Television's "Bad" Mothers: Putting the "Anti" in the Antiheroine

Curator's Note

 To get to the (simplified) point: U.S. television’s antiheroines are bad mothers. On shows like House of Cards, Nurse Jackie, Homeland, and Damages, antiheroines repeatedly fail their children.  These women are not always intentionally bad; some may be more accurately described as "flawed."  In the clip from The Killing, police officer Sarah Linden sends her son to live in Chicago with his father because she is unable to put him ahead of a murder case.  Linden loves Jack and wishes she could be a better mother, but she just can’t.  Work comes first.  Some television shows complicate this idea of the bad mother.  Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans is a Soviet spy who is deceitful and harsh with her children.  The clip shows that her relationship with her children is shaped by her efforts to, without their knowledge, raise them with her communist values molded by a difficult past.  Perhaps because Elizabeth’s mothering is influenced by a desire to make the world a better place, I find her the most “likeable” (and interesting) of the antiheroines.  I am most disturbed by Betty Francis of Mad Men.  At times, Betty seems like a good mother.  She is, however, frequently passive-aggressive with her children.  In the clip, Betty’s son makes a thoughtless mistake, which he offers to fix.  Betty not only prevents this but also makes him feel guilty.  She refuses to accept his apology, instead ending the day moping and wondering why her children don’t love her.  Betty’s bad mothering prevents her from being a heroine, justifying her husbands’ disrespectful treatment.

Things are different for television’s male antiheroes.  Although not ideal fathers, the antiheroes’ devotion to family establishes their humanity, putting the “hero” in the antihero (think Tony Soprano’s love for his children, Walter White’s admittedly questionable devotion to his family or Nucky Thompson’s attachment to his stepson).  For women, however, the inability to care for children is what makes them less than heroic; it’s the “anti” in the antiheroine.  To be fair, I haven’t seen every show featuring antiheroines.  Some women on television may be antiheroines and loving mothers.  Some may even be heroines who are seen as “bad” mothers.  But that would surprise me.


What a great idea and rich area for an anti-heroine category, Barbara! Your comments take me back to Bree’s post about “unraveling” women and the discussion in my Amy Schumer post about finding empathy for unlikable characters. While I have also seen only a cross-section of the panoply of anti-heroines out there today, the ones I think of immediately do seem to fall right into the bad mothering camp, and I don’t even have to bother to wonder if they are judged more harshly for their flawed parenting than their male counterparts who, as you suggest, are ambiguous heroes for their family’s well-being. Of the clips you shared, the one I’m most familiar with is Betty, and her story is the one that I actually find most poignant. Though I also find her quite unlikable, I see her as an emblem of the feminine mystique cohort – restricted, misunderstood, etc. – and is a probably an accurate reflection of many women from the period. Her lack of self-awareness, depression, frustration turns her into a self-involved, angry woman who cannot find any emotional room for caring for her children. I like that the show doesn’t over-explain that and lets us try to work up our own reserves of empathy for her plight.

I used to feel much more empathy for Betty. Especially in the first season when her storyline was clearly centered on the depression beneath the image of the "perfect wife/mother" and "perfect family." I think her inability to change has put me off. As the children become more rounded characters, I also see the impact her mothering has had on them and it makes her less likable to me. It's probably not coincidental that her character -- of all the characters -- is most "stuck."

While Betty is unlikeable for a variety of reasons, I'm wondering who is to blame for her being "stuck." I feel like Betty is supposed to emphasize for us the dangers of trying to maintain a perfect veneer or trying to fit stereotypes that don't fit our own desires. I'd like to put Betty in conversation with someone like Bree from Desperate Housewives as that series visualizes Bree's inability to adhere to those standards and slowy deconstructs the forces that have created those standards and how Bree learns to respond to them.

I feel like the show started to unravel the forces that shaped Betty and then just stopped (it would be interesting to go back and see when/why). The show seems content to blame her at this point. Of course that's not fair (or particularly interesting for viewers), but I get the feeling that the show is suggesting that Betty should have gotten it "together" by now. After all, her parenting makes Don's parenting (infrequent as it is) seem not so bad.

She also becomes almost irrelevant to the series after season 4 or so, too, which felt odd. And dont get me started om the fat Betty storyline. They just completely phased her out. We hardly saw her at all in the first half of season 7.

Great post Barbara! I'm interested in how "unlikeable" you find these "bad" mothers, as this dislike seems reliant on an ideological understanding of what makes a "good" mother. I think the better question is to examine WHY these antiheroines are framed through their "bad" mothering- why does this hold so much cultural weight? Why aren't their male counterparts held to such strict standards? I feel like what these series, especially Weeds or Nurse Jackie, are doing is trying to deconstruct a singular idea of "motherhood" by showing a multiplicity of desires that make up women and mothers.

This is a great comment. These shows definitely bolster popular ideological assumptions about what it takes to be a "good" mother. So, Alicia Florek in The Good Wife is not at all a "bad" mother because she puts her kids first and tries to protect them. If she doesn't spend enough time with them, she feels guilty about it. The understanding that kids are "supposed" to come first (even if you don't achieve that), is significant. Focusing on work, without recognizing that it's harming your children (and I am in no way saying that it does harm children, I'm saying this is usually how television depicts this), makes a character self-centered. The end of Damages is telling, in that it clearly shows that Ellen escaped being a "bad" person in that she has a child and is no longer a lawyer. I haven't seen most of Weeds or Nurse Jackie, so I can't speak to them specifically. Perhaps some shows do try to question these assumptions about motherhood, but do they eventually retreat back to the ideologically dominant positions?

You're right,the series (especially Mad Men) do end up contradicting themselves and turning in on themselves. it's interesting to consider how these contradictions work in male centered versus female centered narratives. I'm thinking here of the treatment of Betty in MM and Skyler in Breaking Bad versus the more nuanced and exploratory depiction in some of Showtime's female centered narratives: United States of Tara, Big C, Weeds, Jackie. These explorations of motherhood are much more sympathetic and invite a more thorough consideration of the multi faceted nature of motherhood, especially in comparison to AMC's shows centered on exploring masculinity

When I think of Nurse Jackie, I do soften a bit on the whole issue. That show does what I believe (not being a parent or an addict myself) is a pretty good job of portraying the complexities of being a parent with an addiction. If Jackie was not a parent, there would be much less to share about the life of an addict and it happens that the protagonist is a woman - voila, a "bad" mom situation. Kevin, her husband, gets to be the hero quite easily in their scenario. Can anyone think of a show featuring a male addict and how parenting is presented? Well, there is Shamless, where the kids parent each other, so W.H. Macy is off the hook there. As for Weeds, I have to acknowledge what might be chalked up to my own sexism here, because it always bothered me that Nancy Botwin was such a laissez-faire and selfish parent. I didn't feel nearly as annoyed with Walter White. As an Amy Schumer character would say, "I'm so bad!"

My mother just emailed me and asked, "didn't you write something about orange is the new black, and where is it?" I found it for her and reread it, having mostly forgotten what I wrote. I was surprised to see it touch on many of the subjects we've discussed this week, so I shamelessly share it with you here: Thank you all for a wonderful, thought-provoking week. I hope to return to all of these issues and your insightful comments as I continue my own TV studies research. I hope our paths cross again!

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