I started thinking about moms in American pop culture, ironically, while watching an episode of Girls. Specifically, it was the scene in which two of the series’ (platonic, female) twenty-something protagonists bond by way of a shared bath. My first thought was, I have never casually bathed with a friend while discussing my relationship problems. My second was, I would literally pay someone if they could guarantee me a bath that no one else would try to climb into. You see, I have a toddler. He is there when I bathe. He is there when I pee. He is always there, like another limb that just happens to lurch around independently of the rest of my body. And he has changed everything.
The twenty-something characters on Girls, for those unable or unwilling to watch the current It show, are gloriously, maddeningly self-involved. They fret over outfits, they dish about guys, they have kinky, acrobatic sex in all manner of shabby-chichi New York apartments. They also get naked in front of each other in many nonsexual situations, as if to prove that nudity can reach a saturation point at which it ceases to matter.
I have mixed feelings about the show overall, but I will say that I think it is perfectly named. And I have a hunch that Lena Dunham chose “Girls” precisely because it sounds so youthful and frivolous. They are pointedly not women. And they are definitely not moms.
I’m a 32-year-old mother who drinks (a lot of) wine, has (occasional, let’s not get crazy here) sex, and (sometimes) wears low-rise jeans. I also sometimes choose sensible shoes, let my eyebrows get scraggly and gripe at my husband for letting the dishes pile up. I’m reasonably happy, but I screw up a lot. I’m self-involved, but I can’t afford to be that way all of the time anymore, because I devote so much of myself to someone much needier than I am.
I feel like I’m pretty representational of my mom friends, a group largely composed of ambitious, creative, funny and flawed upper-middle-class women. And yet I don’t see us represented anywhere on TV or in movies. The fictional character who comes closest to realism is probably Alyson Hannigan’s Lily on How I Met Your Mother, but I disqualified her when, seemingly days after giving birth, her character started showing up at the bar again to hang with her friends every night. Sorry, but in real-life moms don’t get to do that. Instead, they drink alone while watching How I Met Your Mother. Which would probably be too meta, as far as storylines go. But I digress.
Moms don’t get a lot of choices when it comes to cultural representation. Yes, women of many ages, colors and sizes show up on screens both big and small dragging all manner of petulant progeny in tow, but in a world with thousands of different candy bars at every truck stop and literally hundreds of unique brands of toilet paper, when it comes to the definition of mothers in our culture we seem only able to come up with two flavors: martyr and MILF. Both categories seem specifically designed to strip women, regardless of their abdominal fitness levels or career choices, of any real power or integrity. The good news, of course, is that either type will probably get to star in a yogurt commercial. So we’ve got options.
The majority of today’s pop culture moms fall under the weather-beaten umbrella of the long-suffering martyr, an ol’ battle ax of a stereotype who’s attractive enough but not overly sexualized (count on her wardrobe to consist almost exclusively of cowl-neck sweaters), and whose primary employment is that of a professional buzzkill, endlessly nagging/mocking her infantilized husband. In comedies, the martyr is generally manic and wisecracking (think Julie Bowen in Modern Family), or dry and unflappable (see also Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show); just glance to the left of any Judd Apatow leading man and you will find her. In dramas, she is prone to looking tired under harsh lighting (Melissa Leo in The Fighter), or belting out harrowing show tunes in close-up (Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables).
Subspecies of the martyr genus include Saint Mom—a kinder, less ironic version of the standard prototype whose roots can be traced back to June Cleaver and Donna Reed, and who tends to show up in modern times in Nancy Meyers movies (hint: The sight of her pristine eat-in kitchen makes you want to kill yourself)—and Single Mom, who is generally the most bitter of them all, unless she’s so desperate to bond with her child(ren) that she attempts to become the elusive Best Friend Mom, typified by that relic of the early “aughts,” Lorelai Gilmore. Perhaps the most beloved (and committed) martyr of them all, however, is Dead Mom, whose tragic passing paves the way for comedy dads to have hilarious diaper misadventures, and for dramatic dads to have sensitive, candlelit sex with models.
And then in the other box we have … the MILF. The MILF would make a joke about the fact that I just called her a “box,” since box is slang for vagina, and the first rule of being a MILF is that no one can ever forget that you have one, or that you frequently use it for things other than shooting out babies. Whereas the martyr is all about suffering and denial, the MILF lives for celebration and instant gratification.
In her purest form—Stifler’s mom from American Pie, Jane Seymour’s pearl-clutching nympho in Wedding Crashers, every single Real Housewife on Bravo—the MILF puts her own needs before those of her kids, generally prioritizing sex above things like eating and sleeping. The purebred MILF is cartoonish and vulgar. She dresses as immodestly as possible at all times, preferably in leopard print, and does things like eat bananas in slow-motion. She likes to inappropriately touch her teenage daughter’s boyfriends and get drunk at lunch. If the MILF were a man, he would likely end up on To Catch a Predator. It is possible to be a hybrid of martyr and MILF—Leslie Mann’s career would not exist if this were not the case—but to embody both at once is a hollow victory. It tells me—and, worse, the legions of Girls out there—that the benchmark of achievement in a woman’s postpartum identity is simply to bridge the Madonna-whore gap.
Surely there’s more to it than that. I know there is; I’m living it. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing Moms on TV anytime soon, not even on the riskier cable channels. Because somewhere in between the shrews and the vamps there are a million three-dimensional women who just want to take their goddamn bath alone. And who wants to watch that?
Are there any three-dimensional TV moms you can think of? Tell us in the comments.