Published February 15, 2011
Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of neglectful, abusive, perverted, crazy, demeaning, homicidal and all-around bad mothers!
This year, Melissa Leo is an Oscar favorite for playing financially-motivated, pushy boxing mother Alice in “The Fighter,” Jackie Weaver is nominated for her portrayal of a murderous mom in the crime thriller “Animal Kingdom,” and Barbara Hershey caused millions of eyebrows to arch for her interpretation of a psychologically questionable stage mom with an unnerving fascination with her daughter, played by Natalie Portman, in the Academy Award-nominated “Black Swan."
So what’s up with the mean mommy fascination?
“We are obsessed with bad mothers largely because the face of women in western culture has transformed radically since the 1950s. With new models of motherhood challenging old norms, what we favor now are the obsessive extremes,” explained Los Angeles-based pop culture and human behavior expert Suzannah Galland. “The more outrageous the behavior, the more compelling it is to watch. Bad mothers get away with things we would never permit ourselves to do. These women ... represent our worst nightmares.”
And the bad mom isn’t just a fixture in film these days. The malevolent maternal figure also dominates the small screen. MTV’s troubled “Teen Mom” moms draw millions of viewers each week. A recent epsiode featured star Amber Portwood beating up her fiancé while their young daughter looked on in terror.
Viewers still can’t get enough of Kate Gosselin’s inability to control her eight children as, six seasons later, the reformed “Kate Plus 8” is still going strong. TLC’s controversial “Toddlers & Tiaras,” starring moms who wax their young girls’ eyebrows, dress them in skimpy clothes and propel them onto the beauty pageant stage before they can barely walk, is in its fifth season, and routinely draws more than one million viewers per episode.
According to Galland, watching a bad mother, whether it be fact or fiction, is generally for more “entertaining” than watching a mean or abusive father figure.
“Bad moms are more interesting now, specifically because they have become more visible," she said. "They are also less predictable than bad dads, who have long held a familiar place on TV and in films. Bad moms don’t have to be smart. They just have to be cunning and shameless when it comes to breaking the rules.”
A recent Daily Beast report showed that once upon a time, Hollywood sent a very different message. The first actresses to receive Oscar recognition revered motherhood, and their mothering roles were executed in a way which were noble and respected – Luise Rainer as the loving, uncomplaining companion in “The Good Earth” (1937), Jane Darwell as the pragmatic, hard-working American Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and Greer Garson as the strong British wife and mother “Mrs. Miniver.” (1942).
So what happened? Is Hollywood to blame for fueling society’s seeming obsession with watching abominable mommies. And what kind of impact could this have on young girls?
“It is a shame that Hollywood doesn’t spend more time portraying the strength and heartiness of successful women, thus encouraging our girls to strive for such strength in themselves,” said image and parenting expert Dr. Janet Rose. “What troubles me most about this preoccupation with bad mothers is the effect on our young children. Our girls are strongly influenced by the messages the media sends on how to dress and how to behave. Our girls are so influenced by what they see that I fear that watching this type of movie or television show gives them permission to be disrespectful and critical of their own mothers. None of us are perfect and portraying this constant theme of poor parenting can only send negative messages about motherhood to our girls. Are these movies making the word “mom” synonymous with mean, abusive, neglectful, or just stupid? I fear that they also send negative messages about female strength. Is Hollywood so threatened by strong women that it needs to see women in a negative light?”