Her mother did not approve

In films and literature we often come across the archetype of the horrible mother. These films and books are usually about young women who are looking to defy convention in some sort of way and find that their mothers are one of the greatest blocks to this. Often they have vaguely ineffectual fathers – fathers who support them to some extent, but are generally bent by the will of the mother, until some defining moment when they side with the daughter much to the mother’s horror.

Pride and Prejudice is one of the prime, and possibly earliest, examples of this kind of archetype, although Mrs Bennett is often just stupid rather than being strictly restrictive. Watching Miss Potter the other night it was there in buckets. Mother wants her daughter married; mother doesn’t approve of her daughter’s experimentation, mother does not approve of her new friends social connections etc etc etc. To the point when in the after-titles it has to be pointed out that “Her mother did not approve.”

While this trope appears often in period movies, it is also present in a bunch of modern ones too. There are also a number of variataions on the theme, but the usual general gst is: mother= blocker; dad saves the day.

I rather resent these depictions. What we have going on here is a lot of ideological work to conceal the actual limitations on women doing there own thing in society. Sure, once can argue that the mother in Miss Potter is the embodiment of society, culture and its expectations, but why does it have to be embodied in the female parent? The limitations place on women both historically and in the present are not the fault of other women. Women can be carriers and enforcers of the age’s dominant hegemony, but they are far from alone in that. In Miss Potter‘s time it was the nature of a male dominated literary establishment, of the structures of a highly patriarchal society which resisted her ambitions. Not her mother.Her mother may have been exactly as depicted, but unless we understand the mother in her historical context, we do the many mothers of successful and achieving women a disservice. For many women who have gone on to break barriers, their mothers have been their inspiration and their support. They have been the ones who have worked to ensure their daughters had the appropriate education and opportunities.Instead the predominant trope in many of these depictions is the mother as a limiter, another way of demonstrating that it is women who keep women down, not patriarchy.

Mothers and daughters and the impact of aspiration

Rewatching The Sopranos is another chance to revist all those incredibly well-written and emotionally engaging episodes. One that really captures certain relationships is Episode 12 of Season 4 “Eloise.”

Carmela’s very understated flirtation/love with Furio comes to a very abrupt end when Furio disappears back to Italy, knowing that he cannot handle his feelings any more. Despite the fact that Carmela and Furio have never even come close to stating their feelings for each other, Carmela is devastated. For her, feeling betrayed by Tony, trapped in her life, this escape, this potentially very dangerous idea that nonetheless provides her with the possibility of another life, however unlikely that is, allows her an outlet, a way to channel off the frustration and anger. But when it is gone, the anger and frustration returns.

What is most interesting is the outlet that is finds. Meadow has finally got herself into the swing of college life and has a nice boyfriend who Tony can approve of. And her education and experiences and new friends are pushing her into a  realm that is beyond her mother’s experience. When Carmela, Tony and AJ go to dinner with Meadow, Finn her boyfriend and her new flatmates, Carmela’s resentment of her daughter’s escape, of her move beyond the world that Carmela inhabits becomes apparent. Carmela’s is frustrated and angry that Meadow’s education leads her to question and disagree with her mother’s opinions, even though Meadow is quite polite and reasonable in her presentation of the alternate opinion.

Meadow realises that her mother is unhappy, possibly at her, and tries to make amends – suggesting that undertake their tea ritual “under Eloise’s picture.” Carmela cannot, however, forgive her daughter for having the life she missed out on and picks a fight, leaving Meadow dismayed and angry.

The interesting thing here is that we see in Carmela the dilemma and confrontation that faces so many parents who have aspirations for their children. In theory, clearly many people want their children to do better than them, to achieve beyond their achievements, to move in different social circles. In Australia over the last 20 years in particular, that aspirational idea has been a particularly significant aspect of political rhetoric, and particularly that which dominated the Howard government. It has led to the expansion of the university sector and the growing number of law students in particular. It has also driven policy around funding for private schools and the increasing drift away from public schooling to private schooling.

And while the result of this upward educational mobility for children no doubt results in a lot of pride, it must also, sometimes, be threatening. Better education will increase the child’s earning capacity and social capacity, but some parents must worry that this better education may result in children thinking that they are smarter, or possibly that they might even be smarter than them. This is obviously challenging to the authority of a parent who is used to being the one who is in charge, who knows best. The idea that children might move in different or more elevated social circles would also represent a similar challenge to parents. While the idea of one’s children being better than oneself seems to be a fine ideal, the reality of it could be confronting.

For Carmela, these feelings are clearly coupled with jealousy over her daughter’s youth, freedom and new love, but at the same time the knowledge of her financial dependence on the family. her frustration with her life leads her to lash out at the person she would rather be, with anger,  jealousy, bitterness and fear. At the same time Meadow begins to tease together an idea of what is is that might actually be bugging her mother.

As usual, the direction, acting and writing are beautiful. The ideas are understated but clear and you can see where Carmela’s reaction is coming from, as well as understanding Meadow’s bewilderment and resultant frustration and anger.

I love The Sopranos.