Stories about mother-daughter relationships told from a woman's point of view are cultural gems. Following the success of her documentary short called "My Nose," American filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum is cutting a new movie that continues the testimony about her mother's "relentless quest" to persuade her to have a nose-job: "My Nose: The Bigger Version."
Western film and literature is rife with tales (mostly told by white men) of fathers and husbands with narcissistic rationales for physically "perfecting" their women. Pygmalion and Galatea, transcribed in Ovid's classic poem "The Metamorphoses," recounts a sculptor and king of Cyprus who creates his own aesthetically superior version of the female sex, then falls in love with his ivory statue named "Galatea." The statue comes to life and the king marries his own creation.
But the idealization of women clothes latent, sometimes murderous, aggressions. We see this in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark" (1843) when Aylmer, a scientist, sits gazing at his wife one troubled morning:
"Georgiana, has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed... You came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection." Georgiana adopts her husband's revulsion at her birthmark, in the shape of a small hand, internalizing his attitudes. Aylmer experiments on Georgiana to rid her face of the "defect" and, in doing so, kills her.
But it's misogyny of a different flavor when it's your own mother pushing shape-shifting "fix-it" remedies. In Kirschenbaum's film, Mildred harangues Gayle to pull back her hair, enhance her eyes with permanent liner, and "correct" her nose which is the "size of the buffalo nickel." Some would call this hallucination Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition expressing inordinate concern with a perceived physical flaw and distorted body image. In psychoanalytic literature, such an illusion of inadequacy on the part of a woman symbolizes feelings of insecurity about her own genitals.
But Gayle is no doomed heroine despite Mildred's abuses and a childhood she locates "somewhere between boot camp and prison." The film reminds us that not only is our primary caregiver the first object of love and hoped-for approval, but also our first partner in play.
It was in the spirit of play that pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott developed the Squiggle Game: a game he played with children in which the child scribbled a line, a squiggle, and in response Winnicott drew another line -- until a sketch gradually emerged from the paper. During this collaboration, Winnicott talked with the child about what they were making in order to encourage open communication, reciprocity and psychic exploration. In describing the process, Winnicott resists laying down the rules of the game too rigidly in order to preserve its adaptive aspects.
Kirschenbaum's film is a joint squiggle. It's about how to handle a critical parent, about transforming "Mommie Dearest into Dear Mom," about moving from hate to love. On a deeper level, Kirschenbaum addresses fears of racial difference. We see this through references to the Native American Indian and Jewish identity. During a trip to Berlin, Mildred greeted Gayle's German X-boyfriend, Wolfgang ("no Jew in him!" says Gayle), with "I bet your family made lampshades out of my family!" This mother is a geriatric shock-jock who's given her daughter a lot of great material.
When Gayle is barraged with maternal criticism she spins it into humor. At Passover, Mildred mistakenly lambasted her for losing the Seder Plate and Gayle responded: "Mom, when you need a scapegoat -- come to me. I am your professional scapegoat!" And they both cracked up.
"My Nose: The Bigger Version" aims to leave the spectator in stitches without any surgical suturing. It's emotional graffiti on celluloid, a riff on the unattainable goal of perfection and exactly where to put it.
D.W. Winnicott, "The Squiggle Game," Psychoanalytic Explorations, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, Madeleine Davis (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1989).
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