Problematic Badass Female Tropes #5: Mother Knows Best

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The little girl’s name is Rebecca but she prefers the nickname Newt. Ripley, though not the only woman on the crew, is yet the only one who regards Newt as anything more than an annoyance. She’s become rather attached to the kid. She enjoyed the warm feeling she got when she tucked Newt into bed, reassuring her that she would be watching over her. And when the rest of them wants to leave Newt behind for dead, Ripley is the one who goes after her, to save her. After everything Ripley has been through in her first story (Alien), in her sequel (Aliens), this is one thing she will finish right.

And so, when the slimy queen alien corners terrified little Newt, Ripley acquires the superhuman strength of mothers protecting their children. Except Ripley gets hers not by magic, or by sheer force of will, but by strapping herself into a heavy mech suit, strong enough to attack the giant xenomorph. Striding up to the snarling, insectoid queen, putting her mechanized body between the monster and the little girl, Ripley growls, “Get away from her, you bitch!”

Welcome to Trope #5 of the Problematic Badass Female Tropes series: Mother Knows Best. This trope centers around motherhood as a form of redemption for the female badass, or, in other words: motherhood as the only goal for her; the only possible happy ending.

Take, for example, Kill Bill, in which the Bride (name of Beatrix Kiddo) finds resolution and redemption in her reunion with her daughter. Her action-hero plot of blood and guts doesn’t end with her riding off into the sunset to continue her badassery. Nope. (Actually, can you imagine Tarantino creating an ending like that? Oh hell no—that’d allow this female badass protagonist too much power.) No, the Bride’s redemption only comes when she is once again a mother, and motherhood is her only redemptive option.

Similarly, in The Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen is also a violent badass, not only due to her harsh early life in poor District 12 and continued ‘success’ as a deadly gladiator in the Hunger Games, but mostly for her ruthless takedown of her world’s oppressive government. And what happens to this ultimate badass female protagonist who undid, nearly single-handedly, a horrific regime that bombs children and holds a whole continent enslaved? Does she become president or a leader of any kind? Does she continue her fight to keep her people safe (as she did throughout all three novels)? Nope. She marries her gentle baker friend from childhood and has babies. Her happy ending doesn’t involve continuing her life as a revolutionary fighter and political leader, but tending to her garden patch at her little house with her husband and children. Well, sure, you might be saying, but isn’t that a peaceful, happy, well deserved denouement for her life, after all the PTSD-inducing violence she has survived till then? Maybe, but this ending, for a female badass in particular, is problematic.

Why?

Because a female character isn’t allowed to ride off into the sunset as a lone hero. It just can’t happen, not in this pop culture landscape. The only happy ending and the only redemption available to a female (especially a ruthlessly bloody) badass is to become a mother. This of course means that she is perforce subjugated to the patriarchal rule of the nuclear family myth, negating her badassness, and becoming domesticated in every sense of the word.

Not true for men; the common redemptive ending for bloody and badass male characters is the very opposite—often they leave wife, girlfriend, child behind and resume their adventures solo. From James Bond to Jack Burton to Mad Max, they may have a woman and/or a kid to protect during their main story, but the male hero’s happy ending does not include them. Or, like serial hero Patrick Jane from TV series The Mentalist, the fatherhood bit is fridged early, so that his dead wife and child become, Arwen-syndrome-like, the absent inspiration for his actions, but not a real presence in his life.

The man with fatherhood slung about his shoulders like an albatross is not a hero with a happy ending; he’s either tied down (so no longer a hero), or a joke (the problematic male trope of the bumbling dad). The badass male hero ends his story as just that: a legend told by those he has left behind (like Max in Road Warrior). And often, as western legends Shane and The Man With No Name do, he’ll move on to continue his heroics elsewhere, alone.

The female badass that tends to succumb to the Mother Knows Best trope is either ruthless and extremely violent in nature (see any fight scene from Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2), or stereotypically masculine in behavior. Sometimes both. (Fun Fact: Ripley was written originally as a male character.) The powerful (especially the scary, bloodbath-inducing, Kali-like maniac) female badass is tempered by this trope, rendered more handleable and ‘ladylike’ by their domestication (see my upcoming discussion of trope #6: One Of The Guys, for more about this). Mother Knows Best is the epitome of ‘get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich’.

The Mother Knows Best trope gives female characters only one happy ending—one way to achieve redemption—and that’s in motherhood. If she can’t (or God forbid) chooses not to be a mother, she is portrayed as some kind of freak, and never redeemed for the violence of her badassery (see the recent controversy over Marvel’s Black Widow calling herself a ‘monster’ for not being able to have children as an example). Male characters never have to worry about this: John Wick may be spurred on by memories of his dead wife, but becoming a family man at the end of his bloody, guns-a-blazing story isn’t his happy ending at all. Quite the opposite—by the end of his second movie, he’s even alienated the ‘family’ of his organization. Not so for equally badass fighter Beatrix Kiddo: she ends her story with her daughter in tow (and in fact finding and fetching her child was the final goal for all her bloody fighting, as it turns out). And there’s no such thing as a female Lone Wolf and Cub: once the female badass is Mom, her adventures come to an end.

How does this trope do its damage? By propagating, through ‘strong’ female characters, the tired stereotype that women must all be nurturers (also that men are not). That no matter how powerful a woman may be in the world, her role as a woman will always be at home with the children.

In real life, we see badass mothers all around us, combining their badassery with their motherhood in superhuman ways. We see men embrace the nurturing nature of fatherhood heroically without losing an ounce of their masculine badassery. So why aren’t we seeing these in our entertainment and our literature? The Hunger Games, after all, is a YA series, and a very popular one. As such, these tropes are highly influential to the developing minds that consume and attempt to emulate them. What does it teach young people that motherhood is depicted as the only redemption and the only happy ending available to a female badass?

And of course, as usual with this series, I’m not suggesting you start hating your beloved literature and cinema and games, but rather encouraging you to become more aware of the systematic misogyny inherent in even the baddest of asses you enjoy, to call these tropes out, and patronize (and therefore perpetuate) those few—those happy few—who are at least attempting to rise above. And remember, everything we enjoy and infuse into our culture entertainment wise affects real badass women in their daily lives. The more we can recognize this, the better chance it has to change.

So call your mother if you can, and think about other characters that might fall under this trope. Can you think of any who transcend it? Let us know in the comments. And check out the rest of the Problematic Tropes series here. Stay tuned, too, for my next trope: One Of The Guys.

WANT TO PIN THIS BADASS MOTHER? HERE’S A HANDY IMAGE:

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3 Comments. Leave new

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    Carine Lockwood
    7 September 2018 12:19 am

    Wow!!! You made me think, Jenn!! I especially liked your comparison in Hunger Games. So true. I’d have rather seen Katniss become the intelligent badass ruler of a new society more along the lines of equality and choice of life calling than becoming almost shattered and her pieces picked up by Peeta who wasn’t portrayed as a strong male character in the series. He is kind and totally loves her, but you’re right. It would have sent a better message for our young adult girls that after fighting for fairness and what was morally right, Katniss would go on to rule — though with a council and not as dictator. I love your insight! I’ll try to focus discussions around alternate endings for strong female characters with my students.

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    David Bradley
    26 October 2018 5:38 pm

    Awesome and thought-provoking. As an old fart, I take a longitudinal view. I am confronted by the fact that over the span of my 50 or so adult years, the real transitions in our culture that I have perceived in relationships between the genders have been so fundamentally insufficient. This raises the question, is it proper to be fundamentally pessimistic about prospects for progressive change? Or could it be that the problem of discriminatory perception is just so deep rooted that it is like layers on an onion? My personal take is that they’re probably both right… The gender power struggle will never be altogether resolved, but there are surely phenomenal differences over time. Work like yours feels that the engine of exploration. Thanks.

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  • I have to disagree on the Katniss example. One of the things that I really loved about the Hunger Games books was their dealing with grief and PTSD and the long term impact this has on someone. It is very clear that removing herself from trauma, even in the new society (which was already showing examples of being bad) was healthier for Katniss. The books show that she suffered with PND and had to work hard on that herself after the births but recognised that. As someone with trauma it was refreshing to see someone not magically get suddenly better and actually be able to go along with a character coming to terms with living afterwards.

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