Bad Moms and the Fiction of Motherhood

As I broach the subject of parenthood – well, as I continue to be badgered by others about when (not if) I’m going to have children – I’m trying to wrap my mind around how I’m going to do that, how I’m going to do it all. It occurs to me that maybe I don’t have to do it all, but it also occurs to me that I don’t see a mom not doing it all. I want a wildly successful career, a home in a rather expensive city, and a happy, engaged marriage—all things that will require effort and time on my part. I also want me time and time to binge watch every TV show I find mildly interesting, if I’m being honest. Just kidding. I don’t even have time for that now. But seriously, where do kids fit in?

My expecting friend, who has a one-and-a-half-year-old at home already, wanted to see Bad Moms. With her husband deployed, this was one of her only child-free moments of the year. And she chose to see a movie about moms in her two hour break from actively parenting. I’m not sure what that means, but I digress. I did what any great movie writer (and friend) does, and I walked into the theater already knowing I was going to rip this thing to shreds. Written by two men, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover), Bad Moms, simply put, chronicles the journey of one mom and her friends who decide that they aren’t great (see: perfect) moms, so they’re going to give up the act and embrace being bad moms. Now you see where they got the clever title. It’s full of raunchy, nearly-shocking comedy for its intended audience; it has a few good laughs and some cringe-worthy dialogue and acting, but it is really everything you’d expect from that brand of comedy. The women were smart, beautiful, wealthy, and put together. Of course they can’t keep it all together all of the time, thus the strike on perfect parenthood. But what struck me was not anything to do with said moms but the dads.

Before I move forward, this is a movie about moms and the expectations women face in parenthood. This purposefully, I imagine, isn’t about dads. Though, even with that in mind, the portrayal of fathers in Bad Moms jumped out at me–me, a childless woman not really paying attention to this sort of thing–as being unfair and almost cruel. The cast of fathers: 1) a cheating, lying, deadbeat, “third child” father 2) a controlling, borderline abusive, misogynistic father 3) a father who simply didn’t exist, merely referenced occasionally 4) the perfect father who also happens to be a widower (and conveniently the only love interest option for our leading lady). You read that correctly. The only guy who is parenting well – or even at all – isn’t just a single parent but a widower. In Bad Moms, to be a good dad, the writers are going to have to kill off your kids’ mother.

To be fair, Bad Moms is less concerned with making a statement on parenting and more focused on appealing to women tired of sanctimommies and Pinterest expectations. But in the weeks since, I can’t shake the idea that when it comes to parenting in films and TV shows is the message we continue to consume not just lowbrow humor but genuinely harmful? Is the fight for gender equality being undermined not just with women outside of the home but men inside the home?

This is nothing too new, really. In recent decades, fathers in media have devolved into bumbling idiots. Long gone are the days of The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show dads; gone, too, are the Philip Banks, Cliff Huxtable, and Danny Tanner caliber dads. But as shows like Family Ties and Growing Pains started to wrap in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a new breed of dad emerged. While this new era of dads are loving, present, and fun, they’re mostly kept around for a punch line. From Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor to Raymond Barone to Phil Dunphy, even our selection of good TV dads needs our do-it-all TV moms to step in to fix their messes. And audiences have spent decades not batting an eye.

The sitcom’s audience has shifted, too. Eighty percent of sitcom viewers are women, but 75% of sitcoms are written exclusively by men. Soak that in. The Doofus Dad is written primarily by men to a mostly female audience. Which begs two very important questions: Why do male writes portray dads as crappy and moms nearly perfect? And are female audiences putting up with the stereotype or are we actually enjoying it? To answer the first question, well, I can’t, and I’m not sure that anyone can. But as for the second, I have an inclination that the latter holds true but for different reasons than entertainment.

Today, fathers spend twice as much time as they did with their kids 30 years ago, and the number of stay at home dads has doubled in that time frame as well. With the rise of women in the workplace and a resurgence of the gender equality movement, an egalitarian marriage and parenting partnership is clearly beneficial to the ultimate equality goal. After all, women striving for equality aren’t just talking about the workplace alone. But if statistically the majority of women really do derive much of their feelings of self-worth from the quality of their relationships and men find fulfillment in their work, is the notion of balance in parenthood duties ideal for either party?

Thanks in large part to social media, the pressure for moms to be doing all things right all the time is at an all-time high, a point Bad Moms successfully hit home. “Mom-shaming” was dubbed years ago in reference to the propensity for strangers to undermine a mother’s parenting decisions. And while this happens with a much greater frequency than dad-shaming (which may or may not be a term anyone is actually using other than to ask where it can be found), mom-shaming is becoming rapidly less acceptable with moms collectively demanding more respect and grace in regard to their parenting choices and coming to the defense of other mothers on the receiving end of the often unwarranted criticism. In fact, the disparity between mom-shaming and dad-shaming made headlines when singer John Legend defended his wife who was criticized for going out to eat weeks after their child’s birth: “Funny there’s no dad-shaming. When both of us go out to dinner, shame both of us so Chrissy doesn’t have to take it all. We’ll split it.” But perhaps we are shaming both parents in different formats, one more directly than the other.

To counter those points, without going too far into the biological progression of child rearing, it may be an unrealistic expectation to demand true equality in a situation inherently unbalanced (see: carrying, delivering, and being primary food source). If women are pre-disposed to the more involved role from the get go, do we want to relinquish the kind of control that would allow for equality in parental responsibilities or is this the one category where we undoubtedly have the built-in privilege and are glad for it? Perhaps that’s quite the leap, but even if it were the case, it wouldn’t be entirely unfounded. But still, as the primary consumers of this incompetent dad stereotype, we have to wonder if these characters, these marriage dynamics perpetuate the real-world, unrealistic idea that we women need to be perfect and unfairly reinforce the notion that men are incompetent.

If we want film interviews where Ben Affleck is asked how he does it all as often as Jennifer Garner is; if we want commercials that don’t insinuate that fathers babysit their own kids; if we want a society where stay at home moms and stay at home dads are equally held in high regard for taking on one of the – if not the – most challenging jobs on the planet; if we want a workplace where paid maternity leave is an actual thing and paid paternity leave isn’t the unicorn of all unicorns; and if movies and TV shows are unnecessarily, unfairly, and unhelpfully reinforcing unrealistic stereotypes that halt the progression toward equality both inside and outside the home for men and women, we may need to reevaluate what we’re putting on our screens. Because my sweet pregnant friend – who used her only two hours of no kid time to watch a movie about moms who feel like failures – deserves women in media who complex, interesting, less-than-perfect creatures. And her smart little boy deserves to grow up in an era where men in media are portrayed as competent, capable fathers if we hope to move closer toward the ever-elusive gender equality.

 

Featured Image: STX Entertainment

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Grace Porter
Grace writes out of San Diego. To contact: Grace@audienceseverywhere.net