EMMA DONOGHUE’S 2010 novel Room seemed like it was made for me. After all, Room — a formally inventive story about domesticity and sexuality — falls into a category of books I love; what’s more, Room asks us to perform the politically important task of closely examining women’s experiences of all those topics. What’s not to love about a bestselling feminist novel about sex and motherhood?
But, reader, I hated it. The story of a mother and child as they first live in and then escape captivity (“Ma” was abducted as a teenager by a man named “Old Nick”), Room has troubled me since its publication. Now that the novel has been adapted into a film, which is beautifully acted and directed, I am faced anew with that most frustrating of positions: being told that a cynical and dangerous story is in fact a progressive and radical one. Room is being described as stunning, insightful, feminist: instead, I find that it sustains some of our culture’s worst assumptions about the bonds between mother and child, and about the shame that attends female sexual violation. It reminds me of another debacle of failed progressive narrative: the 2004 movie Crash. Just as Crash was a racist exercise in trying to exorcise racism, Room is a misogynistic exploration of the suffering misogyny causes women. I’m just going to say it: Room is the Crash of feminism. I am sure the film is going to win multiple Oscars.
The crux of my problem is the feature of Room I’m supposed to admire most: the story’s treatment of how Ma’s mothering relates to her suffering. How appalling, we’re meant to think, that a man would keep a woman prisoner so long; how wonderful that her maternal instincts would persevere, even sustain her. And true, Ma is an impressive mother, keeping her son — conceived and birthed during a horrifying captivity — entertained, safe, and nourished under the most extreme circumstances. Yet even in this most disordered world, we are asked to make judgments on Ma’s mothering, judgments that sit in a strange symbiotic relationship with the kind of admiration we’re simultaneously asked to experience. For example, the novel's first chapter ends with a deliberately unsettling novelistic scene featuring the five-year-old Jack breast-feeding. That much of the story’s so-called complexity, nuance, and ambiguity stem from such pearl-clutching moments — oh, we realize, this space is both utopic and claustrophobic, enabling and crippling — should alarm. How, exactly, is our interest in Room any different than the frisson we all indulged while cluck-clucking over that Time cover of the four-foot-tall breast-feeder?
Put differently, the novel makes troubling use of its central metaphor: that the “Room” in which Jack and Ma are locked is like a womb, representative of the deep, primal bond between mother and child. This bond, and this space, has long been a subject of great literary fascination: it is alternately portrayed as our most sanctified cultural relationship (think every Hallmark Mother’s Day card) and our most gothic horror (think the slimy eggs in the movie Aliens). But in Room’s elaboration, this metaphor is more of the usual double-speak that structures our understandings of motherhood. The room/womb extended set piece tracks our culture’s rose-tinted view of the mother/infant-child bond, while also allowing readers the satisfaction of judging the perversity of that bond when it (somehow, always) inches into the excessive: “Mothers, you are all-important … so why are you doing that?”
Things don’t get much better, however, when Ma and Jack escape their captivity and begin trying to reorient themselves toward one another, toward others, and toward the world itself. The second half of the narrative finds them both yearning, sometimes, for the smallness of their previous world. Leaving aside for a moment the freshmen English insight that sometimes we desire and become comfortable in our own prisons, what bothers me most about this section of the narrative is how it stages the pair’s escape as a freedom for the mother that can only be purchased by the child’s loss of connection to her. For all its apparent attention to the horrors of domestic captivity, Room’s story finally upholds a separation between motherhood and public life.
Of course it’s this loss of connection that enables Jack’s thriving, as he wonderingly encounters the broader world. Ma, for her part, shrivels: partly because the world is overwhelming and her trauma so great, but partly, also, because she is no longer the sole nourisher of her son. No matter the setting, her son’s thriving depends on her suffering. Certainly the psychic work of individuation is important, but it doesn’t take a PhD in Winnicott to know that Room’s narrative treatment of Ma is a disciplinary message to women masquerading as a hard truth.
Donoghue recently noted in an interview — probably in part to once again deflect flattening critical readings of this novel as “about” a particular abduction case — that the story is less about its sensational premise than it is about “parenting in a locked room” — that is, that the narrative is about an extraordinary relationship between a mother and child that is stronger than the horrors and cruelty that are its germ. And yet, the novel’s depiction of the mother/child bond — meant to be deeply empathetic to this bond’s importance but ultimately just reproductive of tired gendered messages about motherly sacrifice and childish narcissism — seems to get the wonders of coming into sociality entirely wrong. Once outside of the Room, Jack must peel himself away from a Ma who can’t stop taking baths with him — he must cut the hair that feminized him and kept him tied to his mother like an umbilical cord.
Readers and viewers are meant to understand these moments as helping Jack and Ma shift from disordered to ordered psychic development. But all I can think is: You know what? Our entire culture is structured on the fantasy that mothers and children are in some sort of locked room together. Mothers are imagined to be singularly responsible for: caring too little, caring too much, exposing children to allergens too soon or not soon enough, breast-feeding too much, breast-feeding too little: it doesn’t take a ripped-from-the-headlines, parenting in extremis premise to prod us to imagine this.
Further, anyone who has spent time around them knows that for all of our fantasies about the primal mother/child bond, babies and children are some of the most world-oriented beings in existence. They take the world into their mouths, they grab at it, kick their feet at it, roll around on the ground of it, all in order to press its existence into their very flesh. Children don’t desire the mother above all; they desire touch, of which mothers are happily only just one of many possible delivery systems. Maybe it’s time to leave the room/womb fantasies behind?
It isn’t just the narrative’s exhausted ideas about the mother/child bond that get under my skin, it’s also that Room mimics a prurient gaze that it clearly thinks of itself as undoing, and does so at the level of its artistic and formal techniques. Many critics marveled at the technical feats of the novel; it is no small artistic task to focalize narration so tightly through a child’s point of view, and Jack’s voice is realistic and compelling.
But here, in its most vaunted formal accomplishment, is where I really go off the rails with this story. The novel uses the limited perspective of a child to enact, basically, a striptease: the novel knows that we are fascinated with women’s sexual abuse, but uses the child’s apparent innocence to allow us plausible cover for our staring. What in the ever-living hell is going on here, in this strange world of Objects that begin with capital letters, inventive educational games played with food scraps, and a 10-foot square exercise track? What is going on with the child’s literal counting of the thrusts during sex? This is prurience of the first order, disguised as a kind of psychological realism. First the top comes off, then the bottom, and then snap goes the bra: oh, it’s literally a living hell of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The Aristocrats!!!
The film does away with the novel’s experiment in perspective, and so feels less grimy to me. (It also mostly does away with the breast-feeding, which is probably a deliberate attempt to be less grimy, but seems like a major punt in a culture still so ridiculously “just can’t even” about breast-feeding.) The camera orients viewers to what is going on more clearly than Jack’s point of view did the reader, disrupting the frustrating striptease of the novel’s formal technique. But the voyeurism remains at key moments, as when the viewer gets hidden in the closet along with Jack during his mother’s multiple sexual violations. This visual technique is perhaps an attempt to avoid voyeurism, but again simply results in producing the effect it thinks of itself as pushing back against, in large part because of the affect viewers are encouraged to experience in these moments: horror, confusion, sure, but above all, we’re stimulated to keep peering.
I guess another way to get at what I find upsetting here is to say that it’s depressing to find misogyny baked into not just the content but also into the very aesthetic structures of the novel and film. Of course, this isn’t exactly a surprise. Hatred of women and mothers lives inside me, and it lives inside you. It lives inside the kinds of stories we find pleasurable or challenging and in the moments we fail to examine why.
So how, then, to represent or smartly explore these dark waters of our broken and unnurturing world? The similarly premised television show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for all its problems (and there are many), at least does away with some of the most grating aspects of Room’s narrative. Rather than assume the prurient gaze as its own, the show savvily dissects the culture’s and media’s pleasure in looking at hatred of women and harmed children, jaws agape. Kimmy Schmidt understands that this gawking is actually a part of the system it believes itself to be standing to the side of (or, even worse, remedying). Further, the television show refuses to reveal what Kimmy simply describes as the “weird sex stuff” of her captivity, a savvy pushback against the framework of “revelation” — which always only deepens the shame that it pretends to be blasting away with the light of day.
Room ends on a self-help-y note with Jack and Ma returning to the scene of their captivity — their womb, their utopia, their hell — and ultimately closing the door on it. They certainly aren’t healed, and the novel and film smartly avoid entirely neat endings. But just as Crash underscored its lazy multiculturalism with its formally rendered multi-perspectivism, Room promises readers and viewers that their endless appetite for watching women mother, get hurt, and experience sexuality is in the service of empathy and exploration rather than just another opportunity to sensationalize women’s pain.
Like Crash, which imagines that we can overcome racism by simply examining our own individual biases, Room offers a vision of a world in which the hatred directed at women, and the way our culture eats its young and vulnerable, can be overcome by peering relentlessly at it. I am tired of being asked to get so breathlessly excited about, impressed by, and thankful for portraits that look so closely at women’s deep suffering and yet somehow manage to still not see.
Sarah Blackwood is Associate Professor of English at Pace University.