Culture

The Feminist Lesson in Mom's Night Out

Twenty-four percent of married couple families with children under 15 have a stay-at-home mom. Ninety-nine percent of stay-at-home moms in the movies get a really bad rap. Search “Best Movie Moms” and you’ll get lists that include Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Shelly Duvall in The Shining, and more than a few mentions of Psycho. The majority of movie mothers are either widowed or divorced, careerists or working class, alcoholics or impregnated by UFOs. The closest you’ll get to a stay-at-home mom in post-1940s cinema is Kathleen Turner playing the psychotic Serial Mom or Michael Keaton taking on the role so his wife can pursue her career in Mr. Mom.

In fact, outside of Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side there hasn’t been a truly admirable middle-class, white, stay-at-home mother on the silver screen in over 50 years. Which is probably why Mom’s Night Out received such a negative critical reception when it premiered last spring. We have been acculturated out of believing in the power and purpose of stay-at-home moms. Yet, the criticisms leveled at Mom’s Night Out for its “depressingly regressive” spirit and “archaic notions of gender roles” were not applied to a similar film about a stay-at-home mom released only two years prior. This Is 40 received mixed reviews, but praise for yielding “…some of [Judd] Apatow’s most personal observations yet on the feelings for husbands, wives, parents, and children that we categorize as love.”

So, what made This Is 40 palatable in a way that Mom’s Night Out wasn’t? Is there, perhaps, a culturally acceptable way to be a stay-at-home mom?

The  concept of Mom’s Night Out is fairly similar to that of Judd Apatow’s 2012 release This Is 40. Both films share a middle/upper-middle class stay-at-home mother who is having what appears to be a mid-life crisis. In Apatow’s film, mom Debbie looks for stress relief through trendy habits like hiring a personal trainer, eating organic, running a boutique, and smoking when no one is looking. Dad Paul keeps his failing business and mounting debts to himself while he muses about his wife’s death with his friend. Both partners clash with one another, often exchanging nasty barbs to the point of joking about how they’d murder one another, until they find out they’re pregnant, cry and decide they like one another again. Even the kindest of reviewers couldn’t find the message in the rambling story, commenting, “It’s funny and enjoyable, with characters we enjoy watching, but they continually spiral back to where they started.” There is no growth in This Is 40, only a resigned acceptance of what is and a cycle of bad behavior with no solution.

In contrast, Mom’s Night Out proffered a supportive husband willing to go to great (even painful) lengths to ensure that his stressed-out wife had a night off. “You have to choose to do something for yourself,” he responds when she complains that she is unhappy. Taking the bull by the horns, mom decides to schedule a night out with friends. Chaos ensues and she winds up blaming herself, yet again, for being a failure. “No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I give, I’m just…I’m not enough. …[for] Sean, the kids, for my mother, God, everybody. I don’t know.” It is then that she learns she’s not enough for herself. We are given a denouement where lessons are learned and character growth is achieved.

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Growth happens in Mom’s Night Out because Allyson accepts what Debbie does not. To quote Anne Shirley, “…it’s not what the world holds for you, it’s what you bring to it.” Ultimately, Debbie resigns herself to being happy with the way things were, because her pursuit of what the world had to offer only made things worse. Allyson’s peace is in knowing that “I am right where God wants me to be and He has given me everything I need to be.” Debbie searches for purpose through the externals: activity, career, relationship. Allyson has found that her purpose is in being herself.

There is no verb “to be” in Hebrew. Your name, and any pronoun you ever use, implies that you are. When Moses asked God what His name is, God replied, “I Am.” Simply being is your purpose. What you do in the time being amounts to exercising that purpose wherever you may be. Biblically speaking, there are several distinct purposes for mothers, including but not limited to the roles of life-givers, caretakers, educators, and providers. All of these roles are intrinsic to a woman’s being, her “I am,” not social constructs based on Marxist social engineering, a popular trend in contemporary feminism.

Contemporary feminism has trained women to find identity and purpose in following trend. Debbie will, no doubt, have her baby and continue to go through cycles of disillusionment, seeking solace in trendy activities. Allyson’s role as caretaker and educator is unacceptable because it goes against the contemporary feminist trend. Yet, while we may anticipate what will trigger Debbie into unhappiness once her baby is born, we have complete confidence that Allyson will succeed despite life’s inevitable challenges. In these two characters, contemporary feminism’s dichotomous nature is made clear: Feel empowered in who you are by what you do, as long as we approve of what you do. It is nothing short of ideological enslavement.

Proverbs 31 describes a woman who is more than a career, more than a wife, more than a mother. She is a woman who accomplishes all of these roles and then some with strength, dignity, and, most importantly, faith. To identify with any one particular role would preclude her from accomplishing all there is for her to achieve. To believe herself in any way deficient would only inhibit her success. Biblical feminists don’t wait for permission before pursuing excellence, let alone define their achievements in accordance with public opinion. But, for a woman’s works to attest to who she is, she must first dare to see herself through the eyes of God, not the gaze of Gloria Steinem.