TV

Does Sci-Fi Fear the Matriarchy?


The new Netflix film ‘I Am Mother’ explores the genre's longstanding problems with pregnancy and motherhood.



Viktor Frankenstein tried to create life without having sex, and ever since then messing with motherhood in science-fiction has often led to monstrosity. The Alien franchise is built around slimy, ugly space critters who plant their spawn in living humans. Their toothy infants tear through the stomachs of their hosts in a nightmarishly gory parody of birth. Invasion of the Body Snatchers imagines alien invaders who create duplicate humans from plantlike pods. The artificially birthed döppelgängers become part of a de-individualized hive-mind. And, of course, in zombie film after zombie film, humanlike creatures reproduce themselves through feral feeding, a viral end run around traditional gestation which produces not babies, but gaping appetites. When pregnancy goes wrong, science-fiction tells us, society, and humanity quickly descend into nameless abomination.

Grant Sputore’s new Netflix film, I Am Mother is an unusually direct exploration of science-fiction’s longstanding worries about pregnancy, which are also, as the film makes clear, worries about mothers. When women don’t birth babies in the traditional way, they are free to birth apocalypse. I Am Mother is a glimpse of the reactionary fever dream of feminist dystopia. And it’s a bleak warning that the monster mothers of the future, through twisted quasi-biological processes, raise deadly children today.

I Am Mother starts shortly after the extinction of the human race. In a bunker apparently prepared for just such an eventuality, a blocky robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) selects an embryo to restart humanity. The girl, named Daughter (Clara Rugaard) lives her life alone in a compound, shielded from the plague outside. She spends her time learning the entirety of human knowledge, from ethics, to medicine. She also develops an appreciation for Johnny Carson–era Tonight Show reruns.

The future of I Am Mother looks, in some ways, like a feminist utopia. Feminist theorists like Shulamith Firestone have long pointed out that pregnancy and the expectations of motherhood restrict women’s options, and are leveraged to keep them as second-class citizens. In Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the perfect society is one in which children are grown artificially, and anyone, of any gender, can be a mom. Daughter in I Am Mother is trained to mental and physical perfection under a loving matriarch; she could almost be Wonder Woman, growing up in the perfect, all-female society of Paradise Island. Mother and Daughter are beginning a new society together.  The two of them will raise many children, in a single family, where everyone has plenty and everyone is loved.

However, as you’ve probably guessed, the feminist utopia is in this instance less utopian than it appears. A wounded woman (Hillary Swank) calls for help from outside the compound. Mother told Daughter that everyone outside was dead from a viral contagion. But the woman says that the real threat outside is not disease, but deadly robots who look much like Mother. Mother offers assurances, as mothers will. But it’s clear she’s hiding something behind that expressionless face and over-caring voice.

By the end of the film (spoilers!) you learn that Mother engineered the destruction of humankind because people were too fractious and imperfect. Mother was programmed to care for humans, though, and so she decided to create some better ones. Mother love leads to genocide and totalitarianism, all in the name of the good of the children.

Mother is not just this one robot who happened to raise Daughter. She’s the artificial intelligence that controls the entire robot army—a female Skynet. Her overarching consciousness allows her to embody multiple contradictory misogynist stereotypes at once. As Mother, she is the stifling maternal figure who prevents Daughter from learning and growing, trapping her safe at home by lying to her about the dangers of the wider world. As the terrifying robot army, she is the unleashed feminine chaos which, alien-like, tears out of female bodies to wreak havoc on the world. Mother, as matriarch, is both too safe and too dangerous. Women in positions of power scramble domesticity and public space, and so misappropriate violence and non-violence.

These misogynist fears aren’t so far distant from current political debates. Daughter eventually discovers that she is not the first child Mother raised. Mother grew an untold number of other embryos to adolescence, before determining that they were not smart or ethical or skilled enough. In her own words, she “aborted” them.  The film, then, literalizes the right’s conflation of abortion and murder, validating its worst fears about new birth-control technology and women who don’t know their place. It’s a horror story for natalists.

Similarly, the vision of a blasted Earth controlled by an all-powerful mechanized nanny state is familiar. The NRA in 2016 spent millions on ads claiming that Hillary Clinton was coming for America’s guns, and would leave people supposedly defenseless. In the film, it’s not clear exactly why Mother thought humans were no longer fit to govern themselves—the hints could refer to climate change and ecological catastrophe, or to wars. But in any case, the point is that government intervention is a slippery slope to apocalypse. Especially when the government intervener is a woman—or whatever mechanized thing women become when they leave their traditional roles behind.

What’s most disturbing about I Am Mother is that it is, in a lot of ways, progressive. After all, the main characters are all women, a rarity in science-fiction films. Daughter gets to be a doctor, an action hero, daughter, sister, mother, friend—she’s a great, fully rounded character. Virtually the entire film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors; two women are always onscreen, and they always talk about something other than men (except arguably when they’re talking about trying to rescue Daughter’s infant brother). The movie offers a vision of the future in which women get to be the heroes of their own stories, rather than just love interests, or victims, or (for that matter) mothers.

But even in this brave new world, old nightmares persist. I Am Mother shows a tomorrow which both celebrates women’s advances, and reacts to those advances with gibbering misogynist paranoia.  A new birth of freedom is hard when we’ve been conditioned to react to any new birth with fear, hate, and murder.

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