I turned on the radio in my car one day to hear a man going on and on about how much the Indiana Jones movies meant to him, and how it continues to influence his life. Gradually, I discovered that I was listening to National Public Radio’s new interview series, Movies that Made Me.
I love this idea and I posted right away on my social media, asking friends, do you have a movie that made you? Sadly, no one did. Did I? I had to think about it for a while.
The only movie that came to mind for me is Who Does She Think She Is? a documentary by Pamela Tanner Boll about women artists who are mothers.
I fell in love with this film. I bought the house party edition of the DVD, that came with discussion questions. I told anyone who would listen about how they had to see it. I arranged multiple screenings and discussions with the Chicago Metal Arts Guild and my local library.
Why did this film have such an impact on me? Driving me to share it and watch it again and again?
Geena Davis of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (http://www.thegeenadavisinstitute.org/index.php) says, “If she can see it, she can be it.” I’ve seen that sentence from her over and over again and didn’t think it applied to me, because I don’t want to be a super hero or whatever women are not being depicted as in the media.
But as I reflected on this “movie that made me,” I realized that that was why this movie had such an impact on me—because I had to see it to be it. I had no role models for women artists who were mothers until I saw Who Does She Think She Is?
For generations, women were told that that had to choose between art and children. The most visible and successful women artists—Georgia O’Keefe, Cindy Sherman, Frida Kahlo –- don’t, or didn’t, have children.
The film, Who Does She Think She Is? follows the lives of an actress and four visual artists, all of them mothers. One of them has 5 children, most of whom are very young. That’s Janna. I ‘only’ have three children. If Janna could manage with five, and get her work into the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of Craft, where I saw it, then I could certainly manage to make art with only 3 children.
That was so inspirational for me, something I needed so desperately at the time. The women in the film faced the same sexism I do, the same challenges, yet they keep on going.
It’s now years later and my youngest child is much older than at the time I first saw the film. We keep “turning corners” as the kids get older and older and life gets easier.
I don’t know that the film would mean as much to me now, if I were seeing it for the fist time. But seeing it when I did was such a gift. I was the bridge that helped me get back into making art and become a professional artist.
Another example of role model in film that really stood out for me is when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler thanked their nannies in their acceptance speeches (for some award or another), that was another moment for me.
Ah! So that’s how they do it. I mean, you know someone has to have a nanny when they work full time, but it’s not spoken of, it’s invisible. Breaking that taboo and publicly thanking and acknowledging their nanny’s role in their ability to act and run successful TV shows.
A film on a related topic is Lost in the Living, by film maker Mary Trunk, which was filmed over seven years.
This one is slightly less hopeful. It follows two young mothers as they have their first babies and how that affects their art practices and their friendship. There’s also another story of an artist mother with grown children.
This film was another role model film for me. I was able to see other women artists and see their struggles and dedication to their art. I didn’t feel so alone.
Lost in the Living also showed me that our work evolves when we become mothers (often) because of the constraints of motherhood.
As I was working on this article, I saw the movie Wonder Woman, and I absolutely loved it!
I didn’t know I had never seen that, until I saw it. I didn’t know I had never seen a woman who is so strong, and sure, she’s beautiful and sexy, but not in the usual “all sexy all the time, woman in a black leather cat suit” way.
I don’t like action movies, or super hero movies, but I loved, loved, loved every second of Wonder Woman, and I didn’t know that I hadn’t ever seen such a strong, beautiful, wise woman on the big screen, until I saw it. I’ve discussed this with lots of friends who also don’t like action films, but loved this one, and they said the same thing.
“I never realized I’d never seen it before, until I saw it.”
“If she can see it, she can be it.”
I later went on to devour readings by other women artists/mothers, such as those listed on the Cultural Reproducers website, here. And then I stopped. I became the success story. I became the person who could have written the essay, or be in the film, and I didn’t need the films and the books any more. I saw it, so I became it.
A version of this post was originally published on Moore Women Artists in 2016 or 2017.