Does anyone else miss the ‘90s — when Peggy Bundy gave her kids cigarette ashes for dinner, and everyone laughed?
Today’s pop culture moms — from the fictional Claire Dunphy and Rainbow Johnson to real(ish) ones like Kourtney Kardashian and Joanna Gaines — all seem to stick to the same script when it comes to parenting. They try a lot, fail a little, and ultimately “win” at motherhood. They’re doing it all and pulling it off with aplomb, or at least a minimal-enough-to-be-endearing amount of frazzle.
It’s this character sketch — the woman who’s just flawed enough that she’s not a Stepford and who places the utmost importance on the daily tasks of motherhood — which has become the basis for every family-focused TV mom of our time.
Take Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen. She’s trying to do it all in her slightly high-strung, overwhelmed way. Sure, she makes mistakes — but when she does she's so funny and type-A about it. (Ha, ha! Doing way too much is hilarious, as long as you don’t end up crying on the shower floor with a bottle of chardonnay, right?)
On the “reality” side of the coin, we’ve got Kourtney Kardashian. Life is crazy for the KKs, but the single mom of three has a lot on her plate. She works, spends quality time with her kids, gives everyone all organic everything, and breastfeeds. She has bajillions of dollars and perfect hair. Nobody seems to care where her ex, Scott Disick, is or what he's up to. Kourtney is holding. that. family. together. Through sheer discipline and organic sunflower butter. (Along with the invisible nannies and housekeepers she employs.)
As a mom who is trying and failing with much less charm than the one on whatever show I’m watching, I’m becoming increasingly nostalgic for a time when it was perfectly acceptable (as far as our televisions were concerned) to not try so hard.
Watching all these characters do and give and smile and love is, if I’m being honest, starting to get a bit annoying. I can’t be the only mom who feels this way. Our kids are already the centers of our worlds. Whether we stay home or work, we are doing, and giving, and smiling, and caring, and wiping their butts and noses and hands, and spending our days trying to make their days as good as they possibly can be.
So why is it that when we sit down, finally, to watch a TV show, we have to suffer through watching a mom who’s doing all the same stuff and more, but with cooler clothes and a nicer house?
Where’s our escapism?
I miss the fuck-up moms from ‘90s TV — specifically Roseanne’s Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) and Married... with Children’s Peggy Bundy (Katey Sagal) — and the way they openly despised taking care of their kids, their husbands, and their houses.
When Roseanne’s kids were hungry, her response was to scream “leave me alone.” And Peggy? If she ever got up from her card game with Marcy long enough to grab a pan, she’d proceed to ash her cigarette into the burnt eggs she was “cooking.” Yes, it was hilarious. But I imagine, for many of the moms watching at home, it was also a relief. It gave them permission to laugh at the things they no doubt thought from time to time. Permission, it seems, that has since been revoked.
Roseanne and Peggy were not created as characters to be idolized. I doubt many women saw them as role models then or would see them as such today. But what they offered was a version of what motherhood might look like if women stopped giving a shit. And it says something about how popular culture at the time created a space for women to laugh at the absurdity of family life and start conversations about women who disliked — or entirely ignored — aspects of parenting and domestic work.
The moms on TV then weren’t these slightly-imperfect women who nevertheless always managed to make things perfect in the end. Roseanne and Peggy were not curating rooms, making after-school craft projects, or worrying about their children’s 100% happiness. They weren’t trying to be perfect and falling imperceptibly short. They weren’t even trying. Like, at all. For these characters, their children were appendages at best and detainees at worst. And the audiences at home loved it.
Roseanne ranked in the Top 10 of the Nielsen ratings for seven of its nine seasons, and Married... with Children remains the longest-running live action show in Fox history.
So while we may be in “the golden age of television” now, it kind of feels like the dark ages for female characters who have kids.
Just look at the “bad moms" TV offers us these days. There’s Allison Janney on Mom. A mess, for sure, but now that she’s a grandmother, she’s put her worst discretions behind her and is helping her daughter raise her own family. Claire Danes’ Carrie in Homeland has severe limitations and struggles deeply with motherhood. But the crying and suffering and tough-choice moments only serve to drive home the point that nothing is more precious than caring for one’s children. (The Affair’s Alison Lockhart, played by Ruth Wilson, has a similar story arc.)
Katey Sagal is a bad mom again in Sons of Anarchy, but unlike her Married... with Children character, Gemma is unbelievably protective of and involved with her kids.
Even the mothers who face difficult circumstances are portrayed as super moms. Minnie Driver in Speechless or Katy Mixon on American Housewife are both raising special needs children — but they always power through with charm and grit. This relentless TV narrative of “caring for children is immensely important” not only makes for a suffocating, locked-shut escape hatch for us moms who would like to turn that part of our brains off for 30 to 60 minutes, it also reinforces the ridiculous expectation that the mundane and tedious aspects of family life are always, ultimately, fulfilling.
Thankfully, Roseanne is coming back to the small screen, at least for a short burst of comic relief. But until ABC launches its planned eight-episode reboot in 2018, there is only one mom on television that those of us tired of the preciousness can turn to: Selina Meyer.
The lead character on HBO’s Veep, played brilliantly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is the only truly DGAF mom we have right now. Selina is repulsed, irritated and exasperated by her daughter Catherine’s existence. Catherine (played by a coolly removed Sarah Sutherland) is merely a prop for her comically cut-throat mother who holds up her daughter when she needs to look the part of a caring, involved parent in public. Privately, everything from Catherine’s looks and sense of style to her interests and love life are subject to relentless ridicule — if they’re not entirely ignored.
And guess what? Audiences and critics eat it all the way up. Louis-Dreyfus' performance as Selina Meyer has won her five consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and five consecutive Golden Globe nominations, and Veep has been renewed for a seventh season on HBO.
So if it’s too much to ask for a chain-smoking, leopard spandex-clad stay-at-home mom who can’t bother to do anything for her kids; or a beer guzzling, poker playing, blue collar mom who can’t stop screaming at hers, maybe the golden age of television could bring us a few more Selinas to help balance things out? And while we’re asking, how about someone who actually looks like she's given birth, who has a messy home and a healthy bit of resentment toward those little people she loves most in the world? Yeah, that sounds about right.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.
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