Exploring the Modern Mother in Lyle

Oct 10, 2018 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog

In partnership with Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina, The Nickelodeon is proud to present Medusa’s Gaze, a three-part series exploring the feminine in horror film.

This series is conducted in collaboration with Unsweetened Magazine and Dr. Julia Elliott’s class, “Monstrous Mothers and Femme Fatales: Gender and Monstrosity in Horror Film.” Here, one of Dr. Elliot’s students, Kaci Bullard, discusses Lyle

What makes a good mother? This question is at the center of Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle, a chilling tale about what a mother must do to protect her child. Often called the “lesbian Rosemary’s Baby,Lyle explores monstrous aspects of motherhood inspired by the iconic Roman Polanski film. After expecting couple Leah (Gaby Hoffman) and June (Ingrid Jungermann) move into a large Brooklyn brownstone, they are faced with every parent’s worst nightmare when a tragic accident leads to the death of their beloved daughter Lyle. From there, the film follows Leah as she prepares for the birth of their second daughter while reeling from the loss of their first.

Stewart Thorndike masterfully taps into subconscious fears regarding motherhood with an examination of the role of the female in the modern family. While it was traditionally the role of the mother to stay at home and care for the children, it isn’t uncommon for the modern mom to pursue a career as well. In fact, the mother is now the primary breadwinner in a large portion of families. This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed and, for many, is a cause for concern. In a time marked by worry about the decline of family values, mothers who pursue a career are often criticized for their decision to follow their ambition rather than dedicate themselves solely to their children. Thorndike’s decision to focus on a lesbian couple in a two-mother household, rather than a heterosexual couple as in Rosemary’s Baby, allows her to compare the two ideals side-by-side, juxtaposing Leah and June as two models of modern motherhood and exploring societal unease with the changing roles of the female parent.

Though not completely content with her role as a stay-at-home mom, Leah devotes herself to taking care of both Lyle and the family’s new apartment. She’s shown as a loving, attentive mother to her daughter, frequently urging Lyle to stay in the same room as her. The audience sympathizes with her as they watch her deal with the difficulties of being a stay-at-home mom. They see the monotony of her days as well as her exhaustion and anxiety over the new apartment. Leah is frequently shown with a messy bun and no makeup on, which the audience understands and appreciates as another sign of her dedication to her child. When Leah is seen worrying over June’s ambition, which causes her to become more distant from Leah and their daughter, the audience immediately sympathizes with Leah because they see that she has her daughter’s best interests in mind.

That’s certainly a sharp contrast to June, whose career as a music producer is starting to take its toll on their family. Like Guy in Rosemary’s Baby, June begins spending more and more time at the office, often staying late or working on a Saturday, never stopping to think about her family at home. She appears to be happy with her career, rather than upset about the time it keeps her from spending with her daughter. Clearly, the audience is not supposed to sympathize with June, despite her hard work to provide for her family. Rather than seeing the nuances of her motivations for pursuing her career, the audience only sees blind ambition. As a result, her actions are vilified and viewed as selfish.

Interestingly, the audience views June’s actions as more shocking than those of Guy in Rosemary’s Baby, whose initial ambitious behavior is criticized, yet not wholly unexpected since it fits male gender stereotypes. While one would expect audiences to react to June just as they did to Guy, her actions shock viewers, causing a visceral reaction that forces them to confront their unconscious prejudices regarding gender roles. When Leah mentions that June has stopped going on walks with Lyle, June’s actions are especially upsetting because it appears that she’s willfully abandoning her responsibilities as a mom. Because of the audience’s familiarity with traditional gender roles, it is much more difficult for them to understand a career-driven mother rather than a father and, as a result, is unsettled to see it play out on screen.

Ultimately, Thorndike’s Lyle takes advantage of societal unease with the evolving role of the modern mother in order to update and emphasize the horrors of motherhood first introduced in Rosemary’s Baby.