Hollywood’s Love of the Bad Mother (VIDEO)

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.


Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle7 years ago

Not the point of the article, just an aside: mothers who allow their children to act up in public (movie theaters), are not to be tolerated. They ruin the movie for all the others who also paid out their hard-earned cash to get into the theater. Children should be taught to be silent in certain places, or don't bring them. I HATE spoiled children. (but I'm really hating the mothers, who teach their children that they're the center of the universe, instead of just one person, who must respect the rights of others. Fine job of parenting, to thrust such children > adults into society.) Kind of a long "aside."

But back to the theme of bad mothers in movies. There has always been a mixed message about women. We are smaller and weaker than men, so they take advantage of that, as the drivers of society. We are sluts/mothers (both beloved of men). The Catholic Church puts Mary at its head, yet Eve was the original sinner. We're told to be sexy, yet also castigated for that. Damned if we do, damned if we don't. And then there's our beloved Freud, who really did a number on women/mothers.

Lucky we're the stronger sex, or we'd never survive this life.

Ahlam Zaid
Ahlam Zaid7 years ago

Thank you

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman7 years ago

Thanx for article

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

I wouldn't waste my time or money on these films.

Julia W.
Julia W7 years ago

I am interested in HBO's "Mildred Pierce," just like I enjoy watching Joan Crawford's version on TCM.

What about Julia Ormond's mom to "Temple Grandin?" I don't expect realism when I go to the movies, I loved "Caroline," but I do enjoy it when it's well done. As "Temple Grandin" was.

Alastair L.
Alastair L7 years ago

'Jocasta a monster' ?!

Again Kristina Chew seems to bend her facts a long way to get another care2 story out. I have never seen any reference in literature of Jocasta being anything but a victim of her husbands crimes. In the most well known version of the myth, Sophocles' Theban plays, her husband King Laius demands she kill their son attempting to avoid the Oedipus prophesy given to him by the oracle.

Jocasta is not even a protagonist in the play and her hesitation to kill her son enables Oedipus's survival and fulfilment of the dark prophesy on Laius's and his family for _his_ crimes.

The infanticide is much more a device in a dramatic chain of moral cause&effect, started with Laius's raping of a another Kings son than any motive or disposition on the part of Jocasta. The substance of the plays have nothing to do with Jocasta at all. They are about moral transgression and how unavoidable and far reaching the consequences (punishment) must be, despite a _man's_ worst efforts to avoid them. J is horrified to find she has married her son and suicides

Greek myths were retold in different ways by different writers of the period and frequently transmuted to another myth. If Chew is aware of some other telling of the story I'd be interested to know where she found it. With a PhD in Classic's I'm guessing even she couldn't get this far off base, so I prepare myself to stand corrected if Ms Chew cares to respond to criticism of factual sloppiness in constructing her

Philippa P.
Philippa P7 years ago

I think we are fascinated by evil because it shows us that, in comparision, our individual dark sides aren't all that frightening.

Hilarie Hope
Hilarie Hope7 years ago

Yes, Hollywood does portray mothers as horrible, evil beings quite often. But they portray many fathers the same way.
Think of Darth Vader in Star Wars, the father in 'Frailty' (he gets his kid to murder people who he thinks are "demons"), the stepfather in 'The Stepfather' (who woulda thunk?), the father in 'American Beauty' . . . the list goes on.
Not everything is as black and white as people would like to think. People are so hell-bent on solving problems, we go out of our way to find problems to solve.

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS7 years ago

Perhaps because the "bad mother" is more realistic than the "noble mother". Mothers tend to be human beings with all the foibles that that implies; they are rarely the 100% alltruistic saints that sentimentalists want to think they are.

Yvette T.
Past Member 7 years ago

Fascinating, as the roles played for stage and screen remind us that we also play our scenes from one to the nest and perform our roles for each scene in this illusory realm. We get so caught up in it.