Friday, 26 July 2013

Maternity as Subversion or Subjugation?: The Double-Edged Maternal Narrative in 17 filles, by Julie Rodgers


1. The pregnancy pact

17 filles (2011) marks the first feature of French directing duo and sisters, Delphine and Muriel Colin. The plot is inspired by a real-life event that took place in a Gloucester (Massachusetts) high school in 2008 and which saw 18 teenage girls commit to a ‘pregnancy pact’ with the aim of conceiving almost simultaneously. In the case of 17 filles, the narrative is transposed to the sleepy seaport of Lorient in Southwest Brittany, a town razed to the ground by Allied bombings during the Second World War and later rebuilt in a rather austere and industrial architectural style. Lorient is depicted in the film as a town that is in decline with the dream of prosperity once promised by its reconstruction now far behind it. It is against this background of decrepitude and paralysis that a group of 17 fresh-faced and energetic lycéennes decide to take hold of their future and literally breathe life back into the staleness of their surrounding environment through procreation, much to the outrage of their parents and teachers. Reviews of 17 filles approach the film from a number of interesting perspectives: the invigorating nature of the narrative and the ability of youth to shake up a society that has become stagnant; the awkward transition from childhood into adulthood (not only are there 17 girls, the majority are aged 17 and thus positioned at the liminal stage of ‘no longer child but not yet adult’); and, finally, the feminist potential of the film in that it depicts a reclaiming of the female body by its subject. While the theme of maternity is, of course, signposted in these reviews (it is unavoidable), I feel that, perhaps due to its self-evident presence in the narrative, it has not been fully probed. 17 filles, despite its surface simplicity offers quite a complex and, at times, contradictory reflection on motherhood in contemporary Western culture. This discussion will focus on the ambivalent treatment of maternity which, for me, is at the heart of the film. I will argue that while an initial response to this film may be to read the act of becoming a mother as one that has capacity to be subversive, on closer analysis it becomes clear that the maternal narrative offered by 17 filles is actually one that corresponds quite closely to the patriarchal master narrative of motherhood, a trajectory that is rendered even more pernicious here in that is presented as a act of free choice when, in fact, it is deeply coercive.


2.    A subversive maternity?

Before illustrating the more prescriptive and, in parts, retreatist nature of 17 filles, I will examine what it is about this film that leads critics and spectators to view it as revitalising and rebellious in terms of its maternal discourse.

First of all, and this is perhaps where the feminist argument is strongest, in a similar vein to differentialist thinkers such as Irigaray, 17 filles depicts the maternal as something that imbues women with power. There is very little that the adults, despite their utmost determination, can do to reverse the situation, for French law states that no minor may be forced into having an abortion against her will. There is a sense of awe surrounding these pregnant teenagers who strut around the lycée with their bumps on display as fellow classmates, in particular the boys, gasp, but more out of reverence than horror. Indeed, Camille, the first girl to fall pregnant, is presented as a ‘leader’ of sorts whose followers increase in numbers on a daily basis.

Secondly, the film seems keen to present the pregnancies as a reclaiming of the female body. In an opening scene, the girls are shown in their underwear outside a classroom in a corridor of their lycée, each awaiting to undergo an individual medical examination during which their bodies will be measured and scrutinized. In another scene, we see them jogging and being timed, many of them doing so against their will given that they escape to the beach and hide there for part of the run. If, then,  the school is a place where the girls’ bodies are monitored and regulated,  it is when they are outside of its confines that the girls lay claim to their corporeality and inscribe their ownership on the body by deliberately seeking impregnation. The pregnant body is subsequently returned to the lycée where its heavy, swollen contours stand in stark contrast to the slim, lithe and rigorously disciplined female bodies supervised by the school authorities at the beginning of the film. The pregnant shape, therefore, becomes in and of itself a threat to the order of the lycée. The latter is illustrated in the scene of the class photo where the photographer is clearly uncomfortable with all these pregnant teenagers and doesn’t know how to position them in the shot, or, more specifically, hide their protruding bellies.

This reclaiming of the female body through the maternal in 17 filles extends well beyond the rebellious act of getting pregnant and into the full duration of the pregnancy itself via the girls’ transgressive behaviour throughout. When pregnant, the girls pay no heed to the rules and regulations of how to conduct oneself ‘properly’ while carrying a child as dictated by the master narrative. The girls are frequently seen smoking, consuming alcohol and partaking in vigorous and, at times, dangerous physical activities – for example, kicking around a burning football and recklessly diving into a swimming pool. The latter incident is particularly revelatory of the control that they retain over their bodies when pregnant as it takes place during a prenatal swimming class where, at first, all their movements are being closely monitored by an instructor. They are navigating the pool slowly and gently when all of a sudden another of the pregnant girls jumps in jubilantly from the edges and once again the order that the adults/authorities have tried to maintain has been dismantled. It is also important to mention in relation to this new-found control that the girls gain over their bodies during pregnancy (which, I should add, is most often seen as a time when the female body is ‘out of control’, thus this a further subversion of the master narrative of maternity) that the girls continue to position themselves as sexual beings throughout the duration of their pregnancy and remain confident in their ability to arouse sexual interest (evident in the various party scenes). In this respect, the traditional notion of the pregnant woman as both asexual and sexually out of bounds is reversed.

Perhaps the most subversive and progressive aspect of the maternal narrative in 17 filles, however, stems from the girls’ dream of an alternative form of mothering outside of the nuclear familar which emerges during one of their many chats together as a group. Their vision is founded on an all-female community where mothering would occur as a shared activity, among friends, duties would be divided out evenly so that each member could still retain a certain amount of personal freedom, and there would be no rules or regulations dictating how they mother. This concept of a maternal utopia where women take charge of their own mothering is further supported by the absence of any father figures in the film. In the few instances where we know who the father is, it is clear that he will not be involved (and this is the girls’ wish) in the raising of the child. The teenage boys function as little more than sperm donors in the film, with one of them even being paid 50 euro to do ‘do the deed’ (in the case of Clémentine, the last of the girls to get pregnant).

Within this vision of a maternal utopia presented by 17 filles is the question of young mothering. At one point in the film, one of the girls states triumphantly that they will be better mothers because the generation gap between them and their offspring will be greatly reduced, hence they will understand their children better. This proclamation, I feel, incites us to reflect on the master narrative of motherhood and how it positions maternity at a specific time in a woman’s life: after school and after marriage. The girls in this film subvert the ‘natural’ order: they will have children before they have finished their schooling (they will return after the birth) and without marriage, without any man at all in fact. 17 filles, therefore, proposes not only an alternative type of mothering (one that takes place within a community of women and which does not need any prescribed rules and regulations), it also questions why, as a society, we are so compelled to contain motherhood within a very restrictive life trajectory, deeming maternity that occurs outside its established slot (whether that be too early or too late) aberrant and disruptive.


3.    The maternal narrative as subjugation

Reading the maternal narrative in 17 filles as one that has the potential to subvert societal norms concerning motherhood and liberate women and their bodies, however, is very much the initial, surface interpretation. Further probing reveals that the representation of maternity in the film corresponds just as much, if not more so, to the master narrative of motherhood from which it purportedly deviates. Throughout the film, a number of maternal myths are perpetuated which are deleterious to an authentic experience of mothering.

First and foremost, it is impossible to deny the glamorisation of the pregnant body that occurs in 17 filles. All the girls are conventionally attractive to the extent that a reviewer for Le Monde remarked ‘le casting a exclu les disgracieuses’. The camera repeatedly focuses on the girls’ bumps, fetishizing them and their neat protrusion from an otherwise slender body. The girls incarnate, therefore, the perfect pregnant body so often encountered on the cover of women’s magazines but which is almost impossible to achieve and places immense pressure on women whose pregnant forms do not adhere to this unreachable ideal. Not only is pregnancy depicted as a state of glowing health and beauty, it is also presented to the spectator, for the most part, as an entirely unproblematic biological event. The girls appear to sail through their pregnancies with very little difficulty apart from one instance of mild disinterest in food. Any medical issues that do arise (a problem with the placenta and light bleeding) are quickly resolved and the pregnancy resumes its normal course. The risk of sexually transmitted diseases is equally brushed aside, with only one character making any reference to it whatsoever.

Even more pernicious than the glorification of the physical state of pregnancy in 17 filles are the various problematic socio-political messages concerning maternity disseminated (probably unconsciously but this shows the extent to which they have been internalised) by the film. Becoming a mother is presented as a means of acquiring status in society (for example, the girls are aware of the number of social benefits that they will receive). Although the girls do not turn their back on their education entirely (they all intend to return to the lycée after giving birth), they see maternity as a more direct route to personal fulfilment, recognition, and money! More subtly but much more insidiously, maternity emerges not only as means of improving the girls’ lives, it is also imbued with the potential to rescue its surroundings (Lorient) from an obvious economic and social downturn. Throughout the film, shots of the town suggest degeneration and discontent among its inhabitants. Juxtaposed against this are the scenes of the sea which are full of vigour, joy and possibility. It is interesting to note that in French the words for sea (la mer) and mother (la mère) are homophones. Subsequently, I believe that in the same way that the sea (la mer) serves as a place of escape from the grimness of Lorient, so too maternity (la mère) is posited as a ‘life-line’ of sorts for this town in economic and social decline and the pregnant girls are revered as its saviours. The girls then, unbeknownst to them, are being drawn into the socio-political discourse that turns to maternity for rejuvenation in times of economic deflation.

Furthermore, although 17 filles is keen to present these multiple pregnancies as a choice (except in the case of the ringleader, Camille, whose pregnancy is the result of a condom accident), to what extent can these girls really make their own minds up about having a baby when they know very little about the actual facts of the event? This lack of knowledge concerning maternity is evident in several scenes throughout the film: when they ask the pharmacist if they can share a pregnancy testing kit; when they discuss the foetus and display amazement at the information they read concerning its development; and finally, when some of the girls both giggle and squirm at the video portraying a real-life birth shown by the headmaster at the school in a bid to halt the ‘pregnancy pact’. As a result, it becomes disputable as to whether we can actually state that these girls are reclaiming their bodies and freely choosing to be mothers when they know very little about how pregnancy unfolds. It could be argued that women are deliberately misinformed/deprived of information by society in a bid to coerce them more readily into motherhood. Certainly, in 17 filles, the girls’ ignorance, albeit a source of much of the humour in the film, is disturbing given the serious impact on their lives of the decision that they have made. Alongside this is the fact that we are never really offered any clear reason as to why they want to have a baby. We can surmise as to their motivations (rebellion, desire for fulfilment etc) but nothing is ever confirmed. Given, therefore, that the girls don’t even seem to know why they want to become mothers, nor do they possess much practical information about the experience, I feel that 17 filles (again unconsciously) raises the question of how much real choice women actually have when it comes to maternity.

In conjunction with this lack of choice is a threat to the woman as individual brought about by the institution of motherhood. Granted, the girls in 17 filles are never positioned as individuals even in the pre-motherhood state. On the contrary, they are most often found in gangs and there is little detail to distinguish one from the other (their bedrooms, for example, usually a haven for personal expression as a teenager, are almost identical). However, this lack of individuality disintegrates even further when they become pregnant. More and more they travel around in what can only be described as a maternal tribe and, at times, when the camera focuses on their bumps, it is difficult to discern which belly belongs to whom. Of course, this ‘maternal tribe’ could be heralded as an alternative form of mothering outside of the master narrative, but it comes, it would seem, at the expense of the individual. The version of motherhood, therefore, that we are presented with in 17 filles is one where everyone ascribes to the same model and there is no place deviance.

This leads me to my final point which, for me, is the most oppressive aspect of the representation of maternity in the film - there is no tolerance of ambivalence in motherhood. As stated above, the girls seem to sail through pregnancy without any real doubts or fears and abortion is not a option for any of them. It is highly unrealistic to portray 17 pregnant teenagers who all embrace the idea of young motherhood so unproblematically. Alongside this is the chastising of mothers who display any ambivalent feelings towards their children, for example, Camille’s (the protagonist) mother. The latter is a single mother who has to work long hours in order to provide for her family. She is shown to be in conflict with her maternal status and it is clear that she struggles to negotiate her own personal desires with her responsibilities in the home. Due to her ambivalence, Camille’s mother is represented to the viewer as a ‘bad’ mother, one who is selfish and neglectful. The viewer is encouraged to empathise with Camille, especially in a early scene when she is depicted alone at home, assuming the maternal role by preparing dinner only to have her actual mother return from work and announce that she is going out to socialise, abandoning her daughter once again. Throughout the film, Camille repeatedly asserts that she will be a ‘better’ mother and devote herself to her child, thus perpetuating the notion that there is only one way to be a ‘good’ mother and that women who do not abide by this norm (namely, Camille’s mothers) are inevitably ‘bad’ mothers.

This non-tolerance of ambivalent  mothers in the film also extends to non-mothers. Motherhood is depicted as a kind of ‘cult’ or ‘in’ group and those who do not adhere to its model are branded deviant. An example of this is the character of Florence. A loner at school, Florence desperately wants to fit in and thus feigns pregnancy in order to be accepted by the other girls. As soon as her deceit is discovered, however, she is callously cast aside and branded a traitor. The choice of the word traitor is charged with meaning. For me it suggests that motherhood is seen as the natural state for a woman and that Florence, by failing to join in with the pregnancy pact and choosing to stand outside of motherhood, is viewed as an aberrant female, having betrayed not only other women but also herself and her supposed ‘core femininity’. The school nurse, another non-mother, finds herself on the receiving end of a similar dismissal. While during a conversation with Camille when she tries to encourage the latter to put an end to this pregnancy pact and dissuade any further girls from entering into it, Camille retorts viciously that she (the nurse) could never understand their motivation or what it feels like as she (the nurse) has never had children of her own. What we are witnessing here is a rejection of the non-mother whose reasoning is relegated to nonsense because she has no physical experience of being a mother. Motherhood, therefore, emerges as an institution that is deeply exclusionary and dismissive of women who do not fall inside its parameters. Again we return to the question of choice in motherhood. If this is how despicably non-mothers are treated, do women actually have any real choice in their decision to become mothers?


4.    Retreatism or Progression?

To conclude this reflection, I will return to the question raised in the title, that is, to what extent is the version of motherhood presented in 17 filles one that subverts the master narrative or one that merely submits to it? Near the middle of the film, an emergency staff meeting is organised at the lycée in order to deal with the pregnancy pact that is spiralling out of control. In a discussion that reflects many of the divisions between postfeminism (anti-feminist) and third wave feminism (progressive feminism) with regard to women’s behaviour in the twenty-first century, two distinct responses are forwarded by the teachers. The first considers the girls’ actions to be regressive, deleterious to their futures and a resumption of an out-of-date form of femininity that relegates women to the household and posits motherhood as their ultimate goal in life. The second, on the other hand, argues to the contrary, stating that the girls are reclaiming their bodies for themselves and refusing to listen to the diktats of society on when and how they should become mothers. As this reflection has illustrated, 17 filles does not adopt a clear-cut stance on the matter. An initial reading leads us to view the film as refreshing and daring in its depiction of maternity, and there is much to recommend this interpretation. However, as we strip away the initial layers of the narrative, it becomes clear that more noxious and manipulative form of motherhood lurks beneath, one that serves the needs of a patriarchal society rather than allowing women to take control of their own mothering in the way that the film initially sets out to achieve. Although the impact of a narrative should not be reduced to its conclusion alone, it is nonetheless important in the case of 17 filles to point out that a return to ‘natural order’ is restored at the end of the film. The idea of a maternal utopia so fervently discussed by the girls throughout the film has come undone following the departure of Camille who loses her baby due to car accident. The other girls subsequently return to their parents’ homes, give birth and resume their studies. Consequently, their transgression is corrected and any chance of truly positioning themselves outside of the master narrative of motherhood and thereby threatening its structures is promptly and, perhaps, inevitably quelled.


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