Not Your Average Mrs. Cleaver
For the majority of time that television has been around, mothers have been shown as the domestic home-maker and everything that goes along with that. They were never to have much of an opinion, they were to always be dressed to a tee and have the food on the table by the time Dad got home from work. Despite this holding strong as the ideal view of a mom on TV for a long time, new takes on the female head of the house have come into play. One newly popular version of mom is that of the “unruly” woman. These are the women who are independent and strong, have their own voice and don’t fit into that cookie cutter well dressed, pie baking passive woman of the past. The unruly woman is televisions addition to the feminist rhetoric. Both of these types of woman portrayed on television play a role in either enforcing gender norms or what people may view as tradition and then the other end that is challenging those. I argue though that there is a third type of mom, the “bad” mom. This is well illustrated by Tara Gregson, the mother from the show United States of Tara.
Now take the word bad with a grain of salt, these moms on TV that I am including in this category do still take care of their kids and have jobs, they just don’t seem to do it so gracefully like the other two. Many would consider the “unruly” mom a bad mom, but when we actually watch them you realize that even though they are rough around the edges they do have a pretty together family. Roseanne is one of the most famously unruly TV moms. The difference between Roseanne and what I will explain as a bad mom is that “the spectacle Roseanne creates is for herself, produced by herself.” (Rowe 1990) Whereas the flustered personalities and outbreak arguments that scatter a “bad” moms storyline, are not in their favor or used as power, but yet seen as a weak moment.
In the TV show United States of Tara, the main character, a mother named Tara Gregson is a mother of two and also has dissociative identity disorder. Due to this she has multiple personalities or “alters” as the family calls them and they come out to play whenever she is under great distress. Enough though this seems to be the center of the entire show, I believe its serves a bigger purpose in further distancing Tara from the typical mom or the unruly mom. The common one liner explanation of the show reads something along the lines of “A woman struggles to find a balance between her dissociative identity disorder and raising and dysfunctional family.” (IMDb.com) Right away setting the scene for a slew of issues the family has.
It is pretty obvious to anyone watching that Tara is not the greatest mom that TV has ever seen. She has trust and intimacy issues in her marriage, generally caused by her request for her husband to never sleep with any of her alters and she seems to have a lot of trouble dealing with her kids. Yes, I understand that all families have their issues and some even those very ones, but those plot lines help push the point of the bad mom. While the bad mom obviously shows the failures she faces, it also helps humanize the often shown perfect goddess of a TV mom. It gives comfort to the audience that they are not the only ones who have family problems and even more so don’t know how to handle them with perfect grace like some TV shows do. “To make characters realistic and relatable they are given flaws, because if there is anything a writer can be sure of it is that no one in their audience will be perfect.” (TV Tropes) Every viewer has their own problems and it just might turn out the crassness of the unruly mom just doesn’t level up to what they are going through so the bad mom steps in and helps them out. No one wants to feel like they are alone in their problems and watching the bad moms struggle to keep things together helps comfort in a way by showing they are not alone. The thought process is that if it is on TV there must be enough people out there who can relate.
Not only does the show constantly put Tara through incredibly stressful and emotional situations, they use one of her alters as a direct comparison. The alter known as Alice, described as “a traditional 1950s housewife” falls right under our societies original ideal of a mother that we constantly used to see on TV. (Piccione 2011) Alice is exceptionally good and baking, constantly begs to have a child and is never caught without her hair done and lipstick on. Despite the kids loving all of the baked goods and pancakes that Alice showers them with, the family does not take well to Alice coming around. They find her very one dimensional, close minded and judgmental. Alice in a sense is even more so a combination of the classic mother figure and the unruly mom. She has the appearance and domesticity done pat, but she has the outspoken snippy attitude of an unruly mother. Either way she is posited as worse than Tara, even with all of Tara’s flaws.
Putting such a ‘perfect’ mom figure against one who is so ultimately flawed as Tara, one would assume that it would help to make Tara look even worse as a mother but it does quite the opposite. These “bad” moms may not be getting the mom of the year award but they are relate-able to an audience and that’s what TV shows who create these characters are hoping to do. The domestic mom fosters warmth and tradition, the unruly mom gives a voice for feminists, and the bad mom simply aims to show that people aren’t perfect, not even the one person who we all expect to be.
“Character Flaw Index.” TV Tropes, N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.
Piccione, Steven. “Battling Conciousness In an Altered Reality.” The Hoya. N.p., 30
Mar. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014. <http://www.thehoya.com/battling-conciousness-in-an-altered-reality/>.
Rowe, Kathleen. “Roseanne: unruly woman as domestic goddess. “Screen 31 (1990):
“United States of Tara.” IMBd. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 2 May 2014.