Where have all the mothers gone?

The other night, I went to see the musical “Aida” (the Elton John version, not the Opera) and I have just one question. Where did all the mothers go? For those of you not versed in the Aida story, it has a love triangle between an Egyptian princess (Amneria), the head of the Egyptian army (Ramades) and a slave from the kingdom of Nubia (Aida), who turns out to be the Nubian princess. All three main characters have a father who appears in the play. Aida’s father gets captured by the Egyptian army, Ramades’ father is plotting to kill the Pharoah and the Pharoah shows up just because he’s the Pharoah and you can’t have a story about Egypt without a Pharoah. But where are their mothers?

This is something that has bothered me about both T.V. and movies for quite some time. It seems that though major characters have regularly appearing fathers, mothers are quite a bit more scarce. This trend seems much more common among the sci fi/fantasy genres (where most of my attention lies) than say sitcoms.

When you think about science fiction and fantasy on television, what comes to mind: cool special effects, strange plots, interesting ideas, and even some character development. But when it comes to family relationships, specifically those relationships between main characters and their parents, there seem to be a lot more fathers.

The WB recently began airing a show called Supernatural (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer meets the X-Files). Two brothers find and destroy “monsters” based on common American myths (the girl who comes out of the a mirror if you say her name three times, the scarecrow, the man with a hook, etc.). Yes, these brothers had a mother, but she died tragically at the hands of some demon. Their father used to lead the family in their hunting, but now he is off on his own. The show is centered around finding their father and killing whatever killed their mother.

How about Star Trek, one of the most well known of the sci fi genre. Commander Will Riker of the Enterprise gets to have an entire episode where he not only deals with the emotional issues he has with his father, they end up in a fighting match. Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine hooks up with his father every time he makes it back to earth. Lt. Tom Paris struggles with the bad relationship he has with his father despite the seventy light years between them. There are exceptions in Star Trek. B’Elanna Torres of Voyager and Geordi LaForge of the Enterprise spend time worrying about their mothers. (It turns out they are both dead.)

This trend continues: Stargate SG-1, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Angel, Firefly, Charmed, and even Smallville. (Though the protagonist of Smallville has two loving parents, until recently, the antognist is constantly struggling with his father.) There are one or two exceptions. Buffy has a mother for five seasons, and don’t even get me started on Alias. (One of the most complication sets of relationships I have ever seen, though at the beginning of the show the title character had lost her mother when she was six and doesn’t talk to her father.)

As for other genres of television, Cop/drama/medical shows mostly ignore character development in favor of plot. Those who do have parental figures also tend to have fathers (Crossing Jordan, Numbers), though ER has had a few mothers guest star. The other major genres of television, the Real Life show and the Sitcom, seem to have equal shares of parental figures. (Gilmore Girls, The Simpsons) Interestingly enough, it is in these genres that more main characters are portrayed as mothers as well as career women. (Close to Home, Medium, and CSI all have female main characters with children.)

As for movies, look at some of the biggest blockbusters. Pirates of the Caribbean has two characters with fathers. Elizabeth’s father is not only the governor of Port Royal, but he leaves his post to follow the Pirates who “kidnap” Elizabeth. As for Will, his father may not actual appear, but he drives the entire plot. (Bootstrap Bill) What happened to his mother is anyone’s guess. Indiana Jones spends an entire movie arguing with his father. His mother is only mentioned in the past tense. The Lord of the Rings has a plethora of fathers. Arwen has a father. Frodo has a father figure. Sam is always talking about his father (my old Gaffer). Eowyn and Eomer have a father figure in Theoden. And let’s not forget the complicated relationship between Boromir, Faramir and their father Denethor.

Of course a discussion of blockbusters wouldn’t be complete without Star Wars. The original three movies are about a boy, a girl, and their father. Their mother, Amidala, does show up as a real person in the first three movies but it is sad that her role as a parent is non-existent. She lives long enough to bear the children but then passes away so that the true parental angst of the movies lies between Luke, Leia and their father. Star Wars does have one exception. Anakin has no father, though he does have a mother. Of course it is her death that begins him on a path to the dark side of the force.

Finally there are the Superhero movies. I have always been fascinated by the way so many superheroes go from ordinary guy with an extraordinary ability to a superhero. There always seems to some triggering event. For many superheroes, such as Daredevil, Spiderman, and Batman, the triggering event is the death of their father (or uncle in the case of Spiderman) in an alley at the hands of some lowlife. Even Elektra, one of the few female superheroes out there, makes her decision to fight when her father is killed by one of Daredevil’s nemeses. Superheroes, then do not interact with their fathers, but use the death of their fathers to spur them into action.

But Batman is just a little more interesting because he had a mother, and her death really didn’t effect him. Bruce Wayne (a.k.a Batman) lost his mother to the same man who killed his father. In the latest incarnation of Batman, Batman Begins, it is his father’s death that takes center stage. His mother has little or nothing to say. (I honestly can’t remember if she has even one line.) When Bruce Wayne has flashbacks of his early childhood with his parents, it his father, and his father’s words, that dominate and drive his decisions.

So where are the mothers? For fantasy and science fiction, mothers seem to be sweet, loving, perfect, conveniently dead non-entites who are only mentioned in passing with maybe a moment of grief attached. Aragorn mourns at the grave of his mother as Elrond reminds him of her sacrifices. (I think this happens in the Extended Edition.) Leia remembers her mother as sad, but she died when she was very young. Indiana Jones remarks only about his mother that she “didn’t understand” his father’s obsession with the Holy Grail. Mothers are non-characters who may have once been in their children’s lives but are no longer important to the storyline.

So what is so special about fathers that they are so much more likely to show up in pop culture than mothers? Society is so concerned with single motherhood and teenage pregnancy. Women are more likely to raise their children and play a prominent role in their lives? Why don’t we depict more characters with live mothers? Perhaps it is because, despite our protestations over single mothers, we still believe that fathers play the biggest role in their childrens lives. Perhaps pop culture truly represents the ideal where fathers are more active in their children’s lives. Perhaps it is because fathers are so often absent, emotionally or physically that adult children may have more complicated relationships with them.

What is so sad about all this is that society is constantly reminding us that mothers make so much of a difference in children’s lives. In the church, there is still a lot of pressure for women to stay home and raise their children. (The ideals of Republican Motherhood still exist.) But pop culture is telling us that mothers really don’t matter that much. Yes, they need to be there to raise the children but as for interacting with them as adults, that’s the father’s job.

I would love to see more mothers, especially in the kinds of TV and movies I watch. I would love to see a superhero movie where the mother’s death spurs the action or where a mother and daughters fight the evils of the world. I want mothers to be more than the stereotype, more than dead, more than a past memory. I want there to be more live mothers on TV and in the movies.


  1. I think that it is because the writers are afraid of making a female character that might end up being attractive to the protagonist (and by extention the audience). Our society isn’t really comfortable with the idea that a mother could be attractive in *that* way. The male audience (which is probably the primary audience) will be comfortable feeling intimate love for a father figure without a thought of eros. And female actresses are either young and pretty (love interest) or they’re old (ie spiderman’s aunt).
    Think of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where Bill’s “step-mom” is a girl who graduated a year before Bill and is undeniably sexy. It’s funny because it is so taboo.
    Anyhow for a sci-fi book with powerful women you might want to read Dune. The mother character in that book is *very* present and powerful too.

  2. Interesting point. I wonder to what degree the under-representation of mothers is just a special case of the general under-representation of female characters.

  3. I definitely think the problem is partly based on the phenomenon that Ziff notes–women (including mothers) are underrepresented in TV and film. (For a good example of exactly how limited women’s representations are in movies, see this comic strip.

    It was interesting to see your list of shows. While I’ve realized that my favorite shows often have central female characters (Gilmore Girls, Buffy), they also have women filling different roles (daughters, mothers, superheroes, etc).

  4. Those are some fascinating obsservations, Elbereth. I’ve also noted this trend in the crop of animated Disney movies that have come out in the past 15 years or so; it’s interesting that Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, and Nemo in Finding Nemo are all motherless. Does Simba in The Lion King have a mother? I don’t remember, but that story seems to fit into the “death of father as life-changing experience” theme that you noted.

  5. Simba does have a mother – she even has a name, Sarabi – but she has very few lines and very little screen time. Jasmine from Aladdin is another motherless character. Going back to older Disney movies, often there are evil stepmothers (Cinderella’s step-mother ; the witch in Snow White) or women villians (Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, though Sleeping Beauty does have the three fairies and her mother is still alive at the castle ; Medusa in The Rescuers). But there is almost never a strong female character as a role model for the protagonist.

  6. I’ve not noticed a discrepancy in the numbers of fathers and mothers portrayed in popular culture. I have noticed a discrepancy in the way fathers and mothers are portrayed. For good or ill, Mothers tend to be idealized. They are portrayed as uncomplicatedly good and virtuous. Whereas fathers are more often portrayed as hapless oafs (see most family comedies), as inadequate in some way or another, or as overbearing or abusive jerks.

    Of course, there are counterexamples for the generalizations I have made. I’d have to do a lot more thinking before I could call these perceptions reality.

  7. In addition to what Ziff said: it seems that a lot of males have some kind of daddy issues (ie Oedipus). Portraying these would put more males on screen. There are notable exceptions, like “Psycho.”

  8. You’ve gathered an impressive body of evidence, er, E, but I disagree with your conclusions. I don’t think the absent mother in popular culture suggests any new gender pathology; on the contrary, the absent mother has been a feature of most popular storytelling in nearly all the literatures I’m familiar with. I wrote a little bit on the same topic here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2259 (Sorry for the ugly link.)

    Psychic and social separation from the mother is perhaps the one social experience that is truly transhistorical, and thus its effects are perhaps the single reliable feature of a transhistorical “human nature”.

  9. One reason mothers might be absent from today’s pop culture is because they are such huge influences on their children. Especially if you take into considration the habit of idealizing the mothers, then you almost have to cut them out because otherwise they’d be too involved in the story. This is a bad thing if you’re setting up the usual “hero against the world” theme. A major theme I’ve been seeing in pop culture lately has been the “loners make their own family” dynamic. The heros, in part because of the Jungian Hero’s Journey, have to leave the bosom of their family. If an “ideal” mother is present, the separation cannot be made properly… So the dear, beloved mother is dead. If the character’s family has been out of the picture for much of the story then one has to assume either that they’re dead or that there is bad blood between them, and I think we as a culture find it easier to stomach bad blood between children and fathers than children and mothers.

  10. You missed one example that I was sure you would mention. Luaxana Troy, Deanna Troys Mother. There was very little talk about her father. But this example isn’t necissarily a good one as Luaxana was a little nutty etc.

    Perhaps it is because fathers are so often absent, emotionally or physically that adult children may have more complicated relationships with them.

    I think this statement mixed with the fact that the majority of Sci Fi watchers are male is a pretty good guess as to why there are fewer mothers on these shows.

  11. As Rosalynde noted, absent mothers have been a major plot device for over a millenia. Just think of all those fairy tales where there’s a girl and her wicked step mother, or a girl and just her dad.

    I think this may have reflected the times a bit. Women did die in child birth often and left many children to be raised alone by the dad or even more likely by a step mother. Perhaps this motherless theme has just carried into modern storytelling, even though it’s not as reflective of our current reality here in the western world.

    I also think it’s a useful plot device to have a mother absent since it makes the girl(or boy) character more vulnerable, less protected, less watched over, and therefore more available to have the sorts of adventures we see in fairy tales. Or even Jane Austen. Most of the mothers of her characters are missing as well.


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