Friday, May 25, 2012

Absent Mothers in Urban Fantasy

This piece was originally posted at BitchFlicks

Urban Fantasy is here to stay
Urban Fantasy -- the bringing of the fantastic (vampires, werewolves, magic, fae and so much more) to a modern, real world setting -- has become ever more popular as a mainstream genre. From Twilight to True Blood to The Vampire Diaries, it is now firmly entrenched on our televisions. The books regularly reach the best seller lists - this isn’t a fringe genre. It’s here, it’s huge and it’s here to stay.

This means the portrayals represented matter. Any popular media has the power to shape culture and society; any stories that are consumed by a large number of people are going to draw upon our societal prejudices and, in turn, feed and encourage those prejudices and portrayals.

Urban Fantasy is a genre that seldom gets critical examination. At first blush, the opposite would appear to be true when one considers the social conversation around Twilight or True Blood, but these are only two examples within an extremely large genre. It is interesting to note that much of Urban Fantasy contains female protagonists and is largely produced and consumed by women. Considering the ongoing gender divide, it is hardly surprising that this immensely popular genre is being ignored by critics.

Just because Urban Fantasy is largely produced by women and consumed by women does not mean that it is free of sexism and misogyny. When it comes to motherhood, a role that most women will one day assume, it is hardly surprising that within the genre most examples are highly problematic --  when they appear at all.

The lack of representation of motherhood is so extreme that the viewer is forced to ask is, “where are the mothers?”. It seems like such an odd question, because you’d expect most characters, like most people, to have a mother lurking around somewhere; especially since most of the heroines in these stories are young women or even teenagers. Search as we might, the mothers are conspicuous by their absence.

The most common cause of the missing mother seems to be death -- indeed, it is almost mandatory for an Urban Fantasy heroine to have a tragically dead mother. In The Vampire Diaries Elena’s mother is dead. True Blood has the orphaned Sookie; Charmed killed the sisters’ mother off before the series even started; Cassie, Diana, Melissa, Jake and Adam all have dead mothers in The Secret Circle. Buffy’s mother died part way through the series. In The Dresden Files, Harry’s mother died before the series began. In Grimm, Nick is yet another protagonist with a dead mother. The whole beginning motivation of Supernatural revolves around their dead mother. In Blood and Chocolate, both mother and father are brutally murdered. In The Craft Sarah Bailey's mother is dead. In Underworld, Selene’s mother is murdered by Viktor.

This list is extremely -- even excessively -- long but it’s shocking that we looked through all the shows and movies that we’ve watched and actually found it hard to find a series where the mother was alive and present.

Even in stories where the mother is lucky enough to have dodged the bullet and is actually alive, she is still often absent. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Renee, Bella’s mother, is absent, living in a completely different state. In The Vampire Diaries, Bonnie’s mother, Abby, is absent through much of her childhood and, when they are finally reunited, Abby not only presents Bonnie with a child that she raised as a replacement, but quickly disappears after becoming a vampire. Abby is well aware of the pain that her absence has caused Bonnie and yet she steadfastly finds a reason not to engage with her daughter. Once Upon a Time sets records for absent mothers -- Augustus never had one, Snow White and Ruby’s mothers are dead, and Emma grew up in the foster system without her mother.

I suppose we should be grateful these mothers ducked the Urban Fantasy plague that has put so many parents in their graves, but they still have little to no actual influence and presence in their children’s -- the protagonists' -- lives.

With such a massive pattern, we have to ask why. Why is it almost a requirement in Urban Fantasy for the young, female protagonist to be lacking a mother (and often a father too for that matter)?
One reason seems to be to make the characters sad, relatable and, frankly, angst ridden. It’s quick, cheap and easy characterisation to establish a sad, tortured or otherwise issue-laden character with “depth” to kill off a parent and have them be sad about it. These dead mothers are sacrificed for quick and easy back story for the protagonist. Take a heroine, load her up with a shiny ability, a bit of snark, a love interest -- now kill her mother so she has “depth.” The back story is established: we have a “3-dimensional character” who has suffered (which seems to be shorthand for an established character in far too much fiction).

The mother is thrown away, killed -- often violently -- for the sake of the heroine’s story. These absences (often deaths and often graphic, violent deaths) are thrown in almost casually. These mothers are disposable, convenient story points, not characters in their own right. In fact, “disposable characters” may be giving them too much credit, since they don’t even have chance to become characters before they’re cast aside to haunt their children.

We live in a world in which violence against women, while often decried publicly, is still very much acceptable socially. These deaths, even when in faultless instances like traffic accidents, amount to violence against women because of the frequency in which they occur. We can see this especially emphasised in Rise of the Lycans, when Viktor murdered Sonja when he discovered she was pregnant with a lycan’s child. Violence rates against pregnant women are even higher than against other women and this also reflects not just the disposability of mothers but also the control of men over their fertility. Men decide whether she is “allowed” to carry that child, which is often seen as a threat to the man -- in this case to Victor’s power base but often in real life to a man’s freedom or lifestyle. To be clear, there are instances in which both mother and father dies; however, the near universality of the death of the mother definitely makes it a female-driven trope. When death comes through an act of violence it serves to reify the violence that women are forced to live with.

As it stands, it seems almost as though women are being punished for being mothers. Motherhood has often served as the impetus for women to engage in civil disobedience but, in Urban Fantasy, motherhood -- more often than not -- results in death. Women are given very little opportunity for agency. These deaths deny motherhood as a site of power for women and instead turn women into eternal victims who are then responsible for the misery of their children.

This also serves to emphasise how little we regard mothers as characters or people in their own right. A mother is seen as an extension of her child rather than a person -- and since a mother is all about her child, why shouldn’t she be sacrificed to further her child’s back story? She isn’t important as a person, and if she contributes best by being dead or absent, so be it, she doesn’t matter.

Related to this lack of independent existence is the eternal trope of the Bad Mother. It is a societal constant that mother is always to blame for whatever problems a child faces or suffers. While “blame the parents” is commonplace, this by far and away falls more on the mother than the father. The mother is a constant scapegoat for any and every issue in their child’s life.

Lettie Mae in True Blood
Do we really care about the issues of Lettie Mae, Tara’s mother from True Blood? Or is her alcoholism there to reflect on how hard a life Tara has to lead? Do we analyse Bonnie’s mother, Abby, on The Vampire Diaries to consider what drove her to pursue a life outside of Mystic Falls? Or does she only appear as and when she helps her daughter’s friends? It is not accidental that Lettie Mae and Abby are women of colour. Historically, women of colour have been seen as unfit mothers, unless we are nurturing and raising White children. Lettie Mae is not only absent but she is an alcoholic and she engaged in emotionally abusive behaviour throughout Tara’s childhood. For respite, Tara was forced to flee to the Stackhouse residence. What does it tell us when a Black girl can only find safety in the care of a White family, and abuse and neglect in her own mother’s home? Ruby Jean Reynolds is Lafayette’s mother on True Blood and we are first introduced to her in a mental institution. She is neurologically atypical and we learn that Lafayette has been doing sex work and selling drugs in order to pay for her care. She is extremely homophobic and uses anti-gay slurs to refer to both Lafayette and his now deceased boyfriend on the show, Jesus. The depiction of African-American mothers who are both physically and emotionally unavailable, and neglectful and abusive, is just another negative manifestation of how the media has chosen to construct the motherhood of African-American women.

It’s also worth noting how many of these “failure” mothers are marginalised. Lettie Mae is both black and poor. Abby is black. Darla from The Crow is a poor drug user. Even Sally’s mother on Being Human (US) is only around for 2 episodes of character growth for Sally -- and in that time we learn she had an affair while with Sally’s father and wasn’t there for Sally as she wanted and needed. All the mothers we’ve mentioned are disposable characterisation tools -- but the wealthy or middle class white mothers in The Secret Circle, Charmed, The Vampire Diaries, The Dresden Files, Once Upon a Time, Underworld and True Blood are killed off or absent through forces outside their control. They are absent because they are victims -- and certainly beyond reproach. While poor women or mothers of colour are not innocently absent,  they are to blame for their failure.

Finally, we have to take it to the full extreme - the villainous mother. Again, this is, in many ways, an easy characterisation. You have instant angst and pain and emotional conflict just because of the relationship between the antagonist and the hero/heroine.

It also feeds further into the prevalent theme of mother blame we see repeated so often and it is, again, used as an excuse to blame any of the problems the protagonist has. In Lost Girl, Bo’s problems of being a succubus without any guidance is down to her villainous, succubus mother’s abandonment. In Being Human (US), Mother’s smothering control over Suren is to blame for her childishness and self indulgence. In Once Upon a Time all of Regina’s evil plans ultimately stem from her mother’s ruthless ambition and destroying her dreams. They are the ultimate problem mother, to blame for everything in the child’s life - both their own personal issues and their ongoing conflict -- it’s all completely Mother’s Fault.

It is disturbing that this prevailing idea of the dead, absent or outright villainous mother is so common within the genre. It devalues motherhood, sets mother up as disposable and ultimately to blame for the wrongs in their children’s lives, and this heavy burden of blame falls all the more heavily on marginalised mothers. In the aftermath of these absent mothers we have a mob of young female protagonists who have no mothers, frequently no parents at all. They’re alone, usually much younger, less experienced, more naive than the male love interest. They are exposed to the often predatory advances of these men -- which is another topic entirely, but the seeds of it are planted by the absent mother leading towards her vulnerable, lonely daughter.