Lampooning Failure in the ‘Mom-com’ Genre

Curator's Note

Mothers, these days, are everywhere. They saturate media texts: pregnant bellies, newborns and prams are stamped across magazine covers, while self-proclaimed “bad mums” jokingly query online whether it’s too early for a gin. Within this highly mediatized landscape, we see the emergence of TV shows intent on lampooning mothers’ failed efforts to meet the demands of intensive mothering (an ideology first articulated in the 1990s by Sharon Hays that positions motherhood as natural, instinctive and ultimately fulfilling to women, and which continues to hold sway today). These 30 minute sitcoms, or ‘mom-coms’, proclaim to offer representations of the ‘real’ experience of motherhood, serving up wince-inducing images of frazzled mothers struggling with breastfeeding, their postpartum bodies, the work/parenting juggle, or their perfunctory, most likely non-existent, sex lives. While such a move might seem a thoughtful attempt to expose the ideologies of intensive mothering as corrosive and impossible to meet, as Kathryn van Arendonk points out such images also run the risk of becoming overly familiar, compulsively intent on representing authenticity, and subsequently often invite negative reviews citing parenting cliches and unlikeable characters. As such, it’s worth asking, how successfully do these maternal representations challenge traditional representations of motherhood? Or do they reinforce the very ideologies they seek to dismantle?

The second episode of ABC’s The Letdown offers a good example of this often paradoxical and contradictory process. Throughout the episode smart, self-deprecating new mother, Audrey (Alison Bell) is juxtaposed with the Instagram-perfect mum, Sophie. The seeming differences between the two mothers are emphasised, and Audrey’s failures mined for laughs, until the episode unites them at a ‘mums and bubs’ movie screening. Sophie, it transpires, suffers from post childbirth incontinence and has an accident in the movie foyer. When Audrey follows her to the bathroom, Sophie cries “I’m a mess” and dismisses her carefully controlled online persona as “just backlighting and the Valencia filter… it’s fake, it’s all fake”. Sophie’s confession prompts the two very different women to bond over their failures (disastrous sleep training, strained marriages, out-of-control bodies) and inspires Sophie to post a new status update sharing her experience, which she insists Audrey like and comment on.

The show is clearly offering a commentary on the disconnect many women experience between the idealized media representations of motherhood and the lived reality. It’s also, at times, very funny. However, its message that “we’re all the same in our parenting mistakes” not only runs the risk of negating differences between women and specificity of experience under the universalizing umbrella of ‘motherhood’, but also fails to posit an alternative to the very ideologies it seeks to challenge. Thus these new 'mom-com' shows potentially function in much the same way as Sophie’s Facebook update: that is, they too are carefully constructed media products that might create some momentary solidarity through lampooning individual failure. However, in doing so it seems that the maternal ambivalence they depict is made safe, defused and de-politicized when couched in humour.


Thanks Rachel--both for introducing me to The LetDown, and for your astute analysis of it and other mom-coms that "lampoon individual failure."  I agree that these shows could be read (charitably) as attempts to expose and critique the norms of intensive mothering and/but that these attempts ultimately fail.  I would argue that this has less to do with their failures to posit alternatives than it does with what you observe as the de-politicization of maternal ambivalence. 

In his Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam argues that rather than simply re-evaluating given standards of success, we might attempt to "dismantle the logics of success and failure with which we currently live" (2). Halberstam is talking about the importance for queers of rethinking failure and developing "practices of failure" that enable us to "fail well and fail often" (24).  As someone who studies queer motherhood, yesterday's contribution together with yours has prompted me to think about what it would mean to dismantle the logics of maternal success and failure. I can't give any easy answer to this question but perhaps it is a political project worth pursuing.  Would be interested to know what you think.  What would it mean for mothers to develop such practices of failure? And how might such practices work to re-politicize the meanings of success and failure for mothers? 

Thanks for the book recommendation, Shelley - I've added it to my library list. It's an interesting provocation you make, especially when considering how central failure seems to be to constructs of motherhood in general anyway, and this is certainly only exacerbated by our neoliberal climate with its onus on individual accountability. The idea of a kind of strategic maternal failure sounds rather appealing! :-)  I wonder how the pleasures of mothering/motherhood might be incorporated or imagined in such a project, as these tend to be either couched in sentimentality and mawkishness in representations of successful/good mothering or jettisoned entirely in reps of bad - ie. selfish, overbearing, working, distracted, sexual - mothers. Maternal ambivalence seems helpful as one way to hold in tandem the often contradictory experiences and impulses motherhood invokes and thus hopefully resist the urge to frame it in binary terms, repeatedly pitting one against the other (although I always find shows like 'The Letdown' and other mom-coms, which purport to depict maternal ambivalence, tend to focus on the misery of motherhood at the expense of pretty much everything else, including any kind of maternal pleasure or love).

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.