A Conversation With the Ecofeminist Who Helped Inspire 'Mother!'

Susan Griffin explains the meaning behind the film's images of female suffering.
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mother!

Odds are that if you've seen Darren Aronofsky's horror movie/Biblical-and-ecological allegory mother!, you have a fairly strong opinion on it. Aronofsky's latest begins as a drama about a couple—a poet (Javier Bardem) and his younger, loving wife (Jennifer Lawrence)—who begin fighting when he invites strangers, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer, into their remote house. Following the poet's completion of his long-elusive masterpiece, the film takes a more violent, and surrealist, turn: The poet's crazed fans begin arriving on his doorstep; create a religious cult dedicated to his work in his home; fight amongst themselves; and ultimately stampede, strip, and otherwise harm and humiliate Lawrence's eponymous mother. In short, this is not a film that inspires tranquil cocktail-party discussion.

While critics have overall embraced the film—it has a 68 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes—audiences appear to have had the opposite reaction. mother! has an F on Cinemascore, and has received a 42 percent audience rating (with some particularly harsh reviews) on Rotten Tomatoes.

In particular, the film has inspired spirited debate over whether its depiction of Lawrence as a doomed Mother Earth figure is, in fact, sexist. Bustle's Casey Cipriani, for example, argued that, while the film indulges in the longtime cinematic trope of women becoming emotionally unstable onscreen, Lawrence's performance may be emotionally cathartic for female viewers who are also not listened to, or talked down to. Yet Birth.Movies.Death's Abby Olcese, interpreting Lawrence's character as a "female divine" figure, countered that scenes of Lawrence being alternately berated, abused, and ordered around demonstrated that her divinity "remains traditionally female in her lack of agency."

And yet, Aronofsky has at least one major feminist champion. The director has frequently explained that the movie was influenced by the 1978 book Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, written by noted ecofeminist and ecologist Susan Griffin. In her book, Griffin draws from myth and literature to show how the patriarchy has often connected women with nature, and sought to dominate them both. In addition to helping inspire mother!, Griffin had a part in shaping it: She had a phone conversation with Aronofsky as he wrote the script, and Aronofsky later screened the film for her alongside feminist author Rebecca Solnit.

On Tuesday, Pacific Standard spoke with Griffin about her role in the film. We talked about how she met Aronofsky, why people aren't embracing the film, and how it can change hearts.

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First, tell me a little bit about your central arguments in Women and Nature, and why you think Darren Aronofsky was so inspired by your book.

Well, I can't tell you why he was so inspired by it, but I think we were probably on the same page. Women and Nature was published in 1978, when the environmental movement was very strong and so was the women's movement, but people weren't making a connection between them. What I noticed was that women were identified often with nature, and looked at as closer to nature—in the same way that racism looks at people of color as closer to nature. This was the same period when George Murphy, who was a California state senator, said Mexicans [made better farm workers] because they are "built close to the ground." That's the ideology behind racism and white supremacy, is that people of color are closer to the Earth and therefore more like animals. And the same has been true regarding women since at least the Middle Ages.

The other layer [in the book] besides the identification of nature with women is that there's a division between "spirit" and "matter," [holding] that those who are material, or more of the Earth, have less "spirit"—and in some cases no soul—and are less intelligent. They therefore have to be dominated and controlled by those who have more "spirit"—that is, white men. It's a kind of justification for the control of white men over society. Of course, we know all white men aren't always in a position of control; many are exploited in the same way. The same kind of reasoning goes to people who are working class, anyone who works with their hands is also looked at as closer to the Earth. I wrote the book from that insight and traced it through the development of science so that it starts at the 13th century, and I traced this division between "spirit" and "matter" in science, and also the association of women with the natural world, through the 20th century.

You said you had one conversation with Aronofsky as he wrote the script. How did you two first start talking?

He had read my book and he went to dinner with Alice Waters, who's a good friend. She was having dinner in New York with Darren and he asked her if she knew me, and she said she did. So when she came back to Berkeley, she asked if he could have my number, and I said, "Well, certainly."

He sent me a lot of his films. One of the films I loved the most is a very early film he wrote called The Fountain, which is about mortality. Which is also important in all of [my book's] thinking because the defense against mortality is to look at the spirit as immortal, and separate from the body, so the spirit lives on. It's a kind of delusion: If we burn up the whole Earth, well, we'll still have this spiritual realm. Many on the right wing are under that delusion. The Fountain is really moving and wonderful. I think we probably were kindred souls before we met.

Susan Griffin.

Susan Griffin.

What was the substance of your conversation? Did he give you a script and ask for your feedback?

He was writing the script at that point, and he ran the basic allegorical terms by me. He didn't explain that he'd had [the idea] in a dream. Basically, I wasn't sure about all the equivalencies in there—that the man is God, and the house is nature, and the mother is nature too. I wasn't sure that that whole system of symbols would work, but I also said that, in my experience, any artistic creation doesn't always go by the rules of logic, and I think if it has an inner consistency and it feels authentic and you're being true to some vision that came to you, that you have to stick with that. And I think he did. I wanted him to make clear that nature didn't really destroy herself, that it was man who did it, and I think he made that very clear in the film.

I do feel that the film embodies what I was saying in Women and Nature in a very different and very vivid and powerful way. I just found it staggering to watch.

Were there particular scenes that reminded you of your own arguments?

The film as a whole reminded me of my book: the allegory, the heedless destruction, the sense of control and domination, that the house can just be easily replaced. "This is just a house," Javier Bardem's [character] says a couple of times. It was a sort of dismissing of [the mother's] work, because women's work is traditionally domestic, but also of nature's work. "This is just the body—the mind and the spirit are what are important." That reminded me of my book and was, I thought, very powerful in the film.

I think the reason why a lot of people aren't getting it is that they don't get it. Not the film, but "it." They don't understand what's happening—they still don't. We're on the verge of destroying Earth's capacity to support human life. The Earth is not going to be destroyed. I think people don't understand that the Earth will regenerate at some point, but humans won't. We're destroying ourselves.

At the end of the film, Jennifer Lawrence's Mother Earth character is replaced by another "mother." Is that what the film is doing, showing how the Earth would regenerate?

I think he's telling us that we just keep repeating the same scenario: We create destruction and then we just do it again, without learning from it. And the wisdom that comes from the grief of the loss—which is what that crystal is—is always destroyed because it's treated like an object rather than understood for the illumination or the revelation that it gives you. I see the couple—the Michelle Pfeiffer and the Ed Harris couple—as the kind of shadow side of God and Mother Nature, or the domestic couple that is there. Like all allegories, it functions on two levels, as symbology but also as a real domestic character.

Lawrence's Mother Nature character doesn't speak much, or, when she does speak, she isn't listened to, and yet the film is told from her perspective, the camera follows her. You dedicated your book to "those of us whose language is not heard, whose words have been stolen or erased, those robbed of language." Do you think the film is trying to do something similar?

I think so. She's shown as not being listened to, and they laugh at her when she tells them not to sit on the sink, and so on. And then she finds her power after her baby is killed, when she goes into a rage, but it's too late. It's not like she's perfect—far from it. She makes herself subservient to Bardem's character, so I think the house is perhaps more nature, and she's the mother. It's not a kind of allegory where you can say, "A=1" or "B=2," it's not algebraic. It's more like a dream, in which the symbols are constantly shifting or morphing into something else.

There's quite a bit of female suffering depicted in this film, which some feminist critics of cinema would likely be critical of, given that women have, historically, often been sacrificial victims onscreen. What are your feelings on how the film treats women?

I think that's accurate: Women are still sacrificial victims in our culture. I'm writing something about Trump now called Strong Man, and I think his treatment of women is just astonishing, it's just outrageous. We haven't gotten past that. It's one thing to stand up against the treatment of women, which I've done all my life, but it's another thing to say to an artist, "You can't show women being mistreated." We are being mistreated daily: Rape is still a very serious crime, sexual abuse of female children, wife battery—these are still major issues affecting lots of women. That's not to mention the salary difference between what men are paid and women are paid. Women around the globe are still being mistreated, so we have to depict that.

Do you think a wide-released Hollywood movie such as this one can persuade viewers to open their eyes to that reality? Can it change minds?

If people come around to understanding what it's really about, I think it can change hearts. Minds is another matter. Al Gore's two films can do that, and a lot of other wonderful other films that are about the environment and arguments and books, but what this film does is engage people—it's what Jennifer Lawrence said herself—on a visceral level. But, overall, it's very difficult to take in what's happening. I think that all these Category 5, Category 4, 100-year hurricanes are helping us take it in a bit. But I can count on one hand the times that the progressive media outlets I'm watching have mentioned climate change. We are still dependent on the Earth but we have media that is still telling us that the Earth is not important.

The inability of people to grasp this film is really related to their inability to grasp climate change. If we can make progress on both of them, that would be great.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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