Mommy Direst

The worst mothers in America are at your local Cineplex.

Ellen Burstyn plays Sandra Bullock's bad mama
Ellen Burstyn plays Sandra Bullock’s bad mama

What is it that women find so compelling about Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood?

It’s the story of three generations of women facing abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness, all of whom are made yet more miserable by toxic mother-daughter relationships. This has somehow resulted in Ya-Ya being considered a fun “girls’ night out” movie. 

In fact, there’s been an epidemic of bad mothering on screen lately. A quick summary:

Mom Is Mean or Uncaring: In About a Boy, Marcus’ mother, Fiona, played by Toni Collette, attempts suicide, knowing that her 12-year-old son will be the one to find her body. That’s very bad. But, much worse, she makes her son wear an awful knitted hat to school, almost guaranteeing he’ll be bullied in the playground. (A Slate colleague begs to differ, arguing that “the sweater with the rainbow and the clouds on it is much, much worse than the hat.”)

Halle Berry's turn as a mean mama
Halle Berry’s turn as a mean mama

In Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry’s character smacks around her son in a scene that would be much more heart-wrenching if the casting wasn’t so off. Skinny Ms. Berry is about half the size of her child—it was hard to believe he was going to put up with much more without hitting back. Fortunately the boy disappears from the film before he realizes that he is enmeshed in another of the classic bad mother plots: Mom Makes Bad Life-Partner Choices—in this case the Hamlet subset, as his mother gets together with the man who killed his father. Bad partners come in other forms: Look at last year’s Domestic Disturbance, where John Travolta’s ex-wife has married Mr. Wrong, or at Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin Skywalker finds out that he has a stepfather and stepbrother his mother never told him about.

Mom Is Too Sexy: It’s a small part of Y Tu Mamá También, but the source of the title. Julio tells Tenoch that he has slept with not only Tenoch’s girlfriend but also his mother: a disaster for the boys’ friendship. This genre has a long history: A terrific too-sexy mom is Lois Farrow in 1971’s Last Picture Show. When her prim daughter (played by Cybill Shepherd) says it would be a sin to sleep with her boyfriend, Mom counters, “I thought if you slept with him a few times you might find out there isn’t anything magic about it.” Farrow is played by Ellen Burstyn—who went on to play the bad mother Vivi in Ya-Ya.

Diane Lane as a hot mama
Diane Lane as a hot mama

Unfaithful’s mom is a little bit too sexy as well, but her real problem is that she is a Mom Who Neglects Her Kid. Connie (played by Diane Lane) ruins her life for a handsome boy—she starts wearing tarty underwear and sexy shoes and risks home and family in an adventure that will end in death and fear. The road to doom is matched in her increasing neglect of son Charlie: At first it is just unsupervised TV watching, but then she is late to pick him up from school, and next thing you know she is giving him a McDonald’s meal instead of home-cooked food. (Does Mickey D’s actually pay for this sort of anti-product placement?)

Mom Is a Throwback: In My Big Fat Greek Wedding,Maria, mother of heroine Toula, is a feisty, kind, admirable woman, but she seems to think she is living in a 1950s sitcom. She instructs her 30-year-old daughter in how to get her way while making the man (whether father or partner) think he is in charge. She also thinks it very reasonable for parents to have a say in whom the 30-year-old dates, and—worst of all—she says, “I gave you life so you could live.”

Mom Has Every Possible Failing, but She’s OK, Really:Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is the full house of bad motherhood: The plot includes loads of embarrassment, meanness, and neglect, and no one is a good role model. This is accompanied by a punishing theme: that you need to have a bad mother in order to “find yourself”—that awful childhood has helped young Siddalee to artistic success (it gave her something to write about).

In the end, Ya-Ya’s Vivi and Sidda achieve a new closeness. Thirty years of bad feeling dissolve with some truth-telling and secret-revealing, a common enough conclusion in movies if not in real life. Perhaps that is the final fantasy for the women who are flocking to see it—all of them daughters, many of them mothers. No matter how bad intergenerational relations get, there is always hope! Or perhaps the reason for the movie’s appeal is even simpler: We sit there and think, “Well, my relationship with my mother/daughter isn’t as bad as that.”