It’s Complicated Is Right: Fantasies & Myths of White Motherhood, Womynhood, the Realities of Boomer Sexuality & Narcissism

Meryl Streep, as Jane Adler with her ex-husband, played by Alec Baldwin, in "It's Complicated."

As a friend described it to me, “It’s Complicated,” is a cute movie, saved by Meryl Streep, showing what life would be like if you had an ex-husband, and lots and lots of money. The plot of “It’s Complicated,” is fairly simple despite what the title might have you believe. Jane Adler, has been divorced, from her ex-husband Jake, for the last 10 years. Jake has remarried, Agness, the womyn with whom he cheated on Jane.  After a chance meeting in New York during their son’s graduation, the two (that is Jane and Jake) end up in bed, rekindling their relationship.    

There are many things to admire about “It’s Complicated.” It features an irresistibly incandescent Meryl Streep as Jane Adler, and puts front and center what we very rarely see in a Hollywood movie, unless, it seems, it’s made by Nancy Meyers: a sexy, smart, confident, desired, and engaged older womyn. I offer this post as a place to set down a few insights and observations about the film, rather than simply a hard critique, that “throws the baby out with the bath water,” so to speak.    

 Four problematic aspects of this film stand out, and give this post its title. They include how:        

 1. The film upholds ideas and fantasies about white motherhood.    

 2. The film affirms ideas about white female beauty and sexuality, and does so, even while subverting the idea that only young womyn can be considered beautiful.    

 3. The film perpetuates the erasure of people of color, or features people of color employed only in service to the white characters.

4. The film upholds ideas of consumerist attainment and product placement.      

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin as Jane and Jake Adler in "It's Complicated."

It’s clear that Nancy Meyers, who some reviewers liken to Philip Roth, for her keen ability to catch the zeitgeist of a particular group of people at a specific cultural moment (disconcerting as it is to compare a womyn’s oeuvre to that of a man’s, instead of letting her work stand as it is: her own), is capturing a dilemma for a certain demographic. In this case, white, extremely wealthy, Baby Boomers.  And it seems largely true, that without Meyers, womyn, and “womyn of a certain age,” specifically, would be far less present in U.S. film. That does not, however, absolve Meyers from her presentation and affirmation of old tropes and stereotypes.   

Meyers’ elaborate and well-appointed set designs telepath a great deal about her characters, namely their wealth, ability to limit their engagement with people of color, and, ostensibly, who the characters are understood to be, based on what we see they have accumulated. Manohla Dargis, in a NY Times review, ” A September-September Romance,”  describes the move as such,  

“Divorced with three adult children who enjoy her company (the middle one is just moving out), Jane lives in a large house on a lush sprawl surrounded by trees and no visible neighbors. It’s such a bucolic vision you half expect a few deer, a couple of bunnies and the bluebird of happiness to swing by for a visit and a quick song.”  It is a setting that helps ground the fantasies and myths which are affirmed in the film.”

 Affirming the Fantasy of White Motherhood     

Laura Parker West tells us that “maternal myths are shaped by mass media outlets.” Film is a mass media outlet, to which there is an added component: consumption. Viewers are not only having their views shaped by film as a mass media out, but they are also, in fact, paying in order to consume various myths – in this case, the myth of white motherhood.

Meryl Streep as Jane Adler in "It's Complicated."

Jane Adler is positioned as the ideal mother. She lives in an impeccable home, always appears to be appropriate and loving, and is so comfortable with her children that even her soon to be son-in-law loves her. Her “coolness,” as a mother is further exemplified in the ease with which she showers her children with attention, financially or through food – from handing over her credit card to partying it up with her children.

Jane straddles the chasm between “Super Mom,” and “Soccer Mom,” working on developing her career – as a caterer and baker, but doing so, in a field that is often associated with the home and warmth. Jane Adler’s character is able to do this because Meyers manages to fit her into what Parker West calls the “enduring construction of the ideal mother as one who functions exclusively in the home.” Meyers allows this image to be updated by having Jane exist as a successful business womyn outside of the home, but engaged in a career that supports a feminine viewing of Jane. A new “hegemonic motherhood” has emerged.

Parker West pulls out the nuances of motherhood, explaining that,

When one ideology or construction dominates, alternative ideologies of motherhood are typically discussed using “deviancy discourses.” Race, class, and employment status have been the central characteristics that have been used to differentiate various types of “deviant” mothers.” Conflicting social, political, and cultural values have pitted the stay-at-home “Soccer Mom” against the career-oriented “Super Mom.” The mythical “Welfare Queen” and working poor “Waitress Mom,” in contrast, are not even on the radar in this battle for the ideal construction of motherhood. ” 

 The device that makes Jane’s transgression with her ex-husband, not only permissible, but also ideal, is that Jane as positioned as a “good girl.” Her race, and adherence to social conventions of the “good mother” and stable white womyn, make it possible for the fantasy of reuniting with her ex-husband to exist, without Jane being portrayed as deviant. This is a role, that considering the history of women of color, particularly African-American womyn, would be difficult to do because black women are so often, as Anna Mae Duane explains,

“disqualified from the moral prowess necessary to maintain strong homes and upstanding children. (3) For according to a sentimental ethos that posits that only pure and virtuous mothers can raise good Christian citizens, a sexually degraded black woman would be inherently unable to produce offspring capable of assuming valuable roles in free society.”

Duane also pinpoints internalized racism and the site of the expression of internalized oppression as being located in domestic spaces:

“As an exploration of the pernicious effects the desire for whiteness wreaks within black families, Webb’s novel focuses almost exclusively on domestic spaces–a tactic that engages, and eventually refutes, many of the tenets of white sentimentalism.”

Affirming the Myth of White Female Sexuality 

Meryl Streep as Jane Adler, with Steve Martin as Adam, in "It's Complicated."

In a scene equal parts sensual, adult, and silly, Adam and Jane make chocolate croissants in her closed bakery kitchen. The process of making the croissant is sensuous and shows Jane at her most skillful. It’s a sexy scene that also carries a great deal of metaphor. After all, Jane’s character is very literally molding the white croissant dough, constructing a sensual moment and tangentially playing with the construction of her very body, in the form of that very dough. Such a reading is further enhanced, when Jane uses pieces of the dough to playfully mock an elongated chin, dropping breasts, and arms.   

The image of Jane as an enlivened sexual being, is not without, well complications. Dargis shows us that, 

“Ms. Meyers’s vision can be maddeningly narrow and not only because her movies take place in cosseted, largely white worlds where the help is discreetly out of view. Both “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give” center on an independent woman whose life, despite all its personal and professional markers, immediately expands — even as it shrinks — once a man starts rocking her bed and head. Before her first adulterous night with Jake, Jane is a melancholy solo act, whether she’s weeping in her kitchen after her daughter moves out or trading somewhat desperately raunchy sex jokes with her girlfriends. Jake’s attentions give Jane snap, vibrancy, some color in her cheeks and, most important, a comic foil. Jake, in other words, turns her into a Nancy Meyers character.”     

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in "It's Complicated."

In other words, Jane’s sexuality is dependent upon a male presence. And if we are ever confused, the use of light, both as a color and as a technology of lighting in the film, serve to guide us, as Jane makes the transition from ethereal angelic Baby Boom mom, to cougar. Dargis puts it best, explaining that,

“no matter how liberating some of her conceits, notably the older heroine, her embrace of sexist stereotypes, including male characters as agents of narrative change, keep her and her female characters down.” Dargis also points out, “Ms. Streep makes you believe in Jane, or rather makes you want to believe in her, from her casually chic wardrobe to the indulgent smiles she bestows on her children and lovers, all of whom need nurturing. The truth is that everyone needs a little coddling, which could be the key to Ms. Meyers’s peculiar talent: She pampers her audience shamelessly.”     

 Perpetuating the Erasure of People of Color    

 There is not one identifiable person of color, with a meaningful role in “It’s Complicated.” 

We only get a hint of the presence of people of color, in the opening scenes of the film where the camera hovers over a beautifully and meticulously landscaped estate, and we see the back of a Black man carrying champagne, literally in a server’s ensemble of black pants, white jacket, and bow tie. The image is so time worn, it was offensive and startling to see it used, as such visual shorthand, and I jumped before I could settle back into the film.   

Even the The New York Times, hardly known for its enlightened understanding of race, notes that Meyer’s movie takes place in a “cosseted, largely white world[s] where the help is discreetly out of view.” 

Meyers conveniently obscures, and then ultimately erases, the many people, often people of color, whose work serves to uphold the white fantasy of family and motherhood, and who, in very real ways, help white families and mothers function, through their hard work.   

A scene from "It's Complicated"

In “It’s Complicated,” though you may never see them,  that may include the people who will build the addition to Jane’s house, all suspiciously white-washed,when Jane invites them in for hot chocolate at the end of the film. It also includes the kitchen staff at Jane’s bakery, whose assumed ethnic identity, is conveyed, in a scene where the Latino bakers in her kitchen pick up on her new sexually vibrant (read available) “caliente” quality.   People of color are present in the film, when and only when, they are serving white people – either physically or in the role of self-esteem booster. 

Not even Streep’s perfect, and perfectly adjusted, children have friends of color. The absence of people of color, hard as it is to admit, may very well be a reality of the social scene of this milieu – Baby Boomers who exist in a “cossetted white world,” even as they hold the kind of wealth and power, that impacts a broader and far more diverse, population.  What “It’s Complicated” also manages to do, is to depict Baby Boomers as having a great deal of financial power – Madoff schemes and the plummeting market, be damned. 

“It’s Complicated” not only erases the presence of people of color, but it does so, while perpetuating the idea that high consumption of goods, is completely natural – everyone does it right? Consumption is normalized, so quickly glossed over, that you can hardly notice the conspicuousness of the constant buying, decorating, and care that goes into collecting so many goods. Robert Levin points out that,  

“It’s Complicated” is a scrubbed-clean fantasy, the story of privileged people living lives taken straight from catalogs and engaged in misadventures such as sharing a joint, that have passing comic value but leave little substantive effect. An idealized portrait of middle-age, it telegraphs its intention — showing 50-somethings can be youthful and fun — from the get-go and hammers it home with unrelenting force.”   

Jane’s Mission-style home is chock full of things, that we can imagine she has carefully collected and arranged. When Jane prepares for her “date” with Jake, she produces new dishes, tablecloths, a new dress, and shoes – nearly all of it in the same warm red hue. All of that consumption takes money – and a great deal of privilege.  “It’s Complicated” does much to normalize, not only the absence of people of color, but also to show us an image of a womyn comfortable with consumption – hers and that of others. And perhaps this is what signals to us that Meryl is hip and evolved; her casual spending and ease with a credit card. 

I wonder how the pot-smoking scene Levin mentions, would be read if Jane and Adam were people of color. Somehow, I feelthe scene might have gone differently. But, it is fantasy, as Levin points out.

True, “It’s Complicated,” works hard to make sure that we know that 50-somethings are having fun. That is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, we get a glimpse of redefined middle-age, and on the other hand, that redefinition comes with a great deal of consumerism, privilege, and unexamined whiteness.

“It’s Complicated,” erases, whether intentionally or not, the complex world of race, gender, age, class. It’s the complicated world in which we all live, part of the fantasy of the film is that the complications of identity and representation, don’t matter.

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One Response to “It’s Complicated Is Right: Fantasies & Myths of White Motherhood, Womynhood, the Realities of Boomer Sexuality & Narcissism”

  1. Gloria Mobley Says:

    In some ways, Meyer did capture a reality. Even in the 21st century, there are people whose world doesn’t intersect with people of color unless they are servants.

    Nonetheless, your analysis doesn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. It just makes me even more keenly aware about the subtlety of messages; whether it is audio or visual, written or spoken.

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