The other night I watched the movie version of Mamma Mia and before I knew it I was ranting helplessly about female agency and older people owning their sexuality and the evils of slut shaming and I had to dance around the family room for like half an hour just to settle down. Mamma Mia is a ridiculous movie, but damn, it’s aging well. I ended up finding so many things about this movie to unpack that I’m splitting this commentary into three posts with three different focuses: slut-shaming, relationships between women, and older people owning their sexuality and romantic lives.
These posts are more commentary than review, and as such they are totally spoilery. SPOILER ALERT FOR REMAINDER OF POST.
Mamma Mia is empirically speaking a bad (but incredibly entertaining) movie, and the things about it that were always bad seem worse and worse every time I watch it. It was blessed with a female director, editor, screenwriter, and producer, and I think that shows in the way women are depicted in the film. However, the direction of the dance scenes is awful – what possessed the director to fill a movie with dance scenes and then cut away every few seconds so that we never see any actual dancing? Who had the genius idea to cast Pierce Bronson, an actor who, in a cast of non-professional singers, stands out as sounding like he’s in actual pain?
And while it’s cute that the Greek Chorus is a literal Greek Chorus, are the filmmakers actually aware that Greece is an actual country with actual people in it? There is not one single significant Greek character. It’s like the whole island is Disneyland for Romantically Minded White People. I can’t deny that the fantasy appeal is huge. Greece is just ridiculously beautiful in this movie. But frankly, I think it’s problematic as hell to pretend that a real place exists so that I can find myself while the actual residents of the place cheer on my personal development.
And yet, every time I see Mamma Mia, the good stuff gets better and better. Above all, I’m more aware of how progressive and important the themes of the movie are. This movie is lighter than the lightest little feather, and yet it makes some pretty bold statements about sexuality and relationships and friendship and age.
Mamma Mia originated as a stage musical and was made into a movie in 2008. All the songs are by ABBA. The plot of Mamma Mia is basically an excuse for some very silly stuff and a lot of singing and dancing. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) was raised by a single mother (Meryl Streep) in Greece. She is about to get married and she wants her dad to come to her wedding, but her mom never told her who her dad is. Sophie finds her mom’s diary and realizes that the father could be one of three men: Bill, played by Stellan Skarsgard, Harry, played by Colin Firth (!!!) and Sam, played by Pierce Brosnan.
I don’t know if Sophie hasn’t heard of a DNA test or if she just craves drama, but she invites all three of the potential dads to the wedding because she thinks she’ll have a special connection with one of them once they meet (Sophie is adorable, but not very bright). Donna has no idea that Sophie found the diary or that Sophie invited the men (Sophie is sweet yet amazingly self-centered so she doesn’t put much thought into how this will affect her mom). Donna is horrified when the three men show up, since she has always concealed the fact that she doesn’t know who Sophie’s father is. Hijinks and heartfelt singing ensue.
Since this installment of my Mamma Mia ranting involves outlining the plot, let’s talk about the biggest issue raised directly by the plot – slut shaming. This movie is built entirely around slut shaming, but it’s also a rather brilliant rejection of it. The entire plot rests solely on the fact that Donna has always been ashamed of having had sex with three men during the same general time period. Sophie actually seems fine with having been raised without a dad, but not knowing who her dad is has driven her crazy her whole life, and all this could have been avoided if Donna had ever said, “Well, since this is important to you, I’ll just have you know that it’s one of these three dudes, so let’s call them up and get a DNA test.” But that conversation can’t happen because Donna would have to be open about her sexual past. Donna feels such deep shame about this that she even lied to her bohemian best friends. Donna’s entire life has revolved around keeping this secret.
What’s interesting about this plot is that once Donna’s big secret comes out, guess what? NO ONE CARES. Even the guys don’t care. They point out that if Sophie really wants to know which one of them is the dad, they can find out, but they’d all love to have 1/3rd of a daughter. They aren’t upset with Donna, because she wasn’t unfaithful, just, you know…busy. And Lord knows her friends don’t care. If anything, they are worried because Donna has gotten so horribly uptight:
Donna: I don’t know where they are, I don’t know why they’re here, and I have brought this all on myself because I was a stupid, reckless little slut!
Tanya: Whoa! Don’t you sound like your mother!
Donna: I do not!
Tanya and Rosie, laughing: Yes, you DO!
Rosie: Whatever happened to our Donna? Life and soul of the party! El Rock Chick Supremo!
Donna: I grew up.
Tanya: Well, then, grow back down again!
Even Sophie doesn’t care, once they establish that she’ll have three dads. Sophie just wanted a sense of identity and stability. As Sophie says, (in church, in front of the priest and all the wedding guests) “I don’t care if you slept with hundreds of men!” at which Donna is overcome with motherly emotion and also, as an aside to the church audience, mutters, “And I haven’t slept with hundreds of men.” Focus here, Donna. WE DON’T CARE. You rock on with your awesome self.
As for Sophie, Sophie clearly has a physical relationship with her fiancée, Sky. Sky is played by Dominic Cooper. That’s right, people: the future Howard Stark does a sexy dance in swim trunks while singing “Lay All Your Love On Me.” Truly we live in a wonderful world. No one seems to mind the fact that Sky and Sophie, who are not yet married, are clearly having sex (on one occasion, more or less publically). In fact, everyone thinks she’s too young to get married and even her mother (in fact, especially her mother) thinks she should just travel the world with Sky and have non-marital sex while
No one seems to mind the fact that Sky and Sophie, who are not yet married, are clearly having sex (on one occasion, more or less publically). In fact, everyone thinks she’s too young to get married and even her mother (especially her mother) thinks she should just travel the world with Sky and have non-marital sex while being free and happy. I’m sure many readers are thinking “Well duh, why would her mom disapprove of her having sex? Sophie is twenty years old!” However, I assure you that these readers did not meet my relatives back when I was twenty.
I’ll talk more about Donna’s friends and the generational attitudes towards romance, but I want to point out that everyone in this film gets a chance to have great sex (or great dance scenes, which in musicals amounts to the same thing) in pairings that include a gay couple, an interracial couple, an older woman/younger man couple (which is also the interracial couple), people who are young, and people who are on the far side of middle-aged. In this movie, you don’t have to earn good sex by being pure and virginal until marriage, or by being young and thin and pretty. No sex is actually shown in the movie, but themes of sex underlie the whole story and the moral is basically that you should own your sex life. Don’t repress it, don’t lie about it, and don’t hide it. You earn good sex by being honest and by being assertive about what you want and what you don’t want.
For a movie that never actually shows any sex, it’s one of the most sex-positive movies that I know of.