Terms of Endearment
Bourgeois morality tale

by Douglas Kellner

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 10-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, an extremely popular Hollywood film, won more Oscars than any other film in 1983. The film is entertaining and skillfully concocted. Its popularity also derives from its cunning manipulation of real sexual conflicts and contemporary emotional problems, which it cleverly resolves through offering a traditional conservative sexual agenda. Thus, TERMS has a liberal openness to free sexual expression and explores contemporary sexual politics at the same time that it conservatively affirms the family and traditional sex roles. Part of the resurgence of Hollywood melodrama, like other recent films it shows families undergoing crisis and potential disintegration. Yet unlike KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER, ORDINARY PEOPLE, AUTHOR AUTHOR, and many others which portray unfaithful or insensitive wives as wreckers of the family, and nurturing fathers as saviors, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT sympathizes with the wife and presents the husband in an extremely ambivalent light.[1] But although TERMS has some feminist twists, it can also be read as an attack on feminism and sexual liberalism. In the following reading, I shall show how TERMS lays out the contemporary sexual conflicts that confront a generation which has experienced the changing sexual mores of the 1960s and 1970s. I shall attempt both to explain the film's popularity and to indicate the ideological parameters and limitations of the film's sexual politics,


TERMS is directed by James Brooks, a former TV director who was the creative force behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Taxi. The film combines TV sitcom and melodramatic codes to present a bourgeois morality tale.[2] Although TERMS' subject matter, family tragedy, refers back to the tradition of Hollywood women's pictures' that flourished from the 1930s through Douglas Sirk's 1950s family melodramas, its style and representational codes derive from TV and show a growing hybridization between film and television in the United States.[3] Like an increasing number of television movies, it focuses on contemporary social problems. Stylistically, it quickly presents a situation of emotional intensity and then cuts to another scene in a structure that allows for little continuity, in-depth development of character, or serious discussion of the issues. Everyday life is portrayed as a series of disconnected little dramas. In TERMS this narrative strategy poses all significant life-choices around whether they preserve or threaten marriage and family. None of the main characters seem to have any outside interests or activities that transcend family or sexuality.

In the opening title sequence, a young mother, Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) anxiously bends over her daughter, afraid that the sleeping baby has stopped breathing. In the next episode, which follows the never-depicted father's funeral, the lonely mother crawls into bed with her daughter. These interior scenes use soft muted lighting and romantically framed images of mother love, though they also seem to project a critical image of the overly doting U.S. mother (scathingly critiqued as "Momism" by Philip Wylie).[4] By the end of the film, mother love is strongly affirmed and redeemed as the film as a whole demonstrates what are both proper and improper roles for wives, husbands and parents.

The film cuts to an exterior setting with the daughter Emma (Debra Winger) sitting on the front lawn with her skirt provocatively positioned over her knees. Moving men leer at her while they carry the goods of a famous ex-astronaut to the house next door. Her blonde girlfriend Patsy leans over and pulls Emma's skirt down over her knees. The film maintains this contrast between Emma's more open and expressive sexuality and Patsy's more conventional sexual role-playing. Scene after scene develops Emma's personality, making her a sympathetic vehicle for audience identification. On the night before her marriage, Emma gets stoned with Patsy as they listen to Ethel Merman sing "Anything Goes." This scene presents Emma as sexy, feisty, slightly rebellious and blending the modern (smoking pot) with the traditional (getting married, listening to Ethel Merman), Although the pop song has a traditional melody, its lyrics, "Anything Goes," suggests openness and readiness for adventure. The song also blends the modern with the traditional, although we shall see that the plot later discredits "the modern" (i.e., sexual liberalism) to affirm more traditional values and gender roles.

Against her mother's advice, Emma marries Flap, a young university English professor, who her mother believes is too immature and not ambitious enough. Flap and Emma's early scenes together portray a strong mutual sexual attraction, and Emma is consistently associated with a provocative and procreative sexuality. She bears three children in less than ten years, and when she fears that her husband is having an affair, she also takes a lover. Within this "modern" representation of a strong independent woman who refuses to accept the traditional "double standard," Emma becomes symbolically punished for her sexuality. In fact, confirmation of her husband's infidelity coincides with news of her cancer, so that the film establishes a parallel between illness and sexual irresponsibility. The film's "message" is that women (and married men) must never risk infidelity and thus lose the most enduring love and emotional support in the face of life's sufferings and tragedies.

The first two-thirds of the film focus on the mother-daughter relation and on problems of marriage and family. Like KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ORDINARY PEOPLE, SHOOT THE MOON, and other recent family melodramas, nothing social or political intrudes from the outside to disturb the family drama. Though the film supposedly takes place within a thirty-year period from the 50s to the present, no 60s politics are mentioned nor feminist issues posed (except negative references to abortion), and the characters have no concern for politics or social life whatsoever. The events have no historical context. Though the action covers several decades, we see only trivial, not clearly defined changes in fashion. Upper and middle-class everyday life seems to exist as an eternal situation of similar personal conflicts and resolutions. In this life of archetypal Personal Relationships, the Family is shown to be the only trustworthy and enduring Form. In fact, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is stylistically noteworthy for its adroit manipulation of stereotypes and clichés, which make the mixture, appear fresh and "modern."

Although the daughter Emma has a close girlfriend and the mother Aurora has several steady suitors, the film focuses all social activity around the home. The scenes that show mothers, daughters, and husband leaving the house to have affairs depict events that threaten the home. During much of the film, TERMS seems to defend less constricting sex roles for women. Aurora, too, takes on a lover after long resisting physical relations with her Houston suitors. She recognizes the fleetingness of life after her 50th birthday, and seeks both passionate sex and intimacy with a male. Thus TERMS seems at first to point to women's more independent stance toward men in contemporary U.S. culture.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT seems to include conflicting ideological tendencies, some patently conservative, others less easily assimilable to traditional morality. Like many Hollywood films, it wants to have things both ways, presenting, on one hand, liberalized sexual values for the more "modern" audience and conservative values for more traditional folks. The plot's ideological negotiation also ends up being a successful marketing strategy.


TERMS especially focuses on mother-daughter relationships and problems of single or widowed mothers. As the film progresses, it depicts shifting and evolving relations between the mother and daughter and focuses on Aurora's growing ability to become a competent and loving mother. At first, Aurora seems to be rather self-centered and not need the daughter. She does not go to Emma's wedding, is not close to Emma's friends, nor even intimate with Emma. However, the two draw closer together after the daughter marries and leaves the house. The film plays on anxieties that aging women face when their children leave home and they feel no longer needed. TERMS assuages this anxiety by showing a situation where the daughter increasingly needs her mother's advice, support, and love. It holds out the hope that single, middle-aged women can find love and purpose after raising their children. The frequent conflicts between mother and daughter become resolved.

Since most Hollywood films have been centering on father-children relationships or problems of teenage boys growing up, the emphasis on mother-daughter relationships could have provided a feminist twist to the film. Its portrayal of the relationship is, however, ideologically ambiguous. On one hand, it realistically portrays the tendency of mothers to excessively dwell on their daughters and to live vicariously through their lives. And it depicts how some daughters remain overly dependent on their mothers for primary relationships and emotional support.

TERMS also represents contemporary marital conflicts. The husband puts his career and other interests before his wife and never really gives her an opportunity to help decide if they should take new jobs and move or not. However, such a conflict between domesticity and career is never really developed. Likewise, the choices concerning childbearing are not really posed though they hover in the background of the drama. At one point, Emma discovers that she is pregnant with her third child and the mother suggests abortion. Emma reacts with horror and anger and via identification positions the audience to consider abortion negatively, but the film never explores the options. It is significant here that it is the mother who suggests abortion and the daughter who resists it. This generational switch points to anti-abortion positions appealing to younger women.

Most of the main characters, in fact, contain a contradictory mixture of "liberalism" and "conservatism." Debra Winger's Emma, for instance, contains a contradictory mixture of an independent woman and a traditional loving daughter and mother. Winger has consistently played such roles — of relatively strong women who end up submitting themselves completely to men, in films such as URBAN COWBOY, CANNERY ROW, and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Emma's unrepressed sexuality and vitality in TERMS is structured into a traditional wife/mother role. Even her affair is justified by her husband's infidelity, so that the film can make the point that the family cannot survive with infidelity on the part of either husband or wife.[5]

Aurora's lover, the astronaut Garrett, and Emma's husband Flap both contain a similar "mixture" of characteristics. Garrett moves toward a traditional husband/father role, while Flap increasingly fails as husband/father. Flap doesn't seem emotionally wrought-up over Emma's death. At one point, we see him in the hospital cafeteria eating a gigantic meal and reading a book until Aurora comes to tell him that under no circumstances will she permit him to raise the children. Flap seems too weak and irresponsible to assume the responsibilities of husband and father. He drifts into affairs because he is naive and immature, rather than actively sexually aggressive.

Yet Flap is also selfish and manipulative and always seems to be running off to the library (and other women), leaving his wife to do all of the domestic chores and caring for the children. Moreover, Emma never questions her domesticity, nor does she suggest that Flap play a role in these areas. Again TERMS implicitly raises an issue — should the wife have sole responsibility for child-rearing — but never articulates it. Certainly no sharing of domestic labor is posited.

TERMS has been popular with male audiences. Perhaps men identify with Flap's refusal to take more domestic responsibility and with both Flap and the astronaut Garrett's refusal to commit themselves to monogamous relationships. Perhaps TERMS also projects a subliminal male fantasy of the wife's dying so that the male can pursue another love interest.[6] While Flap initially claims that he wants to raise the children after Emma's death, he surrenders them to Aurora without any real protest, admitting that he's not really suited for it and thus freeing himself from parental responsibilities. Although the theme of male flight from the family is not really developed, it does provide a subtext that may in part account for male attraction to the film.[7]

Jack Nicholson's astronaut character, Garrett, shifts from a dissolute and irresponsible bachelor to an acceptable father-figure and potential husband. At first, Garrett is a vulgar neurotic playboy who is basically lonely and slightly pathetic. When he enters into the relation with Aurora, he becomes transformed into a more charming and likeable fellow — until he tells Aurora that he cannot assume responsibility for a relationship. And then, the plot redeems and transforms him because he takes responsibility for the relation and even enters into a father role. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT suggests that without matrimony, family responsibility, and strong commitment, men will engage in rampant promiscuity. Consequently, the film advances the conservative anti-feminist argument that women's liberation and the ERA are bad because they would allow men to leave the family. It suggests only the family restrains men back from incessant billy-goating. Any departure from that norm signifies disaster.

Thus, TERMS uses an engaging story line, appealing characters, real social problems and conflicts, and a seemingly "realist" style to convey conservative messages. Although it seems to affirm sexual liberalism, it finally validates only certain sexual arrangements and attacks others. By shifting the focus to the mother Aurora and her astronaut lover during the second half of the film, the conflicts within Emma's family are displaced. We worry now whether or not Aurora will be able to humanize and domesticate the rather obnoxious astronaut. As she does so, the film posits marriage as the solution to single people's problems. In fact, only the mother and the astronaut undergo significant transformations. The mother is frustrated and unhappy until she takes on a lover, and the astronaut is transformed from a dissolute Lothario into a "nice guy." He shows up at the hospital where Emma is dying, and he finally assumes a father role for Emma's bitter and emotionally closed son in the final funeral scene. Garrett Breedlove, as has name indicates, redeems himself through the roles of husband and father. The film thus privileges these roles as the "proper" functions for men. Underneath the macho surface dwells a "nice guy." The film offers this reassuring message for neurotic males who want to be sexually irresponsible but also to feel good about themselves.


The cancer scenes most effectively convey TERMS' conservative sexual politics. The scenes of Emma dying, surrounded by husband, children, mother, and friends call attention to what has been lost through her disease (and what would have been lost if she and her husband continued to have affairs). These scenes depicting Emma's unsuccessful fight against cancer use intense white lighting and the sterile hospital decor to dramatize the family tragedy. The very length and emotional jabs of the cancer scenes elicit morbid sympathy from the audience and position viewers to accept traditional values. Emma's death's lengthy duration on screen promotes the idea of endurance. And the scenes showing all the family members pulling together to come to terms with their grief and love promotes a pro-family ideology. In fact, one of the film's many objectionable features is that it does not explore how people cope with cancer, as in a pro-feminist film like INDEPENDENCE DAY. Cancer is merely a plot device to focus sympathy on the wife and to enable the family to reconstitute itself.

TERMS therefore ends up affirming "mid-American" and suburban values over more urban cosmopolitanism. In the grocery store scene where Emma meets her soon-to-be lover, that Midwest banker rebukes the checkout girl for rudeness when Emma doesn't have enough money to pay the bill, and then he says that Emma must be from New York (the audience cracks up). When the dying Emma travels to New York with a friend, the New York workingwomen talk of their divorces, abortions and herpes. In the New York scenes, the camera focuses on the faces of the workingwomen and emphasizes their condescending and pseudo-sophisticated ways of relating to Emma. The film rejects liberal cosmopolitanism in favor of conservative mid-American family values. All workingwomen or independent women without men are shown to be unhappy and frustrated. The film posits the proper role for women as faithful, nurturing wife and mother.

This is, of course, a conservative male fantasy. Andrew Sarris suggests that Emma is the "fantasy Nurturing Woman" as projected by author Larry McMurtry, upon whose book the film is based, and that this fantasy has been used in other films based on McMurtry's novels: Cloris Leachman's coach's wife in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and in Blythe Danner's LOVING MOLLY.[8] TERMS insinuates that transgressions lead to cancer, herpes, abortion, sexual frustration, and emotional incompleteness. Thus, like much domestic melodrama, TERMS valorizes suffering and submissiveness as women's lot. The "terms of endearment" turn out to be those familial ties, rituals, and love, which should provide a haven in an otherwise heartless world. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT ends up advocating traditional gender roles within the family as the only institution capable of offering support and nurture in the face of life's hardships. And the film shows no viable alternatives. For example, the friend Patsy's desire to raise Emma's daughter as a single mother is discredited when the dying Emma tells Patsy that the girl's younger brother could not bear to have his sister taken away and that the children must remain together.

TERMS' popularity indicates how much people need emotional stability and security in a time of instability and insecurity. The whole current cycle of family melodramas shows vast confusion concerning sexual roles and the need for reassurance. On the one hand, the films reflect the increasing self-concern of an ascendant white upper-middle class that no longer wants to be bothered with questions of poverty or inequality. But the films can also be read as pointing to the crisis of values in U.S. institutions and people's need for an alternative sexual politics that provide security, empathy, warmth, and love without the neurotic forms of dependency that adhere to the traditional patriarchal family. The popularity of these films thus provides a challenge to feminists and leftists to reflect on the confused state of interpersonal relations and everyday life in advanced capitalist societies and to provide meaningful alternatives to middle class life and values.


This article is based on work done with Michael Ryan on our forthcoming book, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideologies of Contemporary Hollywood Film. For helpful comments on this article, I would like to thank Ryan, Judith Burton, Esther Fuchs, Lisa Gornick, Flo Leibowitz, Dan Thibideoux, Paula Russell, and Laura Thielen and other JUMP CUT editors for superb editing and posing provocative questions which helped with revision.

1. A number of articles have criticized the scapegoating of women in films like KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ORDINARY PEOPLE, etc. which can be interpreted as attacks on feminism. See Thomas W.O. Brian, "Love and Death in the American Movie," Journal of Popular Film and Television, 9, No. 2 (Summer 1980-81), 91-92; Elayne Rapping, "The View From Hollywood: The American Family and the American Dream, Socialist Review, 67 (Jan.-Feb. 1983), 71-92: Molly Haskell, "Lights … Camera … Daddy!" The Nation (May 28, 1983), 673-675; and Kellner-Ryan, Camera Politica.

2. On the codes of TV situation comedies as morality plays, see Douglas Kellner, "TV, Ideology, and Emancipatory Popular Culture," Socialist Review, 45 (May-June 1979), 19-22.

3. On the tradition of Hollywood women's films, see Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974) and Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus (New York: Avon, 1973).

4. See Philip Wylie, The Generation of Vipers (New York: Pocket Books, 1958). TERMS OF ENDEARMENT begins with the stereotype of the selfish, needy, and domineering mother, but the narrative shows her softening and humanized through the relationship with her lover and her assuming a more proper mother's role with her daughter as the years go by.

5. The filmmakers cut out scenes portraying the fun, tenderness, and intensity of the lovemaking between Emma and the Midwestern banker. See the article by John Lithgow, who played the banker, in Film Comment (Nov.-Dec. 1983), 28-32, who details the cut scenes. It is as if the filmmakers went to far in the direction of celebrating extra-marital sexuality and later decided to firmly come down on the side of traditional morality.

6. On the standard melodramatic formula of wives dying, or disappearing, so that the husband can pursue other love interests, see "Incest, Bigamy, and Incurable Disease" by Charles Derry, and "Men, Sex, and Money in Recent Family Melodramas" by Ellen Seiter, Journal of the University Film Association, 1983.

7. On male flight from the family, see Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men (New York: Doubleday, 1983).

8. Andrew Sarris, "The Topic of Cancer," Village Voice (Dec. 13, 1983), 72. Sarris also remarks:

"To win an Oscar, actresses must be suffering and submissive creatures with excessively messy lives. This is both the message and the mechanism of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT as the most widely admired tearjerker of the year" (p. 28).