Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” — a clear contender for the best international film Oscar this year — is a quiet melodrama about two women who give birth on the same day and find their lives intertwined by love and contrived tragedies. It is a contemplative drama about the inner experience of motherhood and loss but the heart of the film contains a moral libertinism that goes uncommented upon in the story. The film works when it’s trying to be touching but the film’s subversive feminist posturing betrays it.
The story introduces us to Janis Martinez, played by Penelope Cruz. She’s a middle-aged single woman, a feminist, and a celebrity photographer who has an affair with a married man and conceives a child with him. She decides to keep the girl and keep her as she’s always wanted to be a mother.
The movie proceeds from there to a melodramatic soap opera climax. It’s compelling as far as soap operas go. Throughout the film, Janis bonds with a girl named Ana who loses her child. Ana comes to work as a nanny for Janis, eventually developing complex sexual feelings for her and discovering a secret that changes both their lives as single mothers.
The media has a complex relationship with traditional gender roles. Thirty years ago, President George H.W. Bush declared we need American families “like ‘The Waltons’ and less like ‘The Simpsons.’” That was a long time ago.
Healthy depictions of fatherhood and motherhood in the media have been thoroughly deconstructed by generations of satire and feminist acrimony. “Leave it to Beaver” gave way to “All in the Family”, which gave way to “The Simpsons,” which gave way to media where fathers aren’t even depicted at all.
Stories like “Modern Family” and “The Incredibles” are notable exceptions to the trend but most media prefers to depict non-traditional or adoptive families, as seen in “Community” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”.
Single motherhood is a concept rarely criticized among the left. As Sara McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton, once wrote, there are the feminists who regard single motherhood as “the moral right of women to pursue careers and raise children on their own.”
Single parent statistics don’t lie though. According to Wade Horn of the National Fatherhood Initiative, 70 percent of juvenile crime is from single-parent families. Children who grow up in single-parent households show lower grade point averages and test scores. They are more likely to drop out of school, become pregnant underage, and have higher rates of divorce, according to McLanahan.
One shouldn’t stigmatize single mothers for being single mothers. A woman removing her child from an abusive relationship is a good mother. Many single mothers are single by tragic circumstances, and they are not worthy of criticism. They deserve support.
A feminist bragging about her fatherlessness is something else. Martinez explicitly states that her family tradition is to keep fathers out of the house and for mothers to raise their daughters alone and that she’s proud of it.
Mrs. Cruz’s character in “Parallel Mothers” is a wealthy, powerful woman. She can afford to have a kid and a nanny. She has chosen this life for herself and her child and the film idolizes it as ideal and admirable. Her lifestyle is glamorous and fulfilling.
The film even briefly acknowledges this with the character of Ana, a woman who conceived her child through rape. Her life is much harder than Janis’s as she has to scrape by to provide for her child, who ends up tragically passing away for reasons she couldn’t control.
Mr. Almodóvar’s mind was on other aspects of the story. The film’s plot about hidden secrets and the dark realities they unearth was clearly where the heart of the story lies, which subtextually explores the horror of Franco-era Spain’s history of war atrocities.
When Dan Quayle lamented the depiction of single mothers in the media as “just another lifestyle choice” in 1992, this was the lifestyle he was lamenting. Janis’s actions are merely depicted as self-fulfilling and harmless, but Janis is a movie character. Meanwhile, one in four children in the United States have only one parent in the home according to the Census, and that has consequences.