Mamma Mia! Finding Feminism Where You Least Expect It

Sarah Seltzer

Who knew that below the '70s kitsch exterior of Mamma Mia! beats a matriarchal, sexually free feminist heart?

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers
for the nearly plotless musical film Mamma Mia!

It’s almost unfathomable to
those casually acquainted with Mamma Mia!, the ABBA musical, that
a staunchly feminist heart might beat beneath its 70s-kitsch exterior.
In fact, I used to mock the women who slavishly lined up for tickets
to the Broadway musical, convinced that they were spending money on
something commercial and contrived.

But then last weekend, when the
weather was hot and I’d already been mildly traumatized
by Batman: The Dark Knight, I stepped into the nearest theater
and was wowed by the most feminist mainstream movie I’ve seen in ages — it
trumped Sex in the City, for sure.
Mamma Mia!
might not be about feminism, or seek to advance feminism,
but it takes many of feminism’s principles as a given,
and works (or works it, if you will) from there.

The movie is ostensibly about
a young woman, Sophie, who lives on a Greek island with her mother,
an aging hippie and former pop singer. She invites three of her mother’s
former lovers to her wedding, hoping she’ll figure out which of them
is her father so he can give her away. Her mother Donna, played to the
hilt by Meryl Streep, is an unabashedly sexy overall-clad woman whose
surprise encounter with her former flames proves to reinvigorate more
than just her memories.

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It’s a thinly-constructed story,
mostly an excuse for the characters to jump around and sing ABBA songs
with joyful abandon. But Mamma Mia! is also a movie
in which female sexuality is celebrated without its objectification or punishment for its protagonists, and female sexuality is presented from young womanhood
all the way through middle age and beyond.

The women express their sexuality
through mildly raunchy dancing and jokes, a pleasant departure from
the screen-archetype of the sensual female defined by languorous pouting
and seduction. Some viewers have wondered whether it’s problematic to see the
actresses acting "vulgar;" but away from patriarchal norms, actual
women are not demure and coquettish, but just as funny, silly, and randy
as their male counterparts. And the tousled gorgeousness of Streep and
Amanda Seyfried, who plays Sophie, promotes an outdoorsy, natural kind
of sexiness at all ages that is a welcome contrast with SATC’s urban
fashionistas.

Furthermore, the movie’s central
premise — a wedding between two young people — never comes to fruition.
At the end of the film, Sophie, unmarried, leaves with her fiancé to
travel the world, rejecting the idea of settling down too early. Donna,
as an afterthought, ties the knot instead with one of her old loves, after
shocking the local priest with the revelation of her sexual exploits
during the year of her daughter’s conception. Then Sophie declares
she doesn’t care about said exploits, because she has grown to love
all three men.

Presumably, none of the men care
either, as they agree to share fatherly duties and turn themselves into
one, big, irregularly-shaped but affectionate family. It’s this conclusion
that "love makes a family" that led film critic Dana Stevens to declare of Mama Mia!: it’s "a transgenerational,
pansexual paradise that’s so deeply queer that when one of the characters
comes out of the closet late in the movie, the revelation seems superfluous."

And incidentally, instead of
having one of her three dads give her away at the outset of her abandoned
nuptials, Sophie walks down the aisle with her mother by her side.

It’s hard to imagine a movie
that’s come out recently that is, at its core, as offensive to the
right wing’s so-called family values. The film’s women — including a mother
and daughter — accept each other as sexual beings. Donna isn’t punished
for her earlier promiscuity, and Amanda isn’t forced to get married
despite her clear sexual maturity. The concept of three men revolving
around a matriarchal family core is celebrated.

Admittedly, there are many feminists
out there who will never love, as Stevens says, a "sunny, goofy gynotopia"
as a vehicle for feminist values. And it’s likely that a lot of
Mamma Mia
!’s audience probably doesn’t identify as feminists — they
identify instead with the female-centric joie de vivre of the
musical. But this is okay. In its way, the movie may reach more people
as a stealth advocate of sexual egalitarianism — which could be just what
its nearly all-female
team
of production,
writing and direction (a Hollywood rarity) had in mind.

The movie, seen so close in proximity
to the more acclaimed Batman flick, did have me thinking about the part
gender plays in what we determine to be serious. While The Dark Knight
dealt with themes of power and violence, Mamma Mia! was about
the more domestic, but no less universal, themes of family and forgiveness — but
both films were primarily interested in showy visual sequences. Critics slobbered all over themselves heaping praise on
the former, while many admitted being embarrassed by Mamma Mia!
The contrast between the way the two have been received makes one wonder
why, to start with, we consider singing and dancing showpieces to be
"silly" while Batpods, metal suits, and improbably-rigged explosives
are allowed be taken quite seriously. We’re quick to forgive the tokenization
of female characters as villain-bait in superhero movies, but critics
whine when men in movies like Mama Mia! and Sex in the City
are relegated to love interest status.

We have a long way to go when
it comes to onscreen parity, but in its kitschy way, Mamma Mia!
has helped bring us closer there. Let’s hope its success paves the
way for many more female collaborations
and feminist plotlines
.

 

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