Multiverse of Madness and the Problem of Mother as Monster

By Emma Louise Backe

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is essentially a horror movie with the trappings of Marvel’s characteristic action sequences. The film is directed by Sam Raimi, who made his name in the superhero genre with Tobey MacGuire’s Spiderman, but has been cutting his teeth on horror since the 80s with films like Evil Dead (look out for a cameo of Bruce Campbell/Ash), Drag Me to Hell, and American adaptations of Japanese horror classics like The Grudge. Raimi’s horror sensibilities are on full display in Multiverse—from a zombified version of Dr. Strange during the penultimate fight scene (a callback to the Zombies episode of What If), to Rachel fighting off an army of demons, to the slaughter of several key superheroes in the Multiversal franchise. But perhaps the most obvious, and most problematic, horror trope that Multiverse relies upon is that of the vengeful, destructive mother made manifest in Wanda Maximoff, now Scarlet Witch. Despite the deeply felt and nuanced critique of grief, abandonment and complex trauma offered by WandaVisiona show that explored the “ethical loneliness” (Stauffer 2018) that occurs when one’s grief and loss are ignored or diminished, when society and culture refuses to properly bear witness to both collective and individual suffering—Multiverse essentially abandons Wanda’s complexity, reducing her simply to the pathos of anger, a mother without her children willing to sacrifice everything to get them back. In her quest to reunite with Billy and Tommy—the children she created in the bubble universe of Westview, a world where she still has her partner, Vision—Wanda is now willing to kill hundreds, a fair exchange to return to the reality she “deserves.” This murderous transformation is explained in the film by the Darkhold, a grimoire which bestows powers but that also “corrupts everything and everyone that it touches,” a corruption the audience is meant to assume has driven Wanda from suburban mom to homicidal witch. Regardless of the mechanics of Wanda’s transformation, Marvel nonetheless casts a murderous mommy as its main villain, a depiction of wicked motherhood endemic to the horror genre and one with even more import given the growing trend of criminalizing motherhood in the US.

Horror has long been maligned as having a “feminist problem” precisely because of its representation of women. This relates to how women in early slasher horror were often killed off for failing to abide by the strictures of pure, traditional virginal femininity (see here Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film and the trope of the Final Girl), as well as the overwhelming representation of women as the ghost, old hag, and witch who threaten the life and social order of the world that they terrorize. More often than not, these women as monsters are depicted in their monstrosity vis-à-vis motherhood. These monsters might be failed mothers, those who were willing to abandon and profane the sacred and “natural” domain of the nuclear family. Rather than adopting the role of woman as doting mother and caregiver, these women seek to gain more power, sometimes sacrificing their children in the process. We see this in films like The Conjuring (2013), when the witch Bathsheba kills her child in a pact with the Devil, to mythic folkloric figures like Medea and La, to Sethe’s decision in Toni Morrison’s haunting Beloved (1987), to Constance (Jessica Lange) in American Horror Story: Murder House (2011).

Coraline’s “Other Mother,” the abject mother

The other archetype is woman as vengeful spirit for having lost her children and undergone other horrors in her lifetime, returned from the dead or imbued with dark powers as a testament to her otherworldly rage—The Woman in Black (2012), Mama (2013), Friday the 13th (1980), Hereditary (2018), the list goes on. In other cases, the “bad mother” is blamed for the homicidal tendencies of their children in cases like Psycho (1960), Carrie (1976) and American Horror Story: Asylum (2012-2013), harkening back to outdated theories of the “Refrigerator Mother” who was presumed to cause conditions like autism in her children because of being “cold” and uncaring. Indeed, many would argue that the ubiquitous mother monster trope in horror ultimately comes from outdated, and misogynistic Freudian (1919) interpretations of the woman as uncanny, mad, and unstable. As both Barbara Creed (1993) and Julia Kristeva (1982) explore, the monstrous feminine in horror is always already tied to motherhood—a mother’s ability to both produce and take life, as well as her association with the abject. She is the liminal figure who is able to straddle the worlds of life and death, to conjure new forms of life and equally to channel the supernatural (as a witch, as a spirit medium, as a conduit for the Devil in films like Rosemary’s Baby). Hence the pairing of vaginal imagery and monstrous birth with death in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The archaic mother (Creed 1993) becomes monstrous when they are robbed of their particularity or individuality, instead subsumed by tropes or stereotypes of the monstrous-feminine. This monstrous-feminine is “constructed as a negative force—[and] is represented in her phantasmagoric aspects in many horror tests, particularly the science fiction film” (Creed 1993, 55). It’s this very horrifying phantasmagoria that Wanda’s Scarlet Witch fits squarely into.

Like the vengeful, bloodthirsty mommies of so many horror films, Wanda’s sole drive in Multiverse of Madness is to find a way back to her children, the “safe” oasis of suburbia she imagined as a respite from the horrors of Endgame and the ensuing realization that despite her sacrifice for the Avengers, and the world, no one was coming to save or comfort her in her grief. Under the thrall of the Darkhold, her appearance is increasingly corrupted, fingers blackened with the necrotic powers of the Dark Dimension, shambling after our heroes Dr. Strange and America Chavez covered in blood, animating the body of another. Justifying her decision to kill Chavez, take her powers, and destroy anyone who attempts to stop her, Wanda tells us, again and again, “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother.” While recent endeavors into feminist horror have worked to critique this trope of mother monster, Wanda’s representation in Multiverse of Madness only serves to replicate this archetype, that there are good mothers and there are bad mothers, that women’s entire sense of identity and moral rectitude comes from their relationship to and orientation around reproduction and motherhood, and that one of the greatest threats to society, and indeed the multiverse, is an unhinged mother.

The monstrous feminine and the mother monster trope have been so vociferously critiqued in the horror genre precisely because of the conflation between bad mothers and the supernatural, the suspect, the criminal and the otherworldly. Horror allows us to peer through the glass darkly, to confront the things a society or culture finds to be the most frightening, the most destabilizing to our sense of both self and safety. Just as positive representations matter, depictions of women as antagonists, as horrifying nightmares who threaten the very fabric of reality because of their maternal grief, provides a highly simplified and ultimately misogynistic representation of motherhood and women’s anger. Gone, for instance, is the critique of the Salem Witch trials in Wandavision, a period in history when women were gaining more economic and social capital, and pursuing lives not necessarily tied to marriage or the traditional nuclear family, and witchcraft was summarily used to punish those women bucking a Puritanical, privatizing social order (see Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation).

Gone, too, are the complex dimensions of grief that Wanda is grappling with—the fact that she had to kill her partner, Vision, in order to defeat Thanos; the loss of her brother, Quicksilver; the slaughter of her family and her community due to Stark Technology and the Cold War; her imprisonment and experimentation as an unstable mutant. Instead, rather than accounting for the ways that she has been failed by international justice systems like the Hague, the military industrial complex, the Avengers, and a society that instinctually casts unstable women as villains (see Mystique, Jean Grey), Wanda loses all sense of logos or reason (that which has historically been attributed to men), reduced to a kind of violent and irrational rage. Her motherly emotions get the better of her, further reifying patriarchal ideas that women’s emotions are unmanageable and dangerous, that their rage is out of place and inappropriate to an idealized domestic motherhood and caregiving role, and that their anger is indicative of hysteria, or somehow incommensurate to the social conditions of womanhood and femininity they find themselves in (Ahmed 2004; Chemaly 2018; Lorde 1981; Traister 2018). In essence, women be crazy. That’s why they need to be controlled, regulated, kept in their place.

Obscured, too, are the racial, ethnic and religious politics that undergird Wanda’s identity in the comics—”once a story of Romani twins orphaned by the Holocaust […] Whatever Magneto’s daughter Wanda once wanted, in the comics, her desire and her meaning has been flattened into a cold war vision of iron curtain longing: the America of blue jeans and pop culture, as seen on TV” (Bady 2021). This whitewashing of Wanda, particularly within the framework of a sitcom which rose during the 1950s when “Women in the workplace were being violently stuffed back in the home” (Bady 2021), and has continued to depict women as the whining shrew of the home, forever picking up after the hapless boyfriend or husband (critiqued most recently in Kevin Can F*ck Himself), braids together the twin threads of racism and sexism that also undergird popular representations of the bad mother.

The subtext—which is essentially just text—of the monstrous mother in Multiverse is all the more prescient given the backdrop of gender politics revealed and unfolding in the leaked Supreme Court decision to roll back access to abortion under Roe v. Wade. Many reproductive justice advocates have been sounding the alarm around increasingly restrictive access to abortion, especially in red states, but the US has been criminalizing “bad mothers” even while Roe v. Wade was in effect (Hogeveen & Minaker 2015). Women like Lizelle Herrera are being prosecuted and sentenced to death for self-induced abortions in states like Texas, highlighting the strategic attacks on low-income women of color in the United States. This “war on moms” (Lerner 2010) which increasingly seeks to criminalize particular kinds of mothers and practices of mothering, contends with “the legal and extra-legal policies and practices that regulate mothers and pregnant individuals, and the effects of those regulations on women’s lived experiences. A surveillance culture that dictates good and bad mothering linked—however directly—to regulatory or enforcement mechanisms may criminalize the identities, actions, and decisions of mothers” (Miller 2020).

The criminalization of motherhood—and the strategic circulation of discourses about who is a “good” mother and a “bad” mother, a “worthy” mother or a mother who is using her children to gain citizenship (“anchor babies”) or social security benefits (“Welfare Queen”)—cuts across multiple dimensions of reproductive autonomy and parenthood. Like Lizelle Herrera, states are moving to punish women for seeking abortion, using contraceptives, or even unintentionally miscarrying. This push towards incarceration, as Michele Goodwin points out in Policing the Womb: Invisible Children and the Criminalization of Motherhood, disproportionately targets poor women of color, while excluding the high rates of miscarriage and reproductive complication associated with assisted reproductive technologies (ART) like IVF. As Elise Andaya (2019) illustrates, “The exercise of state power over bodies through conservative migration and reproductive policy—walls and uteruses—was underscored in the 2017 case of Jane Doe, a seventeen-year-old undocumented Central American immigrant whose request for an abortion the federal government initially blocked. Using its position as guardian of an unaccompanied minor, the administration declared that an abortion was against her best interest, stating that its goal was to ‘promote childbirth and protect fetal life’ (NPR 2017).” Women like Jane Doe can be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, all while confined into the custody of the state.

“Into the Body of Another,” The Atlantic

Other scholars and activists have noted the ways that mothers and women of color who might use substances, like drugs or alcohol, are more likely to be incarcerated than given access to the support and rehabilitative services necessary to manage their addictions. The War on Drugs, which was specifically used to target and incarcerate people of color, was also used to punish mothers the US government deemed as breeding “violence” and “criminality” ala the Moynihan Report (Hinton 2016). We can see this among Native American populations, and the growing representation of women of color in the US prison population (Gilmore 2007; Knight 2015; Sufrin 2017), where it’s estimated that over half of women (58%) are mothers (Bertram and Sawyer 2021). It’s still not uncommon for pregnant people in prisons to have to deliver their children while in shackles (Goodwin 2020; Sufrin 2017) and where, until recently, women were still being involuntarily sterilized (Johnson 2013), lest we forget how ICE detention centers were forcibly sterilizing migrants. The United States has a long history of experimenting on the bodies of women of color in the name of science (see Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body) and forcibly sterilizing people with uteruses who were deemed to be unfit mothers, whether due to socioeconomic status, race, physical and cognitive capabilities, sexuality, and/or religious orientation (NPR 2016). This practice emanates from legacies of colonialism and eugenic experimentation, used to shore up the “genetic supremacy” of white, wealthy, “fit” families, while targeting and strategically eliminating the reproductive capacity of those the state chose to exclude from their body politic.

All of this amounts to the fact that not all mothers are treated equally. Many women of color experience obstetric violence and poor access to comprehensive and sympathetic medical care, leading to higher rates of maternal mortality (Davis 2019). Many more marginalized populations—working through the intergenerational traumas and structural inequities that can lead to issues around poverty and substance use—are more likely to have their children taken from them and placed in the foster care system (Roberts 2022); are more likely to receive medical aid and social support in prison than outside prison walls (Knight 2015; Sufrin 2017); and are more likely to have their children targeted, imprisoned and/or killed by the police state (Gilmore 2007; Smith 2016). Rather than investing in the kinds of social support systems that would support all citizens to care for their children, and ensure that reproductive health and autonomy is secured for everyone, the United States has instead constructed a system of “reproductive governance” (Morgan 2019), in which individuals are prosecuted as criminals when they fail to live up to the ideal archetype of the “good mother,” an archetype that is often only accessible to a select few.

The good mother is content to be a sacred, “earthen vessel” for reproduction. She does not critique the US government for failing to provide adequate paternal leave or comprehensive pre and post-natal medical care. She accepts the responsibility of mother, wife, and caregiver, remaining calm and composed even under the growing pressures of parenthood. She might even “have it all,” the career and the family, even as the professional world continues to undermine and undervalue female labor.

It is this very fiction of the binary of the “good” and “bad” mother which contemporary feminist horror critiques. Australian horror movie The Babadook (2014) in particular provides a metacommentary on horror movies and our exacting expectations of female mothers. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of The Babadook was the banal horror of realizing that as much as a woman may want to be a mother, the demands of motherhood and the fickle, sometimes monstrous needs of children can be enough to drive anyone toward darkness. Like Wanda, Amelia—the mother in The Babadook—struggles with the loss of her husband, her grief intermixed with the difficulty of serving as a single parent with no real support system to speak of. Rather than succumbing to the narrative imposed on her—a growing mental disquiet which seems to lead her to killing her child—she does not relent against the dark figure that attempts to warp her into the monstrous mother figure she so desperately wants to avoid. Instead, she is able to reconcile these dueling aspects of her psychic pain without inflicting violence, the film summarily serving as a critique of the systems and cultural narratives which produce “bad mothers.”

By confronting us with the things we fear most as a society, horror also has the capacity to pose a radical critique—we can learn much about ourselves and our latent biases by investigating the role of gender in horror, by confronting the specters of patriarchy that bend women into monstrous shapes and cajole our nightmares toward the leering, fanged mother, who just wants to tuck us in with a good bedtime story (Backe 2015). In this way, horror and “ghost stories are often proto-feminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the traditions and assumptions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution” (Bitch Media 2017).

Rather than investing in subverting the tired tropes of over-emotional, monstrous mother, Marvel doubled-down on dangerous archetypes, doing an incredible disservice to Wanda Maximoff and further perpetuating essentializing myths about women’s emotionality, and the threat posed by unstable and unfit mothers. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected more from Marvel, a franchise which has historically let down its female characters, and faced backlash when Black Widow described herself as a “monster” for being sterilized, unable to be a mother (the “natural” state of normative womanhood). Yet Multiverse’s depiction of hazardous and destructive maternalism also contributes to a cultural, political and media environment which shapes our ideas about who gets to be a mother, what “respectable” maternal grief and mourning might look like, and what should be done to those who transgress the boundaries of good and worthy motherhood. Marvel has abandoned one of its most wounded, and powerful female characters, casting her as a villain only to be redeemed by the resurgence of a more “pure” and “true” maternal instinct at the end of the film. In either case, the only horror show I see is the handling of Wanda’s story, the failure to give her the delivery she deserved.

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About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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