How television's monstrous mothers are exploding old stereotypes

by Diana Wichtel / 13 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Television portrayal of mothers Sharp Objects

Twisted: Patricia Clarkson as Adora Crellin.

The portrayal of mothers in TV shows like Sharp Objects and Game of Thrones couldn't be further from the long-suffering housewives of old.

When the medium was making its first cautious moves in what would be an ongoing assault on Western civilisation, television’s mothers tended to be long-suffering, floral-aproned angels in the house, baking cookies while father got on with knowing best.

Things became a little more nuanced over the years, though for every Roseanne there was an annoying Ally McBeal and her dancing digital baby. Then along came the second golden age of television, opening the gates of hell and unleashing Livia Soprano. She tried to get her son whacked. If not for Livia’s pitilessly emasculating, “Oh, poor you”, Tony might have gone into the caring professions instead of “waste management”.

Since then, there’s been a cavalcade of monstrous mums, from Sons of Anarchy’s villainous Gemma Teller and Game of Thrones’ power-crazed Cercei Lannister to this season’s model, Sharp Objects’ unspeakable Adora Crellin.

Sharp Objects is a brilliant, triggering masterclass in small-town American dysfunction, as illustrated by a family in which everyone is a danger to themselves and others. Adora, played with arctic malice by Patricia Clarkson, is a ghastly parody of those early television mothers. “You can’t get close – that’s your father,” she muses to her prodigal, self-harming daughter, Camille. “And it’s why, I think, I never loved you.” Is there a more twisted image of motherhood than Adora – fragrant, feminine – concocting homemade tonics in sinister blue apothecary ware with which to dose her daughters? It’s not really a spoiler to say she has Münchausen syndrome by proxy. Plenty more where that came from.

Even television mothers not actively filicidal are having a fraught time. In Humans, if you are a busy working mother (human) your young daughter might bond with the family’s “synth”, a robot that is considerably more nurturing than you. Your child might give up on the human race and wish to become a small robot herself. As Humans continues its exploration of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, etc, motherhood is at the heart of things. Synth Karen gets around programming that stops her putting herself in harm’s way to save her synth “son”, Sam.

A synth seems a better bet when it comes to parenting than the middle-class mums of British comedy of maternal terrors Motherland. Working mother-of-two Julia is reduced to sneaking leftovers out of the bin at a children’s party because she’s too frantic having it all to eat. Motherland has a hollow laugh at the idea of sisterly support. Hell is often other women. Julia’s mother hides inside, refusing to open the door when she comes seeking help.

The subtext of these portrayals of women is that this is what you get when you have, well, patriarchy. Julia’s son has an issue at school. “Sorry, can I just ask, did you try calling my husband?”, asks Julia. She knows the answer.

If it all seems exaggerated for effect, see the running commentary on Jacinda Ardern’s apparently still controversial choice to have a child and a job. She’s judged if she isn’t with the baby, she’s judged if she takes the baby with her, she’s exploiting the baby if she’s holding her when talking to the media. It’s not just the Mike Hoskings and the white male tweeters of a certain age. “… a big piece of me is feeling galled at the maternity leave early on in the piece and the childcare perks all paid for by the taxpayer”, seethed an opinion piece by a woman in the Waikato Times. Go the sisterhood.

“Don’t we all just need to make the best of things?”, says the nice-but-dim stay-at-home dad on Motherland. No. That sound you hear these days is a lot of women writers and characters exploding stereotypes. What we need is to change the game, for women and for everyone.

SHARP OBJECTS, Neon, Sky Go.

HUMANS, Three Now.

MOTHERLAND, Sky Go.

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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