I have vague memories of reading Seventeen magazine upstairs in my attic bedroom, alone and sequestered from my parents. Even though I was already enthralled with more ‘serious’ literature, I was never able to completely shun the cultural images that play on a young girl’s darker desires to be thin, mysterious and desirable. Brains are better than beauty, right?
It is challenging to be a long distance mom to a thirteen-year old daughter who is in the midst of hormonal, pubescent changes. There are ‘things’ that seem too embarrassing to discuss with Dad alone, but that have to be addressed — weight, gossip, menstrual cycles — emotional topics at thirteen. My daughter and I both made New Year’s resolutions ‘not to fight so much’ this year in order to remind ourselves that we really are on the same side of most issues. My daughter loves organizing parties, cooking, and community service work—activities that are challenging to support from across the country, but not impossible.
Eliciting the support of a friend’s mother for occasional girl counsel when I’m not in town has been important. (Cooperative maternal behavior makes us truly human…). I have retained a cell phone with the area code of my children’s home, so that teachers, friends, or friends’ parents may call me without any long distance charges. Most recently, my phones have been ringing about the Twilight saga.
In case you have missed it, Twilight is the new film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (who also directed the disturbing film, Thirteen), and based on the best-selling book series by Stephenie Meyer. The books focus on the story of Bella Swann whose divorced mother has decided to go live in Florida with her baseball-playing second husband. Bella decides to move to Oregon to live with Dad because she “wants her mother to be happy…” (stated my daughter). Once in Oregon with Dad—a quiet, Chief police officer — Bella is quickly attracted to a pale boy at school, Edward Cullen. (Both parents soon disappear into the story margins…) This ‘young’ man, played in the film by the dashing actor Robert Pattinson, turns out to be a vampire.
The drama of repressed sexual desire plays out on film and in the books. Bella can’t resist the charm of a vampire who saves her life when a car almost hits her. It is eventually revealed that Edward is actually a 90-year old man, whose vampirism has prevented him from physically aging beyond age seventeen. Bella does not seem to have much fear of being ‘bitten’ by the elderly Edward because she wants to join him in everlasting vampire bliss, and stop aging too. (My daughter and I had to have a feminist discussion about that romantic plot point.) The 18-year old Bella eventually does marry 17-year old Edward — a sort of Benjamin Button in reverse.
Wallowing in the pleasures of popular culture can be fine, as long as you also commit to the necessary critique. Pop culture criticism is an art form for mothers and daughters. Seventeen magazine displays the usual contradictions—you can look at it, but understand that it is fantasy designed to help sell products. At least articles about anorexia now accompany the photo layouts of girls who don’t need to wear ‘plus’ sizes. (Seventeen has added Jess Weiner’s Body Peace Blog )
Video art has foregrounded the hypocrisies of the mass media for decades. Twenty-five years ago Cecelia Condit createdPossibly in Michigan  (1983), a mischievous, short video that is fun to share with older daughters. The director screened it recently at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I found myself smiling again at the humorous musical score juxtaposed with images of ultra thin mannequins in malls. But all is not well in Mallville. Condit’s work contains both a critique of excessive capitalism and an exploration of violence against women — cannibals hunt those fashion models. First you smile at her work, and then you wince a bit.
But it was Condit’s new film, Annie Lloyd (2008) that left me in tears. The opening shot is of her mother’s dying breath. Condit’s mother looks directly into the camera lens as her mouth parts, she gasps, and then the video begins.
Condit has made films with her mother before. In Not a Jealous Bone (1987) Annie Lloyd appears bravely, allowing the camera to make her look ominous and overbearing — she’s a huntress looking for youth. Condit explores themes of generational divides in her videos but is never sentimental about political differences or personal relationships. Condit described her relationship with her mother as having never been "that close." While producing Annie Lloyd together, though, she admitted that something unusual did start to happen. Condit felt that the video became more of a “performance” between mother/daughter, rather than a traditional actor/director film relationship. Annie Lloyd’s ‘gift’ of performing her final illness and death for her daughter is visible for all to see on screen.
‘Performances’ between mothers and daughters go on for lifetimes. They can be played out and produced online, over cell phones and in the bathroom. Over the phone recently, my daughter asked me to play archery with her next time I’m in town. (This should be interesting…)
Later, I will offer her some of her grandmother’s famous cheese grits, even though my daughter keeps insisting that she doesn’t like grits.
Thanks to Katie Gray for helping with this article.