Menacing and Maternal: The Limits of Motherhood in Spider-Man

Curator's Note

Family is a recurring theme in the Spidey-verse, from the deaths of Peter Parker’s parents and Uncle Ben, to the origin stories of his most nefarious foes. For example, Coldheart, Shathra, Ero, and Shriek are all villains and mothers who cross Spider-Man in their maternal roles: Coldheart sought vengeance for the death of her son; Shathra needed Spider-Man to feed her children; Ero needed Spider-Man as a host-father for her children; Shriek wreaked chaos in an effort to establish a family.

Second-Wave Feminist ideas about the boundless capabilities of women linked motherhood to superheroism through the nomenclature the “supermom.” Ironically, the superhero genre itself, with its power fantasies of hegemonic masculinity, limits the options for maternal roles, highlighting conflicting messages about womanhood. Shriek, for example, who is slated to appear in the 2020 Venom 2, epitomizes the unnatural mother and the femme fatale. As Kate Robertson argues, though the femme fatale is considered antithetical to the maternal, some do exhibit motherly instincts towards surrogate children - often characters created through traumatic experiences. In the comics, Shriek, along with symbiote Carnage, creates a twisted family through her “adoption” of several violent criminals: a deadly Spider-Man doppelganger, Demogoblin, and Carrion. (Shriek and her “kids” also appear in PS2’s Spider-Man 3 game.)

Ultimately, Shriek perpetuates abuse she herself received as a child, believing her adopted charges unruly and ungrateful. Her story highlights assorted cultural contradictions in modern motherhood: selfless/selfish, independent/dependent, and natural/unnatural, wherein any woman is set up to fail and any child to disappoint. She has natural maternal desires, but her family is unnatural. She cares for her “children,” but her love is selfish. She is a working woman, but her career choice of criminal is not respectable.

Despite Spider-Man’s morals of family, community, responsibility, and self-empowerment, it perpetuates a limited view of womanhood and motherhood, as suggested by the hype surrounding Shriek’s appearance in Venom 2, which focuses on her powers rather than her character. Consistent with other comics’ depictions of the maternal, mothers are frequently cast as superfluous or adversarial, with superheroics almost always being antithetical to good mothering. Not only did Peter’s own mother die because she was at work rather than at home, but other mothers he encounters are corrupted. As Barbara Creed argues, the monstrous woman is nearly always related to the maternal woman.

Works cited:

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Popular Fictions Series). New York: Routledge, 1993. Kindle edition.

Robertson, Kate. “Ladies Who Lunch: Man-Eating Femmes Fatales in Contemporary Visual Culture.” Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 4, nos. 2&3 (2015): 161-175.

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