Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays

Nº 11 – 2023 (1)

Being Dolls (or Not): Spinning mothers and daughters in Elena Ferrante’s adaptations

Barbara Zecchi (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

How to cite this article: Zecchi, B. (2023). Ser muñecas (o no): Madres e hijas girando en las adaptaciones de Elena Ferrante. Tecmerin. Revista de Ensayos Audiovisuales, 11, 2023(1). ISSN: 2659-4269

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter (2021), and the Italian television series My Brilliant Friend (2018-2022), adapted from novels by Elena Ferrante, delve into the intricate and often conflicting relationships between mothers and daughters. These works challenge patriarchal notions that prioritize the maternal mandate and glorify the love of and for the mother, in order to displace the common child-centered perspective and the dominant narrative of maternal effacement. By focusing on the emotional and psychological struggles that arise in such relationships they expose the intricate nature of the mother-daughter bond.

Through “deformative criticism” —which involves “revealing new insights into media texts by ‘breaking’ them in controlled or chaotic ways,” according to Kevin Ferguson (2017), or by “making the original work strange,” as Jason Mittell (2021) has put it— this video essay comments on the ways in which Elena Ferrante’s adaptations disrupt gender roles and societal expectations that shape women’s experiences of motherhood and daughterhood. Through the use of a multiscreen that alternates the clips clockwise, the video essay reenacts the spiral of conflicting emotions in which women are caught and challenges the rigidity of gender norms and power dynamics that are imposed upon mothers and daughters. The linear and hierarchical structure of heteropatriarchal categories is thus deformed, and the spiral imagery allows for a more dynamic understanding of the visceral and emotional turmoil that can accompany the mother-daughter bond.

The multiscreen in the video essay alternates between depictions of mothers who exert power and control over their daughters, treating them as disposable objects like dolls, and images of daughters who possess agency and autonomy, and can even physically hurt the ones who gave them life. The spiral imagery emphasizes the disposable and replaceable qualities of these relationships, while also acknowledging their irreplaceable aspects. The imagery underscores the fluctuating and intricate nature of the mother-daughter bond, which can encompass both nurturing and destructive elements. As this relationship is multifaceted, the multiscreen emphasizes that the power dynamics involved are also multifaceted and constantly in flux.

Moreover, the use of graphics —the words “delight”, “comfort”, “discomfort”, and “dismay”, that take turns in the spiral— reinforces the sense of emotional ups and downs. These visual cues convey that pleasure and irritation, delight and distress coexist. The white caulking handwriting, with its childlike quality, suggests a sense of playfulness or nostalgia. Its soft and delicate appearance symbolizes the fragility of the relationships and emotions depicted in the work. Its ephemeral nature, as chalk can easily be wiped away, suggests the fleeting nature of these connections, leaving a sense of impermanence and transience. Similarly, the extradiegetic song “La bambola” (the doll), a popular Italian hit by singer Patty Bravo in the late sixties, adds yet another layer of emotional complexity. Its lyrics, “tu mi fai girar” (“you make me spin”), suggest that even when a woman is treated like a toy – twirled, twisted, and turned – she can still break free from traditional gender roles and stand up for herself. The version of the song that I adapted by slowing down Patty Bravo’s voice, along with the spiral graphics, serves as a powerful symbol of the cyclical nature of the emotional struggles portrayed in these works. The final hummed notes of the song are hummed by my mother, adding a personal touch to the piece and hinting at our own complex relationship.

Alan O’Leary (2019) has observed that the concept of “making strange” in videographic criticism is reminiscent of Brecht’s estrangement technique. As scholars such as Diamond (1988) have previously argued, Brecht’s theories and counter-hegemonic feminist film practices can be read intertextually. By intentionally keeping the audience alert and disoriented, estrangement in cinema aims to expose and challenge the naturalized mechanisms that are often concealed by the dominant (i.e. patriarchal) film language. Thus, my use of deformative criticism serves to disrupt such naturalization and deromanticize the maternal-filial bond, highlighting the constantly shifting power dynamics involved that challenge hegemonic models.


  • Diamond, E. (1988): “Brechtian Theory/ Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism” 32.1 pp. 82-94.
  • Ferguson, K. L. (2017): “Digital Surrealism: Visualizing Walt Disney Animation Studios,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11.1, www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/1/000276/000276.html
  • Gyllenhaal, Maggie (director and scriptwriter) The Lost Daughter (2021)
  • My Brilliant Friend (2018-2022), TV Series, by Saverio Costanzo for HBO, RAI and TIMvision.
  • O’Leary, A. (2019): “No Voiding Time: A Deformative Videoessay,” 16:9 Filmtidsskrift, http://www.16-9.dk/2019/09/no-voiding-time/
  • Mittell, J. (2021): “Deformin’ in the Rain: How (and Why) to Break a Classic Film,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 15.1, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/15/1/000521/000521.html
  • Kiss, M. (2020) “Videographic criticism in the classroom: research method and communication mode in scholarly practice,” The Cine-Files 15 http://www.thecine-files.com/videographic-criticism-in-the-classroom/

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
© Tecmerin Research Group
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid