This blog post will look at the maternal figure in Carmel Winters’ short film Limbo (Winters 2008). By means of this Irish film, this post will further develop E. Ann Kaplan’s originally American categorisation of motherhood in media to discover which maternal categories are of importance in this contemporary Irish film.
Kaplan published her book Motherhood and Representation in 1992 and referred to maternal representations from the 1980s onwards in her categorisation. However, it serves as a (mere) “basis for later researchers to argue from” (Kaplan, 1992: p. 180). To further develop this foundation, Carmen Winters’ complex female figures offer an especially valuable example of maternal representation in Irish film.
In the final chapter of her book Motherhood and Representation Kaplan identifies six types of mothers that tend to emerge in American media from the 1980s onwards – the Absent Mother, the Working Mother, the Abusive Mother, the Lesbian Mother, the Woman-Who-Refuses-To-Mother as well as the Self-Fulfilled Mother. These types are not always independent of each other and can be interwoven within their representation of the maternal figure. However, none of these categories seem to fit Carmel Winters’ short film Limbo. Limbo portrays a maternal figure outside of Kaplan’s categorisation that still has to be defined within the theory. The observable category of motherhood in Winters’ Irish film will complement Kaplan’s original grouping.
Carmel Winters’ short film Limbo was made as part of the Darklight Four Day Movie 2008 challenge. 30 filmmakers created a mosaic of Dublin within the M50 in one day producing several short films. Lenny Abrahamson then edited them in conjunction with Declan Lynch, and curated the finished omnibus film (“Dublin: 4DayMovie 2008”). Winters’ six-minute-long part shows the desire of a woman (Dee Cotter) to be pregnant. She walks into a butcher’s shop to buy a whole chicken, oils and powders the chicken in a nearby changing room and straps it around her belly with the help of cling film. Appearing supposedly pregnant, the woman walks into the park of St. Stephen’s Green and into the pond, where she starts playing with the algae.
As Kaplan did not include the depiction of women who want to be mothers and who define their own identity as maternal, even though they do not have a child, the woman in Limbo does not fit in any of Kaplan’s categorisations of motherhood. Therefore, this post will expand Kaplan’s original categorisation by adding the Woman-Who-Wants-To-Be-A-Mother. The woman in Limbo tries to physically experience pregnancy by taking care of the mentioned dead chicken and by strapping it around her belly. This clearly indicates her wish to be a mother. Her whole identity, in fact, circles around the wish for motherhood. She thereby tries to negotiate a new identity for herself and practices her appearance to the outer world by walking seemingly pregnant in public. The camera is positioned at the height of her belly, underlining the importance of a maternal identity. Furthermore, the camera could indicate the height of a child that walks on her side, showing that it might be possible that the woman already lost a child during her attempts to become pregnant. The camera work in Limbo clearly supports the woman’s wish to be a mother.
Limbo’s opening title depicts a sign of a baby changing room, which shows a person taking care of a small child. Instead of placing the mother in a private sphere, this symbol clearly situates the scene within a public sphere from the beginning. The public space interestingly becomes a secretive place in Limbo, in which the woman can act out her wish for a child without being judged or told to behave otherwise and maybe can overcome her past traumas.
The public space of the park later offers her a tranquil experience as she seems to be the only visitor during the rain. Being mesmerised by something shiny in the pond, she walks fully clothed into the water to catch it. A close-up shot reveals the shiny object as a nappy pin tangled in algae. She attaches the pin to her own dress to protect it at least a little bit from the water, and starts to play with the weed in the pond. By depicting the woman so closely to nature through a low camera angle and her willingness to walk into the pond and later barefoot around the park, the film connects the female figure with the Irish land. Thereby, it evokes images of nationalism and motherhood reminding the audience of the representation of the Irish mother who traditionally incorporates the Catholic ideal of virginity. Furthermore, the woman’s connection to nature underlines a questionable maternal instinct, which is often linked to womanhood. Therefore, the woman in Limbo stays within patriarchal power structures by solely defining herself as a potential mother to be whose happiness might depend on a potential male partner and is navigated by her alleged maternal instincts. However, the film manages to voice the strong wish of a woman who wants to be a mother by portraying the desperate measures she takes to experience pregnancy. By addressing fertility issues Winters speaks to many viewers who deal with the same problem and are widely underrepresented in Irish film.
Carmel Winters’ short film Limbo gives a voice to a non-traditional mother figure who is usually not able to communicate her story. The film shows the necessity for a different categorisation of Kaplan’s theory of motherhood in an Irish context. The woman who wants to be a mother depicts a further development of this categorisation. In Limbo, she stays within the patriarchal power structure, while using the public sphere as a secretive space. This could underline the pressure to reproduce many women and especially married women experience from friends and family within the private sphere. The public sphere in Limbo, therefore, interestingly becomes a safe space in which women do not have to admit supposed failure to their families. This interpretation questions if the woman actually wants to be a mother or merely tries to fulfill a domestic demand. Her identity is reduced to a maternal one and her only goal is to physically experience pregnancy. Additionally, in Limbo motherhood is represented alongside neither sex nor work, whereas the woman who wants to be a mother is connected to the Irish land and reminds the viewer of the Irish mother who combines the Catholic ideal of virginity and motherhood.
“Dublin: 4DayMovie 2008.” 2008. Web. 9 May 2017.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation. The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Winters, Carmel. Limbo. Ireland: 2008. Film.
Kira is a PhD candidate and Irish Research Scholar in the Media and German Studies department at Maynooth University, working under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Heffernan (German Studies) and Dr. Denis Condon (Media Studies). Her research is focused on the representation of motherhood in contemporary Irish and German film and is currently titled Motherhood in Contemporary German and Irish Cinema since 1990. This interdisciplinary project specifically presents alternative depictions on motherhood, outside of the traditional maternal discourse, such as maternal regret, single motherhood and lesbian motherhood. Kira will present her research in April, at the 2017 Mother Figures and Representation of Motherhood. Contemporary Perspectives Conference, at François Rabelais University, Tours, France. She currently holds a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies and a Master of Arts in Film and Media Dramaturgy from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany.