TV has finally embraced tough women who rebel against ideal motherhood
'Bad Moms' is the latest box-office hit portraying women as more than cookie-baking soccer moms, writes Sarah Hughes
Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30
There is a moment in new US comedy Bad Moms where Mila Kunis's Amy finally decides she's had enough. After a day spent running from school to work, from vet's appointments to children's hobbies, she reaches the end of her tether at a PTA meeting from hell in which she is asked to join "the bakery police". "No, that's it, I'm done," she says, heading to a bar instead. "If that makes me a bad mom, then that's fine." It's a scene many of us can relate to.
Amy, with her desire to cut free in a fast car, down the odd drink and stop making her children's breakfast every morning, is not alone. In addition to Bad Moms, which pulled in $23m at the US box office last weekend, holding its own against spy juggernaut Jason Bourne, there's Netflix's latest movie, Tallulah, in which Ellen Page's free spirit steals a toddler from a hotel room when the child's mother passes out in a drunken coma after a bad date.
On television, the hit US comedy Mom, now in its fourth season, follows Allison Janney's character as she attempts to make amends after years of bad motherhood, while the cult hit Odd Mom Out turns a gimlet eye on the terrible and terrifying mothers of Manhattan's Upper East Side as they try to put the fun into fundraisers.
Crime fiction, meanwhile, is saturated with imperfect mothers, from the heroine of Gilly Macmillan's debut Burnt Paper Sky, who loses her son on a walk in the park, to Alex Marwood's The Darkest Secret, in which none of the mothers featured, good, bad, or apparently indifferent, is quite as she initially seems.
The Mare, the hugely anticipated third novel from Mary Gaitskill, her first in more than a decade, also takes motherhood as its starting point. Drawing inspiration from Enid Bagnold's National Velvet, Gaitskill tells the story of privileged white woman Ginger, Velvet - the Dominican teenager she supports for a time - and Silvia, the girl's furious mother. It is both an emotional coming-of-age tale and a raw meditation on motherhood.
"Back in the 1990s, I used to feel criticised by women for not having children, like there must be something wrong with me," Gaitskill told New York Magazine on the book's US publication. "People would say 'I don't see how a woman could be happy without children'. It was almost like a dogma. [Now that's changed] people got a good look and realised that it is really hard and it's not always lovable and rosy and everything working out. Maybe reality set in."
Is it this new understanding of the grimy reality lurking behind the rose-tinted vision that's driving us to embrace mums behaving badly? "I think partially what has happened is that the generation gap has narrowed," says Jill Kargman, creator of Odd Mom Out. "We don't age the way we used to, and pop culture reflects that - it tackles the fact that we're faking it being adults and often don't know what the hell we're doing. It's also the case that, 20 years ago, women were absent from leadership positions within the industry; now we have a voice."
Novelist Ayelet Waldman, who tackled this subject in 2009 with a series of essays titled Bad Mother, agrees that there has been a shift towards female-centric projects within the entertainment industry, but sounds a note of caution.
"There's definitely been a resurgence of interest in movies by or about women, which started when Bridesmaids knocked it out of the financial park, but if you look at Bad Moms, you'll see that it's written and directed by men [Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who made their names with Las Vegas-set lad fest The Hangover], and I think that's telling.
"Female writers would probably present a less hackneyed, more complete version of what it means to be a mother."
Certainly it's true that Tallulah, which is written and directed by a woman, Sian Heder, who also writes for female-centric prison drama Orange Is The New Black, presents a far more complicated picture of bad motherhood than the enjoyable but shallow Bad Moms, which for all the involvement of female producer Suzanne Todd, is essentially a watered-down The Hangover for women complete with slow-mo walking scenes and funky soundtrack.
By contrast, Tallulah's bad mother, the neurotic, narcissistic Carolyn, is initially presented as a caricature of bad motherhood. Caked in make up and squeezed into a hot pink dress, she barely registers her baby girl, doesn't appear to know how to change a nappy and has what's best described as a cavalier approach to childcare, at one point dismissing her daughter's progress towards an open window with the words "she has to learn". Yet as the film progresses, our opinion of Carolyn changes and, if not entirely supporting her actions, we at least come to understand the self-loathing from which they spring.
"After the premiere I became this weird priest hearing these bad-mummy confessions and I realised all mums feel like failures," Heder told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a disconnect between the role of the mother as it's presented in the movies and what it actually feels like to be a mum, the amount of guilt and shame you put on yourself."
It's this disconnect that films such as Bad Moms and shows such as Odd Mom Out tap into. The best scenes in Bad Moms are those in which our heroines, time-harried Amy (Kunis), raunchy Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and mousey Kiki (Kristen Bell) cut loose, laughing hysterically as they leave the stresses of modern motherhood behind, while Odd Mom Out works so well because Kargman relishes life's absurdities. "If you didn't see the humour in these sort of situations you'd go crazy," she says. "There's so much insecurity surrounding motherhood. The way that people feel better about themselves is basically by putting others down."
Gill Hornby, whose 2013 novel The Hive treads similar ground to Bad Moms, agrees. "I think most people think they're perfect mothers and it's everyone else who's the problem," she says. "A lot of time when people say 'oh, I'm a terrible mother' they actually don't mean it at all; in fact they want people to tell them that's not true. Similarly you would never hear men saying 'oh, she's a crap mother' - it's always driven by other women, which sounds unsisterly but is true."
Yet Hornby admits she has some sympathy with those who buy into the motherhood myth. "There's a lot of acting and spinning involved, and it's easy to act out of character - one of the things that always interested me is the idea of being thrust into an unelected friendship group, people you didn't choose to be friends with, and the effects that can have on your personality. It's easy to get sucked in."
It's also true that most of these mothers aren't exactly bad. They're not the wicked witches of fairytales, the cackling stepmothers looming with poisonous apples, the women forcing children out of their family homes into the dark woods; nor are they the monsters of film past. There are no clothes-hanger wielding Mommie Dearests or violent abusers like Precious's Mary.
It's notable that much of this "bad mothering" would be fine if it was done by fathers. Waldman says: "The bar is set so low for fathers. My husband was once in the grocery store holding our baby, who was filthy, covered in snot and chewing on a twist tie - basically something that has a sharp wire in it - and a lady stopped him and said, 'You are such a good dad'. Imagine if I'd been standing there holding a filthy kid who was chewing on a bit of garbage: I'd have been arrested. The double standards are maddening."
Despite these concerns, Waldman says she's in favour of the bad-mummy trend. "Ultimately, I think it's a good thing - the more images we have of mothers that don't fit into that traditional selfless image the better," she says.
"Some of these films may be hitting the low-hanging fruit of tired female stories - like stay-at-home mums versus mothers who work - but eventually we'll see more films written for women by women that are original and truly subversive."
Bad Moms is released August 26; Tallulah is available on Netflix; All Together Now by Gill Hornby is out in paperback, Abacus; The Mare is published by Serpent's Tail
Bad mums in the Movies
Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Hepburn is on magisterial, monstrous form in Joseph Mankiewicz's gloriously overheated take on Tennessee Williams.
Mary Tyler Moore as Beth in Ordinary People (1980)
The superficially perfect mum is slowly revealed as the cruel, withholding centre of this tale of complex family dynamics.
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981)
The most infamous bad mother of them all - Frank Perry's film features Dunaway at her most diva-ish.
Mo'Nique as Mary in Precious (2009)
Violent, cruel and lazy, the abusive Mary is rendered all the more terrifying by Mo'Nique's powerhouse performance.