Freaky Friday: Switching Up What it Means to Be “Female” by Carmen Nemore

Writer’s Reflection

I am definitely most proud of the ideas that I was able to formulate based on my analysis of the films I chose, by performing a close reading of the main characters and how they impacted each other. It was actually kind of fun seeing how the mother-daughter dynamic had a positive or negative affect on the daughter characters. If I could go back I would definitely have done more research. I was able to find a few extremely helpful books, which may have been all the assignment called for, but I can’t help still feeling as if I didn’t support a few claims enough. I enjoyed the process of this inquiry. I watched the 70s Freaky Friday first because I wanted to be able to really compare the new one to the old one. It was pretty funny how situations came up that were perfect for this essay, because I was unsure that there would be anything to close read. I then watched the 2003 version and wrote my draft comparing the two main characters. I then took the research I found for the annotated bibliographies and used them to support the claims that I came up with on my own based on my analysis of the movies. This was definitely the right way to go for me, because I was dreading going through all the research I had found. It was much easier to sift through the research when I had already made specific claims that needed support. I stuck with the traditional method of sticking in quotes and paraphrased ideas around my ideas instead of doing a paragraph dedicated to historical context. It just made more sense to me that way. I think that this made the historical context I was using more relevant because it was clear why I was saying it.


The 1970s film Freaky Friday illustrates the socially constructed expressions of femininity between a mother and a daughter, and how these contrasts affect their relationship. The individual characters of Ellen, the mother, and Annabel, the daughter, reflect the culture of the 1970s because these characters are supposed to be relatable, while also serving as models to the females of their personified age groups. The contrast between the womanly roles of the two characters demonstrates the rift between the performed genders of the two generations, caused by the Second Wave Women’s Movement when women “began questioning their roles in society and society’s attitude toward them” and started “…gaining courage to enter public life, whether by getting a job outside the home, going back to college, or running for public office” (Payant 13-15). Ellen and Annabel can then be compared to their two modern-day counterparts, Tess and Ana from Freaky Friday (2003), to highlight what was understood to be “female” in the 1970s.

The contrast between the domestic housewife, Ellen, of the 1970s and the new millennium’s single mom, Tess, really showcases the lack of revolutionary change that the Women’s Movement was supposed to provide. Despite living in the 70s, Ellen is physically the quintessential 50s woman. She wears a long ankle-length skirt all the time and a conservative up-do hairstyle just like any idealistic sitcom mother from 1950s television such as Margaret Anderson from Father Knows Best (Bradley). Comparatively, Tess wears pants and sports a short “boyish” haircut. Clearly, Ellen does not posses the desire to discard all previous notions of femininity that characterized women of the 1970s. The only reasonable explanation for why Ellen has not been ‘liberated’ by the feminist movement is the motives of the film’s writers. Perhaps Disney of the 1970s had a cultural reason to continue to portray women this way in an effort to counter the idea that women should embrace qualities more previously conceived as “masculine.” It cannot be simply coincidental that the first image we get of Ellen is her bustling about the kitchen, making breakfast for her family. Sherrie Inness, the author of Disco Divas, believes that in the 1970s, most media outlets (movies, TV, etc) portrayed women in a way as if to mock the women’s movement. Ellen does not genuinely reflect an average woman of the 1970s, but is instead an image of a woman that men at the time wanted to promote. She says that media serves the purpose of “interpreting social change and managing cultural beliefs”(Inness 25). Ellen’s character is a representation of how feminism was belittled in the 1970s in an attempt to restrict women.

Annabel symbolizes an entire generation of women who were adolescents in the 1970s. The main notable difference between her and her modern day counterpart is their contrasting appearance, which shows the difference between the expectations for teenage girls in the 1970s and 2000s. Annabel is a tomboy who wears flannel shirts, has a deep voice and an extremely messy room. In the ideal world that is fiction, women often depicted the childhood years to be those of happiness and freedom. An adolescent girl who was affected by the women’s movement “has confidence in her body, and plays with neighborhood children, boys and girls, on terms of complete equality” (Payant 24). Annabel initially fits this description at the beginning of the movie because she enjoys doing things that would previously be considered male activities such as playing field hockey. Anna, however, is extremely non-athletic. Anna is 16 years old and is physically matured into a woman who wears makeup and styles her hair, while Annabel is only 13 and still has a “boyish” appearance. It is interesting to see this regression in the progress that the feminist movement made with Annabel. The modern day character feels the need to personify more womanly characteristics that are more aligned with Ellen, the mother from the 1970s instead of the daughter who has the desire to reject these norms.

The male characters of both versions of Freaky Friday are also extremely helpful when trying to understand the construction of female gender in the 1970s. Annabel not so lovingly refers to her father as a “male chauvinist pig” when he calls her (who he thinks is his wife, Ellen) and asks her to prepare a gourmet dinner for twenty-five people in less than three hours. This was a way of acknowledging the changing notions of femininity that were being confronted during the 70s. Part of Ellen’s “job” as a housewife is to scurry about doing her husband’s bidding, no matter how unreasonable. After Annabel spends only a few hours in her mother’s shoes she says, “Iron this, polish that. Go here, go there. As a dad you’re super, as a husband, you’re more like a traffic cop.” Annabel’s ability to see how her father dictates her mother’s activities reveals a very large rift between generations. The feminist movement of the 70s has yielded a society where it is okay for young women to express and act on discontent with gender roles, but where it is still seen as “un-lady-like” or “unwomanly” for an adult female to behave this way. Tess’s boyfriend played a significantly different role as the male figure in the 2003 version of the film. He basically sat back and let Tess run the relationship. Annabel’s love interest, Boris, is a completely different character than Anna’s Jake. Borris is what can only be described as a non-athletic “nerd” with asthma. Jake, on the other hand, is handsome, mysterious and rides a motorcycle. These differences certainly illustrate the difference in the two daughter characters. In the 70s, young girls were revolutionizing the way femininity in youth culture is expressed. Annabel is attracted to an unlikely character because she has thrown away all typical notions of desire that would have previously been demanded of her, while Anna clings to the same notions that were discarded by her predecessor.

Comparisons between the mother-daughter relationships of both films reveal the specific roles and requirements that women of the 70s were supposed to fill. When Anna from 2003 transforms into her mother, she feels that she is old and no longer beautiful. However, when Annabel trades places with her mother in the 70s, she feels that she has suddenly become beautiful. She honestly believes that her mother is the epitome of femininity and that trying on dresses as well as putting on tons of make-up transforms her into a woman. This is extremely contrasting to the image of a revolutionized view of gender performativity that we first understand Annabel to be. This shift in the movie’s views of what the ultimate goal for any young lady should be is clearly a way of trying to control the new ideas that challenged the norm. The Changing Lives of American Women describes the “era of the super mom” and discusses the emergence of a mom who can do it all (198). Statistically, it appears that adult women of this generation spent more of their time being independent adults who were less restricted than their parents. At the time this book was written, it was unclear what the daughter’s of the baby boomer’s generation would turn out to be like, but predictions were made based on the cultural trends. The prediction that this generations’ daughters would turn into more independent, employed, educated women shows the effects of the women’s movement had on Annabel’s age group. Clearly, adult women of the 1970s wanted their daughters to be more independent and educated (things that were not viewed as feminine when they were growing up). This emphasizes the convoluted nature of Annabel’s decision in the end to conform to her traditional mother’s behavior. The fact that Anna gives her mother a make-over in the 2003 film, while Ellen gives Annabel a make -ver in the 70s version makes it clear that the film’s author believes that all tomboys should be transformed into their mother’s someday.

The Women’s Movement of the 1970s greatly impacted the way female characters were portrayed in movies such as Freaky Friday. Ultimately, the creators of this movie wanted to accept the changing perspectives of female gender (this is seen through Annabel’s character), but limit it to some form that they deemed acceptable. This is shown through Ellen, a mother filling the traditional role of an adult female. The ultimate conclusion that can be drawn from this movie is that girlhood freedom and independence, should in the end, be tamed. This is most likely a way for men at the time to feel more comfortable with the changing attitudes towards women’s roles. We can see now that in modern film, such as Freaky Friday (2003), adult women are now allowed as much freedom socially as their daughters, but that modern youth has some how regressed to fit the more traditional mold. Unfortunately, it appears as if this double-edged progression of the film industry will continuously oscillate between positive and negative connotations about women young and old.


Works Cited

Billy, John, et al. The Changing Lives of American Women. London: The Hearst Corporation, 1988. Print.

Bradley, Becky . “1950-1959.” American Cultural History. Lone Star College-Kingwood Library, 1998. Web. 7 Feb. 2011.

Inness, Sherrie. Disco Divas: Women and Popular Culture in the 1970s. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Online.

Payant, Katherine. Becoming and Bonding: Contemporary Feminism and Popular Fiction by American Women Writers. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc, 1993. Print.


Editorial Team’s Note

As Carmen Nemore notes in her Writer’s Reflection, this essay does an excellent job taking research from Part A of Inquiry Two and applying that research to her own analysis of these two films. Though Nemore is concerned about not having enough sources, she engages the ones she has thoroughly. This shows that it is not necessarily the number of sources that is important, but what you do with them. In order to build an analytical frame for analyzing gender roles in these movies, Nemore uses specific thoughts and quotes about Second Wave Feminism to show how they play out in these different times. By focusing on this inquiry, she comes up with an interesting idea. Rather than judging one movie or the other as bad for feminism, she identifies that film media does not progress, but rather “continuously oscillates between positive and negative connotations about women young and old.” The process she lays out in her Writer’s Reflectionsseems critical to the discovery of this thought.