This post is quite obviously two days late; Mother’s Day has come and gone. I’m-a apologize for that, but it kind of goes to point I want to make: mothers and motherhood get remarkably short shrift in pop culture in general and geek culture in particular.
For the most part, moms just don’t exist. Where they do, they’re either saintly and loving, or creepy and weird. Archetypes without full characterization. Which is all to say, it’s time we do better.
Sometimes, moms are knocked out of the storyline to orphan our hero and put her on the road to adventure. This is especially true in stories aimed at a younger audience—Disney heroines are notably bereft of mothers. While many heroes end up parentless altogether, fathers do a remarkable job remaining alive in these circumstances. Disney relaunched its animated fairy tale adaptions with a bevy of motherless heroines, but while Belle, Ariel, Jasmine and Pocahontas all manage to hang on to their fathers, their mothers are simply out of the picture. The dads can be somewhat useless, but they’re there, with whole plot arcs and relevance that’s denied to their partners.
Mothers lately have returned to the Disney canon, but generally, even when mothers have a degree of plot relevance, they usually find themselves fridged, especially when their heroic child is a boy instead of a girl. Famously, Bambi’s mom ends up on the wrong side of a bullet to traumatize a male hero; Bambi’s father meets no such end. Anakin Skywalker turns because of his mother’s murder, but it doesn’t stop him from being a looming figure in his son’s life. For good measure, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side also causes the death of Luke’s mother. Boy children can even kill their mothers at birth, seen recently in the cases of Tyrion Lannister and Don Draper.
Harry Potter, for his part, loses both parents, but while he clings to father figures with Albus Dumbledore and Sirius Black, Lily Potter is a singular loss to him. He seeks to fulfill his father’s legacy, but his lost mother is given nothing more than the power of love. She is a ghost; James Potter is a memory.
That’s for the mothers of protagonists. Protagonists who are or become mothers are an even rarer breed. For the most part, motherhood is a retirement project. Hermione Granger reproduces only in the epilogue to the series, and Katniss as well. Disney princesses’ babies are, at most, an implied part of their happily-ever-afters. Fathers, of course, get to keep on fighting; usually their families just draw them out into the field. Just ask Liam Neesons.
There’s no reason why we should settle for either state of affairs, and mercifully, we are getting a few better options. Motherhood is not the end of the line for either Cersei Lannister of Catelyn Tully in Game of Thrones; both women achieve a degree of work/life balance, where their role as mothers can be meaningfully explored without entirely sacrificing their own personal and political ambitions. Jessica Jones has been kicked out of the Marvel universe for having a baby, and Rose Tyler became a protagonist without sacrificing her mother to whatever dread gods require heroes to be motherless. Orphan Black bucks the trend entirely—Sarah Manning’s story centers around her daughter and her (foster) mother, and Alison Hendrix melds sci-fi adventure with suburban motherhood with her accustomed ease.
But still, the fact that these characters remain exceptions is troubling. Why do geek stories so eagerly push mothers to the edges of their narrative? There’s a school of thought in folklore studies that orphaned protagonists help teach kids that they can make it in the world without their parents, helping learn to grow up.
That theory may explain the preponderance of orphans, but it doesn’t explain the preference for surviving fathers. For some reason, motherless children get adventures, fatherless children stay home. In large part, social norms are willing to acceptable affable but inept fathers (Maurice, Aladdin’s Sultan) or cold and distant ones (King Triton, Odin). Their sons and daughters can seek out adventure without condemnation of the negligent parenting that leads to one’s daughter selling her voice. We’re even willing to watch heroes struggle with or even kill cruel fathers (Darth Vader, Cronos, Tywin Lannister) in another narrative niche denied to women—unpleasant maternal figures are usually stepmothers or other surrogates: Cinderella, Snow White, Petunia Dursley, Futurama‘s Mom.
Instead, the answer comes back to the sexism underlying the role. Mothers are the ur-gender role, and as such, their world in pop culture becomes extremely circumscribed. Outside of geek culture, stories are able to negotiate historical or personal relationships that break out of this template, but in these realms which so often rely on archetypes, authors appear to run out of ideas. Crazy Old Maurice is funny, but an equally dopey mother would seem negligent or worse. A cold, stern, distant, but ultimately wise mother would be seen as cruel and unloving, rather than a natural inspiration.
Feeling forced into smaller boxes, it is no wonder that authors simply removed mothers from the narrative altogether, or else transmute them into warm, fuzzy, plot-irrelevant capital-M moms. Molly Weasley hands out sweaters, Joyce Summers gives her daughter spending money, and May Parker tells Peter to get a good night’s sleep. The hero’s mother in Chrono Trigger never leaves her house while her son and his friends save all of time and space, warmly greeting them on every visit without asking any questions. It’s all very sweet, but they are held at arm’s length from the action. They snap into the background when the plot arrives, or at best, end up as hostages.
It’s time to do better.