Monday, May 11, 2009

Moms in the Media

by Linsey Lanier

Since we're honoring mothers this months on PFHT, I thought I'd take a brief look at how mothers have been portrayed in the media through the years.

The Old Days
The post WWII years were also the time when TV was evolving from a novelty into an entertainment powerhouse. Americans seemed drawn to sitcoms about the family, and the typical mother in the series of this era were characters like Donna Reed (The Donna Reed Show), Harriet Nelson (Ozzie and Harriet), and Margaret Anderson (Father Knows Best). Archetype of them all was June Cleaver who wore heels, pretty dresses and pearls everyday as she ran the vacuum cleaner and cooked up "nutritious" meals for her family. Pretty much like today's moms -- yeah, right!

Though the wikipedia article on June Cleaver says she went to boarding school, was the captain of the basketball team in school, and even went to State college, she isn't remembered for doing any of those things. She's remembered for doing housework in a dress and sometimes having easy solutions to the problems of her eight-year-old son. June Cleaver is probably the icon for what today's women and mothers don't want to be. Or can't be. Nobody's that perfect.
Though it's nice to pretend life was once that simple, I for one, am glad we've moved past that image.

The Latter Years
The following decades represent mothers a tad more realistically in characters such as Marion Cunningham (Happy Days) (I did say "a tad"), Elyse Keton (Family Ties), and Clair Huxtable (The Cosby Show), who was voted as "Favorite TV Mom" in a 2006 poll.

One of my favorites from that time was advertising exec Angela Bower (Who's the Boss?) who hires hunky former-athlete Tony Danza to take care of her house and watch over her young son. Hubba hubba. Now there's a romantic premise!

The moms of this era tended to be more professional and assertive, but in my opinion are still a bit silly. They are after all, characters in a comedy and most of them are not in the lead role.

Today's Commercial Fiction
Since taking up writing several years ago, I don't watch as much TV. When somebody mentions "Gilmore Girls" or "Desperate Housewives," I just draw a blank. So I can't speak to the moms currently being portrayed on TV. (Though from what I've seen of Lois Wilkerson in "Malcolm in the Middle," I'd say today's TV moms are a lot more realistic.)

So I turn to our beloved romance novels for fodder. How are mothers portrayed there? While the pregnant heroine is always popular in category romances, and while women's fiction often features heroines who are mothers, it seems to me that TV sitcom motherhood and motherhood in commercial fiction aren't even in the same ballpark.

Two books by Linda Howard come to mind. In "Cry No More," Milla Edge's six-week old infant is stolen from her by baby smugglers and she spends the next ten years of her life searching for him, even at the cost of her marriage. That character is the quintessential heroic mother. Flawed perhaps, but still heroic.

In "Cover of Night," Cate Nightingale, owner of a bed and breakfast in a remote town in Idaho, is the mother of two rambunctious towheaded four-year-old twins. Needless to say, Cate has her hands full and there are some entertaining scenes with these two rascals. To me, Cate seems more realistic than anything on TV.

Probably point of view and being the heroine has a lot to do with it. And probably TV sitcoms shouldn't be compared to romance heroines. And yet, the romance heroines seem to make more realistic mothers. Is it because women readers know better? Perhaps.

So what do you have to say about moms in the media? Who is your favorite? Least favorite? Who do you identify with? Cheer for? Do you prefer TV moms or moms in novels?


Chicki said...

Claire Huxtable was my favorite back in the day, but Nora Walker (Sally Field) on Brothers and Sisters is my current fave. She's wonderful!

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Wow, Linsey, what a great topic to think about. I see LOTS of moms on TV, especially the Playhouse Disney variety. I'm going to start there becaue I really like the Mom in the Suite Life of Zach and Cody--she has twins, and she has her hands full. Again, she's a mom on a sit com, but I like the way she keeps her boys on the straight and narrow. Well, mostly.

I love Lorelai Gilmore. I would say she's not typical, but when you juxtapose her relationship with her mom with that of her daughter, it's easy to see how she might go in the opposite direction.

As for books, I'm not sure that I find those moms as realistic. I did like the mom in Carpe Demon, though.

The disturbing trend I see is the TV program either without a mom or with a deadbeat mom. In Castle, his ex-wife is self-absobed and hardly makes an entrance. In Hannah Montana, the mom has passed away.

It's kinda like some of Disney films where Mom isn't there (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Lilo & Stitch, etc.) But that would be another post altogether--sorry this one was so long. I suppose you just got me to thinking!

Marilyn Baron said...

Donna Reed is probably my favorite of the "olden day Moms." My current favorite is the mom Sally Field protrays in Brothers and Sisters. I watch a lot of TV but most of the shows don't even feature a Mom character (24, Chuck, NCIS, etc.) I guess 24 does have a Mom, the president, but I don't think of her in that light. I do like the Unit and they have some good moms and mediocre moms, but no novels stand out in my mind. Maybe the mom in Jodi Piccoult's latest novel, Handle With Care. However, she's hit or miss. She overcompensates with one child and virtually ignores the other. So I guess nobody in real life, television or fiction is perfect and we wouldn't want them to be.

I enjoyed your post.

Marilyn Baron

Cyrano said...

What a great topic Linsey.
Now I've always been a big Roseanne fan. Sure she's obnoxious, rude, loud, but I really liked that show and to me it was much more realistic than Leave it to Beaver (though I truly love LITB. Beaver was so cute and I always thought June made motherhood look so elegant. I still watch it!)
I also like the mom on Still Standing. She's quirky and goofy and slightly air-headed. My daughter says she reminds her of me (I'll have to agree with her on that one)
I also love Atia of the Julii. This mom is from the series Rome on HBO (it's in reruns now) She's a wealthy noble woman who is coniving, pompous and ruthless, but I love to hate her.
She just happens to be outwardly evil. I think internally she has the best intentions for her children.
And that brings me to my next point. Atia is more like a character I enjoy reading about. She has definite GMC. Early TV moms didn't have much GMC. They would be boring book characters. Don't you agree?
Great post Linsey!
Have a wonderful day,

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Thanks for your comment. I'll have to check out the Sally Field show. I always liked her in movies, especially "Places in the Heart." She's a great actress.

Glad I could provoke some thoughts. So many shows to check out . . . so little time. Those are some good comments. Yes, I'd say no mom or a deadbeat mom is disturbing, but maybe they are trying for a fairytale quality.

I watch mostly those kinds of shows, too. They never show, for example, Horatio Caine's mama, but that would be an interesting twist. LOL.

Oh, I forgot about Roseanne. Thanks for pointing her out. Yes. Definitely realistic. Definitely NOT idealistic. But very funny. I'll have to check out Still Standing to see how you look in your daughter's eyes. Too cool. Great point about the GMC. I think that's true of many TV and movie characters of that era. I see GMC missing a lot when I watch old movies on Turner Classic. Guess it was pre-Deb Dixon :)


Dianna Love said...

Good question about moms, but I have to tell you the truth. I enjoy the tv moms for quick entertainment, but they are nothing compared to all of you moms I've met in this business. I don't have children and am just bowled over by how much you all do for your kids and still write.

Your children will look back and remember, too. I think back often on things like my mom sewing clothes, cooking 3 meals a day, keeping house and laundry for seven people. She made yeast rolls from scratch. Later on I thought how we didn't deserve it only because we had no idea how much work went into some things she did, but then I realized a lot of love and pride went into what she did. So, I don't have a tv mom to list, but I am enjoying the other suggestions. :)

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks for stopping by, Dianna. We so appreciate your support of PFHT.

Yes, you're right about moms who are writers! I don't have children either, so I stand in awe of them, too.

We didn't have a big family, but my mom did a lot of work, too, that she didn't get much credit for. But I still remember her advice about laundry and sewing and such to this day, so she lives on in me. One of her specialties was Swedish meatballs.

I remember telling my husband just the other day that, as a teen, when I told my mom I wanted to go to Broadway to become an actress and she was against it, she said that you have to act in every job you have. True and wise.

Can't wait to see your post this Friday!


Maxine Davis said...


Loved the post. Brought back so many memories of days of yesteryear. Loved the TV moms. I read "Cover of Night" too and enjoyed it.

Barbara Monajem said...

I've been mulling this over on and off all day. I don't watch much TV, but it seems to me that conflicts with parents are pretty standard in romance novels. If the mother is a young woman with children, she's a heroine. She sacrifices for her children, etc. etc... But if she's an older woman, her daughter is the heroine, while she has turned into an interfering pain in the butt. When in a woman's life does the metamorphosis from self-sacrificing mother to manipulative tormentor take place? LOL. Or am I just remembering the wrong stories?

Tami Brothers said...

Great thought provoking post, Linnea! The only mom coming to my mind right now is Izzy's mom on Grey's Anatomy. The last episode, Izzy lied to her about how bad her cancer was just to get the woman to quit fussing over her and leave. Then she didn't even invite her or wish she was there when Meridith switched to make her the Bride. It made me kind of sad and I instantly wished she could have been there to see the wedding, especially if Izzy does die.

The only moms that come to mind in books are the ones I'm currently working on. I have one mom who allows her daughter to get beaten on a regular basis, thus causing the daughter to shoot her dad (a YA book that is surprisingly funnier than the way I just described it). I have another mom who invites her daughter's cheating ex-husband to Christmas dinner in an attempt to get the two of them back together and my heroine quickly latches onto her brother's best friend claiming he is her new fiance'. So I'm not seeing the best light for my current moms. I wonder what that says about me?

I hope I am a much better one than the ones I'm currently writing...grin....

Again, great post. You really made me think.


Tami Brothers said...

Woops. I got the wrong person. I meant, great thought provoking post, Linsey!!!

Love ya, girl!


Susan May said...

I'm a throw back. I like the old mothers. Seeing kids in high school who's mothers have forgotten about them, or at least raising them I think we need a few more of the old type. The time to care for their children without pressure in the work area. But I enjoy the freedom and opportuntiies that the new moms have. The door is wide open. A mixture of both would be great. I don't think this mother is on any TV show. Hollywood doesn't want to go there.

Linsey Lanier said...

Glad you liked the post. And "Cover of Night." I really like Linda Howard.

Thanks for stopping by! No, I think you're right. Come to think of it, in "Cover of Night," Cate's mother fits that description - an interfering pain in the butt. But she's not too bad. I'm going to look for that in the books I read.

Grey's Anatomy is one of those shows I wish I had time to watch. Sounds like that character is one of the interfering types Barbara was talking about, LOL. Sounds like you're following that pattern in your WIPs, too. Well, if it works...

You're right. A sane, stable picture of reality wouldn't be very entertaining, but it sure would be refreshing for a change.

Thanks again, everyone for your interesting comments.


Nicki Salcedo said...

I like the moms on Kate and Allie. When I was a kid I thought they were so cool. I hear that the mom on the TV show Castle is funny, but I haven't started watching yet. Mother archetypes can certainly fuel a story.


Linsey Lanier said...

Hi Nicki,

Thanks for checking in. I liked Kate and Allie, too. Hated when they took it off.

Hope I inspired some good stories out there. Keep writing, everyone. :)


Tammy Schubert said...

The real life moms I know are better than anything that can be found on television.

Great post Linsey.

Carol Burnside said...

I guess my favorite mom on TV would be Nora Walker of Brothers & Sisters. Other than that, I watch Castle (his mom is a hoot!), Bones, CSI, NCIS, L&O SVU and others that don't really have mom main characters.