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Television

Mothers in television

Mothers are so ubiquitous in popular culture so as to be invisible. Cultural depictions of mothers are still, by and large, functional – women solely defined by their relationships to others, rather than full subjects with desires and anxieties of their own. Thankfully though, this is slowly changing, and we are beginning to see more nuanced representations of mothers.

Here are five mothers who pushed the boundaries of maternal representation this year.

 

Rose on Please Like Me

Josh Thomas’ comedy Please Like Me is notable for a number of things, including breaking new ground for the representation of gay and bisexual characters on Australian television. At the heart of the show is family, chosen and blood.

Josh’s mother Rose is one of the most interesting mothers on television: a complex character whose struggles with mental illness across the show’s four seasons are rarely a punchline. Instead, her relationship with her son is a subtle look at the complicated terrain of caretaking. Of particular interest is the episode in which Josh and Rose went for a five-day hike in Tasmania together, a conceit by turns hilarious and tender. By day, the two talk about Rose’s suicide attempt, Josh’s sexuality, God and Eminem; at night Rose cries herself to sleep. It’s a rare compassionate portrayal of maternal depression. Just as in real life, there are no easy answers to the treatment of mental illness on Please Like Me, something shown to devastating effect in recent episodes.

 

Joyce on Stranger Things

I know, I know, nothing seems quite so cool on this show as the girl with the telekinetic powers, but Winona Ryder’s performance as Joyce ranks a close second. With her son Will trapped in alternate dimension The Upside Down, Joyce’s faith in her son is beyond rational, though ultimately successful in recovering Will from the hellish dimension. Much has been made of Stranger Things’ nostalgia for 80s texts like ET, but where the mother in ET is largely absent from the supernatural goings-on – and hence passive – Joyce is aware and active in her son’s rescue. Moreover, in its portrayal of Joyce, Stranger Things adds a classed dimension lacking from Spielberg’s middle-class milieu. Joyce works in a supermarket, and has to convince her boss to give her an advance in order to put together a light apparatus to communicate with her son. Portrayals of working-class mothers are scarce enough on television, let alone genre fiction pieces with monsters and telekinetic powers. Fascinatingly, even the monster in the Upside Down harks back to the 80s maternal imagery of the likes of Alien, with womb imagery featuring rather prominently. Stranger Things is about more than just mothers; it is about the maternal as symbol as much as practice.

 

Emily on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Gilmore Girls was always a meditation on motherhood, with its premise of a single mother bringing up a teen, but in its recent revival the show has increasingly focused on the relationship between mother Lorelai and her mother Emily. Where the original run made much mileage from the freakishly close Lorelai and her daughter Rory, in the new incarnation the fraught relationship between Lorelai and Emily takes centre stage as the two attend therapy together. Ostensibly undertaken to help Emily grieve the death of her husband six months earlier, the sessions devolve into bickering over old issues.

As a show, the Gilmore Girls has always returned to the intractability of family conflict, of the difficulty in moving past childhood resentment and parental disappointment. In different ways, Emily and Lorelai have never gotten past Lorelai’s teen pregnancy. And yet, the show leaves open the possibility of healing, of finding new modes through which to relate to your children as adults. The English writer Jeanette Winterson has said that there are only three endings to stories: revenge, tragedy or forgiveness. Emily and Lorelai must learn to forgive one another and let go of the past. The Gilmore Girls shows the difficulty of forgiveness, but its necessity, too.

 

Anne Boleyn on Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Booker prizewinning novel of the same name, was one of the highlights of this year on the ABC. Its portrayal of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating study of avarice and ambition. For Anne, in the intensely patriarchal early modern period, motherhood – and specifically conceiving a male heir to Henry’s throne – represents her only path to power. Tragically, Anne gives birth to a girl, Elizabeth, then miscarries, paving the way for her own downfall. But what is interesting in Wolf Hall is how the show highlights the way patriarchy uses women’s reproductivity against them, a double-edged sword that cuts across social classes.

 

Practically everyone on Call the Midwife

It might seem a bit nanna, but Call the Midwife is frequently one of the most interesting shows around, for the simple reason that it is one of the few shows on television with an overwhelmingly female cast. Midwife takes as its raison d’être the act of childbirth, and in doing so examines motherhood from every angle imaginable. Every episode features multiple mothers of every possible permutation, from teenage mothers to sex workers to immigrant mothers to mothers of ten. But it is not just the guest characters that are mothers on Midwife. We see nurse Chummy adjust to life as a mother in the 1960s, at a time when many mothers of her class did not work.

But lest all this seem too essentialist, reinforcing the idea of motherhood as biological, the show also features former nun Shelagh step-mothering as well as parenting an adopted child. Mother has always been a verb as well as a noun, and Midwife shows that maternal care – like the social welfare state that Midwife nostalgically evokes – is valuable and transformative.

 

Of course, these are far from the only interesting mothers on TV at the moment. Science fiction series Orphan Black has a number of mothers drawing out some fascinating implications from its cloning premise, while Transparent has a transgender mother (though one whose motherhood is contested, both by other characters and reviewers). As these shows demonstrate, there is an audience out there hungry for new and innovative takes on motherhood, the maternal and the lives of women.

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Dr Emily McAvan teaches in the College of Arts at Victoria University.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Emily, this is really interesting. I’ve only seen Please Like Me, but will check out some of these others.

    Can I nominate one more? I really love the three depictions of the maternal in Jane the Virgin. These are three vastly different approaches to motherhood – for Jane, it’s not either/or (either be a mother or a fully realised person) despite the social pressure for her to choose one or the other; Xiomara, a sole parent who had to sacrifice a great deal in raising Jane; and Alba, a conservative and religious migrant, who for so long lived in the shadow of her past, and a constant fear of deportation. Obviously all three characters represent generational differences to a degree, but they are all unique and rich depictions too.

    If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope I have conveyed some of its appeal!

  2. Very intriguing post. Thanks. Roszika Parker has written a lot of interesting
    stuff on motherhood and representations of the maternal and how ambivalent (in the psychoanalytical sense) a state it can be. Parker somewhere quotes Kristeva saying that we are – culturally, politically – in the grip of a primary narcissism (see Trump as the perfect expression of that), which of course is based on rigid idealisations of women and the maternal and can’t tolerate any ambivalence at all. I’m just wondering – having not seen any of these programs, being a habitual non-watcher of TV – how much of their success is due to a kind of public desire *for* ambivalence, a willingness to embrace with the messy politics of being with and looking after other people. Women reclaiming the politics of motherhood, and its history – which doesn’t necessarily mean becoming mothers of course – among other feminist reclaimings, might be a hopeful political sign in the midst of what the media insist on calling the rise of ‘populism’, but I tend to think of as a last ditch psychotic defence against the collapse of patriarchal narcissism.

    • And if I can take the liberty of lining up this post with Natalie Kon-Yu’s on the academic erasure of women, Roszika Parker also wrote ‘Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology’ a groundbreaking study on the inherent misogyny in art criticism, and art’s portrayals of women.

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