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Television's "Bad" Mothers: Putting the "Anti" in the Antiheroine

by Ethan Tussey

by Barbara Selznick for IN MEDIA RES

 To get to the (simplified) point: U.S. television’s antiheroines are bad mothers. On shows like House of Cards, Nurse Jackie, Homeland, and Damages, antiheroines repeatedly fail their children.  These women are not always intentionally bad; some may be more accurately described as "flawed."  In the clip from The Killing, police officer Sarah Linden sends her son to live in Chicago with his father because she is unable to put him ahead of a murder case.  Linden loves Jack and wishes she could be a better mother, but she just can’t.  Work comes first.  Some television shows complicate this idea of the bad mother.  Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans is a Soviet spy who is deceitful and harsh with her children.  The clip shows that her relationship with her children is shaped by her efforts to, without their knowledge, raise them with her communist values molded by a difficult past.  Perhaps because Elizabeth’s mothering is influenced by a desire to make the world a better place, I find her the most “likeable” (and interesting) of the antiheroines.  I am most disturbed by Betty Francis of Mad Men.  At times, Betty seems like a good mother.  She is, however, frequently passive-aggressive with her children.  In the clip, Betty’s son makes a thoughtless mistake, which he offers to fix.  Betty not only prevents this but also makes him feel guilty.  She refuses to accept his apology, instead ending the day moping and wondering why her children don’t love her.  Betty’s bad mothering prevents her from being a heroine, justifying her husbands’ disrespectful treatment.

Things are different for television’s male antiheroes.  Although not ideal fathers, the antiheroes’ devotion to family establishes their humanity, putting the “hero” in the antihero (think Tony Soprano’s love for his children, Walter White’s admittedly questionable devotion to his family or Nucky Thompson’s attachment to his stepson).  For women, however, the inability to care for children is what makes them less than heroic; it’s the “anti” in the antiheroine.  To be fair, I haven’t seen every show featuring antiheroines.  Some women on television may be antiheroines and loving mothers.  Some may even be heroines who are seen as “bad” mothers.  But that would surprise me.

Female Antiheroes and Bad Mothers

A montage of antiheroines

from Female Antiheroes (2015)
Creator: Barbara Selznick
Distributor: N/A
Posted by Ethan Tussey