Mild spoilers ahead for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
Ten years after the musical Mamma Mia! was released to enchant the hearts of women who would later run travel accounts on Instagram and use the hashtag #wanderlust a lot, the entire cast has reunited for a sequel/prequel. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again picks up years after the events of its predecessor with Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) apparently still unmarried to Sky (Dominic Cooper), but pregnant with his child. Littered with flashback scenes, Sophie learns how her mother Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) met the three men who have all assumed the role of dad for Sophie.
For those of you who haven’t seen the original film, it goes down like this: Sophie gets a big lead on the identity of her biological father when Donna’s old diary reveals that she was intimate with Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård), and Harry Bright (Colin Firth) around the time of Sophie’s conception. She invites them all to her wedding without Donna's knowledge, hoping that being in their proximity will cause some metaphysical epiphany about which one of them supplied the sperm that fertilized Donna’s egg. She never does get clarity on the issue, but she realizes that she’s too young to get married and decides instead to sail off with Sky. Meanwhile, Donna and Sam reignite the feelings that they still have for each other and wed instead. In the 2018 version, Cher is cast as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s grandmother who disowned Donna over 20 years prior when she got pregnant.
It goes without saying that Mamma Mia never would have worked without the blonde-haired, fair-skinned white women at the center of it. A woman trying to figure out which of three men is her baby daddy is typically the script for an episode of The Maury Show, not a family-friendly blockbuster musical. At best, Tyler Perry would have had a field day playing up the maternal drama of the Sheridans as the reason for Donna inviting three men into her bed instead of Jesus into her heart. For women of color, there is nothing romantic or cheeky about not knowing who the father of your child(ren) is. It makes you hoe, not a free spirit, to entertain multiple lovers within a short period of time and out of wedlock. It’s an unspoken rule that media narratives have quietly followed: White women, almost exclusively, are given the freedom to explore their sexuality, on their own terms without the burden of being defined by those decisions. Mamma Mia! is a textbook example of this. However, a closer look at the film reveals that there are some stipulations, even for white women, on when it’s okay to be single, sexy, and free.
The main stipulation is class, which becomes just as important as race when considering which women get permission to get it on as they see fit. When we first met Donna in 2008, she was the owner of Villa Donna, a hotel on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, which you can only reach via boat or aircraft. Despite the continued financial challenges that Donna faced trying to keep the hotel afloat, it’s safe to assume that Donna wasn’t poor. She owned a struggling hotel, but she was still a hotel owner on an island known for its beaches and architecture. With a little bit of financial help (a privilege in itself), Donna was able to start a business and live the life she wanted. Cloaked with the protection of social normalcy that comes with being “successful” in an idyllic space, the matriarch of Mamma Mia! never had to defend her sexuality. Even in the original, when Donna calls herself a "stupid reckless little slut," it's billed as humor and nothing more.
We can’t say the same for women of color, or even say, the young white moms who entertain millions on shows like MTV’s Teen Mom. Part of the appeal of shows like this, or the mothers on talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and The Maury Show is the spectacle of women having sex and kids outside of the confines of marriage economic stability. Sometimes monogamous, heterosexual love can override the absence of one of these stipulations, but lacking both is often only depicted as dysfunctional. Donna and Sophie are allowed to grow and learn from each other, with Sophie learning to revere the woman her mother was. Mamma Mia and its sequel are a fantasy, happily-ever-after narrative that very few women have the luxury of actually living under the rules of all-too-prevalent sexist slut-shaming. It’s a luxury that other women onscreen who find themselves in a similar position can’t afford. For women in both the real world and the fictional one, sexual freedom literally comes at a cost.