The “Evil Mom” Trope in Modern Television

I’m married, but my most committed long term relationship may be with Netflix. Netflix and I have been through some times together. Good times, bad times, blanket fort hide from the world times. Whenever I can’t face the world or just need an extended break Netflix is there. It may not be the healthiest relationship coping mechanism wise, but it’s served me well. Obviously this means I watch a lot of TV. Like a whole lot of TV. I have a knack for making it through a season of television in a single weekend. I’m not talking HBO, 12 episode per season seasons, I’m talking old school network TV 22-24 episodes per season seasons. So my knowledge of modern television is vast. I’m kind of like an expert. I don’t know if I should be proud of that.

Anyway, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in all my research on modern television. See what I did there? I turned my unhealthy obsession with Netflix binges in to research on modern media. Now I sound smart, not lazy. My two shows right now are Alias, way old school, and the current season of Once Upon a Time. If you’ve watched both of these shows you may already see where this is going. Though the shows are really nothing alike in theme or content there is one striking similarity: an evil mother in the supporting cast.

Explaining the characters requires spoilers. Consider yourself warned. In Alias, the main character’s mother is an ex KGB spy who seduced and married a CIA officer in  order to learn state secrets. The continual plotline surrounding her character hinges on whether her loyalties still lie with Russia or if she is trying to redeem herself with her daughter and ex husband. Throughout the show she is cruel, manipulative, and infinitely complex. The heart wrenching drama often hinges on the emotional torture she causes her daughter through her shifting loyalties and confusing actions.

Throughout the series this mother is branded as a whore, a seductress, an immoral bitch, and the worst insult in society’s eyes: a bad mother. It is implied that her value as a KGB officer was her ability to use her body and infinite power of manipulation to seduce a man. Her relationship with her daughter is adversarial, confrontational, and infinitely unstable. The writers try to balance this out by adding the twist that she is trying to forge a relationship with her daughter and earn her redemption, but this storyline is repeatedly debunked when the mother again acts like a manipulative mastermind and betrays her family. The show sensationalizes dysfunctional and toxic relationships between mothers and daughters for the sole purpose of ratings.

The mother in Once Upon a Time is very similar. She abandons one daughter who was born out of wedlock in order to marry a prince and ensure a powerful and wealthy future. She raises the other daughter to be the infamous Evil Queen from the Snow White story. She is also cruel and manipulative, but also a ruthless murderer. Her MO is literally crushing other people’s hearts in her hands. Like she rips out their hearts and crushes them to dust. Again, her story line revolves around the anguish she causes her two daughters. Again, this story line is mitigated by her intentions to redeem herself with her daughters, and unsurprisingly, she also betrays them both over and over. The toxic relationship between mother and daughter is again glorified.

Don’t get me wrong, this all makes for great television. I have spent many an hour ugly crying when I thought these mothers finally had good intentions, but they revealed their true colors yet again. I felt for the daughters who just wanted to be loved by their emotionally abusive mothers, but never got the connections they wanted and needed. I felt with the other supporting characters who begged the daughters not to be fooled by their mothers yet another time, and I felt with the daughters every time they didn’t listen and were hurt again.

Somewhere in this emotional rollercoaster, which kept me pressing the “next episode” button over and over, I realized the true awfulness of these story lines. I think we can all agree that the relationship between mothers and daughters is complicated. Even women who have great relationships with their moms, like me, struggle with balancing their expectations of their mothers, and those mothers have a hard time balancing their expectations of their daughters. This is almost always a difficult dance where women are always avoiding stepping on each other’s toes. Many women manage to work on themselves enough to make this dance much easier, more fluid. Some women never do and end up ditching their partner.

Mothers and daughters are complicated creatures, which is why it’s awful of these television shows to sensationalize toxic mother daughter relationships. We all feel for the daughters because we all feel the discomfort of complicated relationships with our mothers. Rather than casting the focus on resolving these complicated relationships, these TV shows glorify not resolving them. These shows glorify keeping mothers and daughters at odds with each other rather than in harmony. Interestingly enough, these shows also usually feature strong, compassionate father figures. And if there was a kind, attentive mother in the picture she died when the daughter was young. There’s a lot more to say about these story lines, but maybe in a different post.

What we really need is shows that focus on real, loving relationships between mothers and daughters. I’m not advocating for shows where moms and daughters get along and love each other all the time, because that’s not realistic either. I’m talking about shows where the mother character is supportive and loving, but shows the frustration and struggle of motherhood. I’m talking about shows where daughters “hate” their mothers for mundane reasons, but then run to them crying when a boy dumps them or their best friend is mean. I know these moms exist on TV, but not as much as they should. We really need to abandon the trope of the “evil mother” and promote healthy relationships between mothers and daughters.


3 thoughts on “The “Evil Mom” Trope in Modern Television”

  1. Once is amazing.

    To level the gender field here, though, that show and many shows love to exploit the toxicity that seeps into many relationships. It’s the most heart breaking when it’s between those people who are supposed to love you unconditionally, those who have pledged to stand by you through it all, and how lost loves modify behavior to sabotage current relationships.
    Once ia all about the cycles. The Sniw/Emma/Henry cycle of abandoning your child. It stems into Henry’s other lineage, too, Pan/Rumple/Bae. The we’ll known versions of source material is littered with orphans.

    Thete are some strong mothers in Once. Regina struggles but makes giant strides to be a mother to her adopted child. She truly does everything for him, unless she’s stuck in magic-hungry mode. Snow tries like crazy to make it up to Emma, so she’s not bad on that scale. Maleficent is the most wrenching on this show though, all she wanted was to find Lily, but because this is a mother-daughter critique, of course Lily wants nothing to do with her.

    Back to more gender equality of poor parenting relationships, I’m going to call on another show I know you love. Lost. Kate is a terrible daughter to her mother, but amazingly devoted to her dear friends son who she passes off as her own. Jack and Christian Shepard. That alone is worth watching the show. Christian abandons his daughter to keep her secret, but at least sends her mom money. And then there’s Anthony Cooper, the original Sawyer. What a horrible creation that character is. Ben’s dad is a drunk. Miles’ dad AND Faraday’s abandon them. Holy cow. Father’s on that show are awful. Claire is a great mother and Charlie wants to be there for Aaron so badly. Walt’s mom is horrible for paying off Michael to leave Walt alone when he was in DIRE need of the money. The step dad turned out to be a tool.

    One last statement I have to add about horrible parent-child relationships: Game of Thrones.

    I love this post.


    1. Of course miss Kelly manages an amazing insightful response post of her own? Why aren’t you blogging about this stuff? 😉 I totally agree that television likes to glorify all toxic relationships. I’m almost done with once because I can’t stand rumple and belle anymore.


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