Lincoln. Mary speaks to Abe of his dreams.

Lincoln. Tad Lincoln rides a goat cart in the White House corridor.

Lincoln. Mary tells Abe to go ahead and put her in the madhouse.

Lincoln. Mary collapses at Abe’s feet during the argument.

Lincoln. Stevens watches Mary Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley being seated in the balcony prior to the vote on the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln. Mrs. Keckly and Mary Lincoln in the reverse shot. Note the differing eyelines

Lincoln. Stevens looking back at balcony when making his statement that he does not believe in full equality for Negroes.

Lincoln. Stevens and Lydia Smith reading the 13th Amendment.


Mary Todd Lincoln in 2012

Lincoln presents a version of Mary as a wife who can parse her husband’s dreams, a political person who takes on the House of Representatives over the renovation budget of the public White House, a private political advisor who urges Lincoln to use his political capital on something other than the Thirteenth Amendment, a mother who is highly overprotective to some sons and indifferent to the youngest, and finally a woman who is labeled “selfish” and “crazy” due to her intemperate and lengthy period of active grieving over their dead son Willie. This maternal aspect constitutes the central portion of Mary’s relation to “Nature,” but like Mary Todd in Young Mr. Lincoln, she is external to Nature itself and does not evoke the realm of the pastoral.

Our first glimpse of Mary in this film comes near the beginning in the Lincolns’ bedroom where she is getting ready for bed and listening to Abe recount a dream where he was alone on a ship. He rebukes himself for bothering her and she answers that she does not want to be spared a thing. She refers to herself as a

“useless woman…a soothsayer, not to be trusted.”

She refers to her awful headaches that are a result of a carriage accident, an event she considers to have been an assassination attempt on Lincoln. He disagrees.

The dialogue here leaves Mary balanced between the world of dreams, hysterical illness (her headaches), soothsaying and the world of political and personal observation. She interprets an accident as an assassination attempt while Lincoln dismisses that notion.[18] Are all of these dimensions outside the phallogocentric? Typically we associate political activity and analysis with reasoned argument, with power, thereby placing it into the phallic realm.

Like the Mary Todd in Young Mr. Lincoln, she is not located in nature but primarily in interiors, this time in the White House and in two other scenes, in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Representatives. Once near the film’s end, she and Lincoln take a carriage drive in a park, but otherwise, she is seen indoors. The White House itself is a liminal area with its public and personal (family, private) areas blurred together. Young Tad Lincoln rides a goat cart through a corridor filled with political petitioners. Mary and son Robbie have a reunion in that same hallway. Lincoln interrupts meetings to discuss Tad’s problems. Family and political life are intertwined spatially and Mary Lincoln is a pivotal figure in that connection.

Mary Lincoln displays her motherly side in a scene where she greets Robbie, returned from law school, with admonitions that he is not eating enough, and she sends Tad to fetch Lincoln for the reunion. A darker side of her maternal nature is exhibited in a scene just prior to a White House reception. She lingers in her dead son’s room, and Lincoln seeks her out. This scene clearly reaffirms the association of Mary with death and dementia, as did her first scene in the film, where she speaks of assassination and of her “craziness.” Here though, she mentions her guilt over the child’s death and her inability to stop grieving.

Lincoln’s work to pass the amendment goes against Mary’s wishes. She accuses him of wasting his political capital, and when he postpones peace talks with the Confederacy, of exposing their elder son to danger by prolonging the war. The counterargument, that this is Lincoln’s moral duty, operates against his wife’s wishes, but in a way that at least indicates that Mary possesses some type of political awareness, since she understands the fact that the Amendment represents a very long shot in political terms. Interestingly, however, the moral duty of Lincoln here opposes the maternal instinct, or natural instinct, of Mary. Unlike in Young Mr. Lincoln or Abe Lincoln In Illinois, in this film the “natural” world of woman and family do not support a movement toward larger and more profound moral concerns.

This scene’s concerns return when Lincoln and Mary argue over Robbie’s intentions to join the Army. Lincoln has made him an adjutant, far from the fighting but Mary still worries that he could die anyway: of typhus, a stray bullet, an armory accident. The conversation turns heated as she accuses Lincoln of hating Robbie because he “trapped you in a marriage that has given you nothing but grief.” Lincoln rebukes her for this statement, and the conversation spirals out of control with Mary screaming that he should just go ahead and put her in the madhouse. Mary performs a scene of abasement as the argument escalates. She collapses on the floor doubled over, and in her hoop skirt, looks all balled up at the feet of the very tall Lincoln. At one point, Lincoln agrees that committing her would have been better for everyone’s sake. He calls her grief selfish, and the visual image of her huddled into herself certainly bespeaks the notion of a figure focused on internal desires and issues.

This scene reinforces the general public view of Mary Todd that emerged in the late 19th Century after her commitment to an institution in 1875 as an insane woman who drove Lincoln cruelly with her passions, an evaluation that places a woman at the center of a man’s troubles. She is reprimanded for not being a loving, giving spouse or mother. And this judgment is highlighted in a later scene between Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley, where Mary’s companion and dressmaker claims the Maternal: she is a woman whose son died wearing Union blue, telling Lincoln,

“that is what I am to the Nation”—a war mother who gave her son for the cause.”

The political Mary Todd and the nation’s First Housewife    

At the reception in Lincoln, Mary stands in the receiving line, greeting senators and representatives and giving a special bit of attention to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). She does not flirt but confronts Stevens coating her words in Southern Belle sweetness. She thanks Stevens for his attentions to her household budgets and the ensuing conversation reveals that her accounts were examined closely for evidence of malfeasance. She retorts with a description of how the Congress had let the White House run down—mushrooms growing in the rooms, everything in squalor—musing that perhaps they thought such conditions were appropriate to the “prairie primitives” she and Abe were thought to be.

This comment makes sense within the narrative. The Lincolns did come from a less settled area of the country. However, there was considerable binding of the terms of women and Native Americans, or “savages,” to borrow the nineteenth century term, as early as 1830s. While visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Toqueville described both women and Native Americans as isolated communities surrounded and circumscribed by white culture.[19] Mary Lincoln’s reference to “prairie primitives” also evokes a trope of nineteenth century thinking that can be found in advertisements of the time linking women with “primitive” Native Americans, which supports the notion that women are just primitive men, although with differences. Native Americans were driven off their lands and to eventual decimation or confinement in reservations. Clearly, this linkage between “woman” and “primitive” emerges from the cultural work of a white patriarchal society defending its boundaries and privilege.

Mary’s use of the phrase, “prairie primitives” resonates with a number of issues then: regional, racial, and gender conflict. This exchange places Mary in a liminal state: housewife but also public politician restoring a national building to livability and dignity. This connection indicates again the heavy ideological work of a culture of white masculine privilege that desperately wants to assign women and people of color to some vague realm elsewhere. Instead of arguing this ideological work through the by the model of psychoanalytic critique in Cahiers article, I would argue that Mary in Young Mr. Lincoln is not Woman, not an abstract phenomenon whose existence in the text leads Lincoln to an understanding of the Law, but instead she is a political person in her own right, albeit in a limited sphere of influence.

Given Thaddeus Stevens’ central position in the progress of the 13th Amendment, a scene in the House as the bill is considered for passage provides another insight into Mary Lincoln’s positioning. She and her dressmaker/companion, the ex-slave Mrs. Keckley, are seated in the balcony observing the speeches. The Balcony is of course the only space where women may appear in the House, an already marginal space. Mary looks down at the spectacle. Stevens apparently returns that look. Familiarity with shot-reverse-shot conventions and their relation to narrative could lead us to conclude that he is looking back at Mary.

However, he is really looking at Mrs. Keckley, gauging her reaction to the politicking. This is confirmed by Steven’s point of view shot of Mrs. Keckley leaving after he makes his statement that he does not believe in full equality for Negroes, just equality before the law. This is a public retreat from his earlier position advocating for full equality for Negroes. Stevens knows that he will be called to account for this, but he acts in this way as a pragmatic move to achieve the goal of passing the 13th Amendement. A scene near the end of the film reveals another reason for Stevens’ sensitivity to Mrs. Keckley’s response. He is engaged in a relationship with his Black common-law wife Lydia Smith, who is known to the world as his “housekeeper.” We see the two of them in bed, poring over the official Amendment that he brings home as a type of “gift” to her.


Exploring the representations of the women in three Lincoln films offers a glimpse into ways that a model of gender relations does not have to boot women into the “other” category but can fruitfully discusses their representation as male fantasies. Analyses of specific filmic texts can demonstrate that a complex and shifting matrix of stereotypical cultural ideas about the nature of femininity and nature impinge upon the construction of the male protagonist in multiple ways. There are alternatives to the psychoanalytic model used in the Cahiers article. Despite the flexibility of gender relations and potential for open readings of gender even in mainstream cultural productions, the positioning of women tends to consist of a set of interlocking male fantasies. Female characters act as support, goad, conscience, romantic ideal, political advisor, soothsayer, mother and housewife. The female characters straddle Nature, Law, and Motherhood in all three films despite the lengthy time gap between the release of the first two films and the release of Lincoln in 2012.

These qualities relate to the “main narrative themes” of all three movies. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln is called to a great destiny, which is memorialized in the closing shot of the film. Abe Lincoln In Illinois presents a different but related type of call: one to a public career full of achievements on a scale much larger than Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln depicts the President as a pragmatic man, a politician who is willing to compromise to achieve great things, specifically the passage of the 13th Amendment. Taking these three themes in order, the character of Mary Todd must be shown as a proper helpmate to a “great man” in Young Mr. Lincoln, a strong, aggressive woman who will shore up her man’s vacillating weakness in Abe Lincoln In Illinois, and in Lincoln, a confidante, a domestic advisor who worries over Lincoln’s use of his political capital.

The persistence of these fantasies indicates the ideological work done to stabilize the classical psychoanalytic theory, as it struggles to preserve the realm of Law for males alone. Even though the Cahiers applications of theory to popular culture intends a critique of cultural practice, it ends up reinforcing some of the male fantasies prevalent in that popular culture.

Hollywood’s recirculation of tired mainstream stereotypes about women operates in the boardroom and on the screen. The number of women producers and directors has not increased enough to make a critical difference in the types of films and types of representation available to audiences. The reductionist portrait of Mary in Spielberg’s film exists in a Hollywood ecosystem of female marginalization and stereotyping. In 2013, only one summer movie had female headliners: The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Blockbuster movies for the past few years provided few supporting females roles and generally limited them to sexy, cat-suit-wearing, non-super powered women (The Black Widow in The Avengers, whose very name is a female cliché) or girlfriends in need of protection (Pepper Potts in Iron Man). Granted, Potts is the nominal head of Stark Industries, but most of her time is spent enduring various forms of peril. Star Trek Into Darkness added one more female character in Carol Marcus, but inserted a gratuitous underwear scene just to appeal to young male audiences.[20] The other female character, Lt. Uhura, did join some action scenes, but was reduced to starting a petty relationship squabble with her boyfriend while they were on a dangerous mission, a scene that undermined the character’s professionalism.

Increased attention to the historicity of Mary Todd Lincoln in the script, could have deepened the representation of her role in the White House and in the family. This was a woman who endured a lifelong series of personal losses at a time when women’s only outlets for grief lay in domestic pursuits. She faced public scorn as First Lady from a Washington public who saw her as a frontier woman lacking social graces and bourgeois good taste. While myth and movies put the blame for the Lincolns’ troubled marriage onto her shoulders, historians acknowledge that Lincoln contributed his share to the marriage’s rough spots.

Spielberg is mythologizing history and Abraham Lincoln as well, but it’s a mythologization that aligns him with a pivotal moment in history. I am not claiming that Mary’s character needs to be pumped up into some courageous heroine leading the charge for the anti-slavery movement, but perhaps the script could have dug a little deeper in an effort to avoid mythologizing Mary in a way that diminishes her humanity. Indeed, Lincoln oftenfalls into the mythological trap of reducing Mary to “Crazy Lady in the White House,” while Abe Lincoln In Illinois creates an aggressive, “non-womanly” (to use an archaic phrase) Mary, and Young Mr. Lincoln creates a soft, passive, supportive Mary. I can speculate and hope that a women screenwriter or director might have given Mary more complexity.

The entrenched Hollywood power structure has not received the message that women will spend their money on films with female lead characters, or films with significant female second leads. When The Devil Wears Prada was released in 2009, Fox executives were shocked at the five-day box office figure of $40 million. The total so surprised Fox's president of distribution that he remarked he "never thought it would be this big," since he'd never seen a "predominately female movie open quite that large."[21] Articles reporting on box office for The Heat reported on this phenomenon of the underserved female audience.[22] Clearly, neither Freud nor Hollywood can really answer the question, “what do women want?”

Examining the assumptions behind the psychoanalytic critique leads toward a more materialist, historicized understanding of representation. That in itself is not a new argument but a reworking of an earlier attempt to deconstruct masculinity. The Cahiers article cannot be dismissed out of hand but credit should be given to its methodological rigor and attention to the structures that produce mythologized images. However, in the 21st century, reducing women to a set of discourses serves to prop up not only an ingrained sexist production system but also dangerously sexist and racist political practices here in the United States and around the world.

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