Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Humanities and Cultural Studies

Major Professor

Dr. Amy Rust, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Dr. Scott Ferguson, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Dr. Daniel Belgrad, Ph.D.


Single-mothers, maternal melodrama, film studies



The single-mother figure shows up in myriad American film genres, and my thesis explores three of these genres, maternal melodrama, film noir, and horror. I argue there is a melodramatic mode that carries over from maternal melodrama to film noir and horror. This mode emphasizes emotional excess. In maternal melodrama, the emotional excess is pity. For film noir, the emotion is anxiety, and in horror, it is repulsion. Even though each genre has its own emotional excess, maternal melodrama still speaks to these other genres through its maternal sacrifice, non-heteronormative families and misreading of proper gender performances. For this reason, I intentionally begin with classic maternal melodrama, wherein conventional gender roles, heteronormative familial structures, and mother-daughter separation are standard features. In Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), Stella misreads what "proper" femininity looks like. As a result, she believes she is "bad" for her daughter, Laurel, and makes the heart-wrenching decision to sacrifice Laurel to a traditional nuclear family.

The other films I chose extend Stella Dallas' interest in gender roles, kinship structures, and mother-daughter separation but also subtly change the maternal melodrama's relationship to heart-wrenching sacrifice. In each of three chapters, I explore Michael Curtiz's film noir Mildred Pierce (1945), Douglas Sirk's melodrama Imitation of Life (1959) and William Friedkin's horror film The Exorcist (1973). After examining the standard features of maternal melodrama in Stella Dallas, I begin to explore them in other genres that focus on one of the three ideas more predominantly. These ideas are gender roles, kinship structures, mother-daughter separation. This does not mean that each film is limited to only one idea. All of the films address gender performance, familial structure, and mother-child separation, but I let each film take the lead on one of the three ideas. In Mildred Pierce, I explore gender performance. Mildred performs masculinity and femininity depending on whether she is in the public or private sphere. Imitation of Life takes the lead on alternative kinship. The film illustrates how two single mothers create a economically viable non-heteronormative interracial family. I conclude with The Exorcist and the possibility that the mother and child do not need to separate like Stella and Laurel. The Exorcist challenges what has long been considered a necessary process. This is the only film that successfully keeps mother and child united.

I believe this project draws attention to the lack of analysis of single mothers in American film, but more importantly, it makes us rethink motherhood. The single mother privileges a certain approach to gender performance, familial structure, and mother-child separation that feminist theory and film studies have overlooked. This approach includes a masculine gender performance to perform as a father, disrupting the heteronormative familial structure to make it work for them, and mothers maintaining a relationship with their adolescent daughters.