Mothers and The Media

The media, for better or worse, is a reflection of how the most powerful among us want our society to be viewed. Recent years have seen an increase in focus on inclusivity and representation, as those used to seeing themselves reflected on their screens learn that media should be a window; not a mirror.  


Even the most diligent of sceptics is not immune to the social conditioning that arises when we see the same idea constantly and continuously projected in the media consume, and always have consumed.  


So, what effect does this have on how mothers are portrayed in the media? 


Consider one of the most pervasive tropes throughout all genres of fiction: The “Dead Mom” trope, where a character’s mother dies, frequently in either childbirth or in horrific tragedy, to further their journey and character development. We don’t know who these women were outside their role as a mother, and within the narrative, it doesn’t matter: it only matters that they’re dead. If you can “replace the mom with a cardboard cutout” as Avery Thomas writes in Odyssey, you’ve got a Dead Mom trope on your hands. 


From “War and Peace” to “Finding Nemo”, this trope is a long-standing crutch used by creators to develop a character at women’s expense. 


Furthermore, the image of the ideal mother is a constant presence in all forms of media, from traditional to the new social world. 


Writing for the Studies in Maternal Journal, Rebecca Feasey accuses mass media of the presenting a “strict, rigid and narrow ideology of intensive mothering in a range of newspapers, self-help books, parenting manuals, magazines, advertising campaigns and feature films” where the romanticised ideal of the ‘good’ mother “dominates the media marketplace, with few alternatives to this maternal depiction.” 


Feasey’s “good mother” myth builds on Susan Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels idea of media’s new favourite mother trope: ‘new momism’; “a set of ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented in the media, that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your reach” 


Douglas and Michaels suggest that “new momism” tells women they are free to make their own choices, as long as they are in line with the previously established vision for motherhood; 


“The only truly enlightened choice to make as a woman, the one that proves, first, that you are a “real” woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one, is to become a “mom” and to bring to child rearing a combination of selflessness and professionalism that would involve the cross cloning of Mother Teresa with Donna Shalala.” 


The advent of social media and “mommy blogging” has added a new dimension to media representation of motherhood. While many use their elevated platforms to present a more “realistic” view of being a mother, a surge of perfectly groomed, dedicated mothers has further embedded the romanticised idea that motherhood is blissful, that women willingly part with their own individuality to devote themselves to their children. 


Consider the Carol Bradys, Dead Mothers and Sitcom Moms that appear in abundance in the media you consume; and then ask yourself who benefits from selling you that image.