There’s an interesting trend of late (if we can call a movie and a television show a trend) with Hollywood and its interest in the “Munchausen mom.” Hulu’s new series The Act and the recent trashy thriller Ma have both devoted time to mothers with Munchausen by proxy, the disorder wherein a caregiver keeps a person sick in order to garner attention for themselves. In both Ma and The Act the caregiver is a mother in a highly codependent and sickening relationship with a disabled daughter. As a woman with disabilities, these relationships – and they’re almost always presented as being of the mother/daughter variety – are fascinating to me as they tap into my own unique relationship with my mom.
(WARNING: Spoilers from this point forward.)
Let’s be clear, Munchausen by proxy is a highly specific disorder that is traumatizing to those affected. In no way is my relationship with my mother the same thing but there are slight commonalities in the nature of codependency. In Tate Taylor’s Ma, Octavia Spencer’s Sue Ann becomes obsessed with a group of local teens who request her help to buy them beer. As the kids soon discover, not only is Sue Ann involved with them as a means of seeking revenge on their parents but she’s also holding her own daughter hostage in her house. The teenage girl, who uses a wheelchair, is seen to be healthy but is being kept sick by Sue Ann to curb the unstable woman’s loneliness and possibly to alleviate the psychological scars Sue Ann still bears from high school.
In the case of Ma there’s an unspoken (and ill-defined) air of protectiveness between Sue Ann and her daughter. The woman’s own past ends up being her excuse to nearly kill her daughter, but it moves toward the near-symbiotic relationship that’s often perceived in cinema between mothers and daughters. As Laura Linney’s character says in Nocturnal Animals, “We all become our mothers.” Growing up as a disabled woman this idea of maternal protection is incredibly clear. My own mother, for all her good intentions, certainly has heard me wax on about the regrets I have, the things she wouldn’t let me attempt for fear that I would be hurt.
Movies equate maternal protection as being extreme but necessary. And in popular culture when children of “smothers” are shown, the movies are usually about the horrors their mothers have inflicted on them. There is no middle ground. I understand why my mother was so protective, but I can still be irritated about it. There are shades of gray where movies only see black and white. Where movies show the nature of codependency as a life/death struggle between mothers and daughters – the Munchausen angle – for disabled audiences it’s easy to see it with an additional layer of metaphor. With the lack of true disabled representation in cinema, finding hidden subtext – mainly unintentional between directors and screenwriters – happens often, as it does here. Watching Ma, there’s nothing literal between Sue Ann’s relationship with her daughter and my own with my mother, but the struggle for freedom versus a seemingly well-intentioned mother who makes her daughter feel claustrophobic resonates with me as I’m sure it does with many people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
The Munchausen plotline isn’t a big element of Ma, but for disabled audiences, the sympathy for her daughter is heightened. The girl finds herself locked up in her house and has few friends. If anything, her mother is presented as her only friend, an element that takes on added poignancy for disabled mothers and daughters. Having someone advocate for you who understands what you’re going through, like your mother, provides comfort. And yet Sue Ann’s relationship with her daughter is toxic and all-consuming, parasitic and codependent. Having a close relationship with my own mother has produced its own level of toxicity, mainly through our mutual overreliance on each other. Where the Munchausen mom in movies is often framed to focus attention on the mother, for those watching with disabilities there’s an equal give and take there. I’ll be the first to admit I need my mother as much as she needs me, and that’s problematic in its own right. To think about that relationship being severed is anxiety inducing, which is why it’s often difficult to accept where these Munchausen-based movie relationships end up: with the mother usually dying to spare the child.
And yet it’s fascinating that these emotions are generated from what amounts to Hollywood’s myopic presentation of a deadly mental illness. Movies like Ma and television shows like The Act utilize Munchausen by proxy both for dramatic effect and to present the mother/daughter relationship to an extreme degree, but watching movies like this while disabled adds unexpected emotional components. A film like Ma certainly uses the Munchausen conceit to its inevitable conclusion, with Sue Ann attempting to kill her daughter, but it does conjure up the ways disabled children often feel emotionally smothered and controlled by their parents.
Ma is in theaters now.