What the rise of ‘mothers behaving badly’ in the media reveals – and what it obscures

New comedies portray overworked mothers going wild. It’s liberating, but structural causes for their exhaustion need the spotlight too.

Jo Littler
29 August 2019, 8.41am
Protestors demanding equal benefits for disabled persons, Warsaw, Poland 2018
Photo by Jaap Arriens / Sipa USA. All rights reserved.

The way motherhood is represented in the media is changing. From recent TV comedies line Motherland, The Let Down and Catastrophe, to films like Bad Moms and A Bad Mom’s Christmas to the stick-figure cartoons of Hurrah For Gin, mothers are increasingly depicted in the midst of domestic chaos, intermingled with bouts of extreme hedonism.

We see mothers confronting incessant demands of frenetic home and work lives by toppling off their bar stool drunk; falling off their bed whilst high and trying to use a breast pump; and chatting with drug dealers in parking lots late at night, with their baby beside them in a car seat. Cutting back on home baking, they are cutting loose and partying hard.

I call this the rise of the ‘mother behaving badly’. The widening array of media representations of motherhood since the early 2010s is a healthy and liberating development. A broader range of ways to publicly inhabit the role of motherhood is now on offer to women. But there are caveats.

“These mothers are cutting back on home baking and cutting loose through hard partying”

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Representations of mothers as either demonised villains or perfect saints have ingrained media track records in the British media, particularly in the right wing press. On one side we have the vindictive scorn heaped on the ‘welfare queen’ and ‘chav mum’; on the other we have mothers that are venerated as ‘yummy mummies’ (who look glamorous almost instantly after childbirth) and ‘mumpreneurs’ (who launch businesses from their kitchen tables whilst their children crawl beneath them).

The ‘mother behaving badly’ sits somewhere in between the extremes of vilification and veneration. Rose Byrne’s character yells at her partner in the film Bad Neighbours, before joining a party next door: “I’m allowed to be just as irresponsible as YOU!”. Bad Moms involves mothers rejecting the strictures of perfect PTA (Parent Teacher Association) motherhood to party together; the title of Hurrah for Gin doesn't need much explanation.These characters engage in behaviour more stereotypically associated with men, or women without children. It marks a transformation of the ‘ladette’ (the female version of the new lad, popularised in the 1990s by celebrities like Sara Cox and Zöe Ball). But the ‘lad mom’ cannot afford to ‘behave badly’ as a perpetual lifestyle choice. She engages in temporary bouts of hedonism; she has childcare responsibilities.

Both Bad Moms and Motherland begin with over-stressed women driving their kids to school. One arrives late, covered in pasta with a limping dog, the other shows up at a school closed for holidays. Both are shown overworking whilst their male partners do little or swan around on boats.

These productions often scathingly dramatise how the greater burden of childcare, household responsibility and ‘mental load’ continues to fall on mothers – how they are repeatedly positioned as what writer Rebecca Asher has termed the ‘foundation parent’. These women are royally pissed off with the patriarchal gender regime into which they are flung.

These frenetic multitasking mothers also reflect the current crisis in the ability to care amidst rising inequality, precarity and overwork as a result of neoliberal economic policies. A key goal of second-wave feminism was for men and women to share equally the pleasures and pains of childcare and work in the public sphere. This required a shortened working week and sufficient social support structures.

Instead, over the past 60 years, an increasingly savage, neoliberal form of capitalism has twisted the aims of the feminist movement, making a full-time dual income the baseline norm and ripping away social infrastructure from playcentres for children to libraries. The global north has moved from the single to double income family without meeting the feminist demand for reduced working hours.

Bad Moms Christmas premiere in Los Angeles, US 2017
Dave Longendyke/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The recent spate of media representations of mothers behaving badly echoes this overburdened reality. ‘I’m sorry that we live in a patriarchy and that modern economics is skewed in favour of men!’ the character Julia shouts at her mother (a grandmother avoiding childcare being dumped on her) through the letterbox in Motherland.

I’m sorry that we live in a patriarchy and that modern economics is skewed in favour of men!’

Yet these liberating media representations of mothers letting loose and partying hard usually stop short of providing structural social solutions to the problems they reflect, leaving their implicit prescriptions for change within the limited realm of small female friendship squads. What’s more, ‘behaving badly’ is an option only available to certain mothers.

The mother behaving badly in these productions is usually white and middle-class; the working-class mother may help her party, but doesn’t receive as much narrative attention. Rarely is she black or an ethnic minority. Amidst police brutality and racism in the US – where many of these TV shows and movies are made and take place – it’s hard to imagine the transgressive pleasures of raucous and barely legal behaviour being offered to black mothers in the same register.

To really challenge the issues they point to – and create better lives for other people as well as individual mothers behaving badly – productions would need to better reflect the structural causes of their exhaustion too.

They would need to include more characters and themes which relate to what we might call ‘Parents Behaving Politically’: feminists, politicians and campaigners for a reduced 3-4 day working week; extended maternity and paternity leave policies; fully public funded and cooperative childcare provision; caps on high as well as low pay; the end of, and reversals to, public welfare cuts. Now, if creative media were to shine a spotlight on these political themes, that would call for a party.

* This article is based on a longer academic paper, ‘Mothers behaving badly: chaotic hedonism and the crisis of neoliberal social reproduction’, published in Cultural Studies online in July 2019.

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