80's films & role of motherhood

A Paper I wrote for film class
November 16, 2011

In kids live action fantasy adventure films of the eighties there are Questers like Dorothy in Return to Oz (1985) looking for her lost friends, Sarah in Labyrinth (1986) looking for her baby brother, Jen and Kira in The Dark Crystal (1982) searching for the dark crystal and Atreyu in The Neverending Story (1984) looking for a way save Fantasia. There are many different types of creatures in this genre such as a talking hen and pumpkin, snails that race, a huge flying dragon that resembles a dog, goblins, fairies and dancing red creatures that have detachable heads. There are also many different worlds and lands that demand exploration such as a huge stone labyrinth and the worlds of OZ and Fantasia. This genre plays on ideas about becoming of age, things not always being what they seem, the ability for characters of different backgrounds to work together to accomplish a greater purpose and the value and preservation of hopes and dreams. However, there is an underlying idea that comments toward that coming of age journey, the journey of coming from child to adult, an idea that is gender specific. In Return to Oz, as Dorothy gathers new friends, there is a sense of caring, concern and nurturing for her new friends. This idea of caring, concern and nurturing feeds into an idea of motherhood, not just with Return to Oz, but is a pattern in other films of the genre as well. This idea leads to say that, according to the Return to Oz, this genre conveys a message encouraging a strict sense of motherhood.

This idea concerns womanhood, bringing all the pressure of being an adult with the pressures of growing up as the female gender. Along with womanhood comes the idea of the American dream of one day finding Mr. right and settling down to start a family, thereby going into the next phase of an adult, motherhood. However, not all women are mothers and not all women follow the American dream. These ideas follow a stereotype that women in society are labeled with. In sociology: a brief introduction, it mentions an idea that according to the media "men and women are portrayed in ways that reflect and perpetuate stereotypical views of gender" (Schaefer 143). This idea is found in this genre of film and will be described in further detail. But first, there is a template that can be set up in order to examine this idea of motherhood. According to Cosmopolitan, there are characteristics that make a good mother, but for the sake of this template, characteristics that relate toward motherhood (Triffin). The characteristics are described as having "a strong intuition, “a knack for nurturing”, “a willingness to ask for help”, an “ability to keep your cool”, and “a playful attitude” (Triffin).

In Return to Oz, there is an idea of worrying for her friends that provokes Dorothy to want to go back to Oz. This idea of worrying, gives the idea of a mothers intuition, something is wrong, and it needs to be fixed. While this idea carried Dorothy into the Land of Oz, it could also be seen as she is traveling through the Land of Oz seeing the changing that has occurred since she left such as the broken down yellow brick road and the broken down emerald city. Dorothy can't help worrying about has happened to her friends or as one could speculate worrying about her children. When she reaches the emerald city her fears are confirmed and she sees that, her friends, the tin woodsman and the cowardly lion has been turned to stone, thereby supporting the idea of intuition and showing that there is a merit in that mother's trait. In Labyrinth, there are different aspects with Sarah's character. When she gave up her baby brother to the goblin king, she had strong feelings to get him back, which is not exactly intuition, but it is a direct feeling of loss and worry that her choice can lead to further unknown consciences. There also is a point in the movie after Jareth brings Sarah to forget her baby brother and puts her in a replica of her own room that she feels that something is wrong. A merchant like creature tried to convince her otherwise, but the more the creature tried to divert Sarah's attention the more Sarah fought with an intuition like belief, to the point of remembering her mission of rescuing Toby. Even in The Dark Crystal there are signs of intuition, as Kira can tell that Fizzgig is upset and tries to calm him down.

The idea of nurture plays a lot into this genre. This idea carries from the original film the Wizard of Oz (1939) where Dorothy finds her original friends, then into Return to Oz where Dorothy has went to find her friends from before. The idea that as Dorothy travels to find her way home in the Wizard of Oz or travels to find her original friends in Return to Oz, that she plays the grown up. Dorothy knows the answers and the friends she meets look up to her. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's friends wanted different things such as the scarecrow wanting a brain and the lion wanting courage, so she guided and encouraged them, as a mother would, towards their goals. In Return to Oz, Dorothy's Journey was not as cut and dry, but the interaction with the characters was much more interesting. When Dorothy arrived at Oz from the river, she arrived with her hen, Billina, from the farm. They arrived in a crate that very much resembled a crib. Dorothy is also seen carrying Billina, in her arms, just like caring for a baby, throughout the film. When Dorothy first encounters Tik-Tok, she notices that in order for him to function she needs to wind up different keys in order for him to think, speak, and move. Dorothy is seen being responsible for maintaining those keys throughout the film. This idea could easily translate to, if you have a child, they depend on you to help them think before they do things, to learn how to speak and to learn how to move or walk. Towards the beginning of the film, Dorothy is seen being given a pumpkin by a friend from the mental hospital. After her friend leaves she is seen, brushing the pumpkins invisible hair, almost like the hair of a doll or child. This idea leads up to when Dorothy first meets Jack, and he cries “mom”. Jack keeps implying, even though Dorothy denies it, that Dorothy is Jacks mother. Even though, Jack's mother is really Ozma, this idea almost is way to convey impending motherhood. Dorothy lets Jack call her mom, however, throughout the film and in a certain part in the film Jack wishes Dorothy goodnight calling her mom and Dorothy wishes Jack goodnight, acknowledging her position as mother to Jack. Also around the time she first meets Jack, Jack wants her to check for signs of spoiling and in the process it practically mirrors what she did to the pumpkin in the mental hospital, showing a direct idea of nurture. In comparison to this, in The Neverending Story there is a couple, and the man, Engywook, that is concerned about work and knowledge for Atreyu, while the woman, Urgl, is concerned about caring for Atreyu and making sure he is healthy and well. This clearly sets up an idea of motherhood seen through a gender role. Sarah in the Labyrinth also takes on a mothering role, with the characters she meets, basically the same as Dorothy. Helping Ludo to become more confident and assuring Hoggle that he is appreciated and respected.

A willingness to ask for help could imply a number of things. However, according to the interactions in the genre, the idea of a mother's need of help seems to lead to signals that in a women's role that they cannot do it alone and exhorts a form of control, to know that they have help when they need it. When Dorothy tells Tik-Tok of the problem, that see needs help with; Tik-Tok pledges to help Dorothy. While she did not ask Tik-Tok outright, Dorothy admitted that she had a problem and it has implied that she needed help and would have trouble doing it on her own. While Dorothy was at the castle, she had a plan, but she knew that she needed help and asked Jack, Tik-Tok and Billina for help. This almost created an idea of a mother telling her children to do chores around the house. When Dorothy went down stairs to do her part of the scheme, there was a time when Tik-Tok's thinking key went out and Dorothy had to come back to rewind it. This could be easily seen as a conflict between family and that mom has to come by every once in a while to put things in order. There was even a moment where Jack asked Tik-Tok if he knew the plan, and he said “I understand it, better than you do.” The idea of her Children fighting, may not say much about a helping role, but it has an interesting family mechanic. Also referencing back to the Labyrinth, Sarah needed help to find Toby, so she asked Hoggle for help. Sarah's asking, implies her inability to do it alone, especially being trapped in the oubliette and to ensure that if she needed help, Hoggle, in the midst of Jareth's anger, would help her.

Finally, there is the idea of being able to keep it cool and to have a playful attitude. This idea shows it self, but not as often but at different points throughout the genre. Basically, this idea is about how to treat children as a mother by keeping them calm and keeping them engaged about what you have to say. There are times, in Return to Oz when Dorothy gives directions, that she is seemly calm. For example, when she brings to life the talking Gump creature and realizes that Mombi is coming she calmly gives orders for Jack to help Tik-Tok get onto the Gump creature; she tells Billina to get in and tells the Gump creature to flap his wings. She tells these directions, knowing Mombi, is coming at any minute but she is so calm, it is hard to tell there is a problem. There is also a moment while riding on the Gump creature, as everyone is setting down, when Dorothy says “I'm just glad I have one head to be sleepy with”. While this joke is either playing off the idea of the Gump's head or the many heads of Mombi, it takes on a playful mother like tone that tells the others, everything is going to be ok for now. Sarah in the Labyrinth takes on a very interesting playful and calm quality with unique engaging facial expressions, when interacting with her friends. For example, as Ludo seeks help from sarah, as he is yelling, to get down sarah says in a calm and semi-playful manner “Now stop that, is that anyway to treat someone who is trying to help you? Don't you want me to help you down? hmmm”. This sets up a dialogue that could easily be confused for dialogue between an adult and a child. As the scene continues Ludo says his name while he asks to be let down. Sarah continues onto say “Ludo, is that your name?” That tone and calmness continue with Sarah and Ludo throughout the film and is a great example of a mother approaching her children with calmness, while playfully keeping their attention.

Throughout this genre the message of motherhood seemed to scream out from the characters and their actions. The template from Cosmopolitan acted as a model and guide of what the aspects of a mother should be and this genre seemed to fit that model in every category. This message of a strict sense of motherhood spoke through intuition, nurturing, calmness, playfulness and a mother's need for help and support. The aspect of growing up as a female gender in a society with fixed stereotypes is harsh and overwhelming. Unfortunately society still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding and fairness towards the female gender. But, hopefully, in some small way, by being able to see these specific messages in film, we will be able to better see and understand misconceptions of society's ideas of gender roles.

Works Cited
The Neverending Story. Dir. Wolfgang Peterson. Perf. Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, and Tami Stronach. Warner Brothers, 1984.
Labyrinth. Dir. Jim Henson. Perf. David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Tri-Star, 1986.
Return to Oz. Dir. Walter Murch. Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, and Jean Marsh. Buena Vista Pictures, 1985.
The Dark Crystal. Dir. Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Perf. Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, and Frank Oz. Universal Pictures, 1982.
The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.
Triffin, Molly. "How To Be A Good Mom - Will I Be A Good Mother - Cosmopolitan." The Online Women's Magazine for Fashion, Sex Advice, Dating Tips, and Celebrity News - Cosmopolitan. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. .
Schaefer, Richard T. "Feminist View." Sociology: a Brief Introduction. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 143. Print.
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