The main storyline in the film The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) has to do with the relationship between mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) and daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock). I want to focus on one particular scene here [click to watch] which gives an insight into Vivi’s relationship with her own parents (Sidda’s maternal grandparents).
This scene takes place at the birthday party of 18-year old Vivi (played by Ashley Judd). Her father, Taylor, gives her an extravagant diamond ring. The narrator says “Taylor Abbott treated his horses better than he treated his wife,” and that Vivi “got caught in the crossfire” between them.
Upon receiving the ring, Vivi says it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen in her life. Excitedly, she says to her mother, Buggy, “Mama, it’s gorgeous! Did you pick it out?”
It seems like the gift is a complete surprise to Buggy, and she clearly disapproves, saying to her husband, “Mr. Abbott, that is not a proper gift for a girl.” Taylor responds, “That’s right. But it’s a perfect gift for a young woman. A beautiful young woman.”
Buggy, with venom in her voice, whispers in Vivi’s ear, “Aren’t you just the luckiest little girl God ever made?”
Later that night, Buggy enters Vivi’s bedroom, where she’s having a sleep-over with girlfriends. She forcibly takes the ring off her daughter’s finger and hisses, “Whatever you did to make your father give you this ring is a mortal sin. May God forgive you.” To her friends, Vivi proclaims her innocence to this tacit accusation of incest.
Taylor comes back on to the scene dragging Buggy, yelling, “Now do it, Buggy! Do it! Give the girl the goddamn ring, you pathetic Catholic idiot.” He pries open Buggy’s clenched fist and the ring falls to the floor. He intimidates his wife, cowering and crying, into bending over and picking it up.
In a completely different tone of voice, Taylor lovingly says to Vivi, “Give me your hand. Viviane, I gave this ring to you. It’s yours. It’s from me to you. You understand?” Then he further humiliates his wife by saying, “What do you have to say? Making a fool of yourself in front of Viviane’s friends?”
There are a number of aspects to analyze in this clip. One is the creation of a Daddy’s Little Girl. Not only does Taylor treat Vivi more like a beloved wife (vividly seen through the symbolism of the ring) than a daughter, he also devalues his real wife, Buggy. “Winning” the Oedipal conflict in this way usually creates much confusion for a young girl, as well as guilt and shame. As special as she may feeling because of her father’s inappropriate attention, she also feels guilt because it’s at her mother’s expense.
The usual way of thinking about the Oedipus conflict is from the child’s point of view; that is, the child competes for the attention of the opposite-sex parent. Another way to look at it is as a system wherein the parent also vies for the love or attention of the child. In this case, there is rivalry stemming from the mother, Buggy, to her daughter, Vivi.
Further, what does Vivi learn about being a woman from her mother? Buggy was a disempowered and humiliated figure. Vivi may have learned to form alliances with men instead of identifying with women, in order to have some sense of her own empowerment, even if it was only through a man’s reflected power. Hence, she may use her femininity as a way to bond with or have power over men, at the same time despising herself as a woman.
When Sidda is told the above story by her mother’s friends, she responds, “How horrible to be so hated by your own mother.” As I’ve mentioned in another recent post on mothers and daughters, a mother’s bad feelings – jealousy, envy, hatred – towards her daughter are considered taboo, even though they are normal human emotions.
Nancy Friday, from her book My Mother, My Self, writes, “I have heard daughters say that they do not love their mothers. I have never heard a mother say that she does not love her daughter. Psychoanalysts have told me that a woman patient would rather consider herself crazy than admit that she simply does not like her daughter. She can be honest about anything else, but the myth that mothers always love their children is so controlling that even the daughter who can admit disliking her mother, when her own time comes, will deny all but positive emotions toward her children.”
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Triangulation, in this case magnified, if not created, by the father, serves to pour gasoline onto the fire. Whatever feelings of low self-esteem Buggy may have had is worsened by her husband’s attention to Vivi, the attention she no doubt would like for herself. Then to be used as an object of humiliation because of and in front of Vivi shames her further, and gives fuel to her jealousy and envy, turning Vivi into an object of blame and hatred.
Lastly, this clip gives us a glimpse of one form of covert, psychological or emotional incest, which can shape the nature of a child’s later adult relationships. Although this example is rather extreme perhaps, there are often much more subtle nuances of the rivalry between mother and daughter for father found in many families.