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The Bad Mom Trope, Explained

The Bad Mom is having a big moment on-screen. Why do so many fictional families have the misfortune (or fortune) of having someone like her? What does the popularity of this character say about our expectations of motherhood? Watch this video for our deep dive into the Bad Mom Trope.

TRANSCRIPT

The Bad Mom is having a moment in pop culture. This once taboo and frightening creature has become so popular she’s even got her own movie franchise. Whatever her reasons, this woman is unable — or unwilling — to conform to our society’s expectations for mothers to be nurturing, dependable, and unconditionally loving.

Across her various forms, the Bad Mom is defined by a few common traits:

  • But while the ideal mom is largely a Hollywood fantasy that doesn’t exist in real life, the Bad Mom is human and real — and that’s what makes her so compelling to watch. Here’s our Take on the Bad Mom, the forms she takes, and the society that gave birth to her.
  • She’s self-centered. Her desires tend to take precedence over her family’s needs.
  • This selfishness makes her irresponsible.
  • She doesn’t mince words. The Bad Mom can be scathing, even (or especially) toward her own children.
  • She’s emotionally unstable, given to bouts of anger, depression, or mania — and these episodes might speak to deeper discontent or psychological issues plaguing this woman who’s ill-equipped for, or unfulfilled, by traditional motherhood.
  • Fundamentally, this woman is a rejection of all that the “perfect mom” is supposed to be.

Why We Love Our Bad Moms

Generally speaking, we can break the Bad Mom trope down into three types:

  • The Outrageous Mom, a comedic take on the awful mother, whose cutting cruelty and over-the-top, unfiltered behavior is deliciously enjoyable to watch.
  • The Dark Side of the Mom, a more serious take on the trope, showing us the insecure, emotionally draining, sometimes terrifying side of motherhood.
  • The “Moms Are People, Too” Mom, a relatable version of the trope, which ultimately reminds us that our moms are human beings, too — and like the rest of us, they shouldn’t be expected to be perfect.

Let’s begin with our first type, The Outrageous Mom. This first version of the Bad Mom is, first and foremost, funny. But her humor is vicious — as devastating for her children as it is entertaining to us.

Still, the Outrageous Mom isn’t generally evil. She’s just a bit of a jerk — and most of the time, that behavior is reciprocated by her kids. Their mutual sniping becomes its own sort of love language. There may be cruelty, but most of the time it’s softened by genuine love.

Colleen Donaghy: “I’m done disapproving, Jackie. I’m just trying to help. I need to know that someone is looking out for my little boy!” - 30 Rock 4x20

The Outrageous Mom is a caricature — she’s the extreme opposite of what we expect a caring, nurturing mother to be. But the truth is, there’s probably something of her in all mothers. Maybe they’re not as mean as Lucille Bluth, who adopted a son just to punish one of her other sons, only to use the new one as a handbag.

Lucille Bluth: “There’s just absolutely no purse that will go with this outfit. You’ve got a little pocket there. Annyong!” - Arrested Development 1x16

But very few are as pure as Carol Brady either. In reality, most moms are somewhere in between — a little bit of both. What parent has never made a snide remark at her kid’s expense, put a personal goal before her child’s feelings, played favorites, indulged her jealous, manipulative side, or schemed to get her way?

Milton Greene: “What’s the matter with you? Your mother’s not well!”

Jack Donaghy: “Can’t you see that she’s faking, Milton?” - 30 Rock 5x10

In this respect, the Bad Mom is perhaps best understood as a liberating response to all of TV’s perfect and proper Carol Bradys, who took care of the cleaning and child-rearing while wearing high heels and pearls — or in later years, the Claire Huxtables who worked demanding jobs outside the home yet still found time to be aspirational parents.

The debuts of unapologetic “Bad Mom” Peggy Bundy in Married with Children in 1987, and Roseanne in 1988, forever challenged this fantasy of the perfect TV mom. Roseanne Conner was raising three children, working her blue-collar job, and handling the bulk of the chores — but unlike her predecessors, she made no secret about resenting it. She could be extremely caustic — even hostile toward her kids. Yet Roseanne was compelling to viewers because, underneath the sarcasm, she was loving and fiercely protective, and owned the fact that she was doing this her own way.

Roseanne Conner: “You think I’ve made your life difficult so far? Well now I’m family, and you’ve seen the way I treat my family.” - Roseanne 5x2

In addition to being funny, the Outrageous Mom is strong. She refuses to let her personality be consumed by motherhood. And in this way, she can be empowering. The Outrageous Mom’s inappropriate and raw comic relief implicitly mocks all those old-school goody-two-shoes moms for being too uptight, reactionary, or inauthentic. By making light of the darker tendencies that exist (to some extent) in all of our mothers (and all of us), she’s cathartic. The Outrageous Mom story normalizes and makes us feel okay about the pettiness and imperfections in our own family relationships.

Sometimes mothers didn’t want to be mothers. Some definitely shouldn’t have. And this brings us to our second type of the Bad Mom trope, The Dark Side of the Mom, inhabited by mothers who show a complete lack of maternal instinct.

The Dark Side of the Mom

Unlike the more playful, loving spitefulness displayed by the Outrageous Mom, this type of Bad Mom hurts her children intentionally and irrevocably, and it’s rarely fun to watch. This hurt can take the form of neglect. It can be emotional abuse. Or the abuse can be physical. In the very worst instances, it can be all of them.

Mary Lee Johnston: You ruined my fucking life! You done took my man, you had those fucking babies, and you got me put off the welfare for runnin’ your goddamned stupid-ass mouth!” - Precious

The anger and suffering of the Dark Side of the Mom character can also express itself in more subtly insidious ways. Mad Men’s Betty Draper strains to live up to an idealized image of motherhood. Because she enjoys the status and idea of being a housewife, she’s in denial of the fact that she hates the reality of being a stay-at-home wife and mom. Betty resents her messy, imperfect kids, taking her frustrations out on them. And her behavior demonstrates that emotionally she’s still a child herself. Betty also attempts to pass down the warped old-fashioned values that make her so miserable, teaching her daughter to prioritize appearance over everything else.

Betty Draper: “Not that I could have killed the kids, but worse. Sally could have survived and gone on living with this horrible scar on her face.” - Mad Men 1x2

The Sopranos matriarch Livia Soprano likewise has damaged her children with her toxic world outlook, which prizes the mafia family’s success over her actual family’s well-being. She inflicts emotional damage on her offspring largely through guilt. As with most of the mothers on the Dark Side of the Mom, Livia takes no pleasure in motherhood, and because she herself is deeply unhappy, she spreads this misery around. Livia plays the martyr, but she always puts herself first — even if that means putting a hit out on her own son.

Tony Soprano [Screaming]: “I try to do the right thing by you, you try to have me whacked?!”

Ms. Giaculo: “She doesn’t understand you!”

Tony Soprano: “She’s smiling! Look at the look on her face! She’s smiling!” - The Sopranos 1x13

While these characters diverge in the methods and extent of their abuse, they all represent some ugly truths: Motherhood can exact a strong psychological toll on a woman, exposing insecurities, stirring up primal fears, even in some cases creating extreme mental disturbance. Livia Soprano, even as she pushes her children away, fears being abandoned. Carrie entering puberty triggers Margaret White’s fear that her daughter will grow up and enter a world she regards as wicked and sinful. And whether they would admit it or not, the mothers of Fish Tank and Precious are in constant fear because of their precarious lives, and their hardship is only exacerbated by the additional burden of children. As these traumatized mothers, in turn, traumatize their children, they bequeath their pain to future generations.

Upsetting as these stories can be — especially compared to the comic relief of the Outrageous Mom — they are genuine experiences of suffering that deserve to be addressed and can be illuminating to share. Mommie Dearest — whose title remains a shorthand for Bad Moms — is based on Christina Crawford’s real-life account of alleged abuse by her mother, star actress Joan Crawford. According to the story, Joan clung to a narcissistic, Hollywood ideal of motherhood that left her unable to cope with reality. But bringing her difficult reality to audiences has had a powerful cultural impact counteracting that fantasy.

The “Moms Are People, Too” Mom

Finally we have our third version of this trope, the “Moms Are People, Too” Mom. Unlike the cartoonishly selfish or abusive cautionary tales of types 1 and 2, the type 3 example is a complex, realistic depiction of a mom that reminds us she’s a human being. This sympathetic portrayal makes the character’s frustration and exhaustion understandable. And it illustrates that, on a bad day, anyone can be a quote-unquote “Bad Mom.”

This version of the trope is often the protagonist of her story (or else her perspective is heavily featured). We see, from the mom’s point of view, everything she’s forced to deal with, day in and day out. Often the “Moms Are People, Too” mom begins trying hard to be a really good mother, but (like other human beings) she reacts to being mistreated by the people in her life. So sometimes this type 3 narrative is a “Bad Mom origin story,” as when Mila Kunis’s Amy in Bad Moms decides to break bad.

Amy Mitchell: “Let’s be bad moms!” - Bad Moms

Lois Wilkerson from Malcolm In The Middle may be overbearing, controlling, even downright bullying, but she was once a caring mother to her eldest son, who spurned her love and left her embittered. In Bad Moms, once Amy relaxes, stops holding herself to an impossible standard, and — ultimately — learns to forgive herself for not being a perfect mom, only then is she finally able to be happy. So Amy discovers that letting herself be a worse mom helps her become a more fulfilled person — which, ironically, makes her a better mom in important ways, like being able to connect and have spontaneous fun with her kids.

Jane Mitchell: “Free soap!”

Amy Mitchell: “No, honey, don’t take that… Oh no, that’s some good soap. Take it.” - Bad Moms

Other versions of this type, likewise, might seem like Bad Moms by certain rigid standards, but they have unorthodox strengths. Lorelai Gilmore may be irresponsible and immature, behaving more like her daughter’s friend than her mother. Yet her spontaneity and honest refusal to sugarcoat reality create an unusually strong bond with Rory.

Rory Gilmore: “Oh, my God, I HATE her.”

Lorelai Gilmore: “Ah, me too!”

Rory Gilmore: “You have no idea who I’m talking about.”

Lorelai Gilmore: “Solidarity, sister.” - Gilmore Girls 2x5

And while Lady Bird mom Marion McPherson may come across as harsh on her daughter Lady Bird, this directness is part of a fiercely close and loving mother-daughter bond.

Marion McPherson [to a sobbing Lady Bird]: “Oh, honey. Oh, oh it’s okay!” - Lady Bird

In Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and the Oscar-winning Andrea Arnold short Wasp, low-income mothers feel they have no choice but to do things that appear like grossly negligent parenting to the outside world. But these films’ sympathetic portrayals make us understand that these young, struggling women, who love their kids deeply, are faced with an impossible situation.

Moonee: “You know I like pepperoni!”

Halley: “Pepperoni costs money.” - The Florida Project

All of these examples are showcasing well-intentioned but overwhelmed moms, who are dealing with major life stresses the best they can.

Still, like the other two types we’ve seen, the “Moms Are People, Too” Mom decides not to let motherhood totally define her: She’s a multi-faceted person with opinions and interests and frustrations and ideas — not just a slave to her children. She defends her right to be a human being. And what’s so “bad” about that?

Conclusion

As much as these three types of so-called Bad Moms differ from each other, they can frequently overlap, even in the same character. On Little Fires Everywhere, Elena veers from being the terrifying Dark Side of the Mom…

Elena Richardson: “What is the matter with you?!” - Little Fires Everywhere, 1x8

… to the relatable “Moms Are People, Too” Mom in the same episode.

Elena Richardson: “Oh no, are you okay? What’s the matter?” - Little Fires Everywhere, 1x8

The Outrageous Mom is capable of disarming sincerity. The Dark Side of the Mom characters are often victims to be pitied, and they can move us through moments of humor or compassion. All these people have also been damaged by their own flawed parents (just as we all have).

In the end, every mom has all three of these people in her — she can be hilariously petty, her personality foibles the butt of our jokes; she can be disturbed, trapped by her circumstances and unable to shield her children from her own psychological pain; and she can be playfully reckless and irresponsible, feeling like she just needs to ditch the PTA meetings and have another drink.

Every time we meet a Bad Mom, we’re invited to reflect on the presumptions we have about parenthood — whether as parents ourselves or as the children of them. The Bad Mom trope reminds us that humans aren’t defined by these roles, or by how they measure up according to fixed ideas of what family should look like — ideas that, with every passing year, seem increasingly old-fashioned. We laugh at, fear, and feel for the Bad Mom because each one of us is a part of her — and she a part of us.

Amy Mitchell: “I think we’re all bad moms, and you know why? Because being a mom today is IMPOSSIBLE!” - Bad Moms