Wondering about Mother-Characters
Recently on Twitter, Elizabeth Lhuede, creator of the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge, tweeted a question asked by Kirsten Krauth on the AWW Facebook page: “Who are yr favourite mother characters in Aust fiction? Or favourite books about mums?”
Since then, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about this question. It has reminded me, firstly, that I really don’t read enough Australian writers. Although, I intend to post a review of Catherine Jinks’ “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group” shortly and as part of the AWW 2012 Reviewing Challenge.
Secondly, however, it reminded me of the troubling images, or more often lack of images, of mothers in our popular culture. Historically, mothers haven’t received the best representation in culture. The earliest stand out mother character I can think of is Medea, who murdered her children to spite her ex – not exactly a glowing recommendation. Jumping forward a couple thousand years, however, and it sometimes seems that we haven’t progressed all that far.
Mothers aren’t typically vilified in our culture, instead they seem to be simply absent. The difficulty presented by those attempting to answer Lhuede’s question proved this point, but we can see it in the extreme by looking at mothers in Disney films. For the most part, they simply don’t exist. The mother’s of our protagonists are usually dead, not mentioned, or replaced by an evil step-mother. Yes, evil.
Certainly, women often become mothers in books, television and film. Their story is often completed with this happy ending, particularly in the case of tales with a romantic element. However, once they have become mothers, they cease to exist. The suggestion seems to be that once women have fulfilled their role as child bearers, their existence becomes irrelevant to our culture. They have played their part, facilitated a new generation of characters, and then departed from the scene to allow the male characters to mould the plot.
As a particular reader of Young Adult novels, I’m used to the absence of parents in general from novels where they might otherwise be expected. Having recently begun to write my own first young adult novel, I have realised the necessity, or at least ease, of the orphaned child trope. A lack of parental figures, or more specifically the knowledge of dead parents, facilitates a number of plot options that might be otherwise unavailable. However, supplying this as a reason for absent mothers in popular culture leaves me uneasy, since the benefits it allows usually requires the death of both parents, while so often in novels and films, the father remains. The feeling continues that a mother can be spared from a story, while the patriarch cannot.
Thankfully, this isn’t always the case, and it is worth noting that our orphaned protagonists are often adopted by alternative mother figures, for example Mrs Weasley to Harry in the “Harry Potter” series. Equally, there are young adult novels which include depictions of mothers. Both “The Reformed Vampire Support Group” and “The Abused Vampire Rescue Group”, young adult fantasy novels by Catherine Jinks, for example, represent the mothers of their protagonists. Equally, in the case of both these stories, the mothers are single mothers and it is the fathers who are absent. However, while these mothers are wonderful characters, they are depicted as mothers only, without much characterisation or purpose outside the care of the protagonists.
This is a reminder that often mothers with a life outside of motherhood are so often seen as bad or fallen. Emma Bovary is a prime example, and, of course, she had to die. Increasingly, though, I do think we see mothers in popular culture with existences outside of motherhood. Mostly television examples come to mind, for example the mothers in “Pretty Little Liars” (yes, I’m addicted) who have as active and dramatic lives as their children, and there’s no forgetting Lorelei from “Gilmore Girls”. I hope similar representations are available in novels, just as I hope that these types of representations increase in our popular culture in general.
Furthermore, I should mention that a number of my favourite stories are actually about, among other things, motherhood. These include “Room” by Emma Donoghue, “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, and pretty much anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, though particularly “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I’m sorry to the AWW group that none of these are Australian.
I’d like to conclude, but I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of this post, except that it all seemed very worth thinking about.
It also reminded me that I’ve yet to write about my own mother on this blog. This is a shameful oversight, since she is well worth a number of stories. To finish this post, therefore, I would like to say a few things to introduce my lovely mum:
It’s difficult to summarise my mother. Her prized possessions are her embroidery, her iPod, and her electric drill.
She loves a good romance, but she’s also the sort of person to whom you say, “Mum the shower’s broken!” and she says, “Find me a spanner.”
You might say (and I have) we should cut down that tree, and she would say “Find me the chain saw”.
I once came home to find her hanging out the top floor window, attached to the inside banister by a rope, because “the roof needed painting”.
(We used to live in an extremely pink house)
My mum is a bit mad. I’m amazed I turned out so normal…