The relationship between mother and child is crucial to human existence. To be loved and cared for by mother is our most primordial need, as one body becomes two, yet two forever remain one. Mother creates us, she moulds us in her womb and then her heart, birthing us as an extension of her love. Nothing is more damaging to a child and tragic to the soul than the unmet needs of mother. For centuries, we have seen the influence of early mother-child bonding on the long-term health and resilience of children, often casting disastrous effects when that bond is untethered. Infancy is a fundamental time for brain development, and evidence continually points to the powerful role of loving nurture in the social, emotional and cognitive development of a child.

We learn about ourselves and the world through Mother—she is our first love.

What is worse is when the untethering of this bond is a result of a dysfunctional relationship projected by mother onto child. A dynamic often characterised by mother perceiving her child as either a threat or a direct extension of herself; neither being mutually exclusive. Like Ovid’s Narcissus, she only sees a reflection of herself in them, or perhaps holds resentment from past unmet needs, subconsciously deeming them an issue in every attempt to expel them from her nest. This is famously depicted through Carl Jung’s Electra Complex, understood as the female counterpart to Freud’s Oedipus Complex, which establishes the psychosexual competition between mother and daughter for the possession and attention of the father. Yet are these complex interactions rooted in deeper issues that are a reflection of past trauma? How and why did these mothers lose the very thing that makes them significant to us?

The origins of Jung’s Electra dates back to Greek tragedian Sophocles and his conception of her through myth. Set in the Greek city of Argos not long after the Trojan War, the play tells the tale of Electra’s brutal struggle for justice over the murder of her father, King Agamemnon. Assassinated by her stepfather and supported in bloodshed by her mother, Queen Clytemnestra, Electra was driven to avenge him through annihilation. Electra and her brother Orestes spent years meticulously plotting this matricidal revenge, with the hopes of reclaiming their father’s throne from the clutches of a corrupt king and a malignant mother. In his tragedy, Sophocles explores the ‘blood for blood’ Greek system of justice that can even occur between mother and daughter, ultimately building the foundation of Jung’s Electra Complex.

The pendulum of Electra can indeed swing both ways; between either mother or daughter, the damage is immense. The ballpark of the Electra mother is as fascinating as it is cataclysmic, where a psychosocial recipe for disaster eventually manifests in attachment issues and personality disorders. Clinical psychologist Dr Ramani examines the shockwaves of the narcissistic Electra mother that stay with us well into adulthood—her victim living a life spent wondering, ‘why am I not enough?’, ‘why doesn’t she notice me?’, ‘why doesn’t she care?’ She defines the patterns of narcissism as someone having little or limited capacity for empathy, having a sense of entitlement and ownership over the victim, exploitation and manipulation, coercive control and a cruelty that is based in deceitfulness—designed to suit only their best interest and to protect their fragile ego. The echoes and ghosts of these figures haunt us in our adult relationships, leaving us to look to other adults in our world for guidance, and oftentimes making dangerous relational choices, all as a way to fill in for something that should have been provided all along.

The timelessness of this damage is canonically depicted through our favourite fairy tales. These fables tragically teach us many lessons that not only lure us into narcissistic relationships, but keep us trapped within their confines. The first way is through the idea that we can change someone with our love, no matter how difficult they are. We see this in Beauty and the Beast, the key takeaway being that if you love someone and put up with their abuse for long enough, you can reawaken their harmonious nature and live happily ever after. These fairy tales also leave us trusting in the idea of being rescued, and that if we endure our malignant family system, we will eventually be saved from it—such is the case with Cinderella. She appears to us as the scapegoat of her dysfunctional blended family dynamic, along with a jealous and invalidating stepmother who kept her captive as the house slave. After magically being assisted by her fairy godmother and tirelessly pursued by the prince, we once again see our distorted ‘happily ever after’. The problematic conclusion of this narrative is that patience will save us, so while Beauty was concerned with rescuing the Beast from his virulence, Cinderella rather relates to being rescued from it.

The weight of the wicked stepmother trope is ferociously accurate in its representation of the Electra mother and her eternal disdain. Her notoriety dates back to the goddess Hera of ancient Greece, who outwardly loathed the children that her husband Zeus had conceived with other women, seeking retribution by attempting to kill them, like when she sent serpents to kill Hercules in his infancy. The stepmother has taken on countless forms yet is almost always concerned with self-interest and power through scheming her way into the life of a rich and conveniently unaware man.

This was further crystallised in fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, as seen with Snow White and the Evil Queen. She obsessively fixates on remaining the ‘fairest of them all’, as reimagined in Evan Daughtery’s film adaptation of Snow White and the Huntsman, where her beauty is the only currency that keeps the terror of her reign alive, even at the cost of Snow White’s life. In a similar vein, Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel keeps her locked away from the world in order to maintain her own youth and beauty, leaving Rapunzel to sacrifice everything she has to save a prince she barely knows. Comparative literature professor Jack Zipes discusses the prevalence of death by childbirth throughout the 18th and 19th century, which left many fathers to remarry younger women. Through his understanding, Zipes speculates that ‘the Grimm’s [stepmothers] were reflecting sociologically a condition that existed during their lifetime—jealousy between a young stepmother and stepdaughter.’ While age is not always an ingredient in this relationship, envy always is.

The Electra mother is deeply jealous and resentful of her husband’s love for his child, which she knows is considerably greater than his love for her.

The Electra mother and her detrimental impact on a child’s psychology is as vast as the ocean, but a specific subtype that recurs in psychological horror involves mothers who refuse to let their children leave the metaphorical womb. A compelling depiction of this can be sensed through Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 body horror masterpiece, Black Swan. It is a story of seduction, the denial of womanhood, along with the loss of control in the pursuit of perfection. Aronofsky’s protagonist, Nina, is perpetually torn between opposing forces of duality that reside in the leading role she plays as Swan Queen. These forces also mirror the pressures that lie beneath the surface of her life offstage with her mother. This dichotomy is characterised through Nina’s inherently pure and fragile nature—the White Swan, versus the darkness and sexual liberation of the Black Swan. From the outset of the film, we are presented with the overbearing nature of Nina’s relationship with her mother; one that lacks boundaries, riddled with desperation to live vicariously through Nina’s success as a ballerina—unsurprisingly a dream she was unable to fulfil as a result of falling pregnant with her.

Their relationship is one between mother and girl, rather than mother and woman. She refers to Nina throughout the film as her ‘little’ and ‘sweet’ girl, attempting to freeze her in an infantilised state of innocence and girlishness. She keeps her bedroom frilly and filled with stuffed animals, clips her nails and helps her bathe, controls her diet along with an enforced curfew that bleeds into an overall management of her career and life. As the pressure of her mother’s authority and the role intensifies, we see Nina grow tired of living with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Disoriented and childlike, she entirely lacks any sense of self. Nina’s hunger to develop her own identity is explored in the film through the concept of the monstrous double. Before Nina is even considered for the Swan Lake production, she crosses paths with a version of herself that is powerful, sensual and grown. This version of herself aligns with the qualities of the Black Swan, who Nina fights to embody both literally and figuratively as she trains for her role as Swan Queen.

The more Nina embodies the passion and power of the Black Swan, the tighter her mother’s clutches become. She paints portraits of her to symbolically infantilise her, increasing her attempts to control and surveil her—as the Electra mother is unable to cope with the becoming of her daughter and insists on keeping her in her purest form, only to discard her when that form is undone. All through the story, Nina consistently and increasingly claws at her skin—emblematic of her clawing at the pressure of perfection that only exists in the untaintedness of childhood. This allegorical imagery of self-harm is then met with disdain by her mother, both because she considers Nina’s body her own property, as well as the scratching being a representation of resistance. The more Nina claws at her skin, the easier it becomes for the Black Swan’s feathers to pierce through, allowing her to integrate her truest and final form. By the night of the show, Nina decides it's ‘her turn’ to take back a lifetime of agency that was robbed from her, as she thrusts the broken glass into the belly of the White Swan, slaughtering her old false-self who was nothing more than a reflection of an Electra mother’s desires.

Another captivating lens through which we understand the Electra mother and her swan is in the colour psychology of the film. Aside from the more obvious black and white, there are three recurring colours that directly parallel Nina’s spiral into perfection through her role in Swan Lake. The first cinematographic references to her childhood and home life are saturated in pink, a classic depiction of her deep immersion with the girlish microcosm her mother created for her. From her entirely pink bedroom, to pink socks and scarves, as well as the pink birthday cake her mother made for her—but would not let her eat.

However, the narrative is not solely about Nina and her derailing psychosis, it is about her mother as a narcissistic force that abuses her daughter, as depicted through green imagery. We see this as soon as she steps out her pink-soaked bedroom into the rest of the house, permeated with various shades of green and almost always a background colour to any frame her mother appears in. This emphasises her envy towards Nina who she uses to meet her own unmet needs as ballerina, whilst still undermining her in becoming too successful. Green is also associated with Rothbart who curses the White Swan, an echo to how her mother holds her captive by infantilising her. Lastly, we see Nina’s climactic liberation in the lustful and sexual nature of red, qualities Nina needs to embody to become the seductive Black Swan. From the crimson lipstick she steals from Beth’s dressing room, to the blood that soaks her white feathers in the closing scene, this is the conclusive colour that she embraces by relinquishing her innocence through death and in ultimately reaching the bliss and fulfilment of perfection.

Through these tragic tales of the mother-wound and their impact, how can we assure that this trauma ends with us, not through death, but rather through awareness in breaking generational cycles that were never truly ours to inherit?