The Taboos About Motherhood Broken Onscreen This Past Year

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There’s never been a shortage of bad mothers on screen. Nor have we been deprived of absent mothers, the lynchpins of so many Disney movies. The absent mother might be good, if she is absent because she is dead. Or, she might be absent because she is bad and has abandoned her children (better to be dead). The past decade saw on-screen mothers become more than here/not here, or good/bad — think of Betty Draper and Cersei Lannister (both terrible, both devoted... and maybe a little too present). But the most recent crop of buzzy TV shows and movies broke further ground in asking, "Can you split the character from her identity as a mother?”

Much has been written about Mrs. Maisel, how her marvelousness would appear to come at the expense of quality time with her kids. What’s interesting is that the show doesn’t penalize Midge for this transgression. She’s absent because she’s busy doing something else, yet she doesn’t receive the Bad Mom treatment. She’s a mother as much as Donald Draper was a father.

Last year, onscreen moms made other strange, difficult and unexpected choices, without receiving any of the traditional punishments (heartbreak, debilitating remorse, and the removal of their children, their reputations, and their lives, preferably in that order). The most compelling characters, the ones in shows receiving nods from the Emmys and the Golden Globes, grappled with issues that are still — even in this day of wine-mom memes and #motherhoodunfiltered — deeply taboo. They addressed our favoritism, our ambivalence, our fear of what this world is becoming and what we’ll sacrifice to protect our own. They revealed the degree to which breaking free from our identity as mothers brings us fulfillment. (Sadly, it is largely white and thin Hollywood mothers being celebrated for their complexity.)

One writer we approached for this project was concerned that any exploration of the taboos broken on screen would read as acceptance, or even encouragement, of the character’s behavior. True, onscreen moms are wading into the gray areas where we’re most uncomfortable as women and as writers. (Call me a slut, call me lazy, call me a terrible writer! Just don’t ever question my devotion to my daughter.) But, as these characters show, it’s in the shadowy places where expectations are upended and audiences captivated. It’s where we affirm that mothers are people — brilliant, ambitious, selfish, sexual — first. —April Daniels Hussar

In the first episode of Fleabag’s{1} second season, Fleabag’s sister Claire (Sian Clifford) stumbles through the loss of a pregnancy in the midst of a contentious family dinner. We find out about the miscarriage when Fleabag (Phoebe Waller Bridge) walks in on her in the bathroom stall — “Get your hands off my miscarriage,” Claire tells her sister before returning to the table. There, alongside the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), loathed stepmother-to-be (Olivia Colman), and odious husband (Brett Gelman), Claire struggles to conceal what’s happening and ends up yielding to Fleabag’s claim that it’s her miscarriage. What’s generally known to be an isolating experience is suddenly a communal one, shared between the two siblings. And when the miscarriage is revealed in a later episode to be a relief rather than a tragedy — one allowing Claire a second shot at love with beaming Finnish work-spouse Klare (Christian Hillborg) — the show once again subverts the cultural narrative surrounding loss. Sometimes a miscarriage represents freedom — from a bad marriage (“I guess it was your baby’s way of saying it didn’t want you as its father”), from the strain of parenting. — Erinn Salge

In Bird Box{2}, the Netflix thriller that infected the American consciousness in early 2019, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), and two young children, Girl and Boy, undertake a terrifying mission across rough waters to find sanctuary from a mysterious, supernatural force that drives people to suicide. Malorie has become Girl’s guardian after Girl’s mother threw herself out of a window; Boy is Malorie’s biological son. The surviving family must avoid making eye contact with the “monsters,” and are thus constantly blindfolded. During one dangerous moment on their journey, though, one child must take off the blindfold to navigate. Malorie nearly sacrifices Girl to keep Boy safe.

Huddled under a blanket, the three take off their blindfolds to figure out what to do. “I’ll look,” Boy volunteers. “No, I will decide, OK, I will decide, just give me a second,” says Malorie, looking back and forth between Boy and Girl. “I’ll do it,” Girl says, grimly knowing. Malorie makes the call: “Nobody’s looking.”

A twist on Sophie’s Choice, Bird Box dares ask whether biology outstrips a woman’s maternal instinct to protect all children, and whether love supersedes obligation. Malorie begins the journey out of necessity with Boy, whom she loves, and Girl in tow, and does not name the children until the end, when, safe, she can agree to love them. In motherhood, duty often comes first. —Kaitlin Kimont

Long before she took the stand in the pivotal court scene of Big Little Lies{3} Season 2, Meryl Streep sat in the witness box, a tear rolling down her pale face, as an attorney asked “were you a failure?” This was in 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer, a movie that likewise used a custody battle to illustrate the burden placed on mothers and wives. (“All my life I’ve felt like somebody’s wife, or somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s wife, and that’s why I had to go away,” Streep’s character explained of leaving her son Billy.) Though feminist ground was won — Dustin Hoffman’s Kramer learned to parent and to pick up the dry cleaning — Joanne ultimately surrendered her kid to the sympathetic ex-husband, as the penalty for walking out on them. In 2019, Big Little Lies further interrogated our ability to forgive a mother’s sins by pitting one mother, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), against her late husband’s mother, Mary-Louise (Streep), in a battle over the spoils of an abusive relationship: Celeste’s twins.

“Indecent or not, this case is about mothering,” says Celeste. Mary-Louise had dredged up Celeste’s sex life and sleeping pill habit in an attempt to win custody; Celeste countered with the implication is that Mary-Louise’s failures as a mother led to her son’s abusive personality, and ultimately, death. The scene excavates Streep’s earlier work in Kramer, revisiting the question of how our parenting choices echo through our children, and warning us that when mother opposes mother on the stand, it’s a zero-sum game. —Janet Manley

The second and third season of CBC’s Workin’ Moms{4} came to Netflix last year, introducing American audiences to its fierce and often hilarious take on the struggle to balance the demands of motherhood with the rage and hunger of womanhood. What is Kate Foster (portrayed by creator Catherine Reitman) to do when she wakes up next to a dumb, sexy 20-something to discover she’s spraying breast milk?

Rather than counting the taboos Workin’ Moms has broken, take my word that Reitman is set on imploding the entire motherhood industrial complex. In service of that mission, the show often leaves the audience’s zone of comfort with over-the-top role reversals: Loving moms have locker-room sex with college girls, seduce younger men, and point loaded guns at jilted ex-boyfriends. When Kate leaps out of a hotel bed, still sweaty from sex, to make her son a Halloween costume from their stained sheet, or faces the hard choice of career or family, selfhood or motherhood, under the harsh lights of a family-friendly chicken takeout restaurant, there is no resolution. There is only the eternal, heroic struggle between being a woman and being a mom. — Jackie Ernst

Noah Baumbach’s recent Netflix blockbuster Marriage Story{5} depicts the agonizing dissolution of a once seemingly rock-solid union between actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband, playwright Charlie (Adam Driver). Nicole, fed up with feeling overlooked and undervalued, leaves Brooklyn with their 8-year-old son, Henry, for Los Angeles, where she has accepted a role in a TV show. What was initially a temporary move becomes permanent when Nicole realizes that the life she wants no longer includes her husband, who has thwarted her professional and emotional progress at multiple points during their one-sided marriage. “He truly didn’t see me,” she rages to her divorce lawyer, Nora (Golden Globe-winner Laura Dern). “He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.”

Rather than remain the obsequious wife and mother, doing everything in her power to maintain familial harmony, she takes a chance on her career and her own happiness, even if it means significantly upending their son’s life. Where we would typically see a woman acting as the bridge, sacrificing her dreams for the sake of her family’s greater good, Marriage Story gives us a mother who has reached her limit, and makes very calculated and deliberate moves — hiring a lawyer, moving across the country with no intent to return — to pursue her own happiness. —Carla Bruce-Eddings

Cate Blanchett’s character in Where’d You Go, Bernadette{6} may have been “aggressively off-putting,” as the Chicago Sun Times’ Richard Roeper put it, but it nevertheless earned her a Golden Globe nod for best actress. Based on the bestselling 2012 novel by Maria Semple, Bernadette brought us the original absent mother (in the novel, her daughter Bee has to piece together the mystery of where she went). In the film iteration, Bernadette is slightly less absent, a function of director Richard Linklater’s focus on the psychic wounds inflicted by stay-at-home-motherhood—how the lack of a creative outlet can make anyone a little whackadoo. “You need to get your ass back to work,” a character tells Bernadette, a troubled architect and former winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant who has fallen into a malaise in the suburbs of Seattle. Everyone is in agreement on this: even her daughter is there cheering her on at the ends of the earth to take some more me-time. The film was imperfect, but it took seriously the idea that women lose something profound when they pour their energy into children, missing out on years of creative opportunity. It made the case that we should all mourn the art that mothers never made. The lovely Bee (Emma Nelson) is a triumph, but, the film whispers, the 20-Mile House might still be Bernadette’s best creation. — Janet Manley

“You can’t teach kindness. You know? I tried for a long time. Can’t do much with small hearts. Hard hearts, maybe, but not small ones.” So states Georgina Hobart, Gwyneth Paltrow’s privileged yet surprisingly soulful mother of young men, in the first episode of Netflix’s satire The Politician{7}. Draped in an emerald green caftan and wielding both a lit cigarette and a paintbrush (she’s in the midst of creating a series of paintings “to raise money and awareness for the Syrian war debt”), Georgina’s talking to her adopted son Payton (Ben Platt) about her uncomfortably hot twin bio sons, Luther and Martin (played to astonishing heights of douchiness by Trey Eason and Trevor Mahlon, respectively). A moment ago she’d informed the retreating pair that they’re “bullies and borderline psychopaths.” And now, she’s explaining to Payton that she loves him the most. The scene is an uncommon snapshot of ruthless honesty. Georgina matter-of-factly divulges to Payton that she doesn’t — can’t — feel the same about Luther and Martin. “I love them, don’t get me wrong, I just... the love has edges,” she says. “It doesn’t go on and on the way my love for you does.”

If you've wondered how Georgina's face manages to escape the great toll of motherhood (wrinkles), perhaps it's that she is free of the cognitive dissonance of unconditional love. She makes choice after choice based on a clear-eyed view of who her children really are. As onlookers, it’s easy to say we’d be better than the parents who excuse their sons’ heinous crimes or who use their wealth to pave the way to excellence for their mediocre students. But as The Politician unfolds, it’s fascinating to consider how many of us would ever truly be able to accept, or even to acknowledge, our own children’s small hearts. April Daniels Hussar

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a devoted mother. She also has a job that keeps her on the road — standup comic — which means her ex-husband Joel often has to watch their two kids for days in a row. Can both things be true?

“What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother?” Midge asks the hodge podge crowd at her first open mic. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel{8} is devoted to exploring this question, especially in Season 3, which breaks one of the biggest taboos in fictionalized motherhood: Midge leaves her children to go on an extended tour. She misses them, naturally, but the show never punishes Midge for her absence. She never has a “come to Jesus” moment in which she must choose one or the other. “Isn’t it funny how when you’re away from home for a little while you start missing the things you never really thought about... like your kids?” she jokes, earning tepid laughs. Back on the home front, Joel (Michael Zegen) isn’t treated as a victim for watching his own children.

Apart from Midge’s chronically uptight mother Rose (and a cranky divorce-court judge who can’t fathom that Joel looks after the children while Midge is on the road: “But you’re the father!”), nobody seems to have a problem with the arrangement. Though of course we’ll have to see how the kids turn out. —Halley Bondy

Anna and Elsa are not the first children’s characters to be orphaned, or to lose a parent. But in Frozen 2, their mother, Queen Iduna, breaks the mold offered to the dead mothers before her. Cinderella’s mother is just a pretty memory and Ariel’s mother isn’t even named until the sequel; meanwhile, Simba and Luke Skywalker are able to commune with walking, talking spiritual fathers (Mufasa, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader) from the afterlife.

While Elsa assumes “the voice” that calls her throughout Frozen 2 is a phantom, the audience is able to piece together that it is her mother leading her to discover something from beyond. Water has memory, and can show Elsa the kingdom’s history and the truth about her mother. Iduna is granted a voice from beyond the grave in her haunting lullaby, “All Is Found,” which offers a map for Elsa to find a place where she can relive their memories and, in some sense, resurrect her mother (“Show Yourself”).

The biggest revelation in the movie is that Iduna’s father-in-law attacked her family, the Northuldra people. No coincidence, then, that the rare mother granted omnipotence calls on her daughter to right previous wrongs. — Meredith Ulmer

Accolades:

  1. 2020 Golden Globe winner: Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy; nominee: Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film. 2020 Screen Actors’ Guild nomination: Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. 2020 Critics' Choice Television Awards nomination: Best Comedy Series, Best Actress in a Comedy Series, Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (Sian Clifford). 2019 MTV Movie & TV Award for Best Performance in a Movie
  2. 2020 Critics' Choice Television Awards nominations: Best Actress in a Drama Series (Nicole Kidman), Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Meryl Streep, Laura Dern). 2020 Golden Globe nominations: Best Television Series – Drama, Best Actress – Television Series Drama, Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Meryl Streep)
  3. 2019 Canadian Screen Awards nominations: Best Comedy Series, Best Lead Actress, Comedy (Dani Kind, Catherine Reitman), Best Supporting or Guest Actress, Comedy (Amanda Brugel, Jann Arden)
  4. 2020 Critics' Choice Movie Awards nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director. 2020 Golden Globe nominations: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, Best Motion Picture.
  5. 2020 Golden Globes nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.
  6. 2020 Golden Globes nomination for Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy; Best Actor (Ben Platt) in a Musical or Comedy
  7. 2020 Golden Globe nominee: Actress in a Musical or Comedy TV Series; Award for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy
  8. 2020 Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature. 2020 Critics Choice Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.