Unpacking the stark similarities of film’s new favorite trope
In recent years, films have embraced the “Bad Mom” narrative: A female parent exhibits behavior that, traditionally, has only been socially acceptable for men to display—recklessness, a penchant for partying, a lackadaisical approach to authority. From hard-hitting dramas like 2009’s Precious and 2001’s Riding in Cars with Boys to raunchy comedies like 2016’s Bad Moms, films like these fill a void within popular culture, shedding light on a harsh truth: Once women reach a certain age or marker in life—motherhood, if we’re being specific—the already limited roles they’re allowed to occupy become even more constrained. Alternatively, the “Bad Mom” trope embraces imperfection; it humanizes and elevates the experiences of mothers, who are typically reduced to one-dimensional caretakers in the public eye. It allows them to mess up, become frustrated with the challenges of parenthood, and struggle to keep both their family and their individual lives intact. It has the potential to recalibrate gender stereotypes in media and more honestly reflect the vast spectrum of what motherhood looks like. Essentially, the rise of the “Bad Mom” offers space to mothers who wish to define themselves closer to their own terms. While it has the capacity to widen our definition and concept of motherhood, a crucial question emerges: Who is allowed to be a “Bad Mom,” and to what effect?
Mrs. George from Mean Girls
The number of films offering these alternative portrayals may be growing, but the character generally looks the same: cis, thin, heterosexual white women whose experiences are laid bare, often for comedic effect. Riding in Cars with Boys features Drew Barrymore as writer and mother Beverly Donofrio, following her as a carefree, rambunctious teen in the 1960s, and as she becomes a 15-year-old mother—trying to both navigate and repress the ways in which her life is changing. She is selfish, flighty, and imperfect throughout the two-decade span of the film. Even as her marriage fails and her life falls apart, we still root for Donofrio because, ultimately, we are meant to like her. We sympathize with her dreams, even knowing they are unattainable in those moments, because we are meant to see Donofrio as relatable and as a reflection of the experiences that most women and mothers face, especially in maintaining their identities while also being good mothers. Another example is Amy Poehler’s infamous Mean Girls character, Mrs. George, an unapologetically desperate and delusional housewife trying to prove her “coolness” and gain the approval of her daughter, Regina. Though we cringe at Mrs. George’s antics—eagerly preapproving underage drinking and sexual activity under her own roof—we still like her; she makes us laugh. Even as we grow to dislike Regina and root for her demise, we don’t cast blame upon her mother for reinforcing behavior that contributes to the evil of Regina. Both Donofrio and Mrs. George provide an image of what mainstream media considers “universal motherhood”—namely, white motherhood. Meanwhile, women and mothers who don’t fall into the same categories are hard-pressed to find films to mirror and validate their own experiences.
Of course, the Beverly Donofrios and Mrs. Georges aren’t the only ones who can arguably fit into these roles, but they are the only ones who are able to escape any real-life consequences of being a “bad mom” offscreen—whether they are being arrested, directly impacting their children’s well-being, or feeling as though they have failed as a parent. For mothers who are of color, disabled, or outside the gender binary, the “Bad Mom” trope is merely another way to restrict and demonize their experiences for entertainment.
Mary (Mo’Nique), the mother in Precious. Courtesy Lionsgate.
In fact, being a “Bad Mom” is particularly harmful for black women. There’s a long history of black women being victims of violence through misogynoir, but demonizing black motherhood onscreen is a media-specific example, demonstrated in 2009’s Precious and 2011’s Pariah. In both films, the main characters are at the mercy of their abusive mothers, each pigeonholed through their struggles as black women and each resorting to violence seemingly as their only option to keep their families together. These roles glorify the pain that black women face—as subjected to racism, misogynoir, and oppression. In Pariah, Audrey (Kim Wayans) is fighting to maintain control of her failing marriage and drifting from her eldest daughter, Alike, who, beyond her mother’s gaze, is in the midst of realizing she is gay. It all becomes too much, and Audrey’s increasing sense of hopelessness explodes into violence when Alike comes out as a lesbian. Aubrey hits her daughter and kicks her out of the house. In the final moments of the film, we recognize this as a last-ditch (though failing) effort to regain control, and Alike is happy to be free of her situation. In Precious, mother Mary’s (Mo’Nique) coldheartedness and antagonism toward Precious stems from jealousy over the attention that Mary’s boyfriend and Precious’ father gives her daughter. In a scene where Mary confesses her abuse of Precious to the social worker, she delivers a stunning monologue, marking herself as the true victim. “Who’s going to love me? Who’s going to take care of me?” she weeps. Both Mary and Audrey are trapped in the expectations and societal pressure for them to be good black women—good spouses to their husbands, good mothers—but when they lose the men in their lives, they lash out at their children because their role as a parent is the only control they have left.
We cannot understand Mary or Audrey beyond their personal pain and the harm they inflict because we aren’t meant to. Both films are intentional in the way that they force us to blame and dislike these women in their roles as main antagonists (and the last obstacles to their daughters’ happiness and freedom). When black women are centered in the “Bad Mom” trope, there is no comedic effect, no laughs to be had, and they become little more than the stereotypes that we expect them to be. They become the cautionary tale.
What’s more, rarely are parents who identify outside of the gender binary included in these “Bad Mom” depictions, continuing to further “other,” the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming parents. Instead, most of these films rely heavily on reinforced gender roles as punch lines. Case in point, the trailer for Bad Moms features a transphobic joke that is meant to titillate the audience at the expense of trans women’s experiences. Overall, there aren’t any mainstream films that focus on trans motherhood or the experiences of femme-presenting parents. Of the few trans-centered films available, most concentrate on transitioning or on trans-focused violence, and often feature younger trans individuals. (It’s important to note that violence against the trans community dramatically shortens the average life expectancy of a trans woman to an estimated 30-32 years, a number that skews even lower for trans women of color. Even so, the fact that trans motherhood is absent from mainstream narratives is both disheartening and transphobic.) Thus, we’re fed entertainment that normalizes ostracizing parents who aren’t cis, and paints their narratives as anything but ordinary.
Instead of the “Bad Mom” trope widening the scope of what motherhood both looks like and can be, films that offer this characterization have served to reinforce restrictions that marginalized people already face. These portrayals could play an essential role in humanizing mothers in the public eye, but they still belong only to those who fit into cis white femininity. Thus, they fall short, as all mothers aren’t allowed the chance to reclaim and rewrite their experiences or filter them through a lens of humor and compassion—and they should be.