Why Are Fictional Moms Sick Or Dead?

Hermione-in-HBP-harry-potter-7670321-1919-2560As Harry Potter’s Hermione grew up, her brainy, brave persona turned more sexy, less threatening and less magical, says Sarah Jane Stratford in The GuardianShe continues:

Did Hermione Granger really say “I can’t” during the climactic battle in the final chapter of the Harry Potter film saga? Presented with her chance to destroy one of the horcruxes she had put her life on the line to hunt, she backs away and needs her almost-boyfriend Ron to insist that of course she can.

The transformation of a brave, adventurous girl into a young woman who becomes weakened by, or defined by, her sexuality, has a long literary tradition. The next step, it seems, is to become a mom who is sick or dead.

I discovered this pattern one year when I let fiction take over my usual nonfiction reading habit.

In The Sound and the Fury we meet adventurous, determined and nurturing little Caddy Compson who is busy exploring the local countryside, climbing trees and sometimes bossing her brothers. Later, she becomes a promiscuous woman, shamed and rejected by her family. And the mother in this story? She’s a neurotic hypochondriac.

Faulkner introduces us to a mother who is dying, and later dead, in the appropriately titled, As I Lay Dying. Her daughter is upset and fixated on her out-of-wedlock pregnancy (instead of her dying/dead mom).

In Atonement creative young Briony Tallis has an over-active imagination that leads to serious trouble. Her older cousin gets raped, and her older sister is overcome by romance. Mom is constantly bedridden with headaches.

Plain Song revolves around a shy 17-year-old whose mother kicked her out after learning she was pregnant. Two young boys have a mom who spends her days locked away, depressed.

I could go on, but you get the point.

If strong, adventurous girls grew up to become strong, adventurous young women,who were also sexual, that would be fine. But too often, sexuality diminishes them or becomes the only thing they’re about.

Maybe that explains why older women (moms) end up sick or dead. Upon reaching womanhood the grown girl leaves behind everything that had empowered and engaged her to become defined by her sexuality. When her allure fades, there’s nothing left.

Which suggests a lesson for real live women. Best to avoid a one-dimensional focus on sexuality that rests on narrow beauty notions. Instead, stay strong and develop many facets of yourself, including an ageless and radiant beauty and sexuality (a la Meryl Streep and Hellen Mirren, et al) to enjoy over a lifetime.

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I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on April 5, 2013, in feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. This is one of the things I really like in science fiction and fantasy. Yes, there are women who are portrayed as you describe in your article, but more and more women have become strong. Both male and female authors them as such. Maybe it is a generational thing.

    I have always hated the words feminine and masculine because they have never made sense to me. They cage us in a prison of definitions.

    • Glad that things are often different in science fiction and fantasy. And hopefully it is a generational thing with newer literature changing.

      The concepts of feminine and masculine certainly do limit us. But since people usually do hold those concepts, and since there is a need to critique them, the words and concepts exist.

    • well, in dune the mother is alive and the father is dead.

      • Not to say its every book, but a lot of them. There’s a strong pattern. I think nit-picking in a post is dull, and assume my readers ae smart enough to know that I don’t mean literally every book.

  2. Rohan 7 Things

    Really interesting observation! And a good message at the end 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. I think your blog post changes direction about halfway through. First, the depiction of Hermione. Unfortunately I haven’t seen any of the films, much preferring the books (the special effects are better). However, I do not doubt in the least that the character of Hermione has been both dumbed down and sexed up for cinema audiences, and this is deplorable. (The one person you might think could do something about it would be Jo Rowling herself: a powerful, articulate, former single mum).

    What happens to Hermione doesn’t necessarily justify your next comment, about fictional mums traditionally being sick or dead. I hadn’t particularly noticed that this is true. However, I wonder (with the commentator above) if the “sick or dead mum” is a literary trope which we are used to seeing commonly, like the good guys winning in the end, or the unlikely lovers finally getting together (even though these outcomes are uncommon in real life).

    You may pose the question: why should we be used to that particular trope, instead of mums who are strong, independent and sexy? I guess it makes for good drama: as already said, we sympathise with someone deprived of maternal affection, and strong maternal love is a powerful insulator against the slings and arrows of misfortune. (Harry Potter himself is protected against some black magic because of the power of his (dead) parents’ love for him, but his mother is especially singled out in this regard).

    I think there are powerful biological reasons why someone can’t be both maternal and sexual to the same audience at the same time. We are driven to look for sexual partners outwith our family: I don’t consider my mum to be a sexual person, nor my sister, even though part of me knows they technically are. And I think in the higher primates there is some evidence that maternal display is a powerful way to neutralise aggressive or mating behaviour: I don’t want to hurt you or have sex with you because you are a mother. So the reasons for our cultural treatment of mothers may be partly biological, rather than constructed.


    • Hermione sets the stage. Seems innocent enough and harmless enough and certainly common enough — to most people — to see young women sexualized… But then, look what happens. Before you know it, sexuality is gone and since they’re defined by that, nothing’s left.

      It’s one of the reasons women so fear aging. They age, their sexual appeal diminishes, and there’s nothing left. They’ve lost their worth. So the fictional pattern reflects the reality of so many women’s lives.

      Surely not all literature portrays moms as sick or dead, but truly, I spent one year reading fiction and the random books I chose showed that pattern over and over again. I was amazed at its strength.

      The problem with the notion that “it makes sense” to have moms constantly portrayed as sick or dead, or that “it makes sense” to divide women into Madonna or whore (a shorthand term feminists use to critique the notion that women are so often thought of as either a mother or a sex object) is that it supports the status quo that puts women in straight jackets.

      I’m often struck by how often women uphold a status quo that works against them. Rather than defending a way of seeing that keeps women in their place, I’d like to see notions of women, and what they’re about, expand: They can be mother, sexy, and a variety of other things while they’re at it, whether business exec or teacher or artist or volunteer…

      And why jump to visions of incest as something that precludes joining sexuality and motherhood? (Really, the two are pretty closely connected!) But even in today’s world I think plenty of husbands can easily see their wives as both sexy and as mothers. Certainly women want to see themselves as both sexy and as moms. Why is that so strange? Is it somehow better to peg women as only one or the other? And of course, why should women be limited to those two things? To say there’s a stark contrast actually restricts women more than they already are.

      I’d like people to use their imaginations to see women outside of narrow boxes and to expand, rather than keep them in place or pull them back even further.

  4. Disney kills moms off early in animated movies. It’s tradition to kill off mothers (and responsible parent figures) early in modern children’s stories. Yikes. Ever wonder how come?

    • Yes I have. When both parents die I suppose it gives the kids a lot of adventures.

      When moms die it reflects a patriarchal world in which strong female guides are lost. Don’t know if that’s why but the reflection is there.

      Also heard that Walt Disney had a mom or stepmom he didn’t like so killed the moms off or was drawn to stories where they were absent.

  5. Actually, I believe that the mother is either depressed, dying, or dead because the relationship between a mother and child is never simple – even when it is a good relationship. The emotions of that relationship are difficult to write about, so it is easier to create her as basically being someone that doesn’t require the writer to write too much about. Any reader can “imagine”, as well as each reader relating in his/her own way, a whole range of emotions and knowledge just from hearing the words depressed, dying, or dead (is this what they mean when they talk about 3-D? haha). Also, it creates “easy” tension in a story. The reader immediately feels sorry for the child (even if the child is an adult).

    That being said, young heroines “growing up” in literary works are “in tune” with the reader because they are coming of age, and with age comes sexuality. Every red blooded, hormone charged adolescent can attest to this. Just because they take on a sexual persona, and then they age, doesn’t mean that they actually lose their sexuality just because their time might be spent behind a closed door depressed, drinking, or dying.

    If you look at literature, like Summer of ’42, you see the attraction of a young teenager to an older woman (who actually happens to be depressed in this story). Same is true with The Graduate. I’m sure you’ve heard of the term MILF being coined these days. So I think that when a writer is writing a story where the main character’s mom is one of the three D’s, it is because in so many ways, the writer IS the main character and cannot think of his/her own mom as being sexual, so the mom is relegated to the bedroom, hospital, or cemetary, because when it comes right down to it, it isn’t right to think of your mom like that. And if you do, then you’ve got the makings of Psycho. As a result, it leaves her as being a one-dimensional character. But someone else’s mom, now that is fair pickin’s!

    • I’m not sure whether your comment is serious or farce so I’ll treat it as both.

      Oh, yeah, I’ve always noticed that the most complex relationships are always written with at least one character being either sick or dead, and the relationship, itself, ignored. Oh wait, that only happens when moms are involved. Now why is that?

      And if mom has a fab sex life, you’d defiantly write her as depressed, sick or dead. That’ll sell a lot of books. Cause moms who are depressed, sick or dead create such a spark to the sexual imagination.

      And MILF portrays such complex, well-rounded characters. Not mere sex objects.

      Plus, writers can only think of moms in terms of their own. Not their wives, or other men’s wives, or themselves.

      Got it!

      • Gee! I was being serious and giving you my opinion. I guess I don’t rate as high as you in the intelligence department. Thank you for making sure that I was put in my place! I’ve always wondered where it was!

      • Your welcome. But hey, thanks for letting me have some fun.

      • “Your” welcome? Really? Ha!

      • Hi Teena. I’ve been thinking more about your comment. In many ways it is well-written and creative, outside-the-box thinking.

        I had forgotten that not everyone has my background, which puts me on alert to arguments that support the status quo. I’m sure you didn’t write your comment in order to support the status quo, and yet that could be the effect when it comes to how we see women and the possibilities of their lives.

        In this post I’m critiquing literature that constantly puts women in a box, that fails to really explore things like the complexities of mother-child relationships, or motherhood plus other outside interests, or whatever.

        As I responded to someone else below:

        “The problem with the notion that “it makes sense” to have moms constantly portrayed as sick or dead, or that “it makes sense” to divide women into Madonna or whore (a shorthand term feminists use to critique the notion that women are so often thought of as either a mother or a sex object) is that it supports the status quo that puts women in straight jackets.

        “Rather than defending a way of seeing that keeps women in their place, I’d like to see notions of women, and what they’re about, expand: They can be mother, sexy, and a variety of other things while they’re at it, whether business exec or teacher or artist or volunteer…”

        So having thought about it more, I do appreciate your resourceful way of thinking. It gives food for thought even where there may be a clash of ideas. And your efforts have reminded me that not everyone comes from the same place as I do, so it’s very good to have dialogue.

  6. Oh, Faulkner! He manages to remain relevant. I expect young women and men in books, as in real life, to rely on others to overcome challenges, but it is unfortunate when it’s the same set up: young girl grows up to need help (and validation) from a boy, and not vice versa.

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