The faults of Mamma Mia! are well known; the singing is bad, the choreography is simple, and the plot is weak. Its strengths, on the other hand, are barely mentioned – strange for a film that made $615,000,000. This musical may not be for everyone but it has a strong feminist message and a beautifully positive, unifying feel. With Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (a perfectly named sequel) out this week, it’s time to look back at its strengths and legacy.
The film centres around Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) as they get ready for Sophie’s wedding. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has invited the three men who are her potential fathers. This may sound like a Days of Our Lives plot but the way it is handled in the film is really quiet remarkable. Though Sophie, while arguing, describes not knowing who your father is as “crap”, the only person who criticises Donna’s sexcapades is Donna herself. Donna laments that she was “a reckless little slut” when she discovers the men, and worries that they will ruin Sophie’s plan for the perfect wedding. Her friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tania (Christine Baranski) react with shock and talk her down, saying that she “sounds like her mother”, and that “it’s just Catholic guilt”. In a world where female sexuality is often ignored and invalidated, this simple exchange is a both a breath of fresh air and a moment of solidarity.
Likewise is the representation of Donna is a single mother. One of the common fallacies of mainstream western film is that a female character will need the white male protagonist’s help in a time of crisis. As Reese Witherspoon succinctly puts it, “what woman do you know that would have absolutely no idea of what to do in a time of crisis?” In Donna we see a representation of a much more familiar woman, one who bloody well gets on with it. Donna found herself young, single, and pregnant in a foreign country and what did she do? She started a business and raised her daughter.
Indeed Sophie is another feminist powerhouse, albeit in a different but still quiet nuanced way. Firstly, without Sophie’s drive to get what she wants, there would be no plot; Sophie wants to get married, and wants to find out who her father is. This active female protagonist is a character the likes of which we still do not see at the heart of blockbusters enough. But what’s more Sophie’s motivation for both getting married and finding her father are very relatable and help Sophie’s characterisation. Sophie wants a big wedding because it’s something her mum never did, and she doesn’t want any of her children to not know who their father is. Sophie’s quest to find her father is rooted in the belief it will make her feel more complete. In both incidences Sophie is appealing to tradition. She has internalised the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘proper’ way of having a family and her character arc is about her understanding that and rejecting it.
Nowhere is Sophie’s romanticism of traditional family more evident than in how she thinks she will find her father. Sophie believes she will know “as soon as [she] sees him” and then is confused when she can’t recognise her father. In this moment Sophie is confronted by that fact that the familial bond, though special, is not magical.
The progressive value that underlines Mamma Mia! is that a family is what you make it. Sophie ends up with three fathers and throughout the film Donna refers to the men as “Sophie’s dads”. But this is even more explicitly expressed in Sophie’s conversations with her fiancé, Sky (Dominic Cooper). Initially Sophie didn’t tell him her plan because she knew he would try to stop her. When she does come clean Sky tells her “you already have a family.”
Indeed the film’s relationship to the institution of marriage is more inline with emerging philosophies – namely that marriage is a bit absurd but it is what you want it to be. There are a variety of opinions on marriage: Tania just recently divorced her third husband, Rosie and Donna (at least until the finale) have never married, Sam is separated from his wife, and of course Sophie is about to get married – but then at the last minute, she does not.
In other hands, this may be seen as a criticism of marriage. What Mamma Mia! shows instead is a sense of togetherness, how marriage draw a community together in a wave of fun and positivity, and I think that is really what fans of the film really love. The energy and brightness of the film are infectious and stay with viewers long after they have stopped watching. The film is not self-aware, but in the great tradition of musicals is boldly camp, silly, and joyful. It is not an example of quality film-making on the whole but the fact that it elicits such strong feelings in its audience is something quality films should do.
In the current zeitgeist of film with gritty-reboots, meta-comedy, and the wider negative atmosphere a lot of us are feeling around the world. Mamma Mia! might not be the flawless film we want, but it could be the one we need, and a better context for its sequel to arrive in is hard to imagine.