If you’re off to the movies this New Year’s Day, something to consider between munching popcorn and getting annoyed at the mother who can’t get her hyperactive kids to keep quiet.
Why is Hollywood so fascinated—fixated, even—on bad mothers?
Movies such as Black Swan, The Fighter, and Animal Kingdom all feature ‘smothering,’ ‘domineering’ and even ‘murderous’ mothers in supporting roles—and the actresses depicting these not-exactly-June-Cleever femme maternales are contenders for an Oscar. Is there a connection, Stephen Farber ponders recently in the Daily Beast, between bad mothers and Oscar winners?
Farber in the Daily Beast: Blame it on Noir, and Joan Crawford
Stating that all three of these movie mothers ‘are part of a tradition of bad movie mothers who have often been favored by Oscar voters,’ Farber offers an overview of Hollywood mothers, from ‘salt-of-the-earth’ and long-suffering Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to the ‘Monster Mom’ played by Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), to the ‘cold, withholding mother’ played by Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980), to the mother in last year’s Precious, Mo’nique, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress by playing a mother who ‘beats and degrades her obese, uneducated daughter (Gabourey Sidibe).’
Farber pinpoints a turn in the tide in Hollywood’s portrayal of mothers in 1940s film noir:
In 1945, Mildred Pierce marked the transition from the noble mothers of an earlier era to the more disturbing matriarchs who began to grab audiences’ attention. The film, based on James M. Cain’s novel, focuses on a mother (Joan Crawford) who sacrifices everything for her two daughters. The younger daughter dies of pneumonia, and the older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), grows up to be a spoiled, manipulative devil’s child. Veda is the villain of the film, but Mildred isn’t let off the hook, either. When Veda kills Mildred’s husband in a jealous rage, she pleads with her mother to take the rap. “It’s really your fault,” Veda wails, and Mildred recognizes the kernel of truth in her accusation. Mildred overindulges her children, allowing them to get away with anything, including murder. Crawford won an Oscar for her definitive portrayal of mother love carried to unhealthy extremes.
Interestingly, on HBO’s 2011 schedule is a remake (an ‘epic event’ in five parts) of Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet in the title role. In the wake of Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s ‘memoir of her nightmarish childhood with her adoptive mother, Joan,’ one suspects this new Mildred will be depicted as the baddest, I mean worst, of all time.
‘Nothing,’ writes Farber, ‘seems to please voters like a full-blown mother from hell.’
Bad Mothers on Stage Have Been Around for a While
Actually, Hollywood is a latecomer when it comes to making women who are mothers look like monsters.
You could say that bad mothers have been a stock character on the stage since the start of Western literature. A quick review of Greek tragedies by the ancient Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides turns up:
- Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon in revenge for sacrificing their daughter Iphigeneia, mistreats her middle daughter Electra, and is killed by her son, Orestes
- Jocasta, who gives birth to Oedipus, then unknowingly marries him
- Medea, who kills her two sons to take revenge on her husband, Jason (who abandons her for another woman)
Is it some kind of fascination with seeing woman doing and being evil, like all those wicked stepmothers of the fairy tales? Some kind of primal fear of being eaten and absorbed by the mother who gave birth to us?
The one movie mother who, to my mind, embodies the bad, terrible, awful, downright scary mother of Hollywood films is the button-eyed Other Mother in Coraline who wants to consume children in a very literal way. What is a mother but the first ‘other’ a child encounters, the first source of food, love, comfort, security? And when things get out of control…….
Mothers Always Get a Bad Rap
Sorry for getting a little Freudian here.
Mothers are used to getting a bad rap. We’re told at what age it’s best for us to procreate (20-35, says this recent study). If we work, we get castigated for handing our children over to ‘strangers’ and not sacrificing ourselves to do the #1 most important thing for a woman, begetting and raising children. And oh how hard we try, try, try: Another recent study found that working mothers are more likely to interrupt their sleep to take of others than men who work. Too, when women get up to take care of a baby or child, they stay up for a longer period of time than men.
The notion of a ‘bad mother’ has an additional resonance for me as the mother of an autistic child due to the now widely discredited theory of ‘refrigerator mothers’ as the cause of a child becoming autistic. Parents who were thought to be emotionally withdrawn and overly intellectual were told they caused their child to retreat into an ‘autistic withdrawal,’ according to such ‘child development experts as Bruno Bettelheim. It might sound hard to believe, but this theory—this idea—caused untold suffering on real people, real mothers in real families.
The Mother in the Movie Theater
I’m afraid I could go on and on in this vein, about the negative view of mothers and women in our culture. And I’d rather start the new year on much more affirmative note. To wit:
Back to that mother in the mother theater, who can’t keep her child quiet. Maybe, for that child, it’s been a triumph just to get him to get into the movie theater, due to sensory sensitivities and other issues. Maybe she’d really like to run out of the theater herself and head for the safety of the car, but she knows her child might make even more noise. I have a feeling she knows how annoyed everyone is around her, but maybe the movie theater is a last resort for her and her child, both more than ready for the start of school after the holiday season.
Maybe the movie theater is the best place she can find for—like more than a few of us—a little escape from reality and the hectic buzz of daily life.
It’s not easy being a mother.
Photo of the Other Mother from Coraline by BobbyProm.