"Mamma Mia" is a Feminist Exploration of Choice

Collage by Sarah Quiat. Image of "Mamma Mia" Production at the Terazije Theatre in Serbia, 2015.

Recently, I attended the opening night of my school’s spring musical, Mamma Mia. The ABBA songs and the sparkly costumes captured my attention, not to mention the unbelievable talent shown by my friends onstage. It had been a while since I’d last seen Mamma Mia, but I enjoyed myself for its entirety. As I watched the show, so many components struck me in a new way. First, the sisterhood between Donna, Tanya, and Rosie wasn’t at all what I remembered it to be. Maybe it was because these were my own close friends singing about friendship and love, but to me the relationships between the three Dynamos demonstrates an undying bond between female friends. The mother-daughter relationship between Donna and Sophie is also incredibly strong, and the two women tackle topics such as honesty, marriage, and the future. Their parallel stories about self-acceptance and seeking love shares a story that is inspiring to young women facing the same challenges. After sitting through three encores, I realized: Mamma Mia is a feminist musical.

At its heart, Mamma Mia is a lighthearted and fun musical about an engaged young woman who dreams of the mysteries of her past, specifically about her father’s identity. When observed at a deeper level, though, Mamma Mia revolves around the relationship between Donna and Sophie as mother and daughter. Donna is in charge of hosting Sophie’s wedding and works to make it the perfect day for her daughter. At the end of the musical, Donna and Sophie show their closeness when Sophie asks her mother to walk her down the aisle during her marriage ceremony, a role she originally wanted her father to do. Donna and Sophie’s strong relationship with each other shows a certain bond that I think is often overlooked in the media nowadays. Their unique relationship is based in their mother and child bond; their connection surrounding their lives, relationships, and past, and to me, their closeness is inherently feminist. Female solidarity is essential for navigating a world that is rooted in patriarchy, and the portrayal of sisterhood and unity in Mamma Mia contributes a positive portrayal of empowerment in the media.

Beyond Donna and Sophie’s relationship, their individual characters also reveal a feminist message of empowerment. Take Donna, for example: a single mother, business owner, and an overall badass hard worker who is content with her success and life she has made for herself. And then there is Sophie, who is fierce, independent, and confident about what she wants and what she deserves. In my view, Sophie embodies the notion of choice—a central feminist idea that is explored in the musical. Sophie can decide to raise a family, focus on her career, or be single. Whatever choice she makes, it’s hers to make and hers to own. Audiences see this at the end of the musical when, at the last minute, Sophie decides not to get married. Donna, on the other hand, decides to get married all of a sudden after being a single woman her entire life. Donna recognizes the power she holds in her life, and does not let societal expectations control her. Both Donna and Sophie inspire me to take control of my own life and focus on what makes me happy.

The idea of female solidarity is evident in the mother-daughter bond that Donna and Sophie share and throughout Mamma Mia. Even today, mother-daughter relationships have also been seen throughout the media and in pop culture. For example, the slogan “women supporting women,” often seen on t-shirts and keychains, emphasizes a message about creating an environment that is welcoming and supportive of all women, for women and by women. Unfortunately, this slogan has transformed into a cheesy saying on clothing and accessories and the original message of empowerment is not emphasized. Yet, even as social media and pop culture appropriates these ideas, I believe the overarching message of female empowerment can still seep through.

Similar to other empowering messages in the media, Mamma Mia is fun to watch but its messages about solidarity between women and empowerment is reflected. Now in 2022, there are countless forms of media that reflect positive and empowering relationships between women. But as an avid theater lover, I believe that musicals in general have a unique way of connecting with audiences by exploring how relationships are built through music. Mamma Mia specifically does a wonderful job of sending a feminist message while also sticking to the things that are fundamental to a musical: singing, dancing, and acting. Mamma Mia as a form of pop culture is unique because of its ability to suck in audiences with its exciting energy while also sharing a message of love, friendship, and empowerment.

For me, Mamma Mia is a musical about self-acceptance and it inspires relationships between women built on love and trust. It makes me think about the line from Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This statement is not only about the importance of being inclusive and kind to those around you, but it’s also about loving yourself. I see this quote reflected throughout the musical in the songs, dancing, and relationships. Tanya is unapologetic about her life decisions and choices to marry and divorce; Rosie puts herself out there for Bill and eventually marries him; Donna choses to marry her long lost love after swearing off marriage. All of these women decide to put their happiness before the needs of others and carry on through life the way they want. They stay true to themselves and are unapologetic about their decisions. If this verse is calling on us to be kind to others, then we must be kind to ourselves first. The characters in Mamma Mia show the importance of self-love throughout the musical and exemplify what it means to be yourself, something I think is a necessary message for media and for pop culture in general. As a young woman myself, there can never be too many messages about the importance of self-acceptance and Mamma Mia is just one wonderful example of empowerment reflected in media.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Feminism, Theater
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How to cite this page

Fried, Georgia. ""Mamma Mia" is a Feminist Exploration of Choice." 6 July 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 7, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/mamma-mia-feminist-exploration-choice>.

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