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…

Author: Stuffed Olive

My awesomeness intimidates some people, others just point and laugh.

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  1. Ah, yes the absent mother trope. It’s everywhere, but there is another thing to do in TV land when writers stop having ideas for the mother character, which is to give her another kid, usually much younger than the rest. Think Packed to the Rafters or even Family Ties. So sick of it. A mother’s role in fiction is to be absent or pregnant/ baby mothering.

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    • That is so true. I thought Downton Abbey was heading that way in Season 1… never been relieved about a miscarriage before. 🙁
      Surely they can think of better story lines…

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  2. Now I’m trying to think of some of the books I grew up reading…

    Anne of Green Gables – she’s an orphan, but I love how the series continues until her children are grown up. I want to be a mum like her!

    Little Women – the mum at home while the dad is at war. She certainly has a life outside the home looking after others.

    What Katy Did – the mother is dead. The aunt provides a [prickly] mother figure.

    Various romances by Janette Oke – in some the mother is dead, in others both parents are (in both the one like this I can think of, the child is raised by their grandfather, in another by a the pastor and his wife), in others the father is dead, in still others both parents are alive. We get to see characters become mothers in several of the books.

    Great Expectations… well now, that’s too confusing to even think about.

    The Hunger Games: Mother alive but either mentally absent or far away.

    Heidi: both parents dead, she’s raised by grandfather, but also cared for by other women.

    Jane Eyre: parents dead. I think. Yeah, pretty sure.

    The Kite Runner: I think the mum is dead.

    Swallows and Amazons: Mum alive, capable, but not in most of the story.

    And I think that’s enough for now! But it seems your likely hood of survival is low if you’re a mother character!

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    • I certainly wouldn’t want to be a mother character, or if I were one, I’d hedge my bets and be a wicked step mother. They get it in the end but at least they have some fun in the mean time.

      Your list is great. Your Anne of Green Gables note made me think of the Little Mermaid 2. That also has the Little Mermaid grown up and as a mother, I believe.

      Also, even though Anne is an orphan, Blue Castle, my favourite LM Montgomery book as a child, has a few mothers!! If I remember correctly… I haven’t read it since I was about 15 but I did read it QUITE a few times before then. I believe Valancy’s mother is alive, but more than that, I’m PRETTY SURE Valancy’s friend who becomes her house mate was a mother out of wedlock!! o_o Pretty out there for a 1920s novel… though I think both she and the child die. All the same, I really must reread it as an adult…

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      • Your comment made me think of Bambi and how much I cried when his mum was shot!

        I think it’s very interesting to compare the lack of mothers in literature/stories with the lack of fathers in the real world. Usually when parents separate, it’s the mother’s who have custody of the children. The trope of no/dead/absent mother goes back a long, long way, farther back than when divorce became more common, so I don’t think the trope is in response to what is seen now in society, but I think it’s interesting to consider.

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  3. This is super interesting, particularly when one considers the politically conservative idea that a woman’s sole purpose is to bear children, but when she has had children, for the most part, she becomes absent (either literally or figuratively) in literature…

    Perhaps I just read too much fantasy where this device is used ad nauseam.

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    • “Too much fantasy”! NO SUCH THING!
      And anyway, I don’t think this device is limited to the fantasy genre.

      I think the “politically conservative idea that a woman’s sole purpose is to bear children” is very much connected to the absence of mothers in literature, since once they have fulfilled their purpose, women are seen as no longer relevant to our culture. Very disappointing.

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