In honor of all the mother figures both in our lives and on screen, the staff of Screen Speck has put together a special list. Some mothers nurture. Mothers who manipulate. Mothers who were never meant to be mothers. And mothers who never got the chance. In accordance with Mother’s Day, here’s a look at some of the most memorable mothers in our culture.
VEEP‘s Selina Meyer & Motherhood’
Being a mother is hard enough, but being a mother and Vice President of the United States? Forget about it. VEEP’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was the ultimate girlboss who stopped at nothing to obtain her ultimate desire: becoming the first female President of the United States. How does motherhood come into play, you ask? Selina Catherine Meyer is the mother of her only child, Catherine Selina Meyer (Sarah Sutherland).
Sit with that for a moment.
As a politician, Selina’s a textbook narcissist, and what better way to show that than by naming her daughter after herself? The real kick is when the series reveals that Selina’s mother was also named Catherine.
In the series’ early seasons, the ones helmed by the original creator Armando Iannucci, Selina wasn’t that bad of a mother. Aloof about Catherine’s interests, like she’s cold about everything else around her, there were moments when you could see she loved her daughter. Whether it was agreeing to adopt an ugly rescue dog because she’d never given Catherine a pet when she was a child (a dog that they ultimately don’t end up getting because of the First Lady deciding to adopt a dog at the same time) or paying $60,000 a year in tuition for her daughter to pursue her desire of studying film and experimental dance, Selina did make some sort of effort to make her happy. When Catherine turns 21, she throws her a birthday bash, albeit negotiating work things in the middle of it, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
In season 4, Catherine gets engaged to an older man. Like any caring mother, Selina shuts it down – mainly because she’s running for president and her daughter marrying her former professor would make her look bad, but still, it’s more than most mothers would do! Catherine eventually comes out as a lesbian in season 5, and surprisingly, Selina embraces it. When Catherine asks if she can create a documentary on the tied election that her mother’s going through, she lets her do that too. It’s not all that bad, is it?
The real trouble arises when in a bid to win over caucus voters in the series finale, Selina promises to outlaw gay marriage if she gets elected President. Having let her mother get away with a lot, Catherine finally cuts the cord on her relationship with her chaotic mother. When Selina does get elected President, she oddly makes do with her bid to outlaw gay marriage.
Her misgivings before this would’ve just made her a mediocre mother at best, but this moment? This is what makes her one of the worst mothers on television from the last decade, and it’s pretty self-explanatory why.
Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans: Motherhood as Love and Cruelty in Equal Measure
While the premise of geopolitical espionage often feels larger than life in the critically acclaimed cold-war spy thriller, The Americans (2013-2018), the true tragedy of the show occurs when mothers have nothing left to say to their children. For Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), motherhood started out as a horrific lie — she had children to sustain her cover as a KGB agent posing as a married couple in the suburbs of America with her assigned husband, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). Elizabeth’s children were nothing more than office decor for the longest time. Having grown up in abject poverty as the sole caretaker to her sick mother, Elizabeth abhors the comfortable, white picket fence life that her American-born daughter, Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), grew up in.
Elizabeth’s children remind her of the life she never got to have. Like a cover story, the premise of espionage is cleverly used to explore the irreparable generational and cultural divide between mothers and their children. Elizabeth is often cruel to her own daughter: she teaches Paige to lie about her true heritage as a child of Russian spies, forces her to betray the people she cares about, and eventually brings her into the violent family business. Yet, beneath these exceptional circumstances lies a universal truth: parents want their children to have something of them. The first beginnings of fracture between Elizabeth and Paige occurs towards the end of the first season when Elizabeth lies about folding laundry to cover up doing spy work late at night. It is as ordinary as it is brutal when parents — not just the ones who are deep-cover spies — lie to their children about who they truly are. Because of Elizabeth and Philip’s careers, Paige grows up learning the art of distrust and eventually ends up unable to fully love anyone else. Meanwhile, Philip’s almost amoral devotion to Elizabeth teaches her that it is crucial to love and accept that love in return. But her growing love for Philip also awakens her to the realization that she cannot possibly perform motherhood borne out of a lie. It has always struck me that the deepening strength of Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage directly corresponds to their daughter’s increasing loneliness and sadness.
Throughout all the heartbreak, the show has always viewed Elizabeth through the lens of compassion — as a heroine who has never had enough to eat and no longer wants the same for her country. She wants to make a difference, but all the avenues for doing so are corrupt. When Paige begins training as a KGB agent, it becomes clear that her privileged background prevents her from being as devoted as her mother to the cause. In The Americans, motherhood doesn’t make Elizabeth, a better person. It does, however, enlighten her on the stakes in stopping American imperialism. Yet her unwavering loyalty to the mission tragically damages her relationship with Paige beyond repair. Despite that, Paige still has something of Elizabeth: both women have a sincere desire to do good. For Elizabeth Jennings, motherhood is less of a redeeming arc than it is a soul-destroying one. But it is for this precise reason that she remains one of the most humane mothers ever played on-screen.
The Perfect Imperfect Mother Norma Bates from Bates Motel
Norma Bates is the perfectly imperfect mother of our culture. The source of our culture’s deeply rooted fears and anxieties of growing up. Norman Bates’s mother, his alleged “creator” and ultimate obsession. A textbook example of Freud’s most controversial theory of the Oedipus complex. Stoking the fires of mothers being the objects of desire for their sons. Born sirens, birthing the very victims of their seductive calls. At least, that’s what Freud and our heavily influenced patriarchal society would like for us to believe.
When 2013’s Bates Motel, created by Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse, was first announced, I was curious. Curious enough to watch it on premiere night and stick with it until the very end. It’s a prequel to the events of the 1960s Hitchcock horror film Psycho. However, a twist in the narrative was its contemporary setting. Set in 2013, Bates Motel focused on giving life to Norma Bates (the dynamic Vera Farmiga), who would become the corpse in the basement of Psycho. It also charts an origin story for Norman Bates, played by enigmatic Freddie Highmore. It was a tour de force for these actors. They played off each other like a well-tuned piano playing the most haunting piece of music. And yet… its lasting impression left a sour taste in my mouth.
In the film, the only semblance of perspective we get from Norma Bates is through the mind of Norman. Her voiceover is a construct of his psyche. Norman’s recounts of his mother are colored by his actions and violence against women later on. “She needs me. It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes,” he says to Marion in the 1960s adaptation. Not much can be said for who Norma was solely on her son’s actions and a dried corpse in the basement. So, who was Norma Bates?
The series had the opportunity to tease out the complexities of this woman. Of her role as a mother. As a woman. And for the most part, it did. She was a broken yet strong woman whose only wish was for a family. Not a lot could be done when her first child, Dylan (Max Thieriot), was a product of rape by incest and the second child, Norman, witnessed the repeated abuse his mother endured at the hands of the men in her life. In part, a lot of who Norma became on-screen was due to Farmiga’s performance. She brought passion, vulnerability, and camp to a character whose first introduction was that skeletal corpse in a rocking chair. A clean palette she filled with so much color and nuance. And yet, it all ended with a lackluster mixture of unfairly assigned blame and an unsatisfying conclusion. I’m not suggesting endings need a tight little bow. But for Norma, it did seem like she deserved more than she got.
Five hundred words aren’t enough to recount the ways Norma Bates outlived that corpse from 1960 and more. Farmiga lived and breathed the role, making Norma authentic to the show’s viewers. A tragic, wounded soul that died the most tragic of deaths– when she finally got a taste of true love with Nestor Carbonell’s stoic sheriff, Alex Romero. Just when she thought she could have it all, Norman getting the help he needed and being married to a man who would do anything for her and love her unconditionally, her life was cut short. What ensued after her death was a one-dimensional conjuring of Norma’s spirit as Norman spiraled further into his consuming madness. The symbolic “Mother” that would show up in front of Norman and often take over his mind wholly erased the Norma we got to know in the first four seasons. It’s hard to distinguish, especially as the show wrapped up its final season when that figment of Norman’s mind was a physical representation of Norma Bates. The “evil” Norma. In the end, Norma Bates, once again, became the sole focus of male rage. Whether it was through Norman’s ever-growing proclivities for violence or some pseudo absolution of Norma’s brother Caleb, who repeatedly raped her growing up, resulting in a pregnancy, Norma Bates once again took a backseat to her narrative.
Marmee March of Little Women, the Blue Print of Fictional Mothers
Of all the fictional mothers out there, all the good ones seem to owe something to Margaret “Marmee” March, the iconic matriarch from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Marmee—whose nickname makes sense when you realize that the March sisters would have all spoken with thick New England accents, turning the the “r” to “ah” and, in turn, calling their devoted mother “mah-mee”—is a mother that is equal parts warm sugar and biting spice.
While the matriarch has come alive on screen and stage more times than is worth counting, the most familiar turns seem to be Susan Sarandon in 1994 and Laura Dern again in 2019. Both capture a kind of steadfastness and maternal grit that almost make Marmee feel ahead of her time—at the very least, she’s hardly what you would expect the mother of four girls in the antebellum period to be like. Although, that subversion of expectation gets to her very ethos. She dares to experience all of the emotions of the human condition—from love to anger to humility—and, more importantly, allows her daughters the same opportunity. A mother allowing her daughter to openly and freely experience anger is a radical act.
Marmee isn’t the star of Little Women. We don’t follow her in the pursuit of love like Teddy Laurence or after the career she feels called towards. Instead, we watch her love her daughters unconditionally, urging them to grow into the very best versions of themselves. If the humble actions and inspiring words of Amy, Jo, Meg, and Beth are any indicators, the March girls were urged to be the best—not just themselves but to others. If that isn’t an indicator of a good mother, what is?
Laurie Strode From Halloween, Transforming the Shape of Motherhood
This might confuse many horror fans, but I will only be discussing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as we know and love her in the original 1978 Halloween.
“What? But, she’s not a Mother™ in this film!”
Yes, you’re technically correct, but thematically she is the maternal figure we continuously turn to throughout the suburban slaughter. Plus, if the boys can splinter this slasher into multiple sequels and timelines, tease an anthology, and whip up a divisive reboot, I think I am allowed to have 1978 tunnel vision for a few hundred words. This is by no means a bold Laurie Strode acclamation; think of it more as an honorable mention to a Stand-In Mom.
Parents rarely appear in the film, and onscreen moms are even more infrequent. So, with Tommy Doyle’s (Brian Andrews) parents out for the night, Laurie Strode steps in as caregiver. It’s clear that Laurie feels comfortable in the domestic space and as a maternal figure. With a pumpkin ready for carving on her hip, she strolls into Tommy’s home as if it was her own. At the same time, empty-handed Annie (Nancy Kyes), Laurie’s friend and fellow babysitter, has to be formally invited inside by Lindsey’s (Kyle Richards) parents. Following this, the film continues to bounce back and forth between the two homes, and we experience the character contrast on many levels. If it’s not Annie’s candid remarks vs. Laurie’s comforting assurances, then Annie’s borrowed, oversized dress shirt in contrast to Laurie’s perfectly fitted apron drive home the difference.
But this isn’t to simply claim that Laurie’s bag of babysitting tricks automatically qualifies her as a good “Mom” (but I think it’s safe to say Annie is a lousy babysitter). The domestic iconography may contribute to Laurie’s character. Still, it does not define her as a “Mother” until she redefines these props – her knitting needle and hanger – as resourceful tools to protect Tommy, Lindsey, and herself from Michael Myers (Nick Castle).
Laurie’s transformational and destabilizing actions challenge fixed concepts and highlight a more fluid potentiality. After all, a weapon has no set standard. Perhaps it’s a sharpened kitchen knife in the hand of an assaultive shape, or it’s a pointed knitting tool yielded out of protection. The intentions and actions define our understanding, so why should our idea of “motherhood” be any different. Motherhood: Care, Love, Protection (from the Boogeyman)
“The boogeyman can only come out on Halloween, right? Well, I’m here; I’m not about to let anything happen to you.” – Laurie Strode.
Happy Mother’s Day to our Final Girl.
Beth Pearson’s Dynamism of Black Motherhood in This is Us
It’s hard for me to sum up how much I love Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson) and why she’s not only my favorite character on This Is Us but one of my favorite moms on television in recent years. I feel like there are a lot of ways for me to talk about her strength and resilience. However, I hesitate to do that with Black women in particular since that’s so often the only time we as Black women receive compliments. I do think Beth is strong, but that’s not my favorite thing about her.
When it comes to being married to a Pearson, you learn a lot about sacrifice, and in Beth’s case, she is certainly no stranger to the concept. Her husband, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) has big dreams. Over the six years the Pearson family has graced our screens, Beth has gone through a lot of change, whether that’s inviting Randall’s dying birth father (Ron Cephas Jones) into their home, Randall and Beth deciding to foster and eventually adopt Deja (Lyric Ross), or Randall’s eventual decision to run for city council in Philadelphia in the same district where his birth father William is from. It’s a lot for any one person to take, and rather than suck it up and take it quietly, Beth is often not afraid to make it known when she’s struggling, which is something I deeply appreciate about her. She has a moment like this with her oldest daughter Tess (Eris Baker) after she comes out as gay, and Beth takes a moment to adjust to Tess having a significant other for the first time. It’s a messy conversation, and there’s no neat bow wrapped on the end of it because it’s clear that it’s something Beth has to work through on her own, especially after Tess voices that she feels her mother is treating her differently than her sisters. As much as Beth tries to be a “perfect mom,” she has missteps that are much more interesting to watch than if she were completely amazing or completely terrible.
It can often feel as though Beth is dragged along on Randall’s journey, but she gets the same support right back from him, which makes their partnership so amazing. When she decides to follow through on her new dream of opening a dance studio, Randall is there with her, making sure her kids are there to support her. In the end, I think Beth is a realistic and thoughtful portrayal of a Black mother that doesn’t have to rely on creating a superhuman figure for us to fall in love with to understand she’s trying her best. We love her, flaws and all.
Stolen Motherhoods in Ted Lasso‘s Rebecca Welton
Ted Lasso’s Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) is not the first person that would pop up in your head when you hear the word “mother.” However, much of her arc has been about her desire to have kids that never came true because of her abusive ex-husband, Rupert (Anthony Head).
In the first season, Rupert visits Rebecca to witness her reaction when he tells her that he is having a baby with his girlfriend, Bex. Rebecca is shaken and says he didn’t want kids before, implying that he just didn’t want to have a kid with her. This gut punch served as the emotional catalyst that Rebecca needed to tell Ted (Jason Sudeikis) the truth about why she hired him.
This scene was brutal to watch, knowing that she was stuck in an abusive marriage for years, and even though she is divorced now and for a 47-year-old character, it was implied that her chances of having a baby are long gone because of Rupert. The very Rupert that made wanted to see her face when he told her that he would have the only thing she ever wanted and he deprived her of.
Rupert shows up to AFC Richmond’s annual charity gala for underprivileged children early in the season. Rebecca tells him he should host the auction because the audience likes him more. They agree that it’s “for children.” This eventually ends up in the right direction because Rupert donates a million pounds to the cause.
There is also the aspect of Flo “Sassy” Collins (Ellie Taylor) and her daughter Nora (Kiki May) and how she cut ties with them when her goddaughter was only six years old because Rupert shut her out from her friends. They talk a lot about the idealized Rebecca, that used to be silly, and sing Frozen songs with baby Nora for hours through the door.
Much later in the second season, Rebecca sees Rupert again, but this time with his wife and baby, at her father’s funeral. Rupert is visibly smug when he sees her upset by their showing up. She later stares at them in pain, which Keeley notices to lighten her mood and tell her that their baby sucks. Instead of acknowledging that more in-depth in the second season, which was a disservice to Rebecca and everything she went through, she got into a relationship with Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh), a 21-year-old Richmond player who could argue is a literal child himself.
For a show that heavily prides itself on the fact that nothing is a coincidence and every detail is intentional. I hope that they tie up Rebecca’s relationship with motherhood with a bow in the third and final season. Whether they make her heal from it in therapy, have her have or adopt kids of her own, or even her little pet, Rebecca deserves to have this part of her acknowledged as much as every other part of her. Until then, here’s to Rebecca and the mothers who never got a chance.
Growing Up With Marion MacPherson from Lady Bird
Seeing Lady Bird was one of the most important days of my life. I was 22, fresh out of college, and living properly alone for the first time. I was visiting for Thanksgiving for the first time rather than coming home. I wanted to see it because I’d heard it was good. Because I was home, so I asked my mom and grandmother if they wanted to come. They did, so we all went to see it, knowing it was about a girl growing up but not much more. Needless to say, three generations of my family watching this film over a reflective holiday weekend was an experience.
I’d been an angry teenager. My mom and I had gone from being very close to clashing much of the time. Our relationship was more distant than either of us wanted it to be. But, at least to me, it felt like we couldn’t seem to find out how to talk to each other. Both of our best intentions just couldn’t get on the same page as each other.
Seeing Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan navigate similar challenges made me feel seen in ways I’d never experienced before. I felt like I could look at my relationship with my mother from the outside to see more objectively her humanity. Growing up, it’s hard to move your conception of someone from “parent” to “person.” I think it requires a level of self-awareness and empathy; and an understanding that the way you felt about your experiences and childhood memories isn’t necessarily rational reality. Watching Lady Bird, I felt that. I saw myself from my mother’s perspective, and I understood.
With the character of Marion McPherson, Greta Gerwig paints a loving but critical picture of a woman handling a teen daughter exploding at the edges of her life. But it is Laurie Metcalf, showing why she is one of her generation’s finest actresses, who embodies her with an aching nuance. You see all the versions of this woman flickering behind her eyes, and you understand why life has made her the way she is. You know, and you don’t always agree. The beauty of this film- and I think it still stands as one of the decade’s best screenplays- is that it equally sides with Marion and Ladybird. You groan at Ladybird and Marion, but Metcalf never lets you forget that there’s a person in there. The phone call brings me to tears at the film’s end, even thinking about it while typing this. It is a film that offers genuine, Aristotelian catharsis to me.
Driving home from Ladybird, my mother and I had what felt like the first adult conversation of our relationship. We talked about things in ways it felt like we’d never talked about them before. I spoke of my childhood, and she spoke of hers. I credit Greta Gerwig with that. The film opened us up in a way. It allowed us an easier way to talk about things. That conversation meant a lot to me. It healed a lot for me. I call my mother every day now. Lady Bird didn’t cause that, but it symbolizes that. Marion MacPherson may not be my favorite mother in all of the fiction, but it is undoubtedly the one that I think of first when I think of motherhood. And for that, I credit Laurie Metcalf.
Motherhood & Magic of Zelda Spellman from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Zelda Phiona Spellman (Miranda Otto) of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fame is the oldest living Spellman and aunt to the main character Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) of having dead parents and being half-witch and half-mortal fame. For the uninitiated, the family comes from a long line of Satanic witches, and they live in a small town called Greendale that is perpetually spooky. Sabrina lives with her aunts and her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). Zelda and her younger sister Hilda (Lucy Davis) are the parental figures in Sabrina’s life, and this is not to diminish Hilda’s role in Sabrina’s life at all. Still, Zelda is very clearly the primary mother figure. It’s established fairly early on in the show. Zelda is caustic, mean, rude, powerful, religious, traditional, ambitious, a mortal-disliker, truly sinister, intelligent, calculating, sexy, loving, loyal, and fiercely protective.
I will be honest with the audience (you all). It is taking a lot for me to gather myself to write about this somewhat coherently because Zelda Spellman’s motherhood is so personal to me. She is constantly clashing with her bullheaded sixteen-year-old niece, who thinks she knows everything, which is extremely normal for a teenager, and it forces her to confront her devotion to The Dark Lord/Satan. Zelda is a staunch traditionalist: she always follows the rules, goes to church, and does whatever she needs to get ahead. She has always done what’s expected of her, and she’s rarely ever had a problem with it because it’s how she was raised. Zelda’s always gotten what she desires. Zelda wants Sabrina to sign her name away to Satan as all witches do when they turn sixteen, and she’s pretty pushy about it. At first glance, one might consider her a devout Satanist and want to push that onto Sabrina. Still, Zelda’s motivations become clear once you consider that Sabrina is half-mortal. Not signing her name away would mean she never gains immortality like the rest of her family. The near paralyzing fear of outliving Sabrina, something she expresses on the show, is why she’s so adamant about Sabrina signing her name away.
But that is not what Sabrina wants. Well, not entirely. Sabrina wants it all because she is a child and doesn’t understand anything or experience consequences ever. Because of this, Satan and the higher-ups at the Church of Night repeatedly go after Sabrina to force her to sign her name away to Satan. Throughout the first season (and the entire show), they increasingly tempt Sabrina into more dangerous, life-risking situations that she always falls for and always messes up. Despite all her protests, Zelda is always there to protect her and clean up after her. There’s even an episode in season one where Zelda and Sabrina are arguing. Having had enough of each other, Sabrina tells Zelda that she’s not her mother. Zelda replies that if that’s the case, she won’t be there the next time Sabrina inevitably screws something up. And Sabrina does screw something up almost immediately after because that’s her entire character. She does irreparable damage to a meaningful relationship in her life and can’t fix it. At the end of it all, when she gets home, Zelda is there waiting for her, and she holds Sabrina while she cries because that’s what mothers do.
I could say so much more about Zelda Spellman’s motherhood (because she’s trained as a midwife and a known lover of babies). Still, it felt important to me to focus on her relationship with Sabrina because their mother-daughter dynamic is so interesting. They butt heads so often because they are so similar, making Zelda question and then wholly reject beliefs she’s held her entire life, which has been centuries. And it happens because her love for her niece supersedes everything else. That’s powerful stuff right there.