Mums behaving badly: films take aim at the myth of the perfect parent

The US box-office hit Bad Moms is the latest movie about women who rebel against the ideal of motherhood

There is a moment in new US comedy Bad Moms where Mila Kuniss Amy finally decides shes had enough. After a day spent running from school to work, from vets appointments to childrens hobbies, she reaches the end of her tether at a PTA meeting from hell in which she is asked to join the bakery police. No, thats it, Im done, she says, heading to a bar instead. If that makes me a bad mom then thats fine. Its a scene many of us can relate to.

Amy, with her desire to cut free in a fast car, down the odd drink and stop making her childrens breakfast every morning, is not alone. In addition to Bad Moms, which pulled in $23m at the US box office last weekend, holding its own against spy juggernaut Jason Bourne, theres Netflixs latest movie, Tallulah, in which Ellen Pages free spirit steals a toddler from a hotel room when the childs mother passes out in a drunken coma after a bad date.

On television, the hit US comedy Mom, now in its fourth season, follows Allison Janneys character as she attempts to make amends after years of bad motherhood, while the cult hit Odd Mom Out turns a gimlet eye on the terrible and terrifying mothers of Manhattans Upper East Side as they try to put the fun into fundraisers.

Crime fiction, meanwhile, is saturated with imperfect mothers, from the heroine of Gilly Macmillans debut Burnt Paper Sky, who loses her son on a walk in the park, to Alex Marwoods The Darkest Secret, in which none of the mothers featured, good, bad, or apparently indifferent, is quite as she initially seems.

The Mare, the hugely anticipated third novel from Mary Gaitskill, her first in more than a decade, also takes motherhood as its starting point. Drawing inspiration from Enid Bagnolds National Velvet, Gaitskill tells the story of privileged white woman Ginger, Velvet the Dominican teenager she supports for a time and Silvia, the girls furious mother. It is both an emotional coming-of-age tale and a raw meditation on motherhood.

Back in the 1990s I used to feel criticised by women for not having children, like there must be something wrong with me, Gaitskill told New York Magazine on the books US publication. People would say I dont see how a woman could be happy without children. It was almost like a dogma. [Now thats changed] people got a good look and realised that it is really hard and its not always lovable and rosy and everything working out. Maybe reality set in.

Kristen
Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis and Kathryn Hahn let their hair down in a scene from Bad Moms. Photograph: Michele K. Short/AP

Is it this new understanding of the grimy reality lurking behind the rose-tinted vision thats driving us to embrace mums behaving badly? I think partially what has happened is that the generation gap has narrowed, says Jill Kargman, creator of Odd Mom Out. We dont age the way we used to, and pop culture reflects that it tackles the fact that were faking it being adults and often dont know what the hell were doing. Its also the case that, 20 years ago, women were absent from leadership positions within the industry; now we have a voice.

Novelist Ayelet Waldman, who tackled this subject in 2009 with a series of essays titled Bad Mother, agrees that there has been a shift towards female-centric projects within the entertainment industry, but sounds a note of caution. Theres definitely been a resurgence of interest in movies by or about women, which started when Bridesmaids knocked it out of the financial park, but if you look at Bad Moms, youll see that its written and directed by men [Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who made their names with Las Vegas-set lad fest The Hangover], and I think thats telling. Female writers would probably present a less hackneyed, more complete version of what it means to be a mother.

Certainly its true that Tallulah, which is written and directed by a woman, Sian Heder, who also writes for female-centric prison drama Orange Is The New Black, presents a far more complicated picture of bad motherhood than the enjoyable but shallow Bad Moms, which for all the involvement of female producer Suzanne Todd is essentially a watered-down The Hangover for women complete with slow-mo walking scenes and funky soundtrack.

By contrast, Tallulahs bad mother, the neurotic, narcissistic Carolyn, is initially presented as a caricature of bad motherhood. Caked in makeup and squeezed into a hot pink dress, she barely registers her baby girl, doesnt appear to know how to change a nappy and has whats best described as a cavalier approach to childcare, at one point dismissing her daughters progress towards an open window with the words she has to learn. Yet as the film progresses, our opinion of Carolyn changes and, if not entirely supporting her actions, we at least come to understand the self-loathing from which they spring.

After the premiere I became this weird priest hearing these bad-mummy confessions and I realised all mums feel like failures, Heder told the Los Angeles Times. Theres a disconnect between the role of the mother as its presented in the movies and what it actually feels like to be a mum, the amount of guilt and shame you put on yourself.

Its this disconnect that films such as Bad Moms and shows such as Odd Mom Out tap into. The best scenes in Bad Moms are those in which our heroines, time-harried Amy (Kunis), raunchy Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and mousey Kiki (Kristen Bell) cut loose, laughing hysterically as they leave the stresses of modern motherhood behind, while Odd Mom Out works so well because Kargman relishes lifes absurdities. If you didnt see the humour in these sort of situations youd go crazy, she says. Theres so much insecurity surrounding motherhood. The way that people feel better about themselves is basically by putting others down.

The official trailer for Bad Moms.

Gill Hornby, whose 2013 novel The Hive treads similar ground to Bad Moms, agrees. I think most people think theyre perfect mothers and its everyone else whos the problem, she says. A lot of time when people say oh, Im a terrible mother they actually dont mean it all; in fact they want people to tell them thats not true. Similarly you would never hear men saying oh, shes a crap mother its always driven by other women, which sounds unsisterly but is true.

Yet Hornby admits she has some sympathy with those who buy into the motherhood myth. Theres a lot of acting and spinning involved, and its easy to act out of character one of the things that always interested me is the idea of being thrust into an unelected friendship group, people you didnt choose to be friends with, and the effects that can have on your personality. Its easy to get sucked in.

Its also true that most of these mothers arent exactly bad. Theyre not the wicked witches of fairytales, the cackling stepmothers looming with poisonous apples, the women forcing children out of their family homes into the dark woods; nor are they the monsters of film past. There are no clothes-hanger wielding Mommie Dearests or violent abusers like Preciouss Mary.

Its notable that much of this bad mothering would be fine if it was done by fathers. Dads have a get-out-of-jail-free card, says Kargman. Traditionally their role was always to be the breadwinner so no one expected them to pitch in domestically. Im sure back when cavemen went to hunt and the cave kids were with their mum there were still societal expectations placed on her. Its almost like people know there are deadbeat dads, absentee dads, abusive dads, drunk dads, so if theyre anything remotely nice or normal they get a parade, whereas if we are human for one second we are branded.

Waldman agrees. The bar is set so low for fathers, she says. My husband was once in the grocery store holding our baby who was filthy, covered in snot and chewing on a twist tie basically something that has a sharp wire in it and a lady stopped him and said, You are such a good dad. Imagine if Id been standing there holding a filthy kid who was chewing on a bit of garbage: Id have been arrested. The double standards are maddening.

Despite these concerns, Waldman says shes in favour of the bad mummy trend. Ultimately I think its a good thing the more images we have of mothers that dont fit into that traditional selfless image the better, she says. Some of these films may be hitting the low-hanging fruit of tired female stories like stay-at-home mums versus mothers who work but eventually well see more films written for women by women that are original, interesting and truly subversive. Theyll be worth going to see.

Bad Moms is released in the UK on 26 August; Tallulah is available on Netflix; All Together Now by Gill Hornby is out in paperback, Abacus, 5.99; The Mare is published by Serpents Tail, 12.99

SCREEN MUMS FROM HELL

Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Hepburn is on magisterial, monstrous form in Joseph Mankiewiczs gloriously overheated take on Tennessee Williams.

Mary Tyler Moore as Beth
Ordinary People (1980)
The superficially perfect mum is slowly revealed as the cruel, withholding centre of this tale of death, loss and complex family dynamics.

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford
Mommie Dearest (1981)
The most infamous bad mother of them all Frank Perrys camp adaptation of Christina Crawfords tell-all memoir features Dunaway at her most diva-ish in a film thats sadder than you might recall.

Kathleen Turner as Beverly R Sutphin
MoNique as Mary
Precious (2009)
Violent, cruel and lazy, the abusive Mary is rendered all the more terrifying by MoNiques powerhouse performance. The film is notable for its refusal to redeem her, even at the end.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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