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August 21, 2018 by

The Patriarchy-Free Paradise of “Mamma Mia!”

greece-2824611_960_720This piece contains spoilers for Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again. Not a spoiler: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll dance poorly to ABBA.

Ten years ago I wandered into a movie theater on a hot summer weekend and was surprised to fall in love with the bell bottoms and thudding beat of ABBA-musical-turned-Meryl Streep vehicle “Mamma Mia!”. At the time, I was especially charmed to discover the “feminist heart beneath its cheesy 70s kitsch exterior”—given that the movie hinges on woman’s freewheeling sexual past without shaming her for it.

A lot has changed in a decade; whereas the original “Mamma Mia!” passed skeptical critics by, only to become a smash hit with audiences, its long-awaited sequel now flows into the culture with the natural ease of olive oil in a Greek dish. In the era of female-driven shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin” that combine elements of camp, fantasy and genre with sensitive exploration of women’s lives, viewers are primed to enjoy this kind of entertainment unironically, while a more open-minded group of critics are bolstering their pleasure with praise.

In this context, watching “Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again!” felt even more affirming. It’s not that this franchise pioneers anything so notable as a “female gaze”—to say that would gives it both too much and too little credit. Rather it takes the whole idea of serious film “gaze” and tosses it off a cliff into the Mediterranean. While dancing to disco music. With a goat. 

By doing this, it achieves a meaning of its own. The “Mamma Mia!” universe is not so much feminist as simply a cinematic world untouched by patriarchy, where women run around in unflattering but delightful overalls and paisley tunics, where rifts are always mended by a good song belted somewhat on-key, and where the concept of “power” and its attendant struggles barely exists; in these films, three men in the prime of life are all revealed to be potential fathers of a young woman—and they all agree to share her, becoming a sort of queer family unit.

Sounds good to me. Actually, sounds really good to me. As my friend Emily said, “These movies are perfect because they imagine a better world.” And during this particular summer when we’re chained by our devices, our fear, and our anger to the harsh realities of a political system built on misogyny and racism, re-entering “Mamma Mia”’s universe feels emotionally cathartic, even healing. (Okay, maybe that was just my reaction to Meryl Streep showing up as a ghost and cooing over her baby grandson…but I digress.)

If you want more evidence that the film has a radical vision to offer us, consider one “climax” of the so-called “story” (never forget: linear plot structure is a product of the Man): male characters played by Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård decide to leave their big important engagements at the last minute. Yet no kidnapping or disaster prompts these sudden departures. Rather, they have simply decided that they want to frolic on an island with a bunch of womenfolk—their daughter has a big hotel opening, and they want to be good co-dads.

The intensive contract negotiations and prestigious award ceremonies being ditched by these male characters are supposed to be the pinnacle of success in late capitalism. Yet “Mamma Mia!” tells us that such accolades mean bupkis compared to spending time with our families–not to mention the crucial importance of being in the mood for dance. Even the film’s pleasingly peripheral young hero makes the choice to ditch a fancy NYC job for love and life on the island too.

But forget the men. The film’s attitude is encapsulated most by our heroine, Donna Sheridan, played in the first film by Streep and, in its sequel’s extended flashback (a sly tribute to “The Godfather, Part 2″), by Lily James. Young and ebullient, Donna leaves her life behind to turn a crumbling farmhouse on a distant island into something beautiful, sleeps with three guys in a short period of adventuring, and is more revered than disparaged for her choices. In fact, her joie de vivre is the animating force of the series, even after her offscreen death between films, and the legacy of her spirit feels genuine enough for genuine emotion to well up as the second film concludes. Kalokairi, the fictional Greek island where Donna decamps, is a sort of matriarchal paradise: the animals are friendly and the men in thrall to the self-assured women who run things. It’s a place where “having it all” means having cake, dancing, and feeding other people cake while they dance.

I don’t want to waste more ponderous words on something so effervescent; besides, “Mamma Mia!” is far too white-bread in its choice of cast, too implicit in its queerness, to be politically unimpeachable. Still, I’ll conclude by saying it’s part of a tradition that matters. From the final, improbable dance sequence of “Dirty Dancing,” to the paused flight over the Grand Canyon in “Thelma and Louise,” many women’s films fly away from realism to let their characters escape patriarchy. And like its contemporary counterpart, the “Magic Mike” franchise, which similarly has little plot to speak of and many silly dances, “Mamma Mia!” reminds us that the elements we think are necessary for a good story—conflict, domination, even fixed external logic and polished musical numbers—may be more easily dispensed with than we think, in art and perhaps in life.

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