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How Mamma Mia is a Feminist Film

Upon looking at the various online reviews for the 2008 movie of Mamma Mia, I had to wonder why it had such a mixed rating and, more oddly, why the majority of low opinions came from men: Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian that “The story is…urh. No film has ever had a more irrelevant story.” and even crudely diminishes one of the main characters to a “multi-shagging mum” - the misogyny speaks for itself don't you think? It seems to be a running theme to disrespect solely the women of the movie with Anthony Lane in the New Yorker ever-so-classically calling upon infantilising words including describing the characters as “unweaned puppies” and yet when it comes to the men all he has to say is “Poor Brosnan”. The contrast with reviews written by women are incredibly stark as they more commonly highlight the joys of self-expression in the film by those who often do not get to do so freely in real life.

I’d have to agree with the latter of the two and encourage you to do the same; what a lot of these male critiques fail to see is the many feminist ideals portrayed both subtlety and openly in Mamma Mia.

To start with, the main focus of the film centers on three middle-aged, single women who can all be identified as different types of people often ridiculed and shamed by society for not appeasing patriarchal expectations and demands. Donna, our protagonist who runs her own small business, has had numerous intimate partners and is happily living sexually liberated still - even after having her daughter who, although is trying to find out who her biological father is, never shames her mother in the slightest. Then there's Tanya who has been through divorce three times and is still very much confident with herself and is also open about the plastic surgery she’s had which is admirable as this is commonly seen as a shameful thing to do. And lastly, Rosie, who prides herself on being a “lone wolf” and is a successful author making herself solely self-sufficient and happy.

These characters express themselves openly and support each other full heartedly as does everyone else in the film; this teaches the audience to mimic their reactions and realise that these “failed women” are indeed the complete opposite to that and are fully content with the way they live their own lives. It preaches such sexually liberating norms at such casual moments including near the end of the film when Sophie says to her mum “I don’t care if you slept with hundreds of men; you’re my mum and I love you so much.”.

Additionally, Mamma Mia breaks the constraints of the male gaze; these women are the active not the passive. The quest for love is done by them instead of for them. For once female ownership of sexuality is in the limelight instead of male ownership of female sexuality which is a far more common scenario.

The film rejects male supremacy as it portrays ,through Sophie and Donna’s relationship, that being raised by a single mother is just as good and there is no inclination for a man to provide for nor dominate a family lifestyle in order for it to be deemed successful. Sure -Sophie wants to find her biological father but she recognises how supportive her mother was to her and knows she does not need a father figure, no matter how much she wishes to know who he is. In addition, the beginning of the film tricks the viewer into believing it will centre the three men (who unlike our three main women, are archetypes of the “ideal man”): Harry is a dependable provider working a highly regarded job as a banker; Bill is an admirable free spirit who is adventurous and active; and successful Sam who works hard as an architect. However, as the movie progresses, we see these men reveal themselves as not so perfect in society’s mind: Harry is gay, Bill is lonely and Sam is divorced. These men are not brushed off, they’re still developed characters and are developed in such a way that brings down toxic masculinity. Another display of tackling this mindset of a strong, always-in-control man is that both Donna and Sophie are the ones to declare their love first. It is not the responsibility of the men and the women get to own their emotions.

All in all, Mamma Mia illustrates such joy on an island free of the watchful patriarchal eye and of course there are things it could have improved on or developed more but for a movie released in 2008 it most certainly broke from the norms and taught valuable, feminist lessons to a wide audience.

Written by Erin Thomas

Image courtesy of Matthew Waring

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