Where Have All The TV Mothers Gone?
It’s a well worn trope of the internet era to honor mother’s day with a list, and we here at Hitfix were happy to partake. But while working on our list of TV’s Best Mothers, one thing became clear – there aren’t a whole lot of mothers front and center on TV these days. And in movies, the anti-mom bias is even worse.
Well, let’s put the part part of this with some qualifiers. In an era of 85,000 weekly shows airing between the broadcast networks, basic cable, premium cable and streaming services, if you poke around enough, you can find a bunch of moms; just as you can find a few serial killers, a mad king or two, some talking animals and baristas living in $4000 a month apartments.
But you have to dig to find more than a handful of them. A smaller number of those you find sit at the dead center of their shows. And even for those who do, the day to day problems of motherhood are very very rarely given more than a passing nod. Much has been written about the difficulties actresses have in finding decent female parts these days; but while you might be able to scare up a few fully-drawn women’s roles in this Golden Age of TV, good luck finding many in which child-raising plays a major role in their lives.
Which is certainly not to say that every or most female characters on television should be spending their time making their kid’s lunches. The Census Bureau this year found that a record nearly half of American women between the ages of 15 and 44 do not have children [http://time.com/3774620/more-women-not-having-kids/] and it is wonderful that television now can reflect that diversity of experiences. If women on our screens can be doing all kinds of things, all the better.
But that statistic also means that over half of American women between 15 and 44 do have children, and as anyone with kids can tell you, once childre come into your life they are not far from the center of your experience every hour of every day. Mothers, whom we honor this weekend – whether they stay at home or balance the home with work, whether they have help, do it alone or with a village behind them – have the hardest job the world can throw at a person. Motherhood today is a minefield of hard choices, time management and pure trying to stay sane while keeping little people alive, healthy and hopefully happy as well.
It’s the most complex experience in existence. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at our TV line-ups. Entire networks exist without a mother character as a series regular. Vast swaths of sitcoms and celebrated anti-hero dramas roll by in which mothers are just these people who poke their heads in once a season to provide some comic fodder for their grown children. Take a look at your neighborhood mommy blog and look at the issues the commenters are struggling over, then ask yourself when was the last time you saw those issues grappled with in a TV show or film.
Take a peek at the line-ups of some of our major networks (or “content providers” if you will). Of the dozen-plus scripted shows the top rated network, CBS, aired this season, three (“The Good Wife” “Madame Secretary” and “Mom”) featured mothers as series regulars. Now that “Parenthood’ has left NBC you’d have to search its moving target of a line-up with a fine tooth comb to find a mother there. ABC does better. “Scandal” “Grey’s Anatomy” and in fact most of their sitcoms feature mothers in lead roles. The network’s claim to the Mother’s Day crown, however, is all but uncontested up and down the dial. Fox features one mother character on “Empire” and a few wacky animated moms (Marge Simpson, Linda Belcher), but don’t go looking for Mom on “The New Girl.” The CW, having found a niche in the youth market, isn’t going to bring them down by letting Mom into the picture.
To take a quick glance over the vast expanse of cable and streaming outlets, FX, for instance features of the more conflicted mother characters with Elizabeth Jennings on “The Americans”, but she hasn’t got a lot of company elsewhere in the house. AMC’s “Mad Men” has no less than three mothers as regulars, but apart from “Halt and Catch Fire” it seems the network decided to cram all their moms into one show. Comedy Central’s recent renaissance is a mom-free zone on every level. On celebrated HBO, you’ll find a mom in the Oval Office on “Veep,” and three moms scheming around Westeros on “Game of Thrones” (including a mom of dragons no less) but in the years since “The Sopranos” had their last supper, cable’s Tiffany network has veered far away from the kitchen table. Moms fare a bit better on Showtime; “Masters of Sex” “The Affair” and “Homeland” feature mothers front and center. Netflix’s offering of shows is so sprawling at this point it’s hard to take stock, but its most-talked about shows: “Orange is the New Black” “House of Cards” and now “Daredevil” are largely lands of motherless children.
And so it goes. There are pockets of moms out there, but when one thinks of the shows that define this era - the bleak dark dramas and the young urban comedies - you could walk a long way through that landscape without bumping into anyone’s mater familias.
One fact that stands out: in period epics and costume dramas, moms abound. Shows like “Vikings” “The Borgias” “Hatfields & McCoys” “Downton Abbey” and for that matter “Mad Men” overflow with mothers, as though networks can deal with their mother issues only when they are at a safe remove, comfortably in the past, or as though mothers were some old-fangled contraption technology has figured out how to work around in modern times.
Things certainly are not much better on the big screen, where good roles for women are even rarer; ones where they are raising children few and far between. Looking at last year’s 30 top grossing films, a very few featuring mothers stand out (“American Sniper” “Neighbors” “The Fault in Our Star’) - and even in these the moms are supporting characters, far from the leads.
Even when mothers or even dads do appear on the big screen or small, the issues that consume any parent are usually dispensed with and dismissed in one scene; showing mom fighting to get the kids out the door for school, for instance. Spend 20 minutes with any group of parents and you’ll very quickly see that the myriad of issues that devour their lives are inescapable and ever-present at the very front of their brains. Rare is the show that actually dives into and grapples with these issues, rather than making the barest nod to them before closing the door to that wing of the house and quickly moving on.
But why is this? These are the issues that dominate the lives of a good half the nation. Sure, many of those parents when they turn on their sets are seeking escape from the humdrum issues of the day, but aren’t they also now and then looking for shows where the characters are dealing with the sorts of problems they grapple with?
Why has one of the most central concerns of human existences been banished to corners of the public square?
The chase after younger, hipper viewers has been the obsession of most every non-CBS employed television executive for a good couple decades now. We still live in the wake of “Seinfeld” and “Friends” – creating a buzz-worthy entertainment about young, urban singles is our national obsession, a mission that has occupied more talent and brain-power than the Manhattan project. (A mission that incidentally can seem like a kamikaze run if you look at Fox and NBC’s recent history in the comedy space)
On the big screen, the challenge for moms is even more daunting. The world of superheroes, space operas, sequels and spin-offs aimed at 11 year olds and 11 year olds at heart doesn’t lend itself to mom knocking on the door in the middle of the battle. James Bond’s moody (or mopey) last installment saw him tackling his own mother issues, but gave less space for mother figure M to tackle her son issues
Another explanation, suggested by a TV executive friend who oversees some mother-free shows, is that a female character doesn’t have the same licence, in the eyes of networks and many viewers, to come and go from the motherhood topic as a male character does. Don Draper, this executive points out, can go episodes in a row without interacting with his children and no one thinks any the less (or any the less than they already do) of him. Show a female lead character, however, who makes no reference to her children for an entire 44 minutes of air time, and the viewers will be howling as they she left her kids locked in the car in a supermarket parking lot.
Yes, it’s tough out there on the screens, big and little, for moms. Motherhood has always been the hardest and less-appreciated of roles in life, and it would be great to see a few more of the battles they have to fight grappled with on the screen.
But today, let’s also celebrate those who carry the banner every week. Allison Florrick, Cersei Lannister, Claire Dunphy, Cookie Lyon, Meredith Grey - each in your own way as best you can, you show us how hard the fight can be, and how strong are the women who day after day after day, with little fanfare and fewer lead roles, just keep winning it. Happy Mother’s Day to you all!