Top Five Influential Female Characters In Film: The Role Of The Matriarch

For this instalment, I have decided to focus on the role of the Matriarch and the different ways in which it has been presented throughout cinema history.

To clarify, the word Matriarch, can be defined in several ways: It can apply to a mother, or an older female figure, exuding strength of character. A Matriarch stands as both the head of and a significant authority within a clan, or household.

While I am aware of the risks I will be taking in some of my choices, I feel I must make a point of stating that if I allow myself to be bound by the bonds of conventionality, my writing will lack in substance and originality.

To begin, I shall bring your attention to Etheline Tenenbaum, from “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), portrayed by Anjelica Huston.

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Etheline is a dignified, humble woman and often the voice of reason, with a dry wit and compassionate nature. Upon her divorce, she raised her children alone and “made their education her highest priority”. Unfortunately however, she has had to suffer the fate of watching all three of them become less stable with every passing year. At a point in time where she has settled into living her own life, with the potential for romance within reach, she is faced with all three of her fully-grown offspring moving back home and bringing their own sets of emotional baggage with them.

In the face of so much chaos, Etheline has no choice but to maintain composure, knowing that were she to break down and join her family’s emotional turbulence, any hope of stability and recovery will be lost. One cannot help but feel sorry for Etheline, because of how much she has to put up with, how difficult it is to be an audience to her children’s pain, offering the best advice she can, but knowing deep down that her attempts are futile, because only they possess the power to fix their problems and change their lives for the better. This is the very premise of good parenting: to equip your offspring with the ability to function on their own, take care of themselves mentally and physically and with the knowledge of how to be strong and happy.

A tendency every parent has, however, is to blame themselves for their children’s problems, failures and struggles. This is reflected in an exchange between Royal and Etheline:

Royal: “I want to thank you for raising our children, by the way.”

Etheline: “Okay.”

Royal: “I’m not kidding. You always put them first, didn’t you?”

Etheline: “I tried to. Lately I feel like maybe I didn’t do such a great job.”

Etheline has had to live the majority of her adulthood as an entirely selfless individual. Upon finally reaching a point in her life where she feels comfortable with living life for herself for a change, all is disrupted. Admirably, she bears it all with grace and a realistic approach. She remains calm, accepts the reality of each situation, offers empathy, advice and a sympathetic environment, while allowing her children the time and space to reflect and come to their own conclusions on how to clear up the messes they have created.

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The second character I present you with, is Marie-Jeanne Duval, in “The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life”, or “Le Premier Jour Du Reste De Ta Vie” (2008), played by Zabou Breitman.

Marie-Jeanne is a relatable character and a bittersweet example of the imperfections of the human race, especially when it comes to our mothers. Also, of some of the biggest fears we all face: The fear of growing old; the fear of the flame in your relationship flickering and burning out; the fear of running out of time to accomplish all you set out to do, before being presented with another series of milestones, putting those ambitions on hold. And last but not least, the fear of death; of both your own and of your significant other, the most inevitable thing of all.

Marie-Jeanne loves her husband and her children deeply, but she wants to be viewed as her own person, rather than be defined solely as a wife and mother. She feels she constantly has to remind her family of the fact that being a matriarch does not make her all-knowing and invincible. In this respect, Marie-Jeanne is the embodiment of the struggle to balance selflessness and time for personal growth. She goes to great efforts to re-capture her youth, her identity and to reclaim additional purposes in life, wanting to avoid a situation in which she will be all alone with nothing to do after her children leave home, unless she takes action against that possibility becoming a reality.

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The next character on the list is Olivia Evans, in “Boyhood” (2014), portrayed by Patricia Arquette. A well-meaning, good-natured woman and fiercely protective of her brood, she is also a true portrayal of the humanisation of the mother figure.

Everything she does, she does with the best intentions, her end goal being a better life for herself and her children. This is portrayed through her decisions to go back to university, to get her degree and through her choices in men. Olivia searches for the polar opposite of her ex-husband: successful, financially stable, confidant. Herein lies her poor sense of judgement in this area, because these qualities don’t necessarily define an all-round decent person, as is proven in the kinds of people they turn out to be – verbally and physically abusive alcoholics.

Her children are often quick to point out her bad decisions. This sheds light on a child’s tendency to judge their parents incredibly harshly when they make mistakes. At the end of the day, simply because Olivia is a mother, this doesn’t automatically grant her superhuman qualities. She is a human being, who wants what any woman wants: financial stability, comfort, romance, a sense of independence, the freedom for personal growth within herself and her career, a fulfilling sex life, motherhood. In short, the best things in life. And Olivia, like so many others wants it all, no more, no less.

She learns the hard way that to have everything is not possible, through the men in her life, as they provide the catalysts for her leaving them and choosing the welfare of her children over her relationships. She may have her own set of needs that yearn to be met, but ultimately, she knows when to put the happiness and safety of her children first, even if it means sacrificing the hopes she had built up for herself.

While we, as an audience are never in any doubt of the love she has for her children and the pride she feels in watching them grow and succeed in their own ways, it is made clear, her deep sense of frustration, her fear and her desperation of running out of time and the concept of disappearing into the lives around her, without the chance to work on herself, grow as an individual and enjoy areas of her own life independently.

There are two quotes of hers that sum up her frustrations and her fears in incredibly poignant ways; the first, during an argument with her boyfriend and the second, from her final scene, as Mason leaves for college:

1.) “This is the reality: I’m a parent! That means responsibility. I would love to have some time to myself. I would love to just go to a fucking movie, you don’t think I’d like that? Go have some dinner, go do a bar! I don’t even know what that’s like! I was somebody’s daughter and then I was somebody’s fucking mother!”

2.)“This is the worst day of my life…You know what I’m realising? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my Masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fucking funeral!”

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The fourth character I wish to explore, is Mrs Euphegenia Doubtfire, in “Mrs Doubtfire” (1993), portrayed by Robin Williams. A caring, nurturing woman and a formidable force of nature. I believe her to be one of the greatest characters in film history, possessing qualities which make her a wonderful character to watch, as well as granting her a much-deserved place on this list of influential matriarchs.

Many of you will question my motives at this choice, but let me assure you, I have my reasons behind it. It is the character of Mrs Doubtfire I am writing about, not the character of Daniel Hillard. She cares for the children as herself, not as their father, made evident when she doesn’t resort to the “loosey-goosey” methods they were accustomed to with Daniel, in getting them to do their homework. She has a wicked sense of humour, with the ability to make life fun, but unlike her alternate persona (Daniel), knows when it is appropriate to be firm and impose rules on the children. She provides a comforting atmosphere, for both the children and their mother, acting as friend and confidant to each of them, providing her own sense of wisdom and correction, when the situation warrants it.

Mrs Doubtfire is a character entirely separate from Daniel, despite the odd crossover. As evidence to back this up, in the credits, Robin Williams was listed as both parts and at the end of the film, after Daniel is unmasked, Miranda declares that despite everything, the only thing she knew to be true, was that life and their family was altogether better when Mrs Doubtfire was a part of it, referring to her, as a real and, again, separate person, stating: “She brought out the best in them. She brought out the best in you.”

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At last, we come to the final character: Albert Goldman, in “The Birdcage” (1996), played by Nathan Lane. A flamboyant, melodramatic, and passionate individual, sometimes known as The Great Starina, the star attraction of The Birdcage, the titular drag club.

This choice is not based on the premise that in every homosexual relationship, there is always a masculine persona and a feminine persona, similarly, were children are involved, that one partner would automatically inhabit the role of the mother and the other, the father. I have chosen to write about Albert, specifically because he identifies himself as both a woman and as a mother to Val, the son of his partner, to which he reciprocates.

Alongside his over-the-top mannerisms, Albert is a kind person, with a fierce and deep love for those closest to him. The idea of any disruption or harm against his family and his relationships with them horrifies him to the point of hysteria, endearing him to the audience and simultaneously providing them with a good dose of comedy gold. He is also relatable, through his insecurities in his image, his age and his worries over having to live life to be the one everyone laughs at.

It doesn’t matter if he dresses in full drag, or dons a toned down, albeit feminine apparel. Albert identifies himself as a woman and is who he is by choice, not by having certain roles imposed upon him. At the end of the day, all Albert wants, is be a good, kind, stable and loving partner and mother to Armand and Val, while being able to remain true to and be loved for who he/she is, without having to compromise his sense of self.

Personally, I feel each character has earned a space in this article through their strength, their stoicism, their charisma and that they all, in turn, have disregarded pretence in parenting and in communication, through their hopes for a better future and beauty in all their imperfections.

Written by Aifric O’Neill

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