Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Helpless/MIA Mother Trope

I picked up on the lack of a mother figure in the teenage protagonists’ lives in the fifth grade. Disney Channel’s show, Hannah Montana was “the biggest thing” in my class back when Miley Cyrus could still be tamed. I suppose the show followed the typical Disney format: a girl and her best friend, a dorky father, a close guy friend (and potential romantic interest), and a MIA mother. When I picked up on the detail that Hannah Montana’s mother never showed up on set (they implied that she died), I started noticing it in other movies, TV shows, and books too. Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, Harry Potter (both of Harry’s parents died, but Luna’s missing a mother too), The Golden Compass, To Kill A Mockingbird… the list is endless, but what’s most notable is this trope seems to appear most frequently in stories that are aimed toward teenagers. The mother is not always dead, sometimes she has simply disappeared without any explanation at all or she is present but hardly mentioned other than when she is being criticized. And this “helpless mother trope” is most notable in the two most talked about book series by teenage girls in the last couple years: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins and the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. While the mothers are somewhat present within the story, appearing every so once in a while, the only thing the protagonists, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen, have to offer their mothers is pity. It is clear that the female protagonists in the two series feel that they are more mature, dignified, and stronger than their mothers. In fact, the role of parent and child reverses within the story so that the protagonists are constantly taking care of/looking out for their mothers. Their attitudes toward their mothers are not subtle in any way at all; in fact, the pity mixed in with a good dose of teenage arrogance appears within the first chapter of both series. Within The Hunger Games it appears on the first page, “In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.” (Collins) While Katniss’s commentary on her mother’s beauty might not seem like much, but historically, beauty has been a key aspect in a female’s worth. While The Hunger Games is a more contemporary piece of work, in this quote, Katniss’s commentary on beauty is about more than aesthetics. She is subtly showing disapproval and disappointment in her mother’s lack of vitality and pity in her growing age and helplessness. Her attitude towards her mother is far harsher than her attitude towards Prim, and this is confirmed a few pages later. Her mother is helpless and clueless, dependent upon her children as shown on page 11, “They’re not our kids, of course. But they might as well be. Ale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you may as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live without us? Who would fill those mouths that are always asking for more?” (Collins) In Twilight, Bella views her mother in a more positive light. She doesn't hold any past grudges or much criticism in her parenting in comparison to Katniss, but she treats her mother like a child. She is concerned for her well being, and it is implied that the mother cannot take-care of herself, “How could I leave my loving, erratic, hair-brained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still...” (Meyer). This helpless/MIA mother trope that is used over and over again within teen series has one important job, and that is to force the protagonists to act beyond their age and be portrayed as being much more heroic, responsible, and caring than they actually are. Despite their intentions and actions within the present, the trope gives the reader a kind of assurance that “Yes, the protagonist is a good person. She is a hero”. But the truth is, if the writer spent more time developing the protagonist and less time assuring that the reader that the character is likable, we might end up with mothers that are substantial characters and more than skimpy placeholders held up by a trope.  And this is one of the many reasons why I can’t approve the usage of this particular trope wholeheartedly; it seems that the majority of the time when it is being used, the author is simply getting lazy in their character development. 

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