Everybody wants a hot take about the absent and aggressive fathers, the bad dads. And I ask myself, where are all the bad mothers? Psycho, Sharp Objects, Stoker, and others.
In Hollywood, mothers come in a few flavours. There’s Jennifer Garner’s Loving Mother in the sweet teen romcom Love, Simon. She’s funny, she’s loving, she’s ready to support Simon. There’s Laura Metcalf’s Difficult Mother Marion McPherson in my favourite film of 2017, Lady Bird. She’s stubborn, nit-picky, and she’ll get into verbal battles with her children whenever wherever. Don’t let that fool you though, she’s still got that deep well of love for her children. She’ll support them through anything, she’ll sacrifice everything. Personally, I find the Marion McPhersons of the world to be more honest for a lot of people. Then there’s the Liberal Mother variant, Annella Perlman from Call Me By Your Name. She expresses her love through a from-the-sides parenting, by letting her children go into the world with relative safety and maximum trust. It isn’t negligence, it’s space for growth. She’ll still come to pick her kid up and stroke his hair when he gets his heart broken. Please note that somewhere between the last two variants lies Dorothea Fields from 20th Century Women.
All of these are different from Halley from The Florida Project. This is the Bad Mother in many people’s books. Another key example is Chiron’s mother in Moonlight. They’re irresponsible and often shown to be a drinker and weed-smoker, sometimes even a cocaine or heroin addict. Please note that sometimes (almost all times) the Bad Mother is just a tragic outcome of poverty, systemic issues, and circumstance. Though negligent due to these factors, the Bad Mum usually still shares a meaningful bond with her children. The thing is that she’s trying, but odds are stacked against her. Another iteration of that is the Rich Bad Mother. She just can’t spend time with her kids because she has big important things to do like organise soirées with all her business partners. Still though, a secret heart of gold. The final common one: the Absent Mother. It’s exactly as it sounds. She’s dead, she’s missing, she moved to Timbuktu with her new husband and now the kid lives with the dad, or she’s just hiding beyond the curtain of every scene. This seems to make up an unnaturally large number of mothers in cinema. I’m talking the mother of Troy Bolton (High School Musical), Bella Swan (Twilight), Kayla (Eighth Grade), or Mike Waters (My Own Private Idaho). But the same underlying common factor remains love, even if the main character doesn’t always feel it.
If you’ve watched enough anime, as I did in my shameful past, you’ll be well-versed in the concept of the angelic dead mother. No, she could never be anything but good and nurturing. Yes, she did die tragically, leaving a sad mother-shaped chasm in the protagonist’s life, endlessly sending them love and motivation from beyond the grave. Even in death, a do-gooder. And it’s not too far off from what we make in the west, except that unconditional purity of motherly love came under scrutiny ever since Hitchcock hit us with classic thriller Psycho.
I’ve seen some great discussions about the ‘oedipal rage’ of Hitchcock. Bidisha from The Guardian writes
‘I think it’s safe to say that little Alfred had mummy issues. Nowhere are they more apparent than in Psycho.’
Just the most fantastic couple of sentences I’ve read in a while.
Hitchcock may not have invented the smothering mother, but it’s safe to say he redefined its horror. She’s so particular about her child or she adores him so much, she fusses over him even after childhood. She controls his life. She’s suffocating his agency and adulthood. There is a general sense of anxiety and loyalty from the man in question as a result. You can trace this to films as recent as Phantom Thread, where Reynolds Woodcock misses his deceased mother so much, he keeps a locket of her hair in the lining of his jackets, he dreams of her watching over him, he also just… seeks a mother figure out in his romantic partners.
And it almost definitely is a man. It’s a peculiar asymmetric parallel. Being a Mummy’s Boy is somehow embarrassing at best, repulsive at its worst. Downright deranged, if we’re to believe Hitchcock. But there’s not an interchangeable concept for the woman whose best friend is their mother.
Then there’s Interstellar. Emotionally-driven science fiction about how much a father can love his daughter, how much he would sacrifice it all for her… but not his son though. We just forget about Timothée Chalamet’s character. This is near identical to First Man where Armstrong is shown to cherish the memory of his wife and deceased daughter, leaving out his two living sons. Dads just seem to be gender-selective about their love and devotion. There’s usually a bond, but an emotional connection between father and son which is vitally missing, except in the always pivotal ‘I miss mum’, ‘Me too’ conversation. Of course, this doesn’t represent every film out there. Call Me by Your Name and Love, Simon bucks the trend with their delightfully supportive fathers (and mothers).
For a long time now, I’ve wondered ‘Can a mother not care about their children in movies?’ The deadbeat dad has long been a staple of fiction. The 1991 New Queer Cinema film My Own Private Idaho and the 2017 Netflix mini-series End of the F**king World, despite being 26 years apart, have the same sequence of events where the young protagonist is knocked down by life and in search of their father, only to find dad living in a trailer and wanting them out of his life. They share their genes with hundreds of other stories. So then, why don’t we have stories about mothers who don’t give a shit?
The answer is that we do! Very far and few between are examples of the final category and my personal favourite, Cold Mothers. 2011 gave us Lynne Ramsay’s much-celebrated mystery thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Tilda Swinton’s character Eva is plagued with a depressive disinterest for her child, Kevin. The gulf between reality and the expectation of motherhood from both Eva and every other character is so thoroughly exhausting that the audience is invited to hate both Eva and Kevin. Despite her efforts, she just can’t care for the kid. The film concludes in Kevin executing a school shooting based off the Columbine Massacre, something nobody in 2011 would have predicted to be the Armageddon it is in 2018. Was it in Kevin’s nature to be evil from the beginning? From a young age, he appears to have a streak of bad about him, always finding the perfect ways to make Eva’s life hell and manipulate others against his mother. Or was it his troubled home life from her constant rejection of him? Swinton is perfect in her on-again-off-again cruelty towards her young son. Ramsay is smart to keep it ambiguous, focusing on the frosty detachment between mother and child.
Rarely discussed in tandem with the topic is Park Chan-Wook’s 2011 gothic psychological thriller Stoker, a coming of age of Mia Wasikowska’s character India Stoker who is entrapped by an attraction to her Uncle Charlie, something she shares with her mother Evelyn (played by Nicole Kidman). The jealousy extinguishes any flicker of their already distant relationship. The final nail in the vampire’s coffin is Kidman’s intense monologue:
I’ve often wondered why it is we have children in the first place… and the conclusion I’ve come to is, at some point in our lives we realise things are… are screwed up beyond repair, so we decide to start again. Wipe the slate clean. Start afresh. We have children. Little carbon copies we can turn to and say ‘you will do what I could not. You will succeed where I have failed.’ Because we want someone to get it right this time. But not me. Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart. India? Who are you? You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?
It’s a short 30-second speech, but it’s impactful, and so very well articulates the character’s disappointment in motherhood. You feel sorry for Kidman’s character for having a child that could never love her, while simultaneously despising her sense of priorities when 18-year-old India grows to have an amorous relationship with her uncle, who is quite possibly a vampire. Evelyn Stoker is my pick for Selfish Mother of the Year.
Hereditary was one of the standouts in this realm this year. Before the hit film about the wrongdoings in a family, Ari Aster was known for The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, a controversial short-film about the wrongdoings in a family. Hereditary follows the previous work in tackling the sinfulness of familial ownership and abuse. Toni Collette’s character Annie is horrified by her mother’s attempts to take the caretaking of her daughter away from her, while she was distant and controlling in her own childhood. It betrays a friction and anxiety between different generations of mothers about the rights of motherhood. There have been other thrillers of women taking the roles or identity of the heroine, but somehow, it’s more revolting when it’s your own flesh and blood. Annie is often restraining herself from speaking poorly of her dead mother, yet she so clearly doesn’t hates her.
Finally, we come to the origin of the very term Cold Mother, Adora from the critically acclaimed HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s book Sharp Objects. Flynn is best known for her other iconic bad woman, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Sharp Objects had some truly deliciously terrible moments, but perhaps one of the most shocking was in Season 1 episode 5. Adora (played by Patricia Clarkson) looks into the eyes of her daughter Camille (played by future Emmy winner Amy Adams), apologising for Camille’s inability to get close to others, and says
‘I never loved you. You were born to that cold nature. I hope that’s some comfort to you’.
Homicidal women aside, Flynn reached TV’s peak on the mountain of taboo. Watching the scene felt like a transgression in and of itself. Others showed us the subtext, but Sharp Objects was bold enough to give us the text in plain, block-lettered writing. Adora houses and feeds Camille when she turns up in her doorstep, but she’s never warm and inviting about it. Between Sharp Objects and Hereditary, 2018 has been the year of exhausting obligatory care for parents and children.
What happens now that we’ve opened this floodgate? My prediction and hope is that more women can speak about this taboo topic. Motherhood has long been denied its time under the limelight for the complex, and sometimes thorny, issue that it is. The more experiences that we can bring to the big and small screen, the better. Mothers, good and bad, I welcome them all.