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The Cost of Motherhood: Depression, Stereotypes, and Inequality

Sight and Sound magazine, sponsored by the British Film Institute, unveils a compilation of the finest films in the annals of cinema every decade, wherein the top ten entries are renowned as the “Top Ten Best Films in Film History,” serving as an emblem of discernment for film art criticism and scholarly inquiry.

In the preceding selections, “Citizen Kane” held the prestigious first position for an extensive period, while “Vertigo” and “The Bicycle Thieves” also graced the top echelons.

Surprisingly, last year witnessed the ascent of “Jeanne Dielman,” a masterpiece by the Belgian auteur Chantel Akerman, to the zenith of the list. This groundbreaking achievement marked the inaugural instance of a female director and a work centered on the female experience joining the ranks of the esteemed top ten.

The inclusion of “Jeanne Dielman” in the new annals of film history, an outcome determined by the discerning votes of 1,639 global scholars and film critics, signifies a compelling message: contrary to the revered Hollywood classics like “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane,” the innovative formal exploration embarked upon in “Jeanne Dielman,” characterized by extensive long takes and fixed shots, has faced limited acceptance due to its pioneering nature. Nonetheless, this unconventional cinematic endeavor is gradually garnering its rightful place in the annals of film history. Furthermore, the domains of literary criticism and film scholarship have been increasingly attuned to the creative contributions of female auteurs and their thematic explorations, thereby elevating the prominence of female expression.

The narrative encapsulated within “Jeanne Dielman” is inherently simple: an intimate portrayal of the mundane existence of a housewife and the murder she commits.

Before attaining its eminent status in the annals of cinema, this film was predominantly associated with the label of “tedious.” Its sparse dialogue captures the repetitive routine of the protagonist—a housewife’s quotidian life meticulously depicted in a quasi-documentary style spanning three days. The heroine, Dillman, leads a monotonous and regimented existence: rising, cooking, washing dishes, grocery shopping, knitting sweaters, tending to her son, and making the bed—repeating these actions ceaselessly.

Moreover, Dillman occupies an additional role as a prostitute, discreetly supporting her family by entertaining guests within the confines of her home. On the fateful afternoon of the third day, she commits a murder, bringing the film to its culmination.

This impassive housewife dedicates 95% of the film to her domestic chores, her hands perpetually occupied. Even the nuanced ratio of coffee to milk is magnified exponentially within Dillman’s confined world, transforming into an insurmountable obstacle. Through the act of pouring and repeatedly redoing the coffee, we witness a captive woman exhibiting symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Director Akerman herself declared, “The intensity of washing dishes and murder are equally emphasized within the film.”

Jeanne Dielman was not merely a housewife; she was an anguished and desolate woman, plagued by depression.

The genesis of feminist literature can be traced back to the candid exploration of depression. In 1892, American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published the novel “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Infused with elements of suspense, this work draws from the author’s personal experiences, making it an early literary exposition on postpartum depression. Within the novel, a woman begins hallucinating about an altered reality after giving birth, leading her husband to confine her within a countryside estate in an attempt to “cure” her “mental affliction” through “rest therapy.” The entrapped woman recurrently perceives another woman crawling beneath the yellow wallpaper until, one day, she herself metamorphoses into a crawler and traverses past her oblivious husband.

These vivid descriptions are rooted in Gilman’s own lived experiences, having endured imprisonment by her first husband. Following her second marriage, she actively engaged in social activism to improve the living conditions of women and authored numerous treatises on women’s issues. Consequently, she is widely regarded as the foremost feminist writer.

However, it was not until 1968 that “postpartum depression” was officially recognized as a medical concept. In the twenty-first century, the scope of this concept expanded to encompass perinatal depression, originating from the inception of pregnancy and persisting up to four weeks postpartum, with the potential for relapse within the initial five years.

When a vulnerable new mother seeks solace from the world, she is often met with the consolatory refrain, “Everyone goes through this.” Yet, with the advancement of conceptual understanding across generations and the ongoing struggle for women’s autonomy, the validity of this assertion is increasingly subjected to scrutiny. Is it justifiable for things to have remained unchanged for so long?

Childbirth thrusts women into a solitary battle, compelling them to confront their destiny, rather than being a natural transition. The turmoil this imposes upon women’s hearts remains woefully underappreciated.

The inherent clashbetween societal expectations and personal desires is a central theme in feminist literature and cinema. Works like “Jeanne Dielman” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” shed light on the oppressive nature of domesticity and the toll it takes on women’s mental and emotional well-being.

“Jeanne Dielman” challenges traditional narrative structures and cinematic conventions by immersing the audience in the repetitive and seemingly mundane life of its protagonist. Through this meticulous portrayal, the film exposes the hidden struggles and silent suffering experienced by many women confined to domestic roles. By presenting the everyday tasks of housework and childcare as the focal point of the narrative, the film confronts societal expectations of women and highlights the emotional weight that accompanies these responsibilities.

Similarly, “The Yellow Wallpaper” delves into the psychological deterioration of its protagonist, a woman trapped within the confines of societal expectations and a restrictive domestic environment. The story explores themes of confinement, control, and the loss of self within patriarchal structures. The protagonist’s descent into madness serves as a metaphor for the stifling effects of societal norms on women’s autonomy and mental well-being.

Both works offer a critical examination of the gendered expectations placed upon women and the toll it takes on their mental health. By depicting the experiences of women who are trapped in oppressive environments, these narratives invite audiences to question and challenge the societal norms that perpetuate such conditions.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of diverse perspectives and representations in cinema and literature. The inclusion of “Jeanne Dielman” in the list of the top ten best films in film history signifies a shift towards acknowledging the artistic and thematic contributions of female filmmakers. It reflects a broader movement within the film industry to amplify marginalized voices and provide a platform for stories that have been historically overlooked or undervalued.

As society continues to evolve, it is crucial to foster an environment that supports and embraces the creative expressions of women. By exploring the complexities of women’s experiences, works like “Jeanne Dielman” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” contribute to a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of gender dynamics and the impact of societal expectations on women’s lives. Through these narratives, we can gain insights into the struggles faced by women and work towards creating a more equitable and empathetic world.

  Tetsuya Nakajima’s 2018 film “Come” tells the horrific story of a family of three whose wife and daughter died tragically from an evil attack. Under the terrifying appearance, there are socialist realities. In the first half, Hideki, played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, is a good man who takes care of his family in the eyes of outsiders. His blog has been recording family life, and every time he updates his family’s warm chronicle, his colleagues and friends are envious. In the second half, from the perspective of his wife Kana, played by Kuroki Haru, her husband is a hypocrite who is addicted to sharing false happiness on social networks. In fact, Kana’s life as a full-time housewife rarely receives sharing and support from her husband, and her children He grew up in an environment where his father was neglectful and neglectful, and his mother was irritable and irritable, thus attracting evil spirits.
  The term “motherhood” comes from feminist research, and it refers to society’s cultural expectations and institutional disciplines for a woman as a mother. The imagination of “what a mother should be like” has always been a sweet and cruel burden for women. On the one hand, women gain unprecedented life experience in the process of becoming mothers, and this experience does have its joys; on the other hand, people’s expectations for mothers are seriously blocking women’s free development, and there is a relationship between father and mother. There is an imbalance in the division of labor in the family.
  In 2021, the China Mental Health Survey data, which was completed by Peking University Sixth Hospital and a total of 44 units over a three-year period, showed that the lifetime prevalence and 12-month prevalence of any subtype of depressive disorder in women were higher than The lifetime prevalence and 12-month prevalence of depressive disorders among men, housewives, and unemployed people were higher than those among workers.
Marriage and childbirth have brought many additional identities to Jin Zhiying, but what about herself? She lost the opportunity to advance in the workplace and the freedom to find her own self-worth.

  Movies are good at showing the dilemma of motherhood in middle-class families. In the comments of “Kim Ji Young”, some people compared the reality and lamented, “Gong Yoo’s husband is already good enough.” In reality, it is more likely that both parties have to work to maintain their lives, such as an ordinary dual-income family. After get off work, when returning to the family, the responsibilities of men and women are redistributed, and women’s labor becomes invisible payment. In 2021, the results of the fourth Chinese Women’s Social Status Survey show that employed women spend 154 minutes on working days taking care of family members and doing housework such as cooking, cleaning, and daily purchases, which is about twice that of men.
  Women who should have a brilliant life are trapped in “housewife” depression.
shadow of aging

  In 2020, a post titled “Wandering Mom’s Taobao” appeared in Douban’s “Life Group”. The mother of the poster (whose ID was “Baiku” when posting) opened Taobao in 2017. The first order displayed in her account was a bracelet for Baiku; the order that appeared most frequently was hand-torn bread because her father When I’m on duty, I can only eat bread to keep my stomach from feeling uncomfortable. Bai Ku also saw a pale pink silk scarf that her mother bought for herself. One ordinary morning, her mother used this silk scarf to end her life.
  After Bai Ku posted this post, she received a lot of attention from netizens. Only then did someone ask her, does her mother suffer from depression?
  Bai Ku’s mother has suffered from insomnia for many years since menopause, but neither Bai Ku nor his father noticed her mother’s tendency to depression. After experiencing grief, Bai Ku told everyone in the post that “menopause may really develop into a serious disease.”

Stills from the movie “Coming”

  Later, a topic “Concern about menopausal depression among female elders” appeared on Douban. In the following discussion, netizens generally mentioned that depression in middle-aged and elderly women is difficult to detect, diagnose, and treat.
  In Bai Ku’s description, even though there are only a few words, we can still find that her mother cares and loves her family more than she values ​​herself. This is also a common characteristic of many mothers, especially in Chinese-style families. If a woman becomes a mother, she will tend to put her own needs behind her. In this case, they often don’t tell the people around them that when perimenopausal syndrome (a more precise name for menopause) arrives, they don’t just become hysterical and lose their temper easily, but are often accompanied by Uncontrollable heart palpitations, panic, sweating, hot flashes, osteoporosis, joint pain, pelvic floor muscle relaxation, forgetfulness, long-term insomnia… These physiological tortures are accompanied by hormonal imbalances, which can easily cause menopausal women to suffer from depression. intrusion.
  In many film and television works, “menopause” has simply and crudely evolved into an adjective. When a female character is portrayed as “sensitive, suspicious, and prone to losing her temper”, a line will appear: “You must be menopausal!”
Stigma has also led to middle-aged women’s “stigma” about depression, and they are ashamed to admit that they suffer from the discomfort caused by the rapid changes in their bodies.

  Such stigmatization has also led to middle-aged women’s “stigma” about depression, and they are ashamed to admit the discomfort they suffer due to the rapid changes in their bodies.
  Women’s menopausal depression also shows a gap between urban and rural areas. Compared with urban women who have a more open living environment and a relatively higher education level, rural women’s menopausal depression is difficult to be understood by people around them, has a low recognition rate, and has fewer opportunities to obtain diagnosis and treatment. . In rural areas, depression is more likely to be considered a “disease of wealth” or “self-pity”, and women who work day and night at home should not “make a fuss” about it.
  The word hysteria comes from the English hysteria. In the 19th century, Western doctors used it to describe a series of female symptoms, such as dizziness, neurasthenia, loss of appetite, and inexplicable irritability… For centuries, women have assumed the name of a mental illness. It is precisely because of “hysteria” that there was once a saying of “difficult women”. Nowadays, hysteria no longer exists as a disease, and women’s “weakness” in mental health has not been completely corrected. Emotional instability and easy collapse may be considered to be women’s nature, which is difficult to be treated scientifically.
  Sadly, in 2015, Chantel Ackerman committed suicide due to depression. The hardships in my heart did not let go of this great director who updated people’s understanding of feminism.
  On the same road, there are more women, facing all kinds of uneasiness and disconnection, still engaging in lonely and eternal confrontation.