From Better Things to Motherhood and SMILF: Michelle Orange charts the turn towards nuanced representations of women in film and TV
In illness, my mother developed an appetite for story. Specifically, she hungered for movies and immersive, episodic narrative; she sought characters, plot and arcs of every kind. Yet, for most of my mother’s adult life, storytelling was something to be suffered through. The act of telling, or being told to, implies a sort of suspended animation and, for her, there was simply too much to be done. Her habits of mind favoured fragments, lists, plans, strategy – which is to say fleet, forward action. With illness, and the unwelcome stillness it brought, came a craving for narrative recourse, a need not just for distraction but for coherence. I struggled to meet her demands with a steady supply of links, screeners and recommendations.
A preference emerged for stories about the lives of women – especially mothers and, the more rarely seen, matriarchs. My mother inhaled six seasons of Call the Midwife (2012–ongoing), adored The Crown (2016–ongoing) and relished Hidden Figures (2016) and Big Little Lies (2017). Last autumn, Lady Bird (2017) topped her wish list. It has occurred to me, thinking over this preference, that my mother benefited from a happy accident of timing: just as she began looking for narrative portals through which she might reflect on the contours of her own experience, popular stories with an interest in women beyond perpetuating old, rigid archetypes began to crowd the horizon.
Conspicuous among these offerings is Pamela Adlon’s cable series Better Things (2016–ongoing), which centres on Sam Fox (Adlon), a divorced, single, working actress and voice-over performer in Los Angeles. Sam is mother to three girls between the ages of seven and 15 (Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward and Mikey Madison) and daughter to one mildly impossible Brit (Celia Imrie). All five characters go by traditionally masculine names – Duke, Frankie, Max, Phyl and Sam – which seem intended to signal what each luminous, discursive episode confirms: Better Things is both deeply invested in depicting the lives of girls and women, and insistent that the show and its characters not be defined primarily by their gender.
A comic actress perhaps best known for her work in various Louis C.K. projects (formerly an executive producer, C.K. was dismissed from the show last autumn), Adlon assumed near-complete creative control of Better Things in its second season, which finished airing in the US in late 2017. As writer-director, Adlon has intensified the show’s lyric, sidelong approach to its central characters, who emerge not through familiar single-mother plotlines or stale mother-daughter tropes but through an arrangement of moments, an idiosyncratic sense of scene and a focus on keenly observed behaviour. That a casual and unapologetic fascination with five female characters and the broken rhythms of their interdependence should feel so radical emphasizes how rare it is to see women and girls, mothers and their daughters, simply behaving, operating as forces in the world and in each other’s lives.
When a romantic prospect wanders into the world of Better Things, and Sam’s life, the show treats him not asa narrative lynchpin but a threat – as someone who doesn’t belong. Despite his viability and Sam’s apparent interest, he fades away within a few episodes, without real explanation. An earlier episode drew attention for its blunt depiction of bad sex between Sam and a partner and her subsequent break-up rant. When her date accuses her of being mean, Sam explodes: ‘I’ve hated you since the first minute of our first date and I’ve been dating you for three weeks! That is how nice I am! If I had been really honest, I would have said “nope” the second I met your face!’
If Un Beau soleil intérieur (Let The Sunshine In, 2017), Claire Denis’s latest film, is a departure for the 71-year-old director of austere, genre-tweaking films such as Beau travail (Good Work, 1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001), it feels of a piece with a host of new and unconventional works – including Better Things and Frankie Shaw’s cable series SMILF (2017) – that centre on a modern woman grappling with issues of sex, romance, work and motherhood. Co-written by Denis with novelist Christine Angot, Let the Sunshine In stars Juliette Binoche as Isabelle, a divorced artist and mother whom the film depicts largely through her encounters with various men of varying, but generally dubious, quality.
Described as a subversion of the romantic comedy, Let the Sunshine In is episodic, talky, wistful, wry and frequently bleak in its depiction of Isabelle’s predicament. She is tired, lonely, independent and compelled to seek romantic connection, not because she is middle-aged, divorced or a mother – though she is all those things – but because she is human. The vibrant, sensual quality Denis has claimed she relishes in Binoche is locked in a sometimes tragic, sometimes laughable conflict with the stalled, stagnant quality of Isabelle’s interactions with men. More than a set of clear intentions, her persistence in the face of a series of false starts and failures to communicate signals her indomitable life force, an almost helpless drive for connection.
In Motherhood (2018), Canadian author Sheila Heti’s new novel, an unnamed protagonist grapples with the question of whether to have children. A writer in her late 30s, the woman is consumed with questions about her relationships – particularly with her mother and her partner – her work and what it means to be a woman. Indeed, questions pile up on every page; the book reads like a long, querying manifesto, at once indulgent, engrossing, banal, radical, overdone and wildly overdue. It’s the kind of book that might seem adaptation-proof, until you consider the recent work of directors such as Adlon, Denis and Jill Soloway, who created Transparent (2014–ongoing) and I Love Dick (2016–ongoing). That is to say, the work of storytellers who favour ellipses, abstraction, conversation, close character study, fragmentation and a form of psychological realism. These are artists who tell stories of women struggling with questions of gender, motherhood, work, ageing and sexuality, treating those subjects not as moral springboards or predictable genre fodder but as rich and unruly sources of inquiry and legitimate aspects of the human experience.
The much-lauded Lady Bird, which earned Greta Gerwig Oscar nominations for best picture, direction and original screenplay, became the film of the moment in part, I think, because it recasts a classic tale – that of the son defying his father to strike out in the world – with female characters. It is an artist’s origin story and, as such, figures as a sort of beacon for the growing number of works by and about women: stories that tell of mothers, daughters and of womanhood in a way that feels both familiar and altogether new.
My mother didn’t love Lady Bird. She found the mother brittle, the writing too thin. I have come to think of this as a sort of triumph. I imagine a time when women clung to whatever depictions of their experience and the most important relationships in their lives they could find, no matter how narrow or ill-conceived; stories that went unquestioned and shaped women’s lives by a sort of default. In my mother’s case, an era of greater opportunity for storytellers of all identities and more space for stories about women translates to a freedom to reject the movie of the season, a work that in theory should have suited her quite well. She has her eyes on the horizon, and faith that there is more and better to come.
This article appears in the print edition of the April 2018 issue, with the title 'The Mothership'.
Main image: Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird, 2017, film still. Courtesy: A24
First published in Issue 194