Mommie Dearest Remixed: Child Abuse as Camp

Curator's Note

Based on 1978’s “tell-all” memoir, Mommie Dearest (1981) portrays the abuses that movie star Joan Crawford inflicted on her adopted daughter Christina. After earning bad reviews and unintended laughs, Paramount launched an ad emphasizing its infamous line: “No wire hangers…. EVER!,” thus embracing a camp/cult appreciation and promoting the movie like an exploitation film about child abuse. Mommie Dearest also developed a camp following among gay men, but their readings had different implications. Paramount encouraged laughter at their failed attempt at seriousness, at the expense of its star’s critical reputation, because it generated box-office. Gay camp humor played with (or sent-up) those images, while still admiring Faye Dunaway’s performance, because they were fictions of gender identity. 

What can be unnerving about Mommie Dearest is the laughter caused by its images of child abuse. However, when I’ve seen them with mostly gay audiences, those scenes were re-edited and/or re-contextualized to highlight and take pleasure from the non-naturalistic performances, not from the abuse. At New Orleans gay bars, they often screened different Mommie Dearest/“Mamma Mia” edits. A playful relationship with viewers was established from the start, with some gay men responding “I do!” to the invitation by the glamorous Dunaway/Crawford. The video’s mocking tone was set through the repetitions of “I will always beat you” that cut to the scenes of Joan hitting Christina, thus playing on the double meaning of “beat.” The re-edited “Christina is not a fan” scene generated the most response, with some men shouting “Choke her! Get her!” when Joan is about to put her hands around Christina’s neck. That may sound disturbing, but the gay men were not really asking to see a young woman abused. They wanted a repetition of the excessive acting gestures.

It’s one thing to laugh if you think you’re actually witnessing a girl getting abused and another to laugh at images that have been remixed, altered with effects, or preceded by a drag show. The repetition or recreation of certain actions, phrases or scenes in different videos remind us that images of abuse in fiction films are only performances, edited to elicit specific responses from audiences. 

Comments

Z. Hall, PhD's picture

When is Abuse Funny?

Thanks for your post, Roberto. I have turned the idea that “abuse in fiction films are only performances” in every direction to view the thought from as many perspectives and I can imagine and still arrive at no.

I have two reasons for this. One, though, cognitively, we know a show is fiction, subconsciously the mind perceives what it sees as real. Two, in the case of ‘Mommy Dearest’ the violence was/is real. It happened to a little girl named Christina.

You say that it is not abuse that the audience is thirsting for and laughing at but, rather, repetition of excessive gestures. I is unclear to my how the resulting abuse can be disassociated from the act of abuse. So I imagined the target of abuse being different: a black person being tortured by a racist, a gay person attacked by a homophobic, a woman being attacked by a man. I simply can’t imagine any of the scenarios being funny—regardless of how they are remixed, preceded by performance pieces to conduce joviality, etc.

Even in the case of ‘Drunk in Love’ and my exploration of it as an adaptation of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ I found that the overall project is subversive, but the violence in both works is problematic in spite of the overall effect.

Mommie Dearest’ was told from the perspective of the abuser rather than the victim, which problematizes the original film on a different level. Maybe it would not have become a camp classic had it been told from Christina’s point of view, I don’t know. But I would not want to imagine how difficult it would be to see my story of abuse told and re-told to laughing audiences. Who would want that?

It just doesn’t work for me, Roberto. But I think the effects you talk about would work to make non-violent dramas funny.

Robert Sevenich's picture

Roberto, thank you for your

Roberto, thank you for your thought-provoking case study! It’s hard to imagine how child abuse could ever be construed as comical. Clearly the fans’ appropriation of the film derails it from Christina or the filmmakers’ initial agenda. Taken out of context, I suppose anything runs the risk of being “read” differently. We’ve seen fans search for secondary texts within dominant texts that may or may not coincide with the creator’s objectives. It can be a therapeutic process for spectators to find new meaning in a text. Fans of Mommie Dearest’s campiness, I imagine, would claim that their own intentions—and “celebrations”—are not meant to be malicious, perhaps just careless. I wonder at what point appropriation becomes damaging to the piece’s subjects or artists. Z. makes a valid point; Mommie Dearest is the victim Christina’s story, but the movie positions the Joan Crawford character as the narrative fulcrum. This raises the question of authorship. Do the film’s director (Perry) or screenwriters negate Christina’s suffering with their aesthetic cinematic choices (which conveniently lend themselves to “camp”)?

Laurel Ahnert's picture

Gender Issues

Thank you for your post, Roberto, this takes the week’s topic in an interesting and unexpected direction. Reading your post I can’t help but think more about the role gender plays in this situation. On the one hand, the gay camp reading is explicitly drawing out the gender performativity at work in the film. But on the other hand, one cannot help but feel uncomfortable about the idea of a male audience taking pleasure in an abusive relationship between women. Is there a gender dynamic at work here that is still residing under the surface, despite, or perhaps because of the camp reading? Feminists have challenged gay men on gender inequality, to the point where it became a barrier to forming lesbian and gay coalitions in the past. Is there some level of misogyny at work here, even if it is of a different sort than we might expect? Or is camp necessarily a subversion of gender inequality?

Roberto Carlos Ortiz's picture

What's Appropriate?

Thanks for the comments. I agree that many won’t find the queer/ camp appropriation of child abuse images funny and that certain modes of abuse or violence are harder to repurpose for comedic effect (like when Pedro Almodovar included a controversial comic rape scene in 1993’s Kika). However, there are violent genres or scenes that have developed a camp/ cult following which takes comic pleasure in failed performances or production values. For example, there’s the cult following of 1970s Italian and Spanish horror films, which often focus on the bodies and violence against women. That sexism is rooted in the film and TV genres that camp and/or cult followers parody. Melodramas (like Mommie Dearest and Joan Crawford’s “woman’s films”) were not known for male-to-male slaps or “catfights.” While gay male camp readings are not automatically subversive or exempt from potential misogyny, the focus here is clearly on the performance aspect, on exposing and making fun of the film as an excessive construct.

I like that the week started with what is considered an appropriate way to portray domestic abuse (documentary) and then it went in very different directions (music videos, camp, animation, daytime shows). The gay camp re-appraisal of Mommie Dearest strikes me as akin to the irreverent humor of TV shows like “Family Guy.” Also, some viewers find comic pleasure in watching TV programs like “Maury.” There are race and class issues at work, but there’s also the suspicion that the guests act/ perform so excessively that they cannot be “real,” which makes it permissible to laugh at or make fun of them.

After writing my note, one question that stuck in my mind was if there is a right way to respond to film and TV images of domestic abuse in general. If we’re not supposed to laugh (though it could be a nervous laughter), even when the acting is over-the-top, what is the “correct” alternative, if any? Anger? Sadness? Stillness? Is there any pleasure allowed or should we just be disgusted/ horrified by the images?

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