Push to Smart: Mothers in Games – Abjection and Monstrous Mothers

We’ve talked a lot about fathers in gaming, and that lead us to wonder, where are all of gaming’s mothers? In our first video on the subject, we’ll examine how we most often confront motherhood in games: with wild-eyed terror.

A full transcript after the jump.


Much ado has been made about the “daddening” of videogames, the idea being that–for better or worse–game protagonists are growing up. Instead of chasing princesses or nameless girlfriends, they are saving their children. We’ve discussed this at length in our own videos, and now we’re left to wonder, where does this leave gaming’s mothers?

We’d argue that gaming’s mothers have been with us all along. The only difference is that, while fatherhood in games has recently emerged as a narrative motivation for player action, mothers in games have mostly existed to scare the crap out of us. To understand this, lets look at the rhetoric surrounding one of games’ most-referenced film franchises, Aliens.

We’ve all heard about Freud’s theories of the uncanny and castration as a source of terror, but in her essay, “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,” Barbara Creed dials this up to eleven when applying Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection to the monster in Alien.

The abject is the place where meaning collapses. It is when physical, emotional, and cultural boundaries that were never meant to be crossed are violated. At its most benign, it is that nagging feeling of disgust at seeing a fly land on a piece of fruit. At its most terrifying, it is the human corpse.

For Kristeva, this is evoked in the relationship between mother and child. Per Kristeva’s initial theory, this relationship is rife with conflict. The mother first exists as an incomprehensible entity on the cusp of the realm of the symbolic–the realm of laws and rules under patriarchy that we understand from the moment we are able to speak. As the child learns language, symbolic law, and fights to become a subject, the mother becomes abject. This, as Creed points out, is frequently the case with horror narratives like Psycho’s Bates family, Carrie’s title character and her fundamentalist mother, and, yes, even Alien. The mother’s continued existence from pre-verbal to the violent declaration of the separate subject disrupts symbolic order and our understanding of everything. Meaning collapses.

The obvious metaphor for Alien would be monster-as-phallus in the traditional freudian sense, though the mother manifests in many forms. She is what traps and destroys would-be hero Dallas, she is the unholy pregnancy that bursts through Kane’s chest; Creed takes this a step further. She traces the mother back to before she was a figure defined by her relationship to the father–before there was an understanding of a phallus to have or lack. This abject mother exists outside of patriarchy. The archaic mother is the sole parent–the mythical creator of all things. And for that, she can be horrifying; she evokes the traumatic image of birth–the primal scene–with herself as the narrative’s subject.

According to Creed, her shadow is long over the events of Alien, lingering on the strange, vaginal openings of the derelict ship  and the Mother ship that wakes its unsuspecting children.

In applying this to the alien, Creed finds that, unlike the long-prevailing Freudian image of the monster-as-woman due to the horror of her castrated body, the titular alien is horrifying because it’s the one doing the castrating–it destroys. The mother, then, is not just a source of life, but death as well; and the abject terror of the archaic mother is more than the fear of that which gives life can also take it away–it’s the fear of being completely and utterly consumed by it. She is the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable. She is the void.  As Creed ominously puts it, “The archaic mother is present in all horror films as the blackness of extinction–death.”

Now think back to when you played Tomb Raider last year, stranded on the island Yamatai while you are forced through a labyrinth of exceedingly darker, wetter, and more claustrophobic tunnels. It feels as though the island itself is trying to swallow you up; we now know this is the work of the archaic mother–we are moving ever closer into her all-consuming nothingness.

While the hostile island of Yamatai can be seen as an Archaic mother, it also houses the threat of the more traditionally abject mother in Himiko.

Throughout the game, a sinister ritual from the Island’s past is uncovered wherein Sun Queen Himiko would choose a surrogate child to raise only to sacrifice so that she could retain eternal life. While not a mother in the traditional sense, Himiko is an obvious example of an abject mother, literally grooming her “Daughters of the Sun” so they may be consumed by their mother.

These images–the traditional abject mother in Himiko and the influence of the archaic mother in the caverns–aren’t independent of each other; they weave in and out of the story and image, all to service our horror

As you can see, the archaic mother is alive and well in gaming. She lingers in the dank, cramped hallways we explore to reach unknown horrors. These unnerving, uterine spaces are far more common in games, evoking a primal fear of the mother as abyss. This is taken to its inevitable, and very literal, extreme in Silent Hill 4: The Room, when our antagonist considers the cramped, dank, and downright disgusting room to actually be his mother.

We’ve joked a bit on the show about Eve’s plan in Parasite Eve to literally melt the people of New York into a giant uterus (that eventually crashes into the Statue of Liberty); this image is admittedly less horrifying and more hilarious dissertation fodder, but it wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. In a way, it takes the primal terror inherent in the archaic mother to the extreme. The image of the all-consuming mother is a recurring source of abject terror in video games–even those we wouldn’t necessarily classify as “horror games.” The most conspicuous example of a monstrous mother in action is Dragon Age: Origin’s Broodmother; as we learn from the creepy limerick and final horrifying reveal, this monster explicitly links the ultimate, boundary-violating taboo of cannibalism to reproduction–a quite literal example of an all-consuming mother.

The Broodmother is monstrous due to her cycle of creation and destruction through cannibalism and asexual reproduction, but she is also abjected through her grotesque figure of exaggerated sexual organs: breasts, a mouth, tentacles, and a womb.

Another example of a mother in everything but name is Cleopatra from the atrocity that was Dante’s Inferno by Visceral Games. Cleopatra is the queen of the first circle of hell, Lust. In the game she is both sexualized and portrayed as grotesque; the height of abjection, simultaneously attracting and repulsing. She keeps her lover, Marc Anthony inside her, spewing him from her mouth to assault the player. Topless, she pushes her breasts out during the boss fight against Dante so she can spawn enemies from her nipples in a twisted interpretation of reproduction. Inferno’s Cleopatra resides firmly in Kristeva’s realm where meaning collapses. She is a mother but also, at its core, a perversion of the concept.

The mother isn’t abject just because of her body and reproduction, but because of the mutation or perceived absence of maternal behaviors. Bioshock 2’s antagonist Sofia Lamb is the mother to two different fathers. The father of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, and the “Big Daddy” to her daughter, us, the player. She defies our understanding by outliving Ryan and leading the children of Rapture in his place; she horrifies us by wrenching our father-character from our control and forcing him to shoot himself. Sofia Lamb seeks to destroy us and possess her children–Rapture and Eleanor–and it is our duty as players to return both to the status quo–to reinstate ourselves as father and patriarch.
Where a mother that works within the patriarchal bounds of society would nourish and educate her daughter, Sofia Lamb instead manipulates and experiments on her daughter for personal gain and the furthering of her own philosophy. She even goes so far as to endanger her surrogate children while attempting to defeat the competing parental threat of Delta. Sofia Lamb masks all of her monstrous actions under the veil of love, recalling Kristeva’s idea of the fundamentally confused and conflicting relationship between mother and child; her “love” is possessive and threatens to destroy Delta and consume Eleanor.

Bioshock 2 somewhat subverts our expectations by not having our playable character Delta deal the finishing blow to Sofia, both symbolically and literally asserting his position as patriarch. Instead, it’s Eleanor who defeats her mother, and she does so either by destroying her or saving her life–either way, Eleanor, the daughter, becomes a separate subject of her own story in the last few frames.

Horror films and–horror games–force us to confront the abject. This confrontation ends in a purification or, as Kristeva calls it, “a separation of maternal authority from paternal law”–the separation of the abject and horrifying from the symbolic order we understand. This is usually accomplished by the male hero defeating the abject mother–like the Broodmother or Cleopatra. Sometimes it’s another woman, like Eleanor, who purifies the abject.

But are any of these heroic women mothers? Does gaming have any Ripleys to combat all of its alien queens? In our next episode we’ll discuss how motherhood and maternal characteristics define female protagonists and supporting characters.

HOPE: Mom…

LIGHTNING: Not by a long shot.

Barbara Creed’s “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine” is available in:

Grant, Barry Keith. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: U of Texas, 1996. Print.

Kuhn, Annette. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso, 1990. Print.

2 thoughts on “Push to Smart: Mothers in Games – Abjection and Monstrous Mothers

  1. Pingback: Happy belated Mother’s Day–let’s talk about monstrous mothers | thatstacey

  2. Pingback: Now Playing: Shelter | Push To Smart

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