Despite being almost universally panned by critics (the film has a 14% rating on rottentomatoes.com), the 2005 comedy (often inexplicably described and marketed as a romantic comedy) Monster-in-Law still succeeded domestically and internationally, grossing $23 million during its opening weekend (source: boxofficemojo.com). I believe that the film’s undeniable financial success is directly related to its repetition of plot devices and motifs that have concerned people for centuries: namely, fierce, even violent competition between younger women and their older counterparts—often stepmothers (and what is a mother-in-law but a chosen stepmother?). And what story epitomizes this struggle more than the famous tale of Snow White?
In his book Why Fairy Tales Stick, Jack Zipes asserts that the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—a story about a stepmother so jealous of her young and beautiful stepdaughter that the older woman tries to murder the younger multiple times—has permeated our cultural.* Zipes believes that Snow White has spread like an epidemic (i.e. he thinks the tale is a meme) and reminds readers that the original literary fairy tale is “the subject of numerous valid and sometimes insipid interpretations” (Zipes, 134). He goes on to say that not only does the tale underscore rivalry amongst women which feminist critics suggest “results from a patriarchal culture that pits woman against woman for the favor of a male” (Ibid) but also goes on to suggest that basic reproductive imperatives drive some female competition, writing that, “if we assume that females are deeply concerned with finding the right male for reproduction and with producing children who will carry on the woman’s genes, and that they will employ their traits to succeed and survive, we can see how relevant the message of ‘Snow White’ is and how it raises important moral issues for culture” (135)**. Moreover, Zipes goes on to suggest that the older queen considers Snow White dangerous “because she [Snow White] foreshadows what will happen to the queen in a patriarchal society when she will no longer be beautiful and fertile” (Ibid), i.e. the queen will be rejected, stripped of resources, and possibly killed.
Monster-in-Law (2005, directed by Robert Luketic) opens with a brief reference to magic—a daily horoscope (which is implied to have some inherent value, wisdom, or predictive ability) leads Charlie (Jennifer Lopez) to find her very own “perfect” lover, a brain surgeon (har) named Kevin (Michael Vartan). Their courtship is shown only briefly on the screen, just long enough to insist that both characters are adorably loving and kindhearted (and also bland as hell). The next scene turns to Kevin’s mother, Viola (Jane Fonda), a high-powered TV personality who interviews A-list stars, important politicians, and high-profile religious figures—until she is suddenly replaced by a younger presenter. Viola promptly has a nervous breakdown which lasts several months. However, the viewer doesn’t see this—the film skips straight over Viola’s potentially grim mental problems to her release from a wealthy private psychiatric care facility. She seems relaxed, even happy—grateful, she says, to still have her relationship with her son, which she values far more than her job. Simultaneously, she is portrayed as overbearing—smothering her frustrated (but, notably, passive) son with an excess of daily phone calls.
Viola’s calm is soon shattered when she finds out her precious son has taken a girlfriend. The oblivious Kevin sets up a lunch date so that his mother can meet Charlie. From the very first, things are strained—as soon as Kevin and Charlie park in her driveway, Viola begins spying on them from a window, remarking of Charlie’s summer dress “Oh, so we’re playing dress up,” in a tone that would be sinister, were it not for the pale surroundings and cartoony music. In this scene Viola is dressed in a business woman’s pantsuit; in the following scene, when she greets Michael and Charlie, Viola appears in full summer regalia, including a hat, bright red lipstick, dress with a full skirt and petticoat, and pert white cardigan. Viola greets Kevin with an incestuous kiss on the mouth (Kevin looks shocked and wipes her lipstick off his lips with bemused dismay) and pretends not to notice Charlie until Kevin pointedly introduces the two. Viola manages to keep her cool and play nice (as does the unsuspecting Charlie), until, seeing (or assuming) that the two women are able to get along, Kevin decides to propose to Charlie. This sends Viola off into her mansion, where she has a very telling episode: trying to access her new postfeminist therapy coping skills, Viola sits on the floor of a posh living room decorated in cream. The camera gives us a long shot, plenty of distance to take in a supposedly humorous scene: as slapstick, playful music and predatory bird calls play in the background (the latter are a poorly-conceived attempt to invoke ritual or the occult) Viola waves a white feather and begs some non-specific entity to rid her of her “bad karma,” and, more tellingly, her “wickedness.”
This verbal reference to the queens, stepmothers, and ogres of fairy tales (the word “wickedness” is rarely used in quotidian speech) is the first in a chain of events that demonstrate just how much Monster-in-Law borrows (unconsciously, I think) from Snow White. Not only is Viola “wicked” by her own admission and an “old slut” (in the world of her assistant Rub [Wanda Sykes]***)—words that have strong fairy tale connotation (Perrault revealed the sinister meanings behind “slut” in his version of Little Red Riding Hood—in which the younger woman not only replaces the older woman [her grandmother] but also drinks the older woman’s blood and eats her flesh); additionally, Charlie is an orphan just like Snow White and Cinderella, who are portrayed in most versions of their tales as partial or full orphans (the biological mother is always dead, and the father is either dead or indifferent). Charlie lacks a surrogate family, although she does of two friends, one of whom plays the token gay friend—a stock character typical to at least the past decade of romcoms (not that Monster-in-Law is a real romcom). Moreover, the love interest and son of the story, Kevin, is largely absent from the film itself; as one reviewer notes, Kevin is not so much a character as a plot device (the only thing the audience knows about him is that he is wealthy and has a prestigious occupation). This is also true of the prince in Snow White and similar tales, who do nothing more (and have no more personal characteristics) than help to create a resolution in the tale.
Throughout the film, Viola psychologically and physically abuse Charlie—she even beats Charlie in two scenes, one in which she pretends to be asleep and having a nightmare, and the other in which the two women slap each other repeatedly. Viola even halfheartedly tries to poison Charlie by feeding her nuts (which Charlie is allergic to)—the fact Ruby persuades Viola to retract this attempt to maim or kill her future daughter-in-law does not detract from the stark symbolism. This is not a film about minor rivalry—the themes of older-versus-younger-woman are deadly serious, despite their comic treatment.
In the last third of the film, Charlie becomes aware of Viola’s desperate attempts to sabotage her impending marriage; at this point, Charlie takes agency and begins to attack Viola with psychological and some physical force (for example, she drugs Viola with sleeping pills—a type of temporary poisoning). One might initially mistake Charlie’s agency as a new theme; however, as Zipes reports that in newer versions of Snow White, “many writers indicate that the competition has become much fiercer and that younger women are initiating the rivalry and eliminating older women and even their mothers before the latter take initiative” (136). This becomes clear when, upon Viola’s pretended collapse in a restaurant, Charlie responds to other diners’ cries of “Is she dead!” with a muttered, “It couldn’t be that easy.” Behind the humor of the films lies a darker truth about resentment and violence amongst some women.
The film’s resolution comes in the form of Viola’s mother-in-law, a woman as cruel and demeaning to Viola as Viola is to Charlie. It is at this point that I hoped Charlie and Viola would reconcile, realizing that their competition for Kevin’s attention was unnecessary, and that they could create a unique yet fulfilling family unit by cooperating and supporting one another, rather than vying for Kevin’s love. Instead, Charlie reinforces the old lessons of Snow White (the wickedness of the older woman) by declaring that Viola has “won” and that she will call off the wedding; with Ruby’s input, Viola realizes that she only wants Kevin to be happy (but what does she, Viola want?) and hence ensures that Charlie and Kevin go through with it. In the process, Charlie insists that Viola limit her access to Charlie (phone calls are to be made only once a day) but that Viola be an active participant in her future grandchildren’s lives. Thus the film suggests that the conflict of participation for male attention can be diffused by the creation of more offspring, thereby furthering both Charlie and Viola’s need for attention, love, participation in a caring family dynamic, and the direct continuation of their genetic lines.
This clearly differs significantly from most versions of Snow White, in which the stepmother disappears or is killed or, in the nastiest versions, is publicly executed by dancing to her death in red-hot iron shoes. However, while the tentative cooperation of Charlie and Viola signal an end to the film, they fail to directly answer the fundamental anxiety raised in so many relationships between younger and older women. As Zipes writes, “the morality of [contemporary interpretation of] the tale has less to do with the punishment [of the stepmother] than with posing the dilemma that most women feel even today. How do you fulfill natural inclinations and attract a partner (either for reproduction or sexual gratification) without killing off the competition that may undermine your self-interest?” (Ibid)
Put another way, how can women relate to each other in a way that is both honest and expressive of self-interest and also inclusive? Monster-in-Law attempts to answer this question both in a postfeminist manner (“if it’s what the man wants then it is what I want”) and also in a potentially more radical way (Charlie trying to create a family unit in which the needs of both women are acknowledged and met). However, it is myopic to assume that traditional relationships and family can peacefully and satisfactorily resolve the social and, potentially biologically (although also, therefore, potentially mutable) sources of tension between older and younger women. It is time for film and fiction to create new endings.
*This is not to say that the eponymous Seven Dwarfs lack either appeal or memetic quality–indeed, they recur in nearly every telling and interpretation of the tale and are compelling (if often mysterious) characters in their own right(s).
**I’m not convinced that we really can assume that “females are deeply concerned with finding the right male for reproduction and with producing children who will carry on the woman’s genes, and that they will employ their traits to succeed and survive.” There’s an inherent assumption that all people share certain biological and genetic motivations related to reproduction; but this doesn’t allow for genetic anomaly, or for the potential for social environments to alter beliefs, behaviors, and imperatives. I think it would be accurate to say that this is a biological feature in enough women’s lives–not just domestically but internationally–that creates the moral tensions that create continued interest in the Snow White tale (and by association, Monster-in-Law).
***There are several disappointingly tokenized characters in Monster-in-Law–primarily Ruby (Wanda Sykes), who has once again been typecast as the Sassy Black Sidekick, and Remy (Adam Scott), the Affluent Gay Best Friend Who Appears To Have No Interests Or Needs That Do Not Pertain To His Straight Female Friend.