Representations of Motherhood

An examination of motherhood portrayals in media and text

The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan, was published in 1963. The book ultimately describes "The Problem That Has No Name" - the widespread unhappiness, boredom, and lack of fulfillment plaguing women during the the 1950's and 1960's. Betty Friedan's unprecedented work brought hope to distraught housewives and opened up a discussion among sufferers. Women of the time period, especially those who were educated, were not being mentally challenged and often resorted to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain. Those who were educated suffered in a deeper way because they knew what it felt like to be intellectually and mentally challenged. The identity of these women had been morphed into a children's mother or a businessman's wife rather than their identity as an individual person. Due to the strict laws that prohibited women from owning a business, opening a bank account, and buying a home, there really was not another option other than marrying and living as a housewife. Advertisers began to market directly to housewives with products such as cake mixes for the balanced homemaker and specialized cleaning supplies for true housewives. The unrest of women of this time period was said to be due to education. Those suffering from "The Problem That Has No Name" or housewife fatigue attempted to find fulfillment activities such as night classes. Overall, the book is credited with bringing light to this serious issue and sparking a new wave of feminism in the United States.

Vogue 1995-1996

The mid 1990's saw a shift in the portrayal of mothers from their issues at home to the problems they face in the workplace. Less emphasis was placed on the typical housewife image. Instead, it was acceptable for women to work outside of the home. This shift was evident in the magazines of the time such as Vogue. The articles contained in Vogue can be sorted into one of seven categories: fashion, health & beauty, arts, travel, human interest & politics, home-making, and celebrities. As Vogue is primarily a fashion magazine, it is expected that the majority of the articles would pertain to the fashion trends of the day. This was proven as 40% of the articles were fashion related from 1995-1996. Health & beauty articles made up 27% of the articles, many of which highlighted plastic surgery. Human interest & politics and arts came in third and fourth place. Articles about celebrities, travel, and home-making were the least common from 1995-1996. These trends show that the mid 1990's were more concerned with the appearance of women rather than their roles as a wife and mother.

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

The Huffington Post writes that Mona Simpson’s novel, My Hollywood, is “an honest and poetic exploration of why caring for a child – whether by a mother or a nanny – still just can’t get the respect or security it deserves”. My Hollywood, published in 2011 but set in the 1990’s, contrasts the worlds of Claire, a composer and new mom to William, and Lola, a Filipina nanny. All the while, Claire’s husband, Paul, works as an aspiring television writer and rarely spends time with his family. Simpson’s novel illustrates motherhood as a balance between working towards career goals and caring for a family through the character of Claire and as the responsibility of a babysitter when the biological mother strives to accomplish her goals through the portrayal of Lola. This illustration sheds light on the struggle many modern mothers face as they strive to work and parent simultaneously.
Lady Tremaine

Disney Moms (Or Lack Thereof)

Many people are unaware of the absence of mothers in Disney films. Disney movies that have no mother include classics such as Snow White, Pocahontas, and Aladdin. Those movies that do have a mother figure of some sort are not exactly that most positive portrayal. Often, viewers see a mother tragically killed as evidenced in films such as Bambi and Finding Nemo. Other times, the biological mother is replaced by an evil mother figure like the Stepmother in Cinderella or Ursula in The LIttle Mermaid. There are a few theories as to why there are poor depictions of mothers in Disney films. Bruno Bettelheim states that the child's personality can develop when the mother is gone and with no mother, you don't have to strive to uphold a "good mother" image. Another theory is that it is an intentional choice by Walt Disney since he felt personally responsible for his mother's death. Although there are rarely mothers present in Disney films, when they are present, they are portrayed mostly as primary caregivers and protectors. The absence of mothers in these films brings to light an issue that many viewers may not have noticed but might be affecting the lives of children that watch the movies.
The Lion King - Scar Hits Sarabi

The Lion King

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Men are what their mothers made them.” This quote rings true for the relationship between Simba and his mother, Sarabi, in Disney’s The Lion King. Unlike many Disney films where the mother figure is not seen or is killed, The Lion King shows a strong mother figure that raises her son to be brave and kind. In the 1994 film set in the Pride Lands of Africa, Sarabi exhibits characteristics of a devoted, loving, and protective mother. In the short moments when she is shown in the movie, the portrayal of Sarabi is one that highlights her devoted and defensive instincts as a mother. Due to Sarabi's example of strength and love, Simba grew up to be caring and courageous. Simba serves as a physical reminder of Sarabi's good parenting practices and strong morals. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, Simba became a great pride leader because of who his mother taught him to be.
Lorelai & Rory - finally speak again

Mothers in Television Shows in 2000

Five television shows that exhibited a strong mother figure in the year 2000 include Gilmore Girls, Friends, Even Stevens, Boy Meets World, and 7th Heaven. Lorelai in Gilmore Girls takes on a best friend relationship with her daughter, Rory. She sacrifices constantly in order to give Rory the best life possible. Overall, Lorelai takes on a "cool mom" image while balancing sacrifice and friendship with her daughter. Rachel Green in Friends is another portrayal of a good mother. Although she was unprepared for motherhood at the start of her pregnancy, she quickly learns her new role as a parent. Rachel's motherhood is a success story as her unpreparedness turns into a loving and devoted relationship with her adorable daughter. Even Stevens portrays Eileen Stevens as a mother who strives to balance her political career with motherhood. She shows viewers that a good mother loves her children unconditionally, even if they may drive you crazy. Amy Matthews of Boy Meets World is an All-American mother who willingly provides guidance to her children. She utilizes her motherly instincts to know when to be gentle and when to be strict. Finally, 7th Heaven utilizes the character of Annie Camden to show the life of a stay-at-home mom and wife of a pastor. Her portrayal of motherhood is one that is based in her teaching her children right from wrong and extending her motherly skills beyond her immediate family. These five shows from the year 2000 all showed a strong, positive mother figure that strive to love their children to the best of their ability.
World Premiere: P&G Ashton Eaton "Thank You, Mom" Commercial

Mothers in Commercials

P&G launched a series of commercials entitled "Thank You, Mom" that highlight olympic, special olympic, and paralympic athletes and the role their mothers played in their success. After surveying sixteen mothers about their experience with children with disabilities and their involvement in their children's activities, a few key findings were noteworthy. The first is that when asked whether a parent or child decided if the child should be involved with a given activity, they responded that the child usually decided to be involved. Secondly, it was encouraging to find that the mothers said that their either volunteered occasionally or held a leadership role in their children's activities. None of the mothers stated that they just drove their child or had no involvement. In addition, most of the mothers noted that they either sometimes or always found that their involvement contributed to their children's success in activities. While these findings are interesting, one of the more moving discoveries was the advice that the mothers would give to a child seeking to achieve a lofty goal. The overarching theme of their advice was to never, ever give up on reaching a dream. Overall, the results of the survey provided a pleasant surprise that reflecting good mothering practices.

Mothers in the News

After reviewing various news articles throughout the semester, both good and bad portrayals of mothers were seen. Occasionally, we would see a heartfelt message about a mother sacrificing for her children or even a reunion between mother and child. However, it seemed as if the large majority of the articles presented showed a bad portrayal of motherhood. News stories about a mother abusing her child, leaving her children behind in a hot car, knowingly overdosing her child with salt and other horrendous actions appeared to permeate the media. It is interesting to note that these types of stories appeared more prevalent than others. Producers may seek to find shock value in stories that tell of a mother that is not as loving as she should be. Mothers are expected to sacrifice and love their children unconditionally so news producers may not think stories about a mother's unwavering support are newsworthy. It is sad to think about how many stories about bad mothers are available to news producers. Hopefully, stories that show strong mother figures will balance out those that portray abusive mothers to teach society right from wrong in terms of parenting.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Harry's first time at the Weasley's home (HD)

Projection to Children and Teens

The presence and absence of mothers in media with an audience comprised of children and teenagers is quite interesting. A large amount of children's books do not contain any sort of mother figure. This includes extremely popular children's books such as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Curious George. The list of children's books that do have a mother figure is much shorter and includes titles such as Love You Forever and Stellaluna. Peter Pan is an example of children's literature that portrays a stereotypical mother figure in the character of Wendy. Alice in Wonderland contains the characters of the Duchess and the Queen, who are poor portrayals of mothers as the Duchess shakes her baby and the Queen orders people to be beheaded. Teen literature, television shows, and movies have a somewhat even balance of strong and poor mother figures. Strong mother figures are evidenced in movies and books such as The Fault in Our Stars and Harry Potter and in television shows such as One Tree Hill. Bad or not-so-loving mother figures are also portrayed in films and books such as The Hunger Games and television shows such as Once Upon A Time. It is evidenced that projections of motherhood to children and teenagers is filled with both positive and negative portrayals of mothers.


In surveying mothers throughout the semester, the class discovered a variety of interesting findings about mothers today. One of the most interesting findings, in my opinion, was that 55% of mothers would rather parent full-time than work part-time or full-time. To me, this showed just how much mothers would like to spend time completely devoted to their children. It is also evidence of just how difficult the balance between work and family can be. One other thought-provoking piece of evidence was that mothers appeared to be torn as to whether their parenting was easier, harder, or the same as their own mother's parenting. To me, this showed that parenting is a challenge no matter what time in history you are a parent. Another one of the most interesting findings in my opinion was that most mothers were unaware of the absence of mothers in Disney films. Many of the mothers seemed to feel upset that they had not noticed that and might have changed their parenting if they had recognized the absence of mothers before. These surveys proved to be a remarkable way to learn about mothers in today's society and their thoughts about portrayals of motherhood.

Mama's Song by Carrie Underwood

Mama's Song by Carrie Underwood is a tear-jerking song about a daughter's relationship with her mother and how her mother prepared her for adulthood and marriage. The song is a ballad where a daughter sings to her mother, telling her not to worry as the daughter moves out and begins her own life. It recounts the warm and supportive upbringing that the daughter received from her mother. The child notes that her mother taught her to do the right things and now she's ready to spread her wings and fly into whatever adulthood may bring, including marriage. This portrayal shows a mother's pivotal role in preparing a child for adulthood. It also shows a how thankful a child can be for the sacrifice and love that a mother gives when raising her children. The overall message is that a good mother will raise a child with good morals and the right tools needed to make it on their own and take the next step in their life.

Final Summary

This class examined a wide variety of representations of motherhood ranging from the 1963 classic novel The Feminine Mystique to Disney movies to novels. These portrayals shed light on the fact that motherhood simply is not as easy as it seems. The Feminine Mystique noted that some mothers experienced extreme anguish that caused them to seek comfort in things such as drugs and alcohol. In some portrayals, mothers are not even mentioned as seen in many Disney films and children's books. Often, the bad images of mothers unfortunately appear to take precedence in news articles so as to foster a sort of shock value in readers. At other times, though, mothers are celebrated and represented in a positive light. This is evidenced in television shows such as Gilmore Girls and movies like The Lion King. It is difficult to say whether the bad portrayals or absence of mothers is equal to the amount of positive representations present in the various forms like magazines, books, movies, television shows, and news articles. If there is one overall message to take away from this class though, it is that mothers are under-appreciated. The love, sacrifice, and support that mothers provide tends to go unnoticed. Through exploring in this course the various trials and tribulations that a mother may face, it is clear that motherhood is a not only a full-time job but a role that deserves much more praise than it usually receives. Motherhood is a profession that requires a lifetime of service with no guarantee of any benefits other than the joy that a child might bring into a mother's world.