Body Swap Week: Freaky Friday (1976)
I’D LIKE TO BE YOU FOR A DAY!
by Letitia Trent
During my long summer breaks from elementary and middle school, I would look across our green lawn, in the woods beyond it, at the mountains that crowded the skyline, and wonder if I’d ever get away from here, if I’d ever become an adult who had the power to go where I pleased when I pleased. As I approached my teenage years, I was stuck in an almost constant conflict between feeling isolated and angry and feeling completely in love with my freedom from school and the barrage of humiliations I found there.
In between long summer hours of sitting on a spread blanket outside on our green lawn, reading novel after novel—from Paula Danziger books to Piers Anthony fantasy fiction to Jane Eyre (my patron saint of isolation and quiet revolt)—I would head inside to watch movies on our VCR. Every book, every movie, was an opportunity to be outside of my life, over which I did not have control, even in the smallest ways. I would read in books about kids walking around a neighborhood and sigh at the thought of living in suburbia, which I imagined as a long line of brightly painted houses connected by sidewalks where people walked their dogs, sometimes nodding or saying hello as they passed the myriad mailboxes. In neighborhoods, people put out their trash instead of burning it in a pit when it overflowed. In neighborhoods, girls had sleepovers and kids rode their bikes on the streets. I was not allowed to walk up our long driveway to get the mail; I was too far out of my mother’s sight when I did so, farther than her paranoia and anxiety would allow me to go.
My mother—a lover of cartoons, family movies, and any entertainment without any sex, violence, drugs, or misbehavior—always had a pile of Disney VHS tapes on hand, rented from our local video store each weekend, and one of my favorites was Freaky Friday. Although my taste ran darker than hers, even early on (I made my family rent Taxi Driver after seeing it on a list of the best films in history when I was thirteen, and nobody in my family was ready for that experience, though I give them credit for actually finishing the movie), something about Freaky Friday spoke to me. I generally found Disney movies corny and pointless, but I related to the tomboyish and sharp-tongued Jodie Foster as Annabelle, the anxious, messy, ice-cream-for-breakfast eating daughter of an elegant, beautiful, and sexily-chain-smoking mother, Mrs. Andrews (she wasn’t given a first name), played by Barbara Harris.
In her youth, my own mother had been elegant, beautiful, and chain-smoking. I had the feeling of being a baggy, undefined thing next to adult women and the image of my mother that I had in old photographs. Like Annabelle, I both rejected my mother’s fussy attention to my appearance (I had to sleep in curlers and was subjected to many failed home perms until I demanded a haircut and bangs) and desperately wanted to find some way to inhabit my own body and have my own sense of self separate from her.
I have a love-hate thing with mother-daughter movies, and Freaky Friday encourages ambivalent feelings about moms. Annabelle starts out idolizing her father (the oblivious and rubber-faced John Astin) and grumpily rejecting her mother’s attempts to make her eat a decent breakfast and put on some prettier clothes. Barbara Harris as Mrs. Andrews is gorgeous and perfectly put-together in an array of outfits I remember vividly: a pink dress; a long, black cocktail gown with a slit up the thigh; and a fabulous red-velvet pantsuit with cork heeled-clogs, an outfit that would look bonkers now but totally makes sense in the candy-colored 70’s.
Annabelle’s problems with her mother are classic: she is too bossy, she criticizes Annabelle for being too messy, too forgetful, for not taking care of her appearance, etc. She doesn’t see her daughter as a separate individual with her own desires, and the daughter does not see her mother as a fully human, separate being—but rather as a naggy superego, forever finding fault. Their respective roles suffocate their ability to see each other’s humanity. The body-swap is a radical empathy exercise so that the mother and daughter can learn to appreciate each other again. The movie depends on the premise that underneath, both mother and daughter truly love each other. All they need is a reminder.
[Oh, to have such minor mother-daughter feuds! I loved this movie as a kid not because it related to my own problems with my mother, but because it showed me a world in which it was possible to have such small, surface problems. Not that these problems are not important and central for young women, but they seemed so giddily surmountable. If I were changing places with my mother, I’d be spending my days feeding dogs and cats, avoiding the neighbors, and sitting in a dank trailer, watching PBS cooking shows, action movies, and paranormal reality TV, waiting for the mail to come. It’s not her daily struggles that I need to understand (I lived with them for seventeen years; I know them intimately), but the contents of her head, the swirl of her anxiety, the sources of her paranoia and fear that wouldn’t let her trust even the members of her family. Disney does not make movies about how to understand and love your mentally ill parents.]
When Annabelle and her mother change places—in a totally inexplicable scene in which they both happen to say the same thing at the same time—Jodie Foster, now inhabited by her mother, turns to her friend at an ice-cream shop and says, in perfect imitation of a middle-aged woman speaking to a teenager: Dear, could I borrow a dime to make a phone call? As Mrs. Andrews in Annabelle’s body struggles to understand the vagaries of high school, Annabelle in Mrs. Andrews’ body is delighted. I’m gorgeous, she says, twirling around a mirror, admiring herself and listening to pop music. She has a plan; she’s going to eat chips, sit on the couch and watch TV, and possibly tempt the adenoidal neighbor-boy who she’s been pining after with her mother’s adult body. Both are convinced that the other has it easy, but of course, they are wrong.
The movie becomes a slapsticky, typical Disney film by its midpoint. After Annabelle fills up the washing machine with shoes and jacks and Mrs. Andrews spectacularly loses the field hockey game, the film ends with a corny, interminable car chase. It’s not these parts that matter, though; it’s the idea of empathy—of understanding and mutual appreciation—that I most remember. We long to understand and love our mothers, despite their faults, despite our faults, but unfortunately no magic trick can fix the gulf between some of us. I’ve read about beautiful mother-daughter relationships, ones that grew and changed and became something deep and rewarding, but they all started with the same thread, which is demonstrated throughout Freaky Friday: a real love, attachment, and appreciation underneath the surface problems.
What about those of us who had damaged attachment, born to women whose lives were troubled, whose brains and bodies were flooded with fear and anxiety, whose own childhoods were so full of neglect and abuse that they did not know how to connect to this small, vulnerable thing that they were suddenly entrusted with? There’s no movie for us yet, no zany antics in cork heels, and no clear way to embody, with empathy and understanding, the person who is both closest to you and also the most difficult to understand.
Letitia Trent is a writer, podcaster, and psychology student living in Boulder, Colorado. She sort-of-blogs here.