Mothers Day Movies: Strangers Like Me

The Prince of Egypt. Tarzan. Mommie Dearest. Um….one of these things is not like the others?

These are three movies I watched while on leave with my infant daughter that resonate differently after you’ve adopted a child than before.

MV5BMTg0NTQ4MDU4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjk2MjE5._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_The Prince of Egypt: We watched this on on Easter Sunday morning because I thought we should probably do something, even though that something wasn’t going to involve church. Frankly, I’d forgotten what a beautiful and powerful movie this is…and also how many famous people voiced its characters (interestingly, this movie was recently noted as one of the few examples of Hollywood not whitewashing Biblical stories. That may be true for the animation, but the very famous celebrity actors voicing these characters are, with just a couple of exceptions, all pretty dang white and western.)

Now, I went to Sunday School ALL the way through, and I know my Bible stories, not to mention my baby gear. I know Moses’ deal. But I had forgotten how much this retelling of the story engages with Moses’ internal conflict over finding his roots as a Hebrew slave–and meeting his living biological brother and sister–after being raised as the son of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

In Moses’ case, the story is complicated further by the fact that he has a third family. In addition to his family of origin and the family that raised him, he has what in today’s parlance we might call his “chosen family,” the Midianites. He belonged to a close-knit group and had a pretty happy life as a shepherd in the desert!

In the movie, Moses’ Egyptian mother says, “When the gods send you a blessing, you don’t ask why it was sent.” Their message to him is: Don’t look, don’t question. But The Prince of Egypt forces the question, Who are you? Who are you really? Who are your parents? Who is your brother? Who are your people? Are you oppressor or oppressed? Both or neither? What happens when siding with one means severing all ties with the other?

Five thousand years later, parents and children of different races still have to reckon with these questions.

Key takeaway: You can have a loving family, a good job, plenty to give and plenty to do, and still need to come to terms with where you come from. Sometimes that means embracing it all, but sometimes it means choosing a side. Choosing not to look is not an option. 

Oh, and by the way, watching a desperate mother float her baby down the Nile in a basket is one of those things that feels a lot different when you’re holding a tiny baby that seems to have drifted out of the reeds and into your world.

Mommie Dearest. This is one of those movies that I knew (“NO WIRE HANGERS!”), but I didn’t really know. I knew it was the film version of Joan Crawford’s daughter’s memoir. And I knew Crawford’s children were adopted. What I did not know was that the first 15 minutes of the film would be dedicated to Crawford being rejected from all legitimate paths to adoption, and that her boyfriend would ultimately buy her a baby of dubious origin. And then she would do this again. (And again and again and again, though that’s not in the movie.)

The thing is, Joan Crawford as she is portrayed this film should have been rejected for adoption. Not for the weak-ass reasons the agency gave–that she was a divorced working actress–but because she was a dangerous and terrifying person for a child, or anyone really, to live with and depend upon. It’s basically Sunset Blvd. all over again, except in this story she’s responsible for and at the same time deeply threatened by the children she has taken into her home, especially her oldest daughter.

These independent humans with their own minds and wishes and personalities are utterly incompatible with the hermetic universe that Crawford has elaborately constructed to (barely) hold herself together. But she’s not just a black and white villain, either. She is an extreme example of a highly successful, famous, wealthy, deeply insecure, possibly mentally ill woman used to exerting a great deal of control over her world, who desperately wanted a baby to “complete” her life experience, and couldn’t adjust when said babies didn’t conform to her rigid expectations. It’s gut-wrenching, to say the least.

Key takeaway: All parents need to come to terms with the fact that their children are individuals, not clones, accessories, or personal do-overs. But I suspect this may be especially true for adoptive parents, who may have spent more time imagining the perfect miracle child to fill a perceived hole in their lives. Most of us are not like Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford. Thank God. But we parents, all of us, are susceptible to this kind of thinking, if on a much smaller scale. We force our will, our weakness, our fears on our children at our peril (and theirs). 

The opening scene of Faye Dunaway going through Crawford’s morning toilette is incredible, and sets you up with a knot in your stomach and pretty much all you need to know about the main character:

Tarzan

MV5BMTIxNzY1MDg2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDgxMDEzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_In the Disney version of this story, baby Tarzan is rescued by Kala, a gorilla whose own baby was killed by the same jaguar that killed Tarzan’s parents (got that?). As Tarzan grows up, his emergent human traits awe and distress his simian family. Tarzan, too, constantly wonders whether he really fits in with this tribe. Kala and Tarzan play a game where they count all the ways they’re alike–two eyes, two ears, one nose, one heart. It’s a sweet effort but so insufficient–after all, likenesses like these put them in the same category as the murderous cat that killed their loved ones. What I like is, the movie shows both sides: game comforts Tarzan and Kala to some extent–but they also both see how it falls short. When they hold their hands up to one another, it’s obvious that they don’t “fit.”

When explorers of mixed intent arrive on the island, Tarzan for the first time recognizes “Strangers like me” and begins to lead a double life between the jungle and the shore.

The most ridiculous shortcoming in the story is when Kala finally decides to reveal “the truth” about Tarzan’s origins to him. “I should have told you long ago….” she says. Told him what? That he’s a different species than the rest of his family? Like, this is known, right? Yeah, that answers a lot of questions.

While watching this, I was thinking, “Wow, this is really dark and violent!” (The death of the villain, in particular, is pretty brutal). But, compared to what? Mufasa being trampled by wildebeests? Gaston stabbing the beast and falling off a castle? Eric fricking stabbing Ursula in the belly with the prow of a ship? So…yeah. It’s just your average, run-of-the-mill Disney death stuff here.

And one day before Mothers’ Day you may find yourself bouncing around with a babe in your arms and You’ll Be in My Heart shuffles up on the playlist, and you will find yourself blubbering and unable to stop.

Key Takeaway: 

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