Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Maternal jealousy

I was watching Bridesmaids (2011) again tonight, and was reminded of a fabulous scene: Annie's Pity Party, and the pep talk she gets from Megan.

We have watched Annie be edged out by a competitive female, Helen, who has stolen her best friend, Lillian, and her rightful place as Lillian's Maid of Honor, trumping Annie at every stage of the wedding preparations with lavish outlay, and making her look a fool if ever she does get the chance to organise anything.

Annie has, to boot, lost her cupcake business, her flat, her new job in a jewellery shop, her car, her nascent relationship with a new man, and has had to move back in with her mother.

She is sitting on her mum's sofa in the daytime, watching Castaway and crying, when in comes Megan, sister of the groom, with the nine puppies she has taken from the bridal shower party. Megan has witnessed Annie's tribulations, although until this point we have no sense that she understands or sympathises with Annie.

Megan leaps on top of Annie, and tells her, "I'm your shitty life, Annie, I'm going to bite you in the ass, I'm gonna make you fight for your shitty life," poking her, slapping her, and provoking her until finally Annie defends herself and slaps Megan in the face.

Megan tells her own life story: she was bullied at school because of the way she looked, but she refused to be beaten, studied really hard and is now incredibly successful (although she does not flaunt her wealth as the bride stealer does). We, who have laughed at Megan throughout the film, for her barrel body, butch behaviour, and apparent oblivion to feminine decorum, are shown up.

It's such a fabulous moment in this already fabulous film — Bridesmaids is a study in female envy, made all the better by being framed in Romcom puffery. We have been with Annie all the way, hating Helen the friend stealer for her manipulative sweetness towards Lillian, and her sly exclusion of the much poorer Annie by throwing more and more money at the wedding. We know it's not fair, we feel, like Annie, that she is a victim, we are angry on her behalf, we identify with her, and forgive her her little misdemeanours. It's sweet and klutzy that she hasn't mended her brake lights, as her policeman boyfriend repeatedly told her to do — she's a creative airhead, it's not her problem! But when she is forced into an emergency stop, the driver behind her rearends her car, and drives off, and although he is technically in the wrong, it is as much her fault as his for not taking responsibility.

Megan forces Annie to take responsibility for her own life, to start dealing with her problems one by one, not through sympathy, but through making her confront her own complicity in the situation. She makes Annie grow up.

To my mind, there is an unsettling but instructive connection between this scene, which explodes the myth that it's always the bitchy woman's fault, and the kinds of misunderstandings that characterise contemporary relationships between mothers. So she's a rich and successful lawyer, with four gorgeous children, and manages to make it all work — although she's away a lot of the time! So she's a stay-at-home mum, who handsews costumes for all her children's performances — although she suffocates them with her incessant helicopter parenting! The lawyer may have had several miscarriages before she ever had those babies. The stay-at-home mother may have come from an abusive family and desperately wanted to do things differently.

Annie takes an instant, envious dislike to the seemingly perfect Helen, and this blinds her to clues that all is not as it seems — Helen's stepchildren make no secret of loathing her, and she is alone with her wealth. She cannot understand that Helen's motivation in stealing Lillian is itself based on envy — envy of the close friendship that Annie and Lillian share.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of jealousy and envy which operates at the heart of many mothers' relationships with each other. We are envious of what others have, and this makes us competitive. We jealously guard what we fear to lose, and this makes us possessive.

In having children, we are transformed into the jealous guardians of infants too fragile to care for themselves — jealousy sends down its golden bars around us, and seals us in. Prowling within the anxious cage of our jealousy, we become lonely and nervous.

The paradox of jealousy is that it makes us believe that others want to destroy what we have as desperately as we ourselves want to keep it safe. It is jealous love for our own children that makes us lash out at others before they have a chance to do our precious possessions harm.

I think this is why mothers are so often spiteful to each other in a way that seems envious of what others have. When we stop to think we wouldn't actually swap our lives with theirs, we don't actually want what they have — we want above all to have freedom to live our own lives — but we nevertheless, and irrationally, fear that they, others, might be out to attack us.

This very primitive fear is even more heightened in the modern era, when women no longer carry out the caring role in the same way, but make different — crucially, different economic — choices over how to do the same thing: bring up children successfully.

Yet it takes so little to break out of these psychological cages. One way is shown, by analogy, in Bridesmaids: to confront our 'envy' and see it for what it really is, a displaced jealous fear for the wellbeing of our own children. Then we can take stock of our feelings, and laugh at them. How quickly they dissolve in that clear light.

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