If Mother’s Day is difficult for you due to a loss, an estrangement, infertility or any other reason – I see you, and I’m sorry. Earlier this week, I talked about my own unsuccessful quest to have a baby (https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/05/05/the-baroness-of-barrenness/). Mother’s Day is really hard for me, not because I don’t want to celebrate the moms in my life (my own mother, my sisters, my MIL and lots of wonderful friends), but because it’s a club I didn’t get to be a member of. If today is tough for you too, I send you my love.
I figure if there’s one thing everyone can relate to, it’s an iconic pop culture mom. Whether a single mom, a stay-at-home mom, an unconventional mom or a terrible mom, there’s a mother out there you can identify with (I sincerely hope none of you can identify with Margaret White). Here are some pop culture moms that I love – and a couple that I love to hate.
- Diane Freeling – Poltergeist (JoBeth Williams)
Diane Freeling is a typical suburban mom (three kids, stays at home) whose biggest worry is that one of her kids will fall into the pool they’re installing, but her life will soon be turned upside down by a malevolent force that will wrest her youngest child away and hold her hostage in a supernatural realm. It starts out innocently enough, with chairs stacked on the kitchen table, but soon Carol Ann is gone (although seemingly still close by). Diane helps bring Carol Ann back to the land of the living, but of course that’s not the end of it (this is a horror movie, after all), and Diane must summon superhuman strength to save her babies from being sucked into a literal hellmouth. JoBeth Williams is spectacular in the role, and the film propelled her to stardom.
- Carol Brady – The Brady Bunch (Florence Henderson)
Traditional in some ways (stay-at-home mom), but modern in others (second marriage, blended family), Carol Brady is a super-sexy, All-American mom. Managing a house with six kids can be tricky (and Carol certainly gets heaps of help from live-in maid Alice), but Carol manages it with ease. Carol’s life generally takes a backseat to the Brady children’s storylines, but she’s always there for them when their lives fall apart – whether mending a skinned knee, the measles or a broken heart.
- Margaret White – Carrie (Piper Laurie)
Margaret White is a religious fanatic whose daughter Carrie (Sissy Spacek) has just had her first period – and has acquired telekinetic powers in the process. When Carrie is asked to the prom by Tommy Ross, Margaret is convinced it will end badly for Carrie (in the ultimate case of “Mother knows best”, she turns out to be 100% correct). After the prom ends in a raging inferno, Carrie returns home. Certain that Carrie’s newfound powers make her a witch, Margaret stabs Carrie; Carrie retaliates by using her telekinesis to crucify her mother. As the White house burns down, Carrie pulls Margaret into a closet and the two perish together. Carrie White may be burn in hell, but at least she drags Margaret there with her. Piper Laurie is absolutely terrifying as Margaret, and deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role (Spacek was nominated as well, for Best Actress).
- Sarah Connor – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Linda Hamilton)
Perhaps the most badass mother in pop culture history, Sarah Connor must protect her son, the future leader of the human uprising against the machines, from the T-1000. With some help from the Terminator model from the first film (by 1991, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t playing villains anymore), Sarah battles the T-1000 not just for her son (although that’s her primary objective), but for all humankind. Sarah, beautifully played by a buff, tough Linda Hamilton, has more at stake than your typical pop culture mom, but in the end, a mother’s love for her child is universal.
- Evelyn Abbott – A Quiet Place (Emily Blunt)
Speaking of badass moms, let me introduce you to Evelyn Abbott. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, SPOILER ALERT!!
(But seriously, you should watch this movie)
Humanity has been largely eradicated by monsters who can only hunt using sound; as long as you don’t make any noise, the monsters won’t find you. The Abbott family has survived thus far, but the shit, as they say, is about to hit the fan. Emily Blunt is extraordinary (like always) as matriarch Evelyn, whose husband and kids are elsewhere as she goes into labor. Evelyn gives birth alone – SILENTLY – in a bathtub and must quiet her newborn so the monsters can’t locate them. It is an insanely tense sequence, and a testament to the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child. Blunt somewhat surprisingly won a Screen Actors Guild award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance (Regina King won most of the awards that season, including the Oscar, for If Beale Street Could Talk), but the bigger surprise to me is that Blunt wasn’t nominated for more awards.
- Mary – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Dee Wallace)
Mary is coping pretty well as a single mom, all things considered, although news that her ex-husband is going to Mexico with his new girlfriend Sally rattles her a bit (“He hates Mexico”). But Mary’s life will soon be upended by her middle child’s pet alien. Played by the ridiculously underrated Dee Wallace, Mary is forced to quickly process a lot of unimaginable and yet utterly true information when she is finally introduced to E.T. As she watches Elliott and E.T. get sicker and sicker, Mary experiences a range of emotions, and you never once doubt how very much Mary loves her kids.
- Lynn Sear – The Sixth Sense (Toni Collette)
As played by the marvelous Toni Collette, Lynn Sear is the struggling single mother of a child with a very special gift. I’m not going to give you a spoiler alert on The Sixth Sense, because even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know that Cole sees dead people. Lynn won’t know that until late in the film, so initially you see her worrying about her son’s social skills and the bullying he endures. When Cole reveals his secret to his mom, she is reluctant to believe him, but she must confront the truth when he tells her details of her relationship with her own mother that Cole couldn’t possibly have known. As the emotions flood Lynn’s face, we feel all the feels. Collette rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for her performance (we’ll talk about how incredible Haley Joel Osment is another time).
- Erin Brockovich – Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts)
Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts in an Oscar-winning performance, is a single mom with a potty mouth and a heart of gold. How much she loves her children is never in question, even though her parenting methods are somewhat unorthodox. Erin’s work schedule means her kids are resentful they don’t get to spend more time with her, but we understand what the children can’t – everything she does is FOR them. In an early scene, before Erin goes to work for Ed Masry, she takes her kids out to eat but doesn’t order anything for herself; it’s a tiny, heartbreaking moment that many single moms can no doubt sympathize with.
- Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler – Stranger Things (Winona Ryder and Cara Buono)
Joyce Byers doesn’t have it as easy as some of the other moms of Hawkins, Indiana. Her ex-husband Lonnie doesn’t have much of a relationship with his kids, leaving Joyce as the sole care-taker, on a general store clerk’s salary. When her son Will disappears, Joyce feels a combination of heartbreak and guilt, as she confronts the knowledge that she wasn’t there for Will when he needed her most. But Will and Joyce have a connection, and when Will contacts Joyce from the Upside Down, she knows it’s really him. Chief of Police Jim Hopper and Lonnie both think Joyce is crazy, because how could Will be talking to her through the Christmas lights? Winona Ryder’s performance is a master class, and I appreciate it more with each rewatch.
Karen Wheeler, played by the lovely Cara Buono, is the anti-Joyce Byers; a traditional stay-at-home mom. Karen has three kids and a husband she’s come to resent being ignored by. She is sometimes a little too involved in her children’s lives (Jonathan: “Your mom doesn’t knock?”), but then again, she has a strange girl living in her basement for days and doesn’t know it. By the third season, Karen is spending quite a lot of time at the pool, where Billy is a lifeguard (and yes, this storyline is still icky, even with the gender roles reversed), and even considers cheating on Ted. And she’s got one more surprise – Nancy is learning how to navigate sexism in the workplace, and Karen turns out to be a closet feminist, giving Nancy a pep talk for the ages. It’s one of my favorite mother-daughter moments in pop culture.
- Clair Huxtable – The Cosby Show (Phylicia Rashad)
Yes, The Cosby Show is now tainted by my knowledge of Bill Cosby’s sexual predation, but there’s no denying how amazing a mom Clair Huxtable is. She’s raising five kids, working as a lawyer and managing the household, and she looks fabulous doing it all. With a quick wit and a fierce love for her children, Clair (played by the delightful Phylicia Rashad) is the one who keeps everything running smoothly. Never one to suffer fools, Clair is known to school the kids (and the men) in her life.
- Joan Crawford – Mommie Dearest (Faye Dunaway)
We all know the quote, even if we don’t know what movie it comes from: “NO…WIRE… HANGERS… EVER!!!” I have no idea if Joan Crawford was this horrible in real life, but as played by an absolutely unhinged Faye Dunaway (who won a Razzie for her performance), movie Joan Crawford definitely wins the award for World’s Worst Mother. It’s one of the most unintentionally funny performances in cinema history, and the movie itself won the Razzie for Worst Movie of the Decade, beating such contenders as Cocktail, Leonard Part 6, Howard the Duck and Bolero.