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She Persisted - Ten Mama-Memes in Film and Fiction

Since first we scratched in the sand, artists have drawn portraits of mothers, often deeply unflattering, while, presumably, the subjects of their portraits cooked the ungrateful buggers their tea. Occasionally, artists, mothers themselves, dodged death in childbirth, back-breaking child-care and societal expectation long enough to paint pictures of motherhood of their own. I salute them.


Among these many portraits, patterns emerge: mother characters we know and love today have fictional fore-mothers of their own. So, this Mother’s Day, I nominate my top ten mother archetypes: Ma-rchetypes, if you will. Even as the details differ, the essential shapes persist - perhaps because they offer truths about motherhood, and the myriad ways it can go pear-shaped. Because most of these mothers are truly appalling.


Still, where’s the fun in the good ones? I'm putting two thousand years of misogyny on the back-burner to celebrate just how twisted the umbilical cord can get! For bonus points guess which of these 'maradigms' Marlene from my own novel Mother’s Day (out now in paperback) fits into.


1.    The Frozen Nipple

Utterly loveless, this mother has ice running in her mammary ducts. Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust hears “John” has been killed – but her lover John, or her son John? It’s her child. “Thank God!” she says. Now, that’s cold. A glorious recent addition to the canon of chilly mothers is Harriet Walter’s brilliant Lady Caroline Collingwood in Jesse Armstrong’s Succession. She is a glinting example of cold-hearted calculation. When her son Kendall tries to reach out to her she says, “Wouldn’t this be better in the morning, over an egg?” In the morning, of course, she has gone. Lady Macbeth would be proud.

2.    The Freaky Friday

Role-swapping’s nothing new - Greek and Norse Gods regularly impersonated nearly anything to create mothers – but in this maradigm it’s the mother who takes on an identity she shouldn’t: her child’s. Scooping up all the rebellion and dependency for herself, she thrusts her kid into the role of carer and disciplinarian. Hilariously embodied by Jennifer Saunders, the iconic Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous did a straight swapsies with her uptight daughter, Saffy. It’s an emotional Freaky Friday, geddit? On the more serious side of things, in Toni Morrison’s Pulizter Prize-winning Beloved, Sethe starts playing daughter to what she believes is her own daughter, Beloved, come back from the dead. Morrison gives us this heart-ripping inversion to show how the mother-daughter bond can be warped by insane trauma.


3.    The Suckler

Instead of wanting her child to grow up too quickly, The Suckler refuses to let her child grow up at all. Anyone who’s seen Game of Thrones will remember the moment Lysa Arryn is introduced, sitting on the throne, breast-feeding her seven-year-old son. Just like ‘Bitty’ - the breast-feeder of an adult David Walliams in Little Britain, the role of ‘mother of ickle babies’ is so central to this mother’s sense of self that she can’t allow her kids to get older without losing herself. This mother is closely allied to the Sick-Maker – who makes her child ill, so they are dependent on her– (Spoilers! Gillian Flynn’s horrifying Adora Crellin in Sharp Objects is a prime example). This archetype is the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk version of helicopter parenting.


4.    The Zealot

Skating quickly over the Virgin Mary, this mother honestly believes she acts in her child’s best interest, and out of love. While The Zealot appears rarely, when she does, she makes an impression. Jeanette Winterson’s mother in Orange is Not The Only Fruit whose enemies included “the Devil, sex, the family next door, and garden slugs” attempts to purge the “demons” from her daughter. Margaret White, Carrie’s mother in Stephen King’s Carrie, tries the same thing, but comes to a stickier end.


5.    The Distractivist

Since mothers could work they’ve been blamed for it - especially if they dare to be an ‘activist’. These mothers like their kids – they just neglect them because the rest of the world comes first. Mrs Jellyby in Dickens’ Bleak House is so busy with her leaflets her kids get their heads stuck in the railings. DI Kate Fleming in Line of Duty is so busy chasing bent coppers she loses custody of her son. But Mrs Banks, the mother in Mary Poppins, takes the crown. So busy is she with her damn feminism she hires a nanny who takes her kids dancing on the roof. (For the child-free – this is a no-no.) In fact, Mary Poppins is a nanny so bad, a middle-class father is forced to acknowledge his children exist.


6.    The Narcissist

In Mommy Dearest, Christina Crawford gave her mother Joan the treatment, depicting her as a mother for whom her children were merely props and mirrors. Differing from the Frozen Nipple in her passion, at least for herself, the Narcissist believes herself a marvellous mother – picture Shirley Maclaine in Carrie Fisher’s Postcards From the Edge, or Shirley Maclaine in anything, really. For the comic version of this mar-chetype we turn to Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek - Dan and Eugene Levy’s wonderful creation given insane life by actress Catherine O’Hara. As with Snow White’s stepmother - the beauty of the Narcissist’s daughter often represents a threat to her aging ego. Moira Rose is a marvellous exception: the gorgeousness of her daughter Alexis serves only to reflect further glory on her.


7.    The Hysteric

The word hysteria itself means ‘pertaining to the womb’. Accusations of hysteria have traditionally been a great way of dismissing genuine grievances and belittling female rage. But recognising the patriarchal crucible in which they were formed can only deepen our appreciation for some of the most memorable mothers ever created. Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, a hysterical weathervane who contradicts herself continually, gets the last laugh when her schemes are successful. The Hysteric is kissing cousins with the Hypochondriac. Jane Austen appears to have had a real hatred for those who imagine themselves ill. In Persuasion, Anne’s sister Mary is a wonderful picture of fake ill-health. This archetype of womanhood, if not motherhood, traces its origins back at least to sixteenth century Italy where comic actress Isabella Andreini used to do a famous comedy ‘bit’ in which her laughter turned into crying and then back again. Fans of Kristen Wiig will hard-relate.


8.    The F**ker-Mother

This mother loves her children, but a little too much. Some kids want to return from whence they came. And these mothers let them. The first great mother of a mother****er was Jocasta. But poor old Jocasta didn’t actually know she was banging her son. Norma Bates not only had sex with her son, she was also critical about how he stuffed birds. In Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Mrs Gertrude Morel, mother of Paul Morel has an affection for her son which is – what’s the word? Icky. Only in French films does this kind of relationship end well. Most often, these mothers are secondary characters or antagonists in the stories of their messed-up kids. I propose a re-make of Back To The Future in which Lorraine McFly learns she tried to get off with her son Marty and plucks her own eyes out.


9.    The Isolationist

In Grimm’s Rapunzel, Mother Gothel (literally: the Godmother) keeps Rapunzel in a thorny tower to stop men impregnating her. It may deepen our understanding of this archetype (otherwise known as the ‘Snow-plough’ parent) to learn that Rapunzel is the name of a common folk abortifacient. The original fairy-tale is the rags-to-riches story of a child named abortion who ends married to a prince. Her adoptive mother is protecting Rapunzel from the fate her own biological mother suffered: an unwanted pregnancy. Still, the prince finds a way to impregnate the twelve-year-old with twins: the Happy Ending! It makes me wonder how In Disney’s Tangled might have played out if it had stuck to the (grim) original.


10. The Mama-Bear

Let’s end on a positive note. Some mothers will do anything to protect their kids. Artemis was the original Mama-Bear, Ursa Major. Disney-Pixar has given us Ming Lee - a GIANT panda - in Turning Red. Metaphorical Mama-Bears include Lily Potter, whose maternal love is so great she inadvertently turns her child into the messiah. Sarah Connor in Terminator does it on purpose. My favourite stories are those which acknowledge a mother needs to protect herself in order to protect her child. In Emma Donoghue’s Room, Ma, unlike Mother Gothel, realises she must acknowledge the existence of a world beyond the tiny cell they are locked in. She gives her child so much love and patience in understanding the terrors of ‘Outside’, he gives her the self-love to break free – it’s a beautiful metaphor for motherhood.





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