as a mostly invisible Greek chorus; or the fact that Harry, who is gay, is the only paired up character who doesn’t get to kiss the one he’s paired up with; or, though it is certainly the least of our concerns, the choreography, which mainly consists of hand waving and silly walks – or that don’t make much sense – like that pesky little timeline, or why Sam was vacationing away from his fiancée on a Greek island with his bagpipes – so much as an exploration of why I love it so. As fun as it is, I do love it for more than just the fun. I thinks it’s woman-positive and love-positive and family-positive (for certain definitions of family aside from the “traditional”) and I think it subverts some cinematic and societal tropes in really cool, subtle ways that I’ve never seen another movie do, and that’s really what I want to tell you about. So, let’s get to it.

I love how friendly everybody is. The whole movie takes place over about 24 hours but that’s plenty of time for the 3PDs become friends and enjoy sailing around the island together. It’s enough time for Bill & Harry to make friends with the Dynamos and take them fishing. The younger women are friendly with the older women. And I love that the friendliness is often shown as a willingness to like people and a general lack of jealousy. There’s no jealousy among the 3PDs over their shared history with Donna or Sophie’s parentage. There’s no jealousy among Sophie’s friends that she’s getting married and they’re not. Everyone just gets along with everyone else well enough that you can easily see why they’re friends or a couple or whatever.

That willingness to like people is obvious in how the 3PDs are instantly taken with Sophie and don’t pause to question before just following her around the island and agreeing to her demands. When they find out their presence is meant to be a surprise for Donna, Sam and Harry want to back out and leave before Donna sees them. Sophie not only convinces them to stay in about 2 sentences flat, she also easily extracts a promise from all 3 to keep her secret – and this is all before they even suspect they might be her father. Maybe it’s less about friendliness and more about their residual affection for Donna being transferred to her daughter, but anyway I think it’s so refreshing to see characters acting out of niceness. And while we’re on the subject of residual Donnafeelings, I’m a huge fan of this portrayal of the 3PDs’ held-over love for a long-ago ex where they aren’t idealizing her. Sam, unlike Bill and Harry, most definitely is trying to get back into her pants but even he is clear eyed about her stubbornness and temper and even though things are prickly between them he never seems disappointed by that.

I love the pleased look on Sophie’s face when Sam says “You’re just like your mother.” To expand on that, I love that this movie shows us a parent-child relationship that’s based on respect and friendship, in both directions. Personally, I don’t feel any parent is owed one goddamn thing from their kids. Not love, not a birthday card, not even a good morning. Not unless the parent earns it. I don’t think we see a lot of movies that feel that way too. Donna doesn’t totally approve of her daughter getting married at 20 but that’s presented mostly as bafflement at how she as a single mother managed to raise someone so sure she wants to be married at 20. We never see anything to indicate Donna doesn’t like Sky or thinks he’s a bad choice. And even though Donna’s heart isn’t completely in it, she’s putting on this wedding and she’s going to make it the most beautiful day and for the most part she gives Sophie the space she needs to make decisions on her own. Sophie worries that she’s letting Donna down by getting married so young when Donna has done so much on her own. Donna earned Sophie’s respect. Sophie’s not yet another young woman afraid of turning into her mother or terrorized or smothered by her mother. She’s proud to be compared to her mother.

And really this script just has respect coming out its ass, particularly its respect for age, for all ages. Sophie and her friends have a moment or two where it’s clear they’re not that far out of their adolescence (calling Donna’s youth “the olden days”) but when it comes to her relationship with Sky and her interactions with her parents, the movie lets Sophie be a grown woman capable of knowing what she wants and making her own choices. The 3PDs never treat her like she’s a child even after they catch on that she might be their child. They don’t say they’ll keep her secret to appease her and then blab to Donna, they say they’ll keep her secret and then they do because she’s an adult who had the right to ask them and they promised. The older generation is treated as grown up but still growing in a believable way. They’ve seen some shit but even if they think that their taking-chances-for-love days are behind them, in the end they know enough to be open to the idea that they aren’t. They’re also allowed to be as attractive as the younger people, and in Tanya’s case attractive to the younger people, and that gets all the yays from me.

I love that the fights are realistic and stay within the boundaries of how we know the characters feel about each other. I like romantic comedies, or romance in comedies, or basically just put a love story in my movie, please, is what I’m saying. But I like it best when the entire movie is not about how much the 2 people hate each other right up until the moment they decide they’re in love. I’ll take a movie that lets people in love actually like each other any day, and this one’s a fine example. Since the movie starts just before the wedding, we never get to see what brought Sophie and Sky together. We don’t get to see the reasons they fell in love but, more importantly, we’re never shown any reasons they shouldn’t have. When Sophie tells Sky about the 3PDs and they fight right before the wedding, the script doesn’t forget that they love each other and there isn’t a question of calling off the wedding.

Sky: “I gave [my plans to travel the world and find myself] up for you because I wanted what you wanted and now I just don’t know.”

Sophie: “You don’t know if you love me?”

Sky: “Of course I love you! I just wish you’d told me.”

It’s the “of course” that I really like there. You don’t just suddenly stop loving someone when you find out they kept a secret from you, even if it’s a really important secret and the whole thing makes you really mad.

Now, the Sam-Donna subplot could be described as fight-fight-love, because they do have some prickly conversations and there’s definitely some anger that comes out and pretty much literally right up to the moment they get married they never actually have a moment of tension-free happy love times, but I think that works here because the Sam-Donna subplot is about their reconciliation. The movie at least finds a reason for them to go the fight-fight-love route.

When Sophie and Donna fight it’s because Donna thinks there’s a conflict between Sophie and Sky and she immediately jumps to wanting to call off the wedding. Sophie’s just come from having the “are you really ready to get married” conversation with Sam and doesn’t want to hear it yet again from her mother. She tears into her, saying Donna’s the one who doesn’t want the wedding to go on and she wants to do “the marriage and babies thing” because “it’s just…it’s crap!” to raise a kid without telling her who her father is. It’s a harsh moment, but it’s a very believable moment and it matches what we’ve already seen of Donna’s reaction to the wedding and Sophie’s tendency to express her desire to have her father at her wedding about as often as she’s expressed wanting to marry Sky because she loves him more than anything.

But the thing I love the most about this movie is that at its heart is a story about the desires of women being prioritized above those of men. When I was brainstorming for this post I asked my friends to see if they could come up with a movie that met these criteria:

  • the male character(s) behave in ways we typically expect of female characters, particularly when it comes to rearranging their lives around what someone else wants or keeping an old flame burning for decades, AND
  • the object of their attentions/catalyst for them changing their lives is a woman, AND
  • this is never pointed out within the movie – that is, his journey of coming to this decision is not the plot and his character development isn’t all about how it’s affecting him to change his life, AND POSSIBLY
  • where the male-female relationship in question is between adults but not romantic

We couldn’t come up with any examples that met all of the first 3 criteria, let alone also meeting the optional 4th. Some of the titles that came up were close in some ways but always came back to a point where the movie became about the man’s choices and sacrifices and struggle to prioritize the woman in some way. But by the end of Mamma Mia! we’ve seen several examples of Bill, Harry, Sam or Sky putting Donna’s or Sophie’s needs first or changing their own lives based on the idea that Donna’s and Sophie’s lives are in Greece running that hotel. This is a movie in which men change their lives and rethink their dreams and pull up roots to move halfway around the world with no notice and leave behind a career and change the focus of their lives and they do all these things because of their love for a woman. Beyond how radical I think that is all on its own, what really cements this as my absolutely favorite thing about one of my absolutely favorite movies is that in the case of Bill, Harry and Sam, the movie never even comments on it. And while it does comment on it in the case of Sky, in the dialogue quoted earlier, it’s not what the Sophie-Sky story is about. The part of their lives that was about Sky changing everything for Sophie happened before the movie began, so if there was a struggle for Sky in making this decision we don’t see it.

When the 3PDs get an invitation to the wedding of the daughter of a woman they loved 20 years ago, completely out of the blue, they can’t get to the wedding fast enough. (Literally: Sam tells his cab driver, “JFK, please, quick as you can.”) In Sam’s case, of course, his urgency is because he still loves Donna after all this time and wants a chance to make things up to her. But Bill and Harry have moved on and are firmly set in their own lives, not thinking about Donna. The time they spent with her is just that important to them. Maybe Bill sees it as an adventure, but something made him keep that picture of Donna for 20 years. For Harry it’s a chance to revisit his (however slightly) spontaneous youth rather than just reading travel memoirs on business trips and daydreaming. All of them look back on their time with Donna as significant enough to spur them to action 20 years later even though for 2 of them the romantic love has worn off. When they’re given the opportunity to see her again and to become a regular part of her life again, even though it means traveling across countries if not continents, and that surely means adjustments in their work schedules, and now Bill and Harry also need to redefine themselves as co-parents and that means redefining their relation ship with Donna, etc., etc., they jump at it and they don’t stop for long deliberations about what it means for them as men or how they could possibly manage to do all this. They simply adjust course and move on.

Aren’t these behaviors we would normally expect of a woman? I may be wrong and there may be plenty of great examples out there (please leave them in comments! I want to see these movies!), but I just think that when a movie is about a man and a woman and in the course of the story one of the characters is going to give up their jobs, move halfway around the world, and/or make a big effort to be there as emotional support for the other, that role would usually be the woman. And beyond that, I think that in the situations where that role is a woman, the movie isn’t likely to be about this woman changing her life drastically for this man, but more like just the checklist of things you have the female character do once she’s in a relationship, while the rest of the movie is about cars or something. But I think if a movie’s going to be about a man drastically changing his life for someone else, that’s usually the whole point of the movie. And that’s what makes Mamma Mia! kind of a big deal to me.

So, to sum up: good parents earn the respect of their children, there are worse things in life than having an MIT professor, the king of England, and James Bond as your composite dad, and I wish that seeing men willing to prioritize what a woman wants above whatever’s going on in their own lives wasn’t such a rare occurrence that it sticks out to the point that I can talk this long about it. There’s more, of course. There’s so much more! I haven’t even really talked about the movie, just the movie’s ideas. We haven’t talked about the performances or the cinematography or the songs — OH, THE SONGS! I could give you another thousand words just on the “Super Trouper” scene and how it contains maybe my favorite moment in the entire movie. And don’t get me started on “Dancing Queen” or “Does Your Mother Know,” but not today. Maybe soon, but not today.

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2 thoughts on “Were your parents happy or something? Friendliness, Respect and Good Parenting in Mamma Mia!

  1. Pingback: Sort Of A Sleeve, And Other Things I’ve Been Up To Lately | yarn. vegetables. sass.

  2. Pingback: We Are Doing THAT Again: Further Thoughts on Mamma Mia! | feminismyesbutalsotherobots

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