“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look”… An Analysis of “The Babadook”

“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of”… societal norms. The Babadook, especially in this trailer, both reinforces and questions many of the underlying assumptions our society has around gender and sex, class and sexuality. Amelia, the mother at the heart of this film, is simultaneously defined by her distance and increasing slippage away from norms, but also the societal pressures that she feels trapped and tormented by. The trailer looks at both Amelia’s perspective as a mother in society, but also society at large’s view of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a mother.

The expectations for Amelia seem to overwhelm her throughout the film. The most prominent of these expectations that Amelia struggles with are her responsibilities as a mother. As a mother, she is expected to be always emotionally and physically available to help her son, and able to quickly and effectively correct anything disruptive or societally detrimental that her child does. The first shot of Amelia in the trailer is her reading to her son, Samuel, in bed, a quintessentially maternal action as defined by our society. However, as the trailer continues, the world that Amelia lives in seems to be crumbling around her. Her son misbehaves and acts out in violent ways, like building a slingshot to fight the monster. Samuel is loud, disruptive and potentially violent, in ways that Amelia soon realizes she cannot always control. Samuel’s outbursts are Amelia’s “fault” as a mother, and through the institutions that surround her, she is blamed and shamed for her inability to control Samuel’s every move.

Amelia’s problems, especially with regards to Samuel, are often treated in an institutionalized way through a male perspective, as seen throughout the trailer, in ways that contradict and cause conflict within Amelia as a character. For example, the male administrator of Samuel’s school tells Amelia, in response to Samuel’s bringing a weapon to school, “the boy has significant behavioral problems” (while the female administrator remains silent), and the medical professional that Amelia sees tells her “all children see monsters”. Even the governmental agents of order, as seen through the police at 1:22 into the clip, are distorted and unhelpful in Amelia’s plight. The police officer is a reflection of the torment Amelia faces, with his gray skin and sunken appearance, much like the Babadook that plagues her and her family. The film simultaneously questions and reinforces the idea that the home and the family are the “woman’s sphere”; Amelia is situated in a context where her inability to mother Samuel “properly” is a reflection of both Samuel and her own failures in a medical sense. Samuel “promises to protect” his mother if she can protect him in the trailer; however, neither characters seems to be able to offer the other protection.

The character of Amelia also reflects and questions the stereotype of the “hysterical woman” and the dichotomy that society often situates between the sane, put-together mother, and the “crazy”, overworked mother who can’t handle her children. Much of the film appears to be presented as though it is from Amelia’s perspective. The quick glimpses of the monster that the trailer shows the audience, such as the knock on the door at the 1:00 mark of the trailer, the shadowy figure in the neighbor’s house at 1:19 and the graying skin of the police officer at 1:23, combined with the increasing desperation in Amelia’s voice and more unkempt appearance seem to suggest that perhaps “the Babadook” is only a figment of her imagination and a hallucination created by stress. Amelia herself seems to buy into the idea that what she’s seeing is not real; as she tells her coworker, “I’m fine…just a bit stressed at the moment.” The Babadook addresses a real consequence of society’s belittling of women and children; Amelia and Samuel face real dangers when what they see with their own eyes is dismissed as the ravings of an overworked, hysterical woman and the overactive imagination of a child. The belittling that Amelia faces as a woman is compounded by issues of class, and represents an example of how intersectionality can affect a person’s place in society.

Though the trailer doesn’t often address these issues as fully as the movie does, the trailer does help reveal how Amelia, by virtue of her class, is often judged and belittled by those of higher class and power. For example, though not addressed in the trailer, Amelia struggles in the upper-class world of her sister, and the assumptions and judgments that higher class women place on Amelia for not being able to “do it all” as both a working woman and a mother. Much of the judgment Amelia receives as a “bad mother” and “hysterical” seems to be compounded by her social class; Amelia has to work and cannot afford childcare for Samuel, and society around her seems to judge her for her inability, by virtue of her social class, to constantly keep watch on and act as an authority figure for Samuel. Directly addressed in the trailer, however, is how wealthier men of higher social status treat Amelia. The administrator and doctor, in addition to being men, are indicated to be of higher class than working-class Amelia in the trailer, and their opinions that they understand her situation better than her because they are men are compounded by the privileges they enjoy over her due to class. They are implied to be “experts” in their fields, which means that, in the context of dealing with Amelia, they assume they understand her life and situation better than she herself does, which, as the film progresses, soon becomes evidently fallacious.

The Babadook, as an entity, is also very interesting from a gendered perspective. While the Babadook is clearly not human, it is still slotted into the gender binary in this movie. It is gendered as male, referred to as “mister”, and wears clothes that Samuel and Amelia take to mean it is male. The gendering of the Babadook helps feed into the storyline of the loss and grief Amelia feels, and her isolation from the world around her. The male Babadook represents the two male people in her life that precipitate her decline. He represents both her deceased husband, who, like the Babadook, acts as an unseen effect on her life that keeps her from being able to live as society expects her to. He also represents her son, Samuel, who, like the Babadook, represents her fear of being unable to handle being a mother, her fear that she has created or “let in” a violent monster into her life and her fear that Samuel is unable to distinguish reality from fiction, into which Amelia herself fears that she is digressing.

The Babadook, while on the surface simply a traditional monster movie, is also a critique and presentation of societal norms and requirements expected of women and people of lower class. Amelia feels simultaneously far from, and dragged towards, societal expectations of her as a woman, a mother and a member of the working class. Just like “Mister Babadook” who Amelia tries to rid herself of, the expectations of society just won’t let her alone, whether or not she “lets it in” or not.