Mamma Mia Part I: Grow Back Down Again!

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.

giphy

 

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!

Then Tanya and Rosie make Donna jump on the bed and sing and dance, because they are fabulous.
Then Tanya and Rosie make Donna jump on the bed and sing and dance, because they are fabulous.

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.

Amanda Seyfried and Domic Cooper, two little puppies in luuurve
Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper, two little puppies in luuurve

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.

Mamma Mia! is available to purchase or stream at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google:Play, and iTunes.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    library addict says:

    This is one of my favorite good bad movies. I saw the stage version when I lived in Vegas and that production had much better singers. But the movie has better actors, so their lack of singing ability doesn’t matter. Yes, Pierce Brosnan’s attempts to sing are painful to watch, but it doesn’t take away from the movie’s charm.

    When the movie opened I basically dragged my mother and aunt to see it. Neither particularly wanted to go, but it was my turn to pick a film and I insisted. And then my mom, who doesn’t understand my need for DVDs as to her once she’s seen a film she doesn’t need to see it again, actually went back the next week with my aunt and several other cousins to see it again.

    Overall I think the movie just leaves one feeling happy. That’s the key to its success.

  2. 2
    Sandra says:

    I know they made Brosnan the male lead, because he was the A-lister. But they really should have dubbed his singing. Colin Firth, on the other hand, can sing, and was mostly relegated to ensemble pieces. See The Importance of Being Ernest for a good example of his singing. (Also see it for Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench.)

  3. 3
    Rachel says:

    I will always remember watching this movie for the first time with my uncle. About half way through we turned to look at each other and simultaneously blurted out: ‘This is so much better than it has any right to be!’ Our ensuing ABBA dance party was much better choreographed, though. 🙂 Thanks for the analysis!

  4. 4
    Tam says:

    Interviewer: “If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”

    Colin Firth: “I personally thought you were very good in Mamma Mia.”

    Every time I think of the expression on Firth’s face when he delivered that line, I start laughing.

  5. 5
    JamesLynch says:

    A film critic (sorry, I forget which one) commented, “When two characters sing in a movie, they’re falling in love. When they dance together, they’re making love.” Sounds like this movie has plenty of both!

  6. 6
    Karenmc says:

    I love this movie, both in spite of and because of its ridiculousness. Once in a while I watch the dvd just to feel good. It’s a celebration of silliness, which is at its most obvious during the spandex-encased songs during the final credits.

  7. 7
    EC Spurlock says:

    I gathered from Donna’s dialogue at one point that it was her mother who called her a slut and threw her out of the house when she came home pregnant with Sophie, and she lived with that guilt all her life. That was why she moved out to live in Greece in the first place. So she internalized her mother’s slut-shaming and let it rule her and color all her actions thereafter, even though nobody else cared, because the one person she expected to support her treated her as if she had committed the ultimate crime.

  8. 8
    denise says:

    Love this movie!

  9. 9

    My dad took me to see the Broadway play when I graduated college and it was the most fun show we’ve seen (we’ve gone to many as it is our thing). When the movie came out, it coincided with another one of his trips to NY, so of course I made him go to see it with me too. We never really discussed the themes because it wasn’t something I was comfortable talking to him about–that’s not the type of relationship we have, but one of the things that struck me immediately was the fact that Sophie didn’t give two shits over the fact that her mother was with 3 very different men within the span of a few weeks. I don’t know many people who can look at things that way and it just blew me away.

  10. 10
    Coriander says:

    I love this movie and have seen it many times. But this post has made me reflect on slut shaming.

    Slut shaming happened in my household when my sister got pregnant not once…but TWICE by the very same boyfriend/douchebag (cheater, affair with a student, abandons his children, etc) we repeatedly warned her about. Oh, and the things that were said in anger directed at her. We were angry at her unfaithful boyfriend, but for a lot of other reasons i won’t get into, we were so mad at her as well. Yes, I’m guilty of it along with my parents. Don’t worry though, she’s okay and living much happily now. But it happened and affected our relationship for a long time.

  11. 11
    HJ says:

    Am I the only person who thinks that Mama Mia is not a bad movie? also, I love the Colin Firth comment which Tam reports!

  12. 12
    chacha1 says:

    Over the years my threshold for acceptance of entertainment has gotten quite a bit lower as perhaps I have gotten over some of my early-life snobbery. Oh what a snob I was. My primary criterion for enjoying a movie now is: Did that movie deliver what was intended, and did I enjoy said delivery.

    I enjoyed Mamma Mia wholeheartedly, and I thought it did exactly what it meant to do. AND here is a teeny tiny rant of my own:

    If a movie actor decides to go balls-out and sing on film EVEN THOUGH his voice is maybe not the most mellifluous, I am a fan of that actor. I thought George Clooney was great in “Brother Where Art Thou” but I was really disappointed that he did not let his own vocal tracks go through. He said it was because he didn’t think he was good enough to sell it, but … was that movie reality? NO. Were we expecting Nat King Cole, or Bing Crosby? NO. The character was a demented hobo, fer chrissake.

    Honestly, I suspect that George probably sounded too smooth, if anything, and as a nonprofessional singer maybe didn’t have the craft to break his voice a little bit for the part. Because anybody with a speaking voice like that can sing.

    Anyway, that is my little love letter to Pierce Brosnan, who I think is very underrated as an actor, and sang as well as he needed to. 🙂

  13. 13
    SAO says:

    I thought it was a great movie, the way I thought the Force Awakening was a great movie — I had fun watching it.

    I saw the musical twice, but in Russian. They even translated the songs, Donna sings Ah, Da; Ah, Da; Ah, Da in the wedding scene. The worst crime was we couldn’t buy a CD of Abba in Russian!

    I will point out that Donna didn’t know the name of her child’s father would get some squinty looks even today. The fact that the child was grown and came out fine helps — no one was thinking she could have used some paternal financial or other support. There wasn’t room in the musical to deal with confronting the stereotypes of shaming. Plus, the reason that Donna never contacted Sophie’s father was clear.

  14. 14

    […] as well. I was delighted to read Smart Bitches Trashy Books’ three-part series on Mamma Mia. Grow Back Down Again discusses slut shaming, Your Best Friend is all about female friendships, and Not Too Old For […]

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