When I learned that a movie called The Meddler is coming out April 22, I knew I had to take my mother to see it. She’s not a meddler, although she does offer loving advice and support when I ask for it. Also, since we attended an advance screening of the movie, she’s taken to changing the subject line of the MyHabit deals she frequently forwards to "One example of meddling?," and concluding her email reminders to leave work early this Friday to get home in time for the first Passover seder with her new signature, “The Meddler.” Nevertheless, her mother, who passed away in February, was what my mom calls a “full-fledged meddler.” She was the sort of meddling mother and grandmother you see pictured all the time in TV and movies, offering up constructive criticism that wasn’t always something you wanted to hear. Just a few classic examples: suggesting I seek other employment due to a lack of eligible men at every single company I’ve ever worked for, always telling my mother when her curly hair looked flat, and wondering how growing out the bangs I got in 2005 was still going on in 2012. (Despite the fact that said bangs grew out by 2006, as hair does.) The meddling mother character is one we see often in pop culture, and the basis for most of her humor stems from the fact that she’s not self-aware when it comes to her intrusiveness. She’s obviously inspired by real-life examples. Take my grandmother, for instance. “My mother never considered what she did meddling. She always felt that she was doing what was best for me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time,” my mom says. “She considered telling me how to carry out every aspect of my life of which she was aware to be part of her job description. She had come from Europe as a Holocaust survivor, having lost her parents at 16. She was very sensitive to being parentless, and considered being very involved in her children’s lives as a gift she could give us that she had lost herself.” Someone like my grandmother could easily pop up as a character on a TV show. She would demonstrate her extreme love for her children in the form of constant over-involvement in their lives, butting in at inopportune moments, and offering her two cents where they’re never really wanted. We probably wouldn’t get the Holocaust backstory, because the meddling mother character is usually rather one-note and only serves as comic relief. Perhaps the most classic example of a meddling mom is Marie Barone (Doris Roberts, who just passed away this week) on Everybody Loves Raymond. She bursts into her son’s house at all hours of the day or night, offering guidance, bearing food, and often insulting Debra (Patricia Heaton), her daughter-in-law. Seeing this character on screen shines a light on the meddling mothers in our own lives. Does it make us more cognizant of moms who care just a little too much? Does it make mothers more sensitive to their own meddling ways? “Yes, I think I immediately notice when a mother is too meddlesome on screen, and I feel uncomfortable because it holds a mirror up to me, in a way,” my mother says.
The Meddler centers on the meddling mother herself, Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) — rather than on her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) — so we finally get to see where this character is coming from. We also get a more complex portrait of a mother with an adult child. The film is a loving tribute to writer and director Lorene Scafaria’s relationship with her own mother, which went through a complete shakeup the year following her father’s death. “My mother moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles to be closer to me after my dad passed away,” Scafaria says. “She went to the Apple store, got a phone, started calling me, and many voicemails later, I started writing this script.” Marnie doesn’t just dote on Lori in the form of constant texts, phone calls, and drop-ins to feed her bagels. She also gets involved in the lives of Lori’s friends, and even Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), an Apple Genius Bar employee. “Lori and Marnie are very important to each other, and it's exacerbated because once the dad’s not there, there’s nowhere for Marnie to put her natural, nurturing instincts, so it just explodes to anyone that comes into her range,” Sarandon says. “It helped me to think that she doesn’t believe she’s knows everything. She’s always trying to figure it out.” That’s something my mom noted about the meddling mothers we’re used to seeing. “I think people laugh because the caricature of the meddling parent — especially mother — is universal. Viewers may rationalize that meddling comes from a place of love, but in reality, it may come from insecurity or from having a parent who behaved in the same, meddling way. Meddling may also be a sign of boredom or lack of purpose in one’s own life. It may be evidence of unresolved conflicts or frustrations, or inadequately coming to terms with loss.” In Marnie’s case: Bingo.
We’re so used to the stereotypical meddling mother on screen, though, that it’s a welcome change to see the story told from Marnie’s point of view — to understand why she dotes on Lori, the one remaining member of her nuclear family. “I wanted to change [the perception] of what it means to be a meddler. It’s such a negative word, and it seems like it’s only reserved for moms and some dads. We want to have more meddler pride — like Meddler’s Day; that’s what it should be called [instead of Mother’s Day]," Scafaria says. "It really is such a thankless job. I hoped that [the movie] was a positive enough portrait of a meddling mom that moms could see it and say, ‘I do it because I care.’ And that daughters and sons can watch it with them. You may be cringing in certain moments, but on the whole, it’s a way to show what’s happening when you’re not calling your mom back, and how a lot of it comes from loneliness, and just caring about you and being worried about your well-being." Sarandon, my mother, and Scafaria all foresee a shift in how pop culture will portray meddling mothers in the future, though, to reflect how parenting is changing in real life. “I think it’s become helicopter parenting… People are having fewer kids and have more time and money,” Sarandon points out. “I notice as a grandmother, it’s really easy for me to have the perspective of having been through it. Where my daughter might think something is a major thing, I’m like, ‘Eh, that’ll work itself out.’” “I have seen an intensifying of helicopter parenting with some younger parents, but I cannot predict how the majority of millennials will behave in terms of meddling in the lives of their children once those children are mature," my mom notes. "It will be interesting to see if millennials’ children will be able to be truly psychologically independent." “I would say the internet is our biggest meddler in pop culture,” Scafaria says. “We’re all sort of meddling in each other’s lives on Twitter in a way. We’ve certainly opened the doors for meddling with our lack of privacy.” This move from meddling to helicopter parenting and oversharing via the internet has already started to emerge on shows like Crowded, Mom, and The Middle. These series rely on the central conceit that many millennials, who were subjected to helicopter parenting, are moving back in with their parents (or never left the nest), even earning them the nickname “the boomerang generation.” The tension in many of these shows stems from the fact that the parents think they're done raising their children and are ready to spend their golden years alone, but the kids are back for round two of coddling. They seem to relish and even welcome the idea of having their parents be just a FaceTime, email, or text message away — even when they’re under the same roof. They wonder why their parents aren't following them on Twitter or Instagram, laughing at their latest tweet or liking their photos. The tides are turning in TV shows and movies, it seems. The meddlers have now become the meddlees. And where do millennial children learn how to meddle? Not just from the overly loving parents and grandparents in their own lives, but from the overbearing (yet well-meaning) characters we watched doing it on screen throughout our formative years. My grandma would have fit right in with the bunch. After all, according to my mom, “She always knew best, in her opinion.” I mean, she was right about my bangs.