By Johanna Isaacson
In 1963 Betty Friedan diagnosed the frustration and depression of the housewife as “the problem with no name.” The cure to this problem, she argued, was women’s entrance into waged work and careers on equal footing with men while still being allowed a fulfilling life as wife and mother. This namelessness has now been replaced with the relentless positivity of today’s working woman, with her many euphemistically titled roles. She has finally and definitively transcended the subordinate position of the housewife, as we see in a supposedly feminist satirical ad for Progressive Insurance. Here, the company’s ubiquitous spokeswoman, Flo, appears in housewife drag and faces off against a fifties-styled salesman who appeals to a traditionally gendered household in which the man does “the hard work of making money” while the woman gets all the savings “her little heart desires.” Instead, the ad asserts, women can both make money and consume, and moreover, all that talk of inequality is so retro. Although Flo represents a brave new feminist world, her affect is of a post-op Stepford Wife, cheerful and service-oriented to the bone (or wiring). This figure represents a new era of gendered terror, one in which the unhappy housewife is replaced with the modern affective care worker, a woman who is perpetually frazzled and stretched too thin over her personal and public lives, but must assume the guise of relentless cheer and sympathy.
The Babadook (2014) punctures this myth of the new feminized laborer — a perky, independent professional, free from housewifery and inequality. Instead, we are faced with Amelia, a clearly intelligent, capable woman, who lives in a careworn haze of fatigue and depletion, only emerging periodically to rally herself to tenderness or descend into demonic fury. An independent widow, Amelia has a job as a care worker in a nursing home, but far from being liberated from the desubjectivizing aspects of housewifery and motherhood, her job is shown to be in continuity with her home life as the sole care-giver to her son, demonstrating a lack of boundaries between public and private spheres. In the mythical land of post-feminism, the abjected housewife is a boogey of the past, a ghostly incarnation of the feminine mystique threatening to intrude on newly forged spheres of independence. The world of The Babadook upsets this simplified genealogy of feminist progress, recoding the nuclear family as a placeholder for a legible sphere of intimacy outside the fully economized realms of care work.
The Babadook has been generally read as a “maternal nightmare,” a narrative centering on the taboo of expressing sexual desire and ambivalence toward motherhood. Yet, this plot is enfolded in contemporary questions about the transformation of feminized care work. The film begins by suggesting that Amelia’s six year old son Samuel is seriously disturbed, and positions Amelia as his harried but supportive widowed mother coping with loss and claustrophobia. As the film progresses, we see Amelia go through classic stages of possession, internalizing “the Babadook,” a demonic storybook figure that seems to stem from repressed grieving for her husband. Amelia becomes increasingly violent and unhinged, until, on the brink of murdering Samuel, his unconditional love seemingly frees her from possession.
The Babadook, however, does not fully disappear but rather is confined to the basement of the family home. At the end of the film the status of the Babadook is unclear; it seems to reside in demonic limbo, neither possessing the family home nor fully banished. Thus, while the film is packed with references to classic narratives of possession, it disobeys the genre’s fundamental rule: that we end with a victim who is either purged or destroyed. This points to The Babadook’s upsetting of the normative oedipal, linear plot that moves progressively along a narrative trajectory. Rather, we see a cyclical and atmospheric feminine emphasis that redirects attention to the temporality of the everyday, such as the cycles of care work in the first, second, and third shifts of today’s feminized worker.
This alternate cyclical temporality is underscored by the degree to which, even though all of the horror scenes occur in the melancholy family home, this domestic realm is often decentered by showing the workplace, where Amelia performs waged care work. The wearing down of Amelia through this work links, rather than divides, home and work. Throughout the film, while she is managing the tension of coping with her troubled child, there are indicators that her public life serves as a mirror of rather than an escape from her domestic world.
The first we see of Amelia at work shows her gingerly responding to a patient who snaps at her for supposedly bringing her the wrong beverage. Here, we recognize Amelia’s gentle patience with the unreasonable ward from her similar interactions with her son. In contrast to the foregrounded image of the Babadook, who is a cartoonish pastiche of Expressionist horror ghouls, we have an unnamed horror in the film, a kind of foggy nurturing half-life or atmosphere of diffused affective care that drowns Amelia’s potential personality. The Babadook, then, as much as a symbol of the return of repressed sexuality (which is seen clearly as her son interrupts her attempt to masturbate), functions as a kind of refusal, a care strike by a woman whose mandatory and continual call to kindness wears her down to a physical degree that all her features seem etched with exhaustion. Additionally, Amelia is a woman on the brink of what, in a comic mode, a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer has coined a woman’s “last fuckable day,” and this adds to the soft focused horror of erosion and attenuation, as we see her at the precipice of sexual obsolescence.
Amelia’s possession by the Babadook alters her temperament, as is standard in this genre, making her scary, angry, sexual, and alive in ways she is never allowed to be in her everyday life. As the Babadook, she becomes the antipode to her usual gentle, sensitive, exhausted self. The first moment we see her take this stance is at her niece’s birthday party. There, she is pitied and condescended to by her sisters’ friends who are upper middle class housewives. When one complains that she is so busy she barely has time for the gym, Amelia, who is stretched thin due to taking care of Samuel and working shifts in the nursing home, lashes out at her. The demonic personality, then, is a sign of resistance to her social status as much as it is a resistance to the all-encompassing demands of single motherhood.
Amelia represents the aftermath of feminist struggle for autonomy and the subsequent onset of transformed and more subtle forms of enslavement. Deprived of or released from the strictures of the nuclear family she is “freed” into a more diffused form of paternalism, in which the state makes itself known when she does something wrong (as in the appearance of social workers who come to the house when Samuel doesn’t go to school) but offers no intimate care or shelter. In this context, the nuclear family serves as a perverse form of nostalgia.
Fredric Jameson’s reading of the haunted house narrative as a means to map contemporary historical logics helps in understanding the backward historical desire that the film shows for marriage and the nuclear family. As in The Shining, The Babadook charts the transformation of a parent into a possessed murderer. Although it is only briefly alluded to, like Jack Torrance in The Shining, Amelia is a writer. She admits to having formerly written articles and children’s books, suggesting that she is the unwitting author of the creepy pop-up book that introduces the film’s titular monster. As characters drifting in class-limbo, both Jack and Amelia’s possession points to the “desire for a vanished hierarchy” to provide an outside to the murk and unknowability of the present (Jameson 95). While in The Shining this historical past takes the form of the aristocratic twenties, an era of wealth and clear class divisions, in The Babadook it is the nearer history of the nuclear family, with its substantive offerings and limits, that provides an alternative to the diffuse but pummeling insistence of contemporary continual waged and unwaged care-work. The legible oedipal narratives of this past contrast with the cyclical futurelessness of the present, and this might go some way to explain the lack of catharsis at the end of the film, which rather resolves with the management of repression and desire. Here, as Jameson puts it, possession is unmasked “as the ideological project to return to the hard certainties of a more visible and rigid class structure” (95). Rather than encounter the thick present, Amelia retains a melancholy attachment to older forms of economic and social stability. Her attachment, however, is never supported with evidence of the couple’s intimacy. In fact, the monster’s hat and coat are often equated with the lost husband (and the iconic wardrobe of the bourgeois husband in general), hinting that he may have been a menacing figure before his death.
Instead of an old-fashioned representation of grieving, maternal angst, or sexual frustration, then, The Babadook relates to what Berlant calls “the cinema of precarity” that illustrates the new historical imbrications of public and private spheres. It is a cinema that “melds melodrama and politics into a more reticent aesthetic to track the attrition of what had been sustaining national, social, economic, and political bonds and the abandonment of a variety of populations to being cast as waste” (201). This form searches for representational strategies that show how seemingly internal states are “saturated by capitalist forces and rhythms” in an age of entrenched instability. In the haunted house film, we see the tentacles of precarity extending to the abode of corroding, formerly bourgeois structures. In The Babadook, the dynamic between mother and son do not reflect a transhistorical oedipal psychic economy, but rather refract a specific historical experience of emotional expectations in flux. As a unit, Amelia and Samuel have no permanent place in the social order, and instead must ride the waves of a shifting social contract that doesn’t allow stable affective states. Finally, expelled from school and familial support, they reach the end of the line. It is only then that they descend into a fully psychotic space. While Berlant points to melodrama and realism as central genres in the cinema of precarity, I would argue that the horror genre is particularly well equipped to connote the impasse at the heart of these narratives.
As a formerly bourgeois widow Amelia is cut off from “normative forms of reciprocity” and it is this rather than some abstract desire for independence that structures her ambivalent feelings about her son. Berlant argues that in these films the typical defensive response to this crisis is “manners” and forms of impassivity. The failed quest to instill manners in Samuel is in fact a crucial dimension of the film. Throughout the narrative, the child says what he thinks, including expressing his love, sadness, and fear, and Amelia, desperately, tries to teach him to supplant these impulsive feelings with manners, the performance of moderate affection and emotion, as a means to survival in a moment where nothing is in her control. Writes Berlant:
Maintaining intimacy requires bracketing out dissonance, fear, surprise, failure and most of all, incoherence. Manners become the way they drown out the interference with their durable contract to act and feel tender about performing love. (220)
And yet, at the same time, this desperate reliance on manners “represents the neoliberal privatization of all resources in an idiom of private emotion, in which the body is a container for the subject’s affects while his face aspires to remain all surface” (222). It is this contradiction that plays out as Amelia cycles through an affect of mannered care and a monstrous corporeal symptomology, the daily treadmill of privatized, neoliberal love. We see this illustrated particularly in the pained facial tick she suffers throughout the film as excessive emotions and turmoil threaten to surge to the surface.
As an instance of the global “cinema of precarity,” then, The Babadook’s strategies of representation allow a glimpse into the complications that subtend idealized conceptions of maternal love. However, the film’s lacuna is the repression of its own decentered status. Drawing from a general “Western” bag of horror conventions, the film shrinks from its own regional iconography, standing apart from a healthy crop of “Ozsploitation,” horror movies such as Wolf Creek, Patrick, and The Loved Ones, which exude Australian specificity. As Meaghan Morris and Catherine Driscoll argue, an understanding of gender in Australian cinema implies a reading of the oscillating “particularities” and “universalizing tendencies” that “cut across transnational cultural flows and geopolitical boundary conventions alike.” In The Babadook, this oscillation seems to be muted in favor of a universalized aesthetic, leading, occasionally, to a sort of lifelessness. Amelia and Samuel at times, seem like stock figures, denied the glimmers of particularity that characterize the “thick present” of modern life.
Cut off from the colonial, under and differently-developed, racialized specificity of Australian cinema, Amelia stands as a universalized sign of womanhood that doesn’t challenge our normative notion of that woman’s whiteness, blondness, heterosexuality, etc. This repression is hinted at in one scene where Amelia is on the brink of full madness. As she flips through TV channels, a montage of associatively creepy television segments appear, ending with a clip of an American news story about an inner-city mother who murdered her son. The footage shows the police dragging a wailing African American woman away. In a tenement window, we see an older, more haggard version of Amelia with a crazed look in her eyes. This interesting moment of connection to regional specificity and a racially oppressed woman is disconnected from the rest of the film, which takes place in an anonymous suburb. As in It Follows, structural racial oppression is only glimpsed slightly and then quickly absorbed into the narrative of the privileged figure of horror, the white woman. The film operates as if it exists in a post-spatial universality, an everywhere that is nowhere, and yet this elides the way that capitalist modernity produces space unevenly, taking different forms while retaining a logic that comprises what Fredric Jameson calls “a singular modernity,” harnessed to the logics of a capitalist world system.
In more rough and ready Australian horror films, such as The Loved Ones, the monstrous feminine evokes an ambivalent legacy attached to modern forms of precarity as they exist in palimpsestuous relationships with previous colonial forms of feminization, from Australia’s frontier mythology to its racialized and gendered colonial inter and intra-relationships to its complex positioning in Pacific Rim dynamics. In The Babadook, these specificities are trumped by more generic horror codes, a strategy that naturalizes cultural imperialism by uncritically participating in an aesthetic language which seems universal and transparent. (The flawed and dangerous logic in this Western universalism can be seen in Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of the recent Paris attacks). On this level, the film’s widespread international popularity is also its weakness, as it squanders an opportunity to demonstrate what the Warwick Research Collective, following a long Marxist lineage, call the “combined and uneven development” of globalized precaritized modernity.
This is, though, perhaps asking the film to do too much or something else, rather than to enjoy its substantial insights and pleasures. The Babadook offers a kind of utopian negation, allowing a denaturalizing and sharp focus on the myth of motherhood as what Kathi Weeks calls “the privatization of work” (3). In this ideology, both motherhood and work are idealized as sites of unique and meaningful relationships. Meanwhile, structural analyses of these institutions are suppressed. Thus, if there is a catharsis in this film, it is not in eradicating the monster but in making it visible. In the end Amelia must care for the Babadook, feed and tend it, but this process has literally come out of the closet as a palpably horrible ritual. Finally, both mother and son can at least acknowledge the monstrosity that structures their world.
At the same time that the ending allows a denaturalization and exposure of repressed care work it also seemingly leads to a more truthful, loving relationship between mother and son, hinting at the utopian dimensions of any form of love. As monstrous as the Babadook is, it has also served as a sign of Amelia’s emotional work refusal, her care strike and thus, her truth. For Weeks, the horizon of work refusal is an as yet unthinkable utopian imaginary:
What might we name variety of times and spaces outside waged work, and what might we wish to do with and in them? How might we conceive the content and parameters of our obligations to one another outside the currency of work? (36)
In this light we can see the entanglement of mother and child as both a sign of precarious work and hopeful attachment, its utopian horizon the unimaginable realm of post-work where love could be freed from the logics that make it monstrous.
In the end Samuel’s magic act (a skit he has been performing all along in order to gain his mother’s affection and escape the harsh realities of his world) is recoded. In the earlier moments of the film this act was framed as yet another symptom of Samuel’s pathological over-attachment to his mother and refusal of reality. In the final scene, with the Babadook in check, the magic act becomes equivocally utopian, as mother and son tentatively explore a new form of love and interdependence that is generously forgiving of its own imperfections and pathological history and yet still an ambivalent sign of impasse. Here, they are suspended in what Benjamin Noys sees as the “negative sublime,” caught between an evasive humanization and a nihilistic inhumanization, both of which occlude radical hope for systemic transformation. For Berlant, the impasse at the heart of precarious cinema is decompositional. It is: “a thick moment of ongoingness, a situation that can absorb many genres without having one itself—is a middle without boundaries, edges, a shape” (199). It is in this murky terrain that we can place the strategically dissonant comedic twist that ends The Babadook, breaking with its generic unity. Here, mother and child have entered the thick present, but this gives them no resolution. Rather, they have achieved a comic attunement to the profound ambivalence of feminized care work, now exposed as a monster in the basement whose daily feeding ritual never loses its rhythmic periods of shock and terror.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Driscoll, Catherine and Meaghan Morris. Gender, Media and Modernity in the Asia Pacific. New York, Routledge, 2013.
Jameson, Fredric. “Historicism in The Shining”. Signatures of the Visible. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Kent, Jennifer dir. The Babadook. Screen Australia, 2014.
Noys, Benjamin. “Epic Fails: Scale, Commodity, Totality.” 2015
Warwick Research Collective. Combined and Uneven Development. Warwick: Wrec, 2015.
Weeks, Kathi. The Problem With Work. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.