Feature: Women First. On-Screen Moms Who Defy the Traditional ‘Mother’ Image
No role in society is as confidently slapped on to a person as that of ‘mother’ on women. After all, it is nature that has sculpted women’s bodies for the possibility of childbirth and from an evolutionary perspective the two belong together as innately as fish and water. The representation of women in films has been a reflection of what society wants them to be and how we would like to see them; which is often not what they are really like. Because beautiful as motherhood is, there are multiple other ‘roles’ that a woman has already juggled to get here, not to mention the enduring question of her own individual personality.
Our selection was based on mom characters who have also been depicted as being their own people on-screen; their individuality left intact, and not made subservient to their roles as mothers. They are shown replete with their own insecurities, ambitions, dreams, mistakes, faults and errors in judgement. Sometimes these decisions have made a haunting impact in their lives, resulting in broken relationships and despair. But in their journey of coming into their own, shouldn’t mothers be allowed this freedom too?
1. Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer
Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) leaves her husband, Ted, and her son, Billy, to figure out her place in the world, to understand herself a little bit better. It’s not that she doesn't love her son. She does; which is why she comes back to fight a custody battle with her ex-husband for him. But she also knows that she owes it to herself and to her son’s future, to first figure out who she is and what makes her tick. Balancing society’s expectations of motherhood and her own inescapable ambitions, Joanna’s rendition of a mother is a sincere attempt at showing a modern day woman who isn’t defined by that singular role.
2. Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek
A woman who’s eccentric, self-centered and not very dependable; sounds like the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a mom! Moira Rose (Catherine O'Hara) loves her wigs, her vocabulary, and is unapologetically herself, wherever she goes. Although middle aged, she’s just learning to be a mother, outright thrashing the redundant expectation that once you give birth, it all comes naturally to you (followed by ominous silences if you confess that it doesn’t).
But Mrs. Rose does not dwell on such expectations. Nor do they stop her from trying to get to know her children, however late it may be. Her eccentricity may fool us into believing that it doesn’t concern her what her children do or who they become, but she boldly takes on the task of advising them on love, helping with projects, even ‘nurturing’ their career dreams (in a classic Moira fashion), making her one of the most atypical and hilarious moms we’ve seen on-screen!
3. Chanda Sahay in Nil Battey Sannata
Chanda Sahay (Swara Bhaskar) is a school drop-out single mom working four menial jobs per day, mostly as a housemaid, so that her daughter stands a chance for a better future. However, Miss Apeksha ‘Apu’ Sahay is least interested in studying, or for that matter doing much with her life. She has resigned herself to the fact that she will also end up a maid, like her mother. In an attempt to change her daughter’s attitude, with some encouragement from her employer, Chanda starts attending school with Apu, despite it embarrassing her terribly.
Initially, we see Chanda as a hard working, simple mom who wants nothing but the best for her child but can only go so far to achieve it, given her own circumstances and shortcomings. She is willing to make all the sacrifices necessary, even if it means going way, way out of her comfort zone. But is this always a sacrifice to be pitied? By overcoming her own hesitation and choosing a proactive approach to raising her child, Chanda ends up shedding baggage she has been carrying for years - a lack of confidence and low self worth, both of which were perhaps subliminally absorbed by Apu too. By being brave for the sake of her child, Chanda is being the kind of ‘selfish’ perhaps more moms should be, because when they invest positively in themselves and their own happiness, their children too bask in its glow.
4. Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate
Mrs. Robinson (seared into memory by Anne Bancroft) is a mom whose blatant infidelity and subsequent romantic choice of a younger man, stunned audiences at the time of The Graduate’s release in 1967. Yet, she remains a compelling and arresting character even today because, for the most part women’s sexuality on screen still remains the domain of a man’s fantasy, and for a frustrated mother, unhappy with her younger self’s decision to enter a loveless marriage for the sake of an unplanned pregnancy, to allow her ‘womanhood’ to come in the way of her ‘motherhood,’ was and still is, a big no no.
Mrs. Robinson lives a caged life in American suburbia, without will or intent. Her husband and daughter are part of the cage and hence motherhood for her is a burden, self-inflicted be as it may. The affair is the only place where she feels true to her ‘natural,’ free self. Does her choosing it instead of sticking to her domestic duties make her an undesirable, even ‘bad’ mother? Perhaps. (Her using the affair to destroy her daughter’s relationship later on in the film is sure to convince a few more folks of this). But the real question to ask here is - did subscribing to suburbia make her an ideal mother before?
5. LaVona Golden in I, Tonya
How often do you get to see the circumstances behind the ‘f**ked up mom’ trope? LaVona Golden, played to perfection by Allison Janney, is the mother of the disgraced Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie in a tour de force performance). She is a hardened, chain-smoking, angry woman. She is furious with the ‘princess’ world of figure skaters because they consider her daughter ‘white trash’ and won’t accept her.
LaVona Golden is so miserable and resentful of how the world has treated her, it has seeped into every part of her being. But instead of wanting to make things better for her daughter, she is bitter and jealous of her talent. She pours all her money into Tonya’s career, but she is more a ticket out of poverty for LaVona, who has channelled all her frustrations into this one toxic and abusive relationship, turning the phrase ‘tough love’ on its head.
Not all women have the luxury of harbouring love and affection toward their children, but rarely do we see their ugly truth portrayed without over-dramatised antagonism in tow; Ironically, I Tonya is based on a true story, making it even more important we see grim mothers like LaVona Golden on screen; because there are many others like her in the real world - angry for not having had a fair chance at life.