Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sylvain Verstricht: Women with Imaginary Children -- Old Gender Stereotypes in New American Thrillers

Women with Imaginary Children: Old Gender Stereotypes in New American Thrillers
by Sylvain Verstricht

Sylvain observes how traditional gender stereotypes concerning parenthood are finding new representations in a series of recent American thrillers where mothers find their sanity put into question when their children mysteriously disappear.

In Robert Schwentke’s Flightplan (2005), Air Marshal Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) tells flight passenger Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) that his job is to protect passengers from crazy individuals, and that “Women with imaginary children qualify.” The implication, of course, is that Kyle is one such crazy individual, suspected of creating turmoil throughout the airplane in the search for a child that some suspect may never even have existed.

This is not the first time in film history that a woman has been suspected of making up a child’s existence out of thin air. The apparition of this phenomenon first occurred in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), based on the novel of the same name by Marryam Modell (written under the pseudonym Evelyn Piper). In Preminger’s adaptation, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) moves to London to live with her brother Stephen (Keir Dullea). When she goes to pick up her four-year old daughter from the first day of school, she is nowhere to be found and no one even remembers her having ever been there. Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) is brought in to investigate and, given the lack of evidence concerning the existence of Ann’s daughter, hints that the daughter may only be a product of Ann’s imagination.

This occurred again nearly thirty years later in Joseph Ruben’s the Forgotten (2004), where Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) grieves the loss of her son who died in a plane crash, only to be told by her husband (Anthony Edwards) and therapist (Gary Sinise) that she never had a child. Her therapist suggests that she created an entire life for her son, lasting until when he would have been the age of nine, after she had actually miscarried.

Less than a year after the release of the forgotten, Flightplan came out in theatres with a similar storyline. The film begins in Germany, where engineer Kyle boards a plane she helped build in order to go back to New York to bury her husband, who seemingly committed suicide. Traveling with her is her six-year-old daughter. When Kyle wakes up from a nap, her daughter is nowhere to be found in the exceptionally large double-decker airplane. Kyle creates quite a commotion on the airplane because of her panicked search for her daughter, who does not even appear on the passenger manifest, leading the crew to believe that the child never existed in the first place.

Finally, director Joe Carnahan is currently working on a remake of Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing, which was set for release in 2008. The release date has now been pushed back to 2009 since Reese Witherspoon, who was supposed to play the main role, unexpectedly abandoned the project less than a month before it was set to begin shooting.

Given that all these movies fall under the popular genre of thriller and not psychological drama, it does not come as much of a surprise to the audience that in every single one of them, the mother ultimately proves that she is right, that she does have a child. Still, a question remains: what can we learn about the discourse surrounding issues of maternity and paternity through these films? Unfortunately, even though their stories take place in a recent social context, they reiterate detrimental conceptions of parenthood that are centuries old: that family is the woman’s concern; that biology ensures that mothers are more intimately connected to their children; that women give life and men destroy it; and that, as such, men are the most expendable in the family structure. As we shall also see, filmmakers seem to feel that they can only tamper with the mother-child bond for a minimal amount of time, and that even under these advantageous conditions they need additional facilitating elements that often fail to be realistic.

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