Review: Lamb (2021) and Trad (ongoing)
A24's Lamb is a beautiful counter narrative on parenthood and a respite from Trad propaganda
In American stories, the stage at which a couple has children is used as a timestamp for the decline of the relationship. To become a parent is examined, not as a state two people share, but the transformation of someone into something less desirable: a mother or father and the loss that comes with it. After kids, they say, “the spark” is gone. Pregnancy and child-rearing are portrayed as circumstances that make women sexually unavailable to their partners who go on to—apparently inevitably—cheat. Can you think of a single recent American marriage depicted on screen or in a novel that didn’t involve betrayal or dissolution? The American imagination seems limited to viewing marriage and parenting as where romantic love goes to die.
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Even the figure of the nanny, a professional hired to care for kids, is usually a plot device in a story of marital infidelity. I suspect this tendency is connected to how creators in Hollywood fail to think beyond appetites as the only arcs. The characters’ goals begin and end with personal satiation independent of, or in opposition to, social ties. Any domestic acts of care attached to enabling another person’s life, or own’s own, is typically depicted as the thankless, unpaid, gendered drudgery at the expense of those involved. No wonder “main character syndrome” has become a coping mechanism for a society with few models of relation. Care work is understood primarily in the context of burden, or presented as a cosplay through which right wing fantasies about women are realized. Not so with A24’s Icelandic farmhouse horror movie Lamb (2021) where a rural couple become parents to a child with the head of the title animal. Lamb is not concerned with asking or answering many questions about the half human-half sheep Ada; instead what it depicts in detail is Ada’s effect on the couple.
Surrounded by bleating sheep, howling winter wind, and a staticky radio broadcasting Christmas specials, farmers María and Ingvar are quiet people. Before we hear them speak, we see them work: starting their day with fresh hay for their flock, driving their rattling tractor across their land, feeding their cat. When they finally sit down together for breakfast, the first words exchanged are about the possibility of time travel. Ingvar says he would go to the future, Maria says the past, and they both return to silence between them in the present they wish they weren’t in. The movie gracefully avoids the cliche of a bereft couple emptied by loss; instead, Lamb circles the loss in subtle details as the rest of the film’s world is revealed.
The space is quickly filled. The winter passes and their flock begins lambing. As they catalog the new births, they find one that doesn’t fit with the rest. When Ada falls from her sheep mother’s body, Ingvar and Maria lock eyes in mutual awe, and in a decision made wordlessly. Maria carries the “child” inside. Ingvar pulls out a crib that had been stored in a shed. And they give the lamb the same name as the one on the grave markers by their home. The grieving couple begins caring for a lamb that has human limbs, tottering like a toddler, its fuzzy lamb head emerging from the collar of its sweater and overalls.
Becoming a mother transforms Maria, perhaps no less than it would have had she been biologically experiencing postpartum. Her anxieties grow, manifesting as disturbing dreams wherein her child is taken from her. Her instincts sharpen, losing hesitation or doubt. She wastes no time in shooting and burying Ada’s birth mother, defending her own position and safeguarding the child as she sees fit. The wan unsmiling couple become renewed as parents, a fresh sense of purpose invigorating their routines. Ingvar and Maria delight in Ada’s smallness; they're moved by her growth. They become happy and fulfilled. A quiet pride and satisfaction blooms across their faces, and along with spring, brightens their little world. Far from driving them apart with tension and burden, Ada’s presence firms how they relate to each other. Their desire for each other returns. Lamb portrays joys of early parenthood completely earnestly.
When Ingvar’s brother appeared, aghast at his brother’s “experiment,” I braced myself for the disappointing cliche of Maria cheating on her husband with him. The movie hints at a history of intimacy between them. Instead she rebuffs his advances, and it isn’t long before he’s playing the happy uncle, napping with little Ada asleep on his chest and a storybook open between them.
One could draw comparisons between how Ada became Maria’s with how many children from Africa, Asia, and Latin America find themselves “adopted” by white families (the vast majority of international adoptions are of children with living parents). For me, at least, the film required just enough suspension of belief to enjoy it without being too aware of the parallel. Though I can’t say whether others would have the same experience.
A white couple raising their family in rural bliss is the type of aesthetic usually deployed by the right wing to animate white nationalist fantasy. It’s such an enduring symbol, that rarely is it presented without selling you something—anything from salad dressing to defense spending. In its attention to the banalities of living in a home with a child, Lamb made itself unavailable to either fascist vision-boarding or the inescapable pessimism surrounding the desire to have kids. In America childrearing is expensive, exhausting, and isolating. Lamb made having a child seem nice, and made happiness within that context appear natural, inevitable even. It was a pleasant escape into sentiment that is rarely so politically neutral.
With abortion criminalized and material conditions worsening for most people, to speak of the joys of parenthood would be at best tone deaf and at worst, echo the natalism resurgent in this country. While Hollywood media treats parenthood like a narrative dead end, social media has nursed a cottage industry of content creators who are repopularizing finding fulfillment in family life. Over the last few years “Trad”—a commitment to the traditional gendered division of labor towards maintaining hearth and home—has found a receptive audience.
On its face, Trad claims to be about the pleasure and fulfillment available in the domestic sphere. But its concerns could not be further from the type of care work depicted in Lamb. Trad isn’t about parenting, it’s about reproduction. Specifically the social reproduction of patriarchy. Trad endorses gender role models previously found in church sermons and 1950s suburbia, which are now being hailed by men and women across social media—disillusioned by the ways they feel the sexual revolution failed them and exhausted by the economic pressure of surviving capitalism in failing states.
In wealthy nations, people feel betrayed by the inaccessibility of the future they were promised. Statecraft with an unyielding devotion to profit maximization for the few at the expense of public welfare has led to where it always would have. But oligarchs and a geriatric congress—whose negligence and collusion creates crises like baby formula shortages—are too abstract and impersonal a target. For those seduced by Trad, it’s far more energizing to blame those around you. As Americans become more disenfranchised, such fringe lifestyle ideologies grow popularly because feeling like you’re in on a suppressed truth can feel enough like power to distract you from your sense of powerlessness. With mainstream media seemingly rejecting the pursuit of orthodox family life, hegemonic “traditional” values suddenly have the cachet of counter culture. Besides, Trad offers the soothing illusion of an alternative.
Trad propagandists idealize the roles of wifedom and motherhood that they feel would exempt women from the indignities of modern life in the West and lead to “strong” families and therefore a stronger nation. They post pictures of sprawling homes and beatifically smiling women. Their aspirations are usually moodboarded with prairie dresses and sunlit meadows, the promise of easily secured monogamy and fully stocked kitchens. Their tone is smug, taunting anyone who would submit their bodies and minds to the “unnatural” ravagings of birth control, antidepressants, bad dates, sex outside commitment, long office hours, or any other trappings of modern neoliberal society—except for perhaps cheap grocery delivery and canisters sets into which they can decant prepackaged goods. The joys of Trad living, as aestheticized on social media, are not an alternative to the hyperconsumerism that has come to define the bourgeoisie, they’re part of its expression, as Trad influencer’s Amazon affiliate links demonstrate.
Trad is the myopic conclusion of the insecure who take complex grievances and metabolize them through fear and simplistic social critique. It is a self-centered fantasy. Tradists' dissatisfactions with the modern horizon of possibility for stable romantic relationships and supported lifestyles are varied, and even on occasion valid, but they’re increasingly misdiagnosed as the consequences of social progress rather than state failure. Older right wingers aren’t a new recruitment to these views. But millennials and Gen Z are.
The young erstwhile leftists drawn to Trad are mistakenly taking shelter in a vision they feel they were tricked into not wanting by second wave feminism. Justifiably unhappy in their own lives, they blame the norms they feel their peers are subjecting them to and cast their anecdotal griefs as generation defining errors of judgment. Many of them simply desire supportive partners, nice homes, and to avoid being overworked at miserable jobs. In short, they seek stability and are resentful of their experiences in trying to achieve it. They feel we’re all likewise doomed unless we resubmit to a social order they believe would make pairing up and living a less draining life easier for them personally. Some are finding lucrative lanes of income by creating Trad content online, as those it appeals to seek affirmation in droves. In doing so, they embolden far more established movements.
Traditionalists both past and present use “family values” as a trojan horse for assigning the power to determine what constitutes a “legitimate family” worthy of support and welcome in society. You can guess, based on who usually does the assigning, whose families and values are disqualified. Trad and its broader right wing tendencies aren’t some automatic response to economic disaffection.
Like all reactionary politics, Trad is rooted in fears of social progress that it characterizes as negatives: Sexual agency of marginalized genders, urbanization, multiculturalism, nontraditional family structures, rejection of pregnancy, varied gender expression, challenges to gender roles and subsequently the challenge to centralized male power at institutions (like schools, churches, families) are all eventually scapegoated by the logic of Trad. It’s not a coincidence that Trad is being pushed at a time when women and their labor is perceived to be less available to men; either in the form of professional colleagues who won’t tolerate sexual harassment, or romantic partners who won’t tolerate unfulfilling or exploitative partnerships. Despite how much both still occur unimpeded the public vocabulary for naming the situations has expanded. And that’s been enough to mobilize an ideological call to arms, with women deputized into the mission.
Tiktokers mock college students for aiming to work rather than pursue “stay at home girlfriend” status. Recently converted Catholic “e-girls” extoll the higher standard of living available to wives and mothers while women’s ability to choose the conditions in which they become either are being foreclosed upon—through both the criminalization of abortion and the legal backlash to the Me Too movement, which is making pressing charges against domestic and sexual violence more difficult. Podcasters denigrate women (and only the women) who have casual sex. Men on forums and women on Twitter ridicule women for “wasting” their “childbearing years” by pursuing careers, higher education, or simply an active dating life—exercising choices that are barely a few generations old here and are still being fought for in most of the world.
Caring for children, preparing meals for loved ones, keeping a clean home, these not exclusive pleasures. Most people would recognize the satisfaction available through them. Participating in these aspects of life if you aren’t a cis woman doesn’t compromise your identity and enjoying them if you are a cis woman doesn’t renounce your sovereignty or claim that wifed up motherhood is a woman’s highest calling, or limited to women at all. Many intuitively grasp that. There are all kinds of people creating content on how to take care of your home and any little ones in it. Moms vlog useful cleaning tutorials directed at any “adult running a household”, childhood development professionals share insights on how to raise children without reproducing the damage our parents might have. Home cooks share easy and healthy recipes for a range of budgets or diet. The accessibility of information related to the domestic arts is experiencing a renaissance thanks to the social web. The corners of the internet pushing Trad, however, hold different priorities:
In persuasively articulating the flaws of the modern socioeconomic deal offered to the average person, particularly those who desire the time and resources for marriage and children, Trad demands a return to the same social order from which we are still struggling to liberate ourselves. For those like Maria and Ingvar who wish to time travel out of the present, Trad content offers a portal. Trad’s main achievement is in replacing the uncertainty and challenge (as well as possibility and opportunity) of an unknown future with an appeal to the past.
The straight cis men and women who feel disempowered by modernity are lured by the pitch that “traditional” masculinity and “more feminine” women are the answer. All of it is predicated on constructs seeking enforcement. The mark of a high functioning society is the extent to which it enables the people with the fewest choices to make the ones that are best for them. Trad blames people having choices at all for why our society is functioning poorly. Apparently not only do we have an abundance of choice, we’re all making the wrong ones. For the ease of its acolytes, Trad’s focus on prescriptive roles ignores personal circumstance and will. In insisting on binaries between men and women, the domestic and the public, the modern and a mythologized past, Trad ignores the reality of labor in all cases. Like their evangelical radio predecessors, today’s Tradists cite the dearth of happy “traditional” family life in this country. To all I’d ask, what kind of families or relationships can be expected to succeed in an economy like ours?
A profit-based healthcare system with the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world, and a commitment to policies that leave people with little room for attention to the demands of anyone but one’s boss and one’s bills, is not conducive to happy healthy families regardless of your motivation for one. According to Gallup, “adults employed full-time in the U.S. report working an average of forty-seven hours per week” with 92% working at least forty hours weekly and almost 20% working sixty hours or more. This is the context in which 80% of Americans are in debt and where the highest number of households raising children with only one parent (typically the mother) reside. If people are doomed after the arrival of kids, it’s not by the kids. But the latter provides a convenient narrative scapegoat for the stories we see recycled in film and television. And for those who still aspire to a family but are ignorant of the international lefts’ conceptualization of liberated home and family life—or are afraid of a loss in status by the social progress of others—the Trad movement offers a no-assembly-required ideological home. Which fuels more articles recommending motherhood without a material analysis and more Trad content creators blaming lonely individuals for their own adversity.
As a member of neither the camp that hates children nor the camp that treats children as property (white) women must generate, Lamb was a reprieve from a bleak landscape. It offers a rare pastoral idealism without an endorsement of Trad values. Rather than disturbing, watching Lamb comforted me. Ingvar and Maria wake to peaceful mornings that lead into days of orderly tasks around their farm. Maria plays in the bath with Ada and makes yellow flower crowns for them to share. They sip coffee and have sandwiches and their lives seem so full, so free of the stress and urgency endemic to societies where there is no room to recover if you take a false step. The tone of the film, however, does not match the leisurely contentment its characters briefly enjoy.
Foreshadowed by the creepy voyeurism of Ingvar’s looming brother, eventually, Ada’s biological father returns, a ten foot tall beast, to puncture their happy lives. He fatally shoots Ingvar the way Maria had shot the ewe that birthed Ada. The scene is symmetrical on a story level, but not on an emotional one. It’s more tragic, underscoring how effectively the movie established the bonds between Ada and her adoptive parents. When we see Ada stare in confusion at the bleeding Ingvar, it is unmistakably a scene of a child losing a parent—a formative trauma emotionally identical to a scene from any other movie where a child loses a parent. That to me, is good filmmaking.
Like Lamb, Trad presents the nuclear family as an island sustained by two adults. But while Trad uses the illusion to invisibilize supply chains and the vulnerability of women and children in the home, Lamb is frank about both—making it an unexpected respite. Lamb featured people who enjoyed a life without the cruel calculus of state failure or an alienated attitude towards care work. Rather than denied, male violence was easily overpowered. When Ingvar’s brother drunkenly attempts to force himself on the much smaller Maria, she casually pushes him into a closet where he remains locked while she plays her piano.
In reifying the domestic sphere above the public one for women, Trad denies the abuse that occurs in the former setting and primes us to blame the victims of abuse in the latter. It amounts to a witting and unwitting defense of existing monopolies of violence (like that by institutionally protected figures such as priests, bosses, teachers, parents, and cis male partners). The people that benefit from this defense know this. The right wing knows this. It’s why they’re just as vigilant about what information and communities children have access to (as in the backlash to Critical Race Theory, drag shows, and libraries), as they are about “men no longer being allowed to be men.” The power most hostile to others being equally empowered is the power to harm others with impunity. Those towards whom the status quo is already hostile (like young women) who think they’ll find succor in Trad values, are tending a fire that would just as quickly consume them. It’s sad to see people embrace such an age old scheme, like so many lambs following a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
As a child, my favorite genre was fairy tale. I didn’t know anything about the genre’s reputation as something frivolous for kids, I knew only what I read, the original classics, so gruesome loss and basic human desire were always a natural pairing to me. And in marrying them, fairy tales better depicted life than stories that hewed more faithfully to the laws of our real world. Perhaps that's why Lamb felt so natural: its strangeness had the logic of a fairy tale, and thereby held the same capacity for faithfully communicating a very specific human experience.
I believe Lamb when it suggests it would be very enriching to care for a child. I know better than to think a combination of sheep and human genetic material would yield a creature as neatly divided as Ada. But as an American, a lamb-headed toddler is no less fantastical than a couple with time to linger over breakfast—and just as enchanting to watch.
Trad is the of the focus next issue of The New Inquiry. In it, I’ll go beyond how Trad how disingenuously pitches “family life” and more deeply consider what it offers men—as well as how it’s impacting our understanding of not just marriage and children, but religion, the end of America, housing, healthcare, and fascist violence. Until then, please enjoy our previous issue. - Ayesha (eic, TNI).
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