The ultimate patriarch

by Phyllis Deutsch

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 12-13
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

Steven Spielberg's film E.T. is this year's biggest moneymaker. T-shirts and posters all over the country celebrate the space creature, and Neil Diamond has written a song using E.T.'s memorable "phone home" as its theme. Reviews of the movie are mostly positive, and reviewers generally cite the film's make-believe ambiance and happy ending as causes for its enormous success. In doing so, they — and most of the U.S. public — have overlooked the sexist backbone of Spielberg's superficially engaging fairytale.

The film's sexism is explicit in the sexual stereotyping of its characters. E.T. is male identified, even though the creature has no genitals. It is continuously referred to as "he." The first link between E.T. and Elliot is a baseball tossed back and forth: what better symbol of male bonding exists? Elliot, of course, is a little boy, his brother is a big boy, and all the children in the movie who have adventures (tinkering with telecommunications devices, fooling cops, riding flying bicycles) are boys. Elliot's sister is spunky and bright (she at least asks whether E.T. is a boy or girl), but she dresses up the creature, brings him flowers, and stays close to mama. Gerdie also teaches E.T. to talk, but this deed (which makes the rest of the film possible) is seen as far less important that the physical machinations of the boys.

Elliot's mother, another sexist creation, represents Spielberg's traditional view of the nuclear family as a sex-segregated enterprise. Mary has moments of humor and animation, but she most of spends most of her time hassling over concerns of everyday life. She worries about her job, her shopping, cleaning up, cooking, and taking care of the kids. She's so intent on arranging the groceries that she disregards Gerdie's attempts to introduce her to E.T., who stands just a few feet away. Later, in a Halloween costume, Mary is cute and sexy (she's dressed as some kind of catlike animal) and as giddy as ever. While photographing her three children, she fails to realize that the one in the middle has a funny voice and a flat head. Like the buffoon in a comic opera, poor Mary constantly misses the obvious.

Obviously her husband's departure exacerbates Mary's confusion. He has left the family and taken his mistress to Mexico. But Spielberg so steadily emphasizes Mary's inadequacy by caricaturing her as a frazzled housewife that the father seems to play a negligible role in the familial disaster. Following the disappearance of Elliot, a policeman grills Mary trying to find out if anything has happened in the family that might have caused her son to run away. Mary tearfully replies that her husband has gone and that "it hasn't been easy on the children." Clearly, she's the one at fault: she's at home and not, doing a proper job raising the kids. Meanwhile, daddy is home free in Latin America. In the viewer's mind, daddy's departure is subliminally excusable: would you want to live with such an unstable woman?

The children's complete idolization of their missing father is another nail in Mary's coffin. Mike and Elliot yearn for dad ("remember how he used to take us to the ballgames?") but are not angry with him. Surely children respond to a parent's departure more complexly than this. But when Mike and Gerdie tease Elliot about his goblin stories, he pouts and says, “Daddy would understand." He implies that mommy would not. In fact, Mary does grab the kids and run like hell when she first sees E.T. turning grey on her bathroom floor. This act, which strikes me as eminently sensible, immediately casts her with the other "bad" adults in the film. When she finally comes around at the end, there are intimations that it has something to do with that nice male scientist who watches over her with great sympathy. Mary gets a man, but it's unlikely she'll work any less hard, for in Spielberg's universe men don't do dishes. In this film particularly, they serve two mythological functions, both of which are embodied in the characterization of E.T.

E.T. is first of all an orphan, completely helpless being on an unknown planet. Left alone, childlike E.T. will surely get into trouble (remember his drunken stumbling around the house) or perhaps die. Casting E.T. as a little (male) child in need of help enables the director to cast his audience as mothers — Eternal Mothers willing to give unconditional love to a completely dependent creature. While external mothers are generally women, Spielberg continues his sexist motif by denying Mary that role. Instead, Elliot plays Eternal Mother to E.T.'s Eternal Infant. And Elliot's treatment of E.T. neatly damns the motherhood myth by revealing its destructive underside. Elliot is extremely territorial and speaks of E.T. as his special possession and pet. The boy expends a great deal of love on the creature, but he also controls him. Elliot's love — and Elliot's control — make it unnecessary for E.T. ever to learn more than garbled English. Why grow up if mama is always there? Spielberg shows the motherhood myth — embodied in Elliot and E.T.'s relationship as a symbiotic power game in which both parties play impossible roles. Mother suffers eternally from unrequited martyrdom and child suffers eternally from stunted growth. Spielberg may cart out the Eternal Mother to tug at our heartstrings, but he quickly dissects her and puts her to rest.

But Spielberg gives the Eternal Father resounding applause. When E.T. is not a clinging infant, making mothers of us all, he is the flipside of the fantasy: the ultimate patriarch who has come to mend the fractured family and restore order in the kingdom. Although Spielberg portrays E.T. as a comic drunk in the first part of the film, in the end he inspires reverence and awe. After all, he is a creature of profound intelligence and wisdom. He even dies and comes back to life. Is this King Arthur, Christ, maybe even God Himself? Yes, says Spielberg. And we all cry some more, blinded by the power of a different myth, one that moves from father to king to God with sweeping grandeur and leaves a lot of troubled women in its wake. In the film, as in life, the ambiguous Eternal Mother cannot compete with the purity, serenity, and wisdom of the Eternal Father, who gracefully casts a spell and quietly resolves all. Never mind that underneath is a whimpering boy-child, incapable of growing up. Never mind that underneath is Elliot's real father, who skips town when the going gets rough.

Spielberg knows his stuff, no doubt about that. Reviewers have praised the film's inventiveness and originality, but it's a hoax. The movie moves so fast, the images are so dramatic, and the sound track is so loud that we miss the sexist fireworks on display. What's really a shame is that there is much in these mythologies worth preserving: the emphasis on love, benevolence, and trust; the belief that wonder still exists, as do miracles; the implication that there are meeting grounds for strangers of all kinds. Spielberg could be a true visionary, but he is hampered by his passion for mythologies that separate human beings according to sex and perpetuate unequal power (and hence, love) relations among them. E.T. as characterized is a "he" who will always be taken care of by some loving mother because of his obvious vulnerability but who, at the same time, maintains the whip of control by dint of greater wisdom.

Movies like this are not a balm in our impossible times. They simply make matters worse by repeating the crimes that got us here in the first place. We should all stop believing in fairies until someone makes a film in which little girls have adventures on bicycles, too.