M3GAN (2023) and Parenthood
I’ve always been drawn to a certain kind of story I call the “reluctant parent” narrative. The formula is as follows: take a strong-willed adult, usually with a non-traditional relationship to their gender. Add one unexpected child to the mix: see two strangers gradually turn into a non-traditional family. These rules apply to some of my all-time favorite films, from 1921’s The Kid, to 1987’s Baby Boom to 1996’s Bogus, and I think I’m at the age where I’m beginning to understand the appeal.
Growing up, before there were any shows or movies about actual queer people, we were shown one version of an American family. There was one father, usually the breadwinner, and one mother, who usually prepared all the family meals and did the dishes. There was usually one sister and one brother, and maybe a baby. In stories about divorced or single parents, the mere fact of divorce or even chosen singlehood constituted a tragedy, a problem to be fixed. And the people in the family, even if they were jerks to each other, usually ended up showing or proving their love for one another somehow.
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There were no—or at least very few—movies that dealt with the questions I wanted answered. For instance: what happens when you’re part of a family that doesn’t like you? What happens when your parents should love and care for you, but for whatever reason can’t, or don’t? Worst of all: what happens when you start your life with loving parents, and then they die?
These were the questions I begged cinema to answer, and the answers it provided usually involved some type of non-traditional, put-upon parenting setup. In Baby Boom, Diane Keaton’s character is told she is suddenly the mother of a distant baby niece whose recent birth she barely registered. In Bogus, Whoopi Goldberg is saddled with a little white boy from the Midwest. “I don’t have time for this shit!” is the response of both characters at the start: they never anticipated motherhood or desired it. These characters—both career-driven single women—grew up in a landscape that told them they had to choose between motherhood and ambition. They chose ambition, and the sense is that it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. It was natural, obvious. So to now be faced with the extra burden of childcare isn’t just a unique kind of pain in the ass: It’s a looming, sinister question mark that hovers over the security and orderliness of these women’s lives. To be a parent, they must do more than simply keep a child alive, a difficult thing in itself. On top of that, they must take on the task of loving that child.
Now loving a child—especially one you’re related to—is not hard, and the best kind of care is informed by that love. That love, ideally, provides the rulebook. But still, you can know things about yourself: like how you’re selfish in a way that really doesn’t jive with parenthood, or how you can barely get it together to make sure you eat a healthy-ish dinner every night at the appropriate hour, nevermind make sure someone else does. That’s where the fantasy element enters in. In the reluctant parent narrative, the caretaker accepts the charge they’ve been given, and magically excels at parenting, after first making a lot of mistakes. The takeaway is that you can do it: that’s what the movie tells you. It says “hey you messy, depressed, anxious, hanging-by-a-thread faggot city dweller—if summoned to the task, you, yes even you, could probably be an ok parent.” You know, in a pinch.
And that knowledge is nice to have, even if it’s just a fiction. These movies promise us that we’ll be okay, should the situation ever arise. More importantly: they show us that the child in our care will be okay.
I didn’t expect to be as moved as I was by M3GAN, a movie described to me alternately as campy, stupid, bizarre, and unwatchable. I wasn’t expecting it to hit all the high notes of the reluctant parent narrative: the cultural shaming and hard-won education of a career-focused woman, the gradual understanding that her fear of inadequacy is what’s created the problem, the final revelation that she can love a child after all, and care for it, even without the greatest little helper in the world, the life-like 4-foot childcare robot M3GAN.
Gemma (Allison Williams) is a high-level architect for some of the world’s most advanced (and obnoxious) toys. She’s in the middle of trying to create M3GAN, the game-changing robot envisioned as a parental aid and permanent unpaid babysitter, when her newly-orphaned niece Cady is dropped into her lap. Cady’s parents were killed in a car accident we saw in the first scene, after a terse argument between them about Cady’s screentime allowance. So for Cady to end up in Silicon Valley with an aunt she barely knows whose entire life is about maximizing and fine-tuning the world’s addiction to screentime is jarring for everyone involved. To encounter the death of a caretaker as a child is to become, at least emotionally, an adult overnight. The world has presented us with our first true philosophical challenge: how does one solve the problem of death? Do we try to engage with the idea of eternal nothingness, or fold ourselves into religion, or find addictive ways to counter the pain of loss, or a final option: do we block ourselves from forming attachments of any kind, now knowing just how painful it is to have had a connection and lost it forever?
Cady can’t sort through these things without help, and neither can Gemma. She’s a classic reluctant parent—unable to deal with emotions or help others through them. Work is her life, and there’s no room for anything else. Luckily, her work soon dovetails with her life in a particularly kinetic way after Cady and M3GAN meet. M3GAN—like her beta-level predecessor “Purrpetual Pets,”—was consciously designed as an answer to the problem of childhood loss. Real friends move away, they grow cold, they change overnight. Parents divorce. Real pets die, and you have to mourn them. Something that isn’t living can’t die: it can only be there for you always, with the terrifying single-mindedness it was programmed to have.
M3GAN is programmed to protect Cady, and it’s not long before this “protection” morphs into murder. Any threat M3GAN perceives, from a neighbor’s dog to a school bully, quickly gets the ax. And eventually, M3GAN figures out that the ultimate “threat” to Cady’s happiness is Gemma herself, the unprepared, work-drained, emotionally-blocked, ambitious reluctant parent whose best will never quite be good enough. In the end, it’s Cady who must fight for Gemma. It’s the child, hardened by loss, who must save the parent. And by saving her, ultimately choosing her.
Again, this shouldn’t have been moving to me. Crying at The Kid is understandable: it’s exactly that kind of movie. Even crying at Bogus, as I have many times, isn’t quite as embarrassing as crying at the murder doll meme movie. But movies like this unlock something in us: they ask us just how closely our relationship to parenthood and parenting is tied to death and loss. You start out life by needing your parents, then by rejecting them, then by needing them in a different way, and finally, by expecting and preparing for their death. You become a parent, presumably, to create an attachment to someone who you’ll never have to bury—though of course the tragedy is that even this can’t be guaranteed.
We live in a state of suspended disbelief when it comes to the people we love: we can’t let ourselves in on the secret that they’re going to die. Otherwise, we’d spend every minute of every day thinking about it. I know this because that’s how I’ve spent my life. From the minute I realized it was possible for one’s mother to die, I’ve spent every moment of my life thinking about and anticipating that moment. When I’m having a nice time with my mother, I’m thinking about how she’s going to die. This is never not at the forefront of my mind—I don’t know how to make it go away.
As a child, I wanted to hack grief: I wanted to be always prepared for that final, inevitable abandonment. But the thing is, you can’t ever be prepared in that way. It wouldn’t work. It would turn you into something that wasn’t human.
To be human is to care, and to lose. It’s to accept that we can’t control what happens to the people we love, and to the people, or organisms, in our care. M3GAN is both a cautionary tale about the fantasy of total parental control and the failure, in the face of such a fantasy, of one flawed human to ever be “good enough” to actually protect a child from the pain of the world. “Face it, Gemma,” M3GAN taunts, “being a parent was never in the cards for you.” Of course a robot would think that: what human isn’t too flawed, too emotional, too bruised by circumstance to be an adequate protector of children?
But what Gemma learns is to try. That’s what becomes important to her: trying. “I can’t promise you these feelings you’re having are ever going to go away,” Gemma tells her niece during the death talk they finally get around to having. She’s right: mourning doesn’t end. It just changes. She’s not protecting Cady from the truth in that moment. But she doesn’t need to. She’s finding out the other thing it takes to make a family work: honesty. Even—especially—when it hurts.
Next week: a “women’s weepie”
Honorable mentions of the genre include: Three Godfathers (1936), Sorrowful Jones (1949), and Forty Little Mothers (1940.)
Or, failing that, a “crazy inventor” type on the level of Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids or Robin Williams in Flubber.
A notable exception to this is Mrs. Doubtfire, which ends by encouraging children to accept their parents’ divorce and see it as a healthy thing.
Something I still haven’t figured out how to do—if you have any tips, let me know.