Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, you nasty, miserable...

Sure, good moms are wonderful, but the bad ones are way more fun

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Good mothers may be the subject of Hallmark cards, but in pop culture, bad mothers rule.

In real life, we set standards for motherhood that would test a saint. In movies, TV, memoirs and blogs, we prefer to spend out time with sinners. Good moms, with their homemade cookies, A-line skirts and sensible advice, leave us yawning. But make these ladies self-destructive and self-involved, manipulative, mad and possibly drunk, and we can't look away.

In that spirit, we'd like to wish a very happy Mother's Day to pop culture's matriarchal monsters. Whether they're over-sharing or undermining, careless or calculating, here are some of our best worst moms:

Mrs. Norma Bates in Bates Motel

In this loopy new television series, the fabulous Vera Farmiga stars as the mother of bad mothers, the woman who raised Norman Bates.

Mrs. Bates's role in Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho was, well, shadowy. Here she's front and centre, and she's fascinating. A hot Freudian mess of bad boundaries and smothering mothering, Norma has also perfected the quintessential bad-mother skill of saying, "I'm fine," while clearly meaning the exact opposite.

Betty Draper Francis in Mad Men

No maternal meltdowns for this ice princess: Betty is the mistress of constant, repetitive, low-grade negativity. Witness the YouTube montage in which she says nothing to her children but variations of "Stop that," "Go watch TV," "Go upstairs," "You'll break it," and "What did I say?"

Whether she's encouraging eating disorders, chipping away at self-esteem or offering an unexpected take on the dangers of dry-cleaning bags, this profoundly sad suburban '60s mom manages to screw up her kids without mussing a hair.

Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development

Let's raise a vodka tonic to our favourite vain, amoral, alcoholic narcissist. Lucille claims to love all her children equally (though she's never cared for Gob). But her really important relationships are with the bottle -- and with the funniest one-liners on a very funny show.

Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People

Some bad moms run hot, but the WASPy Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore, runs very, very cold. In this Oscar-winning 1980 film, Beth organizes her upper-middle-class home with Martha Stewart-like precision but finds herself completely unable to love her troubled younger son.

Bonus points for the counterintuitive casting of Moore. Her chilliness is even more striking because we can't think of MTM without humming that "She can turn the world on with her smile" theme song.

Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate

This 1962 thriller fuses political and psychological paranoia, with Angela Lansbury taking on one of the juiciest "let's blame mother" roles in screen history. Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, the actor who plays her brainwashed son, and while this might look like another instance of Hollywood's bizarre arithmetic when it comes to men's and women's ages, this time it works. There's an icky balance to the pair's sexualized, sinuously intertwined bond.

Joan Crawford in Mommie, Dearest

Based on the tell-all autobiography by Joan Crawford's daughter, this cult classic stars latter-day diva Faye Dunaway and two extraordinary eyebrows as the epitome of the Bad Celebrity Mother. Crawford's midnight rage, in which she goes on an obsessive cleaning binge, vibrates uncomfortably between exaggerated camp comedy ("No wire hangers!") and the true tragedy of child abuse.

Lilly Dillon in The Grifters

We realize that the "yummy mummy" trend is big now, but think about it: Does anyone really want a sexy mom? With platinum blond hair and nipples like bullets, con artist Anjelica Huston takes a decidedly unmaternal interest in her son John Cusack in this dark neo-noir flick.

Ayelet Waldman in Bad Mother

Waldman, a Berkeley-based writer, ignited an Internet firestorm when she admitted to loving her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children, even going so far as to suggest that if someone absolutely had to die, it had best be one of the kids. (They have four, after all.) She later developed her pieces on mothering into a 2009 book. (Um, those four children can read, right?)

Bad Mother was soon followed by a drove of defiant, dark, swear-like-a-sailor naughty-mom memoirs. (A recent addition is Drunk Mom, by Canada's own Jowita Bydlowska, in which she confesses to drinking until she blacks out while caring for her baby.) As a genre, these books are often simultaneously self-incriminating and smug. While dismantling the tired old June Cleaver stereotype, they put forward another ideal -- the hugely flawed but also hip, hot and burningly authentic mother. Whatever the Bad Mother's problems -- selfishness, laziness, contempt for Moms 'n' Tots classes, midday margaritas -- they are always preferable to being, you know, boring.


Out here in the real world, good parenting -- which, after all, involves the regular, reliable provision of hot meals, clean laundry and solid emotional support -- does sometimes get a bit boring. Maybe that's why, after a long day of being (more or less) Good Mothers, so many of us like to relax by watching those awful, enthralling, deliciously entertaining Bad Mothers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 E1


Updated on Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 9:36 AM CDT: corrects typo

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