Iconic Pop Culture Moms

Originally published in 2021, this post has been edited for content and clarity.

Happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate! In honor of the occasion, here are some pop culture moms I love – and a few that I love to hate.

  • Diane Freeling – Poltergeist (JoBeth Williams)

Diane Freeling is a typical suburban mom (three children, 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.

I love that they accomplished this scene with practical effects: while the camera follows Diane to the cupboard, the chairs are stacked on the table.
  • 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 yet wholesome 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 handles it with ease. Carol’s life generally takes a backseat to the Brady children’s storylines, but she’s always there when they need her, whether they have a skinned knee, a broken heart, or the measles.

Shelley Long perfectly captured Carol’s personality – and her shag haircut – in 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie.
  • Margaret White – Carrie (Piper Laurie)

Margaret White is a religious fanatic whose daughter Carrie (Sissy Spacek) has just had her first period (and 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 burn in hell, but at least she dragged Margaret there with her. Piper Laurie is absolutely terrifying as Margaret and deservedly earned an Oscar nod for her performance (Spacek was also nominated).

  • Sarah Connor – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Linda Hamilton)

Perhaps the most badass mother in pop culture history, Sarah Connor must protect her son – and future leader of the human uprising against the machines – from the T-1000. With some help from the first film’s T-800, 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.

Fun fact: Hamilton won a Saturn Award and two MTV Movie Awards for her performance in Terminator 2.

Those special effects still rock, BTW
  • Evelyn Abbott – A Quiet Place (Emily Blunt)

Humanity has been largely eradicated by monsters who hunt using sound; if 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 (as always) as matriarch Evelyn, whose husband and children 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, grounded by Blunt’s gut-wrenching, SAG Award-nominated performance (Blunt is also terrific in the solid if unnecessary sequel).

Fun fact: Blunt and her co-stars learned American Sign Language for the film, at the insistence of her director-husband John Krasinski. Deaf actor Millicent Simmonds, who plays daughter Regan, helped the others immerse themselves in the language so their interactions would feel natural and fluent.

  • 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 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 she loves her children.

This scene always gives me goosebumps
  • Lynn Sear – The Sixth Sense (Toni Collette)

As played by the sublime Toni Collette, Lynn Sear is the struggling single mother of a child with a very special gift (spoiler alert: he sees dead people). Lynn doesn’t know Cole’s secret, but she does worry about his social skills and the bullying he endures. When Cole finally reveals his secret, Lynn is reluctant to believe him until he shares details of her relationship with her own mother that Cole couldn’t possibly have known. Cole gives her a message from her mom, the emotions flood Lynn’s face, and we feel all the feels. Collette rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for her performance (Haley Joel Osment, so good as Cole, was also nominated).

Unfortunately, I can’t find a shareable version of this scene, but if you search YouTube for “Sixth Sense car accident scene”, you can watch it for yourself.

  • Erin Brockovich – Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts)

Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts in an absurdly entertaining, 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 when she struggles to provide for them. Erin’s work schedule means her kids are resentful they don’t get to spend more time with her, but we understand that everything she does is for them.

What I love about this scene is the easy, natural way Roberts interacts with the baby (this clip also contains my favorite quote from the film – “They’re called boobs, Ed”).
  • 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 children, leaving Joyce as the sole caretaker on a general store clerk’s salary. When her latchkey kid 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 way 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 her days at the pool, where Billy is a lifeguard (and yes, this storyline is still icky, even with the gender roles reversed). In a surprising twist, though, Karen turns out to be a closet feminist. As Nancy is learning how to navigate sexism in the workplace, Karen gives her a pep talk for the ages. It’s one of my favorite mother-daughter moments in pop culture.

  • Joan Crawford – Mommie Dearest (Faye Dunaway)

We all know the quote, even if we’ve never seen the movie: “NO… WIRE… HANGERS… EVER!!!” I have no idea if Joan Crawford was this horrible in real life (several sources have disputed Christina Crawford’s version of events), 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.

  • Louise Banks – Arrival (Amy Adams)

The sublime Amy Adams should have taken home the Best Actress Oscar for her brilliant performance as linguist Louise Banks, but she WASN’T EVEN NOMINATED, a fact I’ll never be over. Alien spacecraft have arrived on earth, but in a refreshing twist, they don’t appear bent on humanity’s destruction. Banks, who the audience believes is grieving the loss of her daughter, is brought in to help translate the alien language. In doing so, she becomes unstuck in time and learns (along with the audience) the devastating truth: her dead daughter hasn’t been born yet.

  • Morticia Addams – The Addams Family (Carolyn Jones)

When I was a kid, my family had a collection of the original Charles Addams cartoons. I was OBSESSED. Around the same time, I discovered the 1964 sitcom when it arrived in syndication. Although Morticia Addams has been played by iconic actresses like Angelica Huston, Bebe Neuwirth, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carolyn Jones will always be my favorite Morticia. She was exquisitely beautiful, and she loved and supported her kids no matter what.

  • Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride – Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Uma Thurman)

A pregnant Beatrix Kiddo is shot and left for dead on her wedding day. After spending time in a coma, she awakens to discover she is no longer pregnant. Assuming her child has died, she vows revenge on those responsible, particularly her daughter’s father (the titular character). But when she finally tracks Bill down, Beatrix learns her daughter B.B. is still alive.

Fun fact: Tarantino had a single film planned, but the four-hour run time meant it needed to be split into two parts. That worked out well for Thurman, who earned consecutive Golden Globe nominations for the role.

  • Xenomorph Queen – Aliens

It’s hard to fault a mother for attacking the people who’ve kidnapped and murdered her offspring, even if she is an alien. But the queen has a formidable foe in Ellen Ripley, which sets up one of the greatest showdowns in the history of cinema.

  • Helen Parr/Elastigirl – The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 (Holly Hunter)

Voiced by the incomparable Holly Hunter, Helen Parr is not your typical suburban mom. Forced into retirement when the government outlaws superheroes, Elastigirl hides her true identity and settles into domestic life. But when her husband finds himself in trouble, she dusts off her cape and her superpowers to save him. Hunter, who had never voiced an animated character before, finds the perfect balance of humor and heart for this literal supermom.

Fun fact: Elastigirl’s power – superhuman elasticity – is based on the stereotypical role of a mom, who (in director Brad Bird’s words) is “always juggling a million things and pulled in a million directions”.

  • Lady Tremaine – Cinderella

When her father dies, Cinderella is left in the care of her cruel and uncaring stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who dotes on her own daughters and forces Cinderella to perform all of the household chores. The epitome of the evil stepmother trope, Lady Tremaine allows her daughters (Anastasia and Drizella) to bully and abuse Cinderella, culminating in them ruining the dress Cinderella has sewn for the Royal Ball.

Fun fact: Eleanor Audley, who provided the voice for Lady Tremaine, also voiced Maleficent in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty and Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland.

2 thoughts on “Iconic Pop Culture Moms

  1. Once again I have more movies to re-watch! Erin Brockovich, E.T, Poltergeist, and maybe even Terminator-1 and 2! (I imagine you are not surprised that I have never watched Carrie)

    I absolutely adore that clip of Clair Huxtable, it says everything you ever need to know about the character, and Phylicia Rashad was amazing in that role.

    I’m not sure which mom is more horrific here, Margaret White, or Joan Crawford-for all the campiness/inadvertent hilarity of Mommie Dearest, it’s dreadful to think of a child being treated this way, and even if the real Joan weren’t this awful, there is some basis in reality in Christina’s mind, and Carrie is just pure horror fantasy. I sincerely hope noone who reads this sees themselves in either one! Let’s all be like Clair or Carol or Erin!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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