Howdy ya’ll, and welcome to another exciting edition of Food for Thought! Fenrir here, and after celebrating a satisfactory Mother’s Day Brunch I cannot help but wonder… we have a very interesting idea of motherhood in popular media, don’t we? Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, they can be nurturing, or pure evil, they can sacrifice themselves as a plot-device and never come back ever again, or they can be selfish and cruel. We’ve got birth mothers, adopted mothers, evil step-mothers, god-mothers — like I said, literally all kinds of mums that play important roles in the lives of a protagonist.
But there’s just one type of motherhood trope that I just can’t help but ponder on — and it’s the transformation of mothers, and the idea that motherhood is actually an incomprehensible thing that can only be mediated when an adult woman’s body is transformed into something else. I mean really, what’s up with that?
Okay, so we can be a little clear here… I am aware that the “mother” character is, for better or of worse, nearly always a plot device and barely a character in her own right. Arguably mothers such as Hana in The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki is the main character, but we do face a lot of mothers who are there… but not.
For instance, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra employ the mother-as-a-plot-device rather well. Ursa and Kya have an affect on molding their children’s attitudes and dreams for a better world, but are awarded this in limited screen-time. Asami’s poor mother killed by element-bending gangsters is naught but a picture but sparked one man’s entire vendetta and hate against benders; but again, this is all in convenient off-screen moments of mentioned memories and motivations. Which you know, isn’t a bad thing (necessarily, that’s for another post). It certainly is more normal than the other way that motherhood is shaped into a plot device, mainly in stories of transformation.
Transformation can take on many forms — from the body-switch to physical impairments that can drastically affect a mother and her perception of the world. But it’s this transformation that, more or less, makes her stance as a mother comprehensible to the audience, and the other characters, at large.
Okay Fenrir, you’re going off the deep end — no, no, dear readers, I assure you this is definitely a thing.
I mean, let’s take a look at Freaky Friday. It’s the good old story of a headstrong daughter switching lives with her overworked mother and the subsequent hijinks that come when a young teenager becomes a working-class mum and when a working-class mum finds herself in a teenager’s shoes. Whether you’re looking at the 1976 film or the vaguely-Orientalist-2003 adaptation, the fact remains that a mother and her daughter just simply can’t communicate with each other, until they’re forced to suffer through their daily routine.
Which I can understand, in a way, but at the same time, can’t help but scratch my head at. Sure it’s entertaining to see old stodgies learn to live it up from experiencing a day in their daughter’s shoes, and for those “rebellious” young girls to learn a thing or two by having to act like their mother for a day, but it drives at a rather unfair trope about motherhood: that a mother and a daughter just cannot communicate with each other their wants. Which is, again, rather true to the fact that real mothers and daughters butt heads over the tiniest of things at times–but this still isn’t communication between two disparate people.
It’s misunderstanding mediated only by being forced to lead each others’ lives via bodily transformation. You just can’t hash it out, it seems.
Another recent perpetrator of this perplexing trope is Pixar’s Brave, where poor Queen Elinore doesn’t even get the chance to try to really teach her headstrong Merida what it means to be in her dainty shoes. Besides the fact that she’s transformed into a bear (conveniently removing her quips, limiting her only to humorous pantomime), we barely even get to see her side of the story. Merida’s epiphany about being the queen who can command respect and attention is more or less forced; again the emphasis seems to be on what Queen Elinore is lacking — that fun-loving free spirit of her daughter that she can only realize when she is incapable of speech.
That sure says a lot; in this situation we have a mother who isn’t even able to really impress upon her daughter what it means to live in “her shoes”. This transformation to try and communicate feelings is really quite tiresome — and seems to say that all mothers just can’t communicate with their daughters, which is true and not.
Again, a mother and a daughter may butt heads once in awhile, yet the very idea that instead of good-old-communication and awkward-spending-time-together-montages these women must have their bodies transformed for anything meaningful to happen between them is intriguing and just puzzling. What about motherhood, when it’s not completely nurturing, or completely self-sacrificing, that makes it so hard to imagine an open series of communication and understanding?
Perhaps as a balm to this idea that mothers and daughters simply cannot articulate their wants to one another can be found in the most unlikely of sources: Madoka Magica‘s Junko Kaname, the businesswoman mother of lead heroine, Madoka Kaname.
Junko is an interesting character, a young and successful mother who shares a–le gasp–pretty open line of communication with her daughter. Certainly they do not agree on most things (ahem, running out into a storm), and Madoka does keep secrets even from her kind mom, whom she regards as a role model (instead of a source of embarrassment or polar opposite). In fact, instead of wanting to be anything but Junko’s daughter, Madoka sees in her mother someone she hopes to be: kind, caring, but assertive.
And Junko does not see in her daughter a miniature hooligan to try and correct; she accepts that sometimes she doesn’t understand her daughter, or doesn’t know what kind of advice she can give her to help her. But instead of trying to mold her daughter into a miniature copy of herself, when faced with the difficulties of dealing with Madoka’s pain and the trial of becoming a magical girl — she offers her advice, yes, but ultimately communicates her support.
Because, you know, mothers and daughters don’t have to be dysfunctional to be interesting, and you know, can actually talk out their feelings instead of having to be turned into something else to realize that they think differently.
Again — not that there is anything wrong with mothers and daughters never getting along, of never coming to understanding one another because it happens — I’m simply bemused by the idea that in order for a mother and a daughter to understand one another, someone has to change completely. Instead of actually taking the minutes to gather their thoughts and share them as if women are just incapable of having serious conversations that require, for just a moment, putting aside their polemic differences and letting the other one speak.
Anyroad, that’s all for this edition of Food for Thought — tune in next time when we take a glance at other tropes, or literary devices, or other things and wonder what their creators were thinking when they gave it the go ahead!