Popcorn Moms: Decoding Representations of Motherhood in American Popular Cinema, 1979-1989

Robin Hauck

Robin Hauck

“Popcorn Moms” is a socio-historical analysis of the ways American commercial cinema represented motherhood in the 1980s. The study reflects on the particular social conditions of the 1980s and how they contributed to a predominately conservative view of mother’s roles in a large number of films. The main conflict identified and considered is that between caring for children and maintaining a career. Case study chapters on Terms of Endearment (1983) and Baby Boom (1987) offer close textual analysis to deepen the broader ideological claims.

The study examines a corpus of ten films including: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Ordinary People (1980), Terms of Endearment (1983), Mr. Mom (1983), Baby Boom (1987), Fatal Attraction (1987), Three Men and a Baby (1987), The Good Mother (1988), Look Who’s Talking (1989), and Parenthood (1989). Formal issues such as structure, mise-en-scene, star theory and genre are examined on an intra and inter-textual basis.

Findings show that though the films display significant contradictions and offer numerous potential readings of the mother characters, the dominant or preferred reading is in every case conservative. Various representational strategies were identified which either resolved narrative conflict by re-inserting mother into a traditional domestic role, or expelled her from the family. In many cases, babies were used as cinematic devices to alert women of their misguided priorities.

Conclusion poses a comparison of the films to two family centered films which employ different representational strategies: High Tide (1987) and American Beauty (1999).

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