American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Confined: Motherhood in Twenty-First Century American Film

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Timothy Messer-Kruse (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Eftychia Papanikolaou (Other)

Third Advisor

Kimberly Coates (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Sandra Faulkner (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines American motherhood in twenty-first century film, particularly as motherhood intersects with the cultural meanings and experiences of blackness, whiteness, and class status. Through textual analysis of select mainstream and independent films, contextualized within an historical, cultural studies, feminist, and critical race theoretical framework, I build on the matricentric feminist scholarship that has long pointed out that motherhood is one of the most intimate forms of women’s oppression. Working within the framework I establish, I argue that the role of motherhood has often shifted in order to reflect and perpetuate white supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist power structures. The result of these shifts at particular social, cultural, and political moments is that layers of meaning have been added to the role of motherhood, but these meanings have never liberated the role. Thus, mothers remain confined within a system that values their work only to the extent that it upholds the status quo. Ultimately, I argue that these films are, in various implicit and explicit ways, pulling back the proverbial curtain to reveal the mechanisms of control within American mothers’ lives. I acknowledge that the ubiquitous range of representations of motherhood within twenty-first film will in no way act as liberator for mothers. However, I contend that these films offer a glimpse into the layers of social, cultural, political, and economic constraints that perpetuate motherhood as a practice in ideological confinement.