Where Are the Mothers?
Aileen Miyuki Tsujimoto
Students have always been a source of intriguing questions and points of view. In this piece one student's innocent question about literature leads a ateacher twith thirty years' experience to evaluate her curriculum in search for an answer. What she finds is a Pandora's box-- a depth of relevant maternal portrayals and more questions about ideologies which pervade many of our literature curricula.
"Where are the mothers, Mrs. T?"
"Are they dead?"
"Divorced, probably," said a half-joking, low voice from the corner of the classroom as he closed his copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"What made you think about mothers, Nanyamka?" I asked.
"Well, it's like this...." She inhaled slowly while the rest of the class waited for her to finish. "Anything that has to do with my boyfriends, my mom is there. Always watching. You know what I mean? She's always on my case." Pointing to her book, she emphasized, "These girls - Hermia and Helena - don't have that problem. And my mother wouldn't need a duke - or whatever - to make me do something. She'd tell me herself."
As I glanced around the room, I could see that several of her classmates - all females - were nodding in agreement.
We had just finished reading a second play by Shakespeare. The previous month it had been Much Ado About Nothing. I paused. It was true. Beatrice... Hero... Hermia... Helena. All of these adolescent daughters of literature were seemingly raised singlehandedly by fathers or father-figures. And they would discover the same pattern if they read King Lear or The Tempest. Nanyamka had raised an interesting question. With the exception of Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet or the nameless maternal figures present in the margins of Romeo and Juliet, where were the mothers in Shakespeare? Why was it that mothers played no role in the lives of these fictional daughters who were ripe for marriage when, in my own students' reality, mothers often played major roles in thwarting or encouraging their daughters' courtships. Several questions begged answers. Was this a case of imposing present standards on an earlier time? Was this just a peculiarity of Shakespeare's works, or could the same pattern be seen in other popular narratives?
I devoted several weeks during the following summer researching our school's literature curriculum and independent reading selections for portrayals of mothers and/or mother figures. Not surprisingly, there seemed to be a rich variety of parents or parent-figures of both genders in contemporary pre-adolescent literature from Charlotte's Web and Annie John to Anne of Green Gables, but in stories for adolescents the roles for parents were notably diminished. I expected that. Adolescence is largely defined by the search for self and a pulling away from parental authority, and the literature of this genre such as The Outsiders and The Pigman reflected this. What surprised me was that, where parental portrayals did exist in our curriculum, maternal depictions were marginalized or missing while paternal figures seemed to abound.
For example, of the twenty-six short story selections in our literature anthology (Prentice Hall Literature, 1989), six stories featured parent or parent-figure and adolescent relationships. Four were of fathers/father figures and sons ("Christmas Day in the Morning" by Pearl Buck, "Accounts Settled" by Paul Annixter, "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" by Ray Bradbury, and "The Six Rows of Pompoms" by Toshio Mori); two were of mothers/mother-figures and sons ("The Gift-Giving" by Joan Aiken and "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes), but there were no stories about mothers/mother-figures and their daughters.
With the exception of the strong maternal figure in Langston Hughes' narrative, all of the other adults were striking examples of paternal authority. Compassionate father-figures loved and guided their sons (not daughters) with the strength of their moral wisdom. Clearly, a father was necessary for a son's self identification and passage into manhood - or as Mori states in his story, to learn the "work in the world" (Prentice Hall, p. 166).
While no one would argue the portrayal, importance, or the appropriateness of paternal wisdom in each of these adolescent narratives, the subtlety of the underlying ideologies in this collection of stories that excludes maternal wisdom is not lost: moral authority exists exclusively with father/father-figures.
Even at the movies that summer, replays of Disney films underscored the same theme. Where were the mothers in Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, A Little Princess, Casper or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, for that matter? In the summer of '95 Judith Gaines, a writer for the San Jose Mercury, bemoaned the fact that "mothers were either dead or missing in children's films" (p. 46). She interviewed a film maker who offered the following rationale:
(1) It allowed children to follow an adventure without a parent nagging them to be careful (There is an interesting assumption here about the gender of the nagging parent.).
(2) Plot convenience (How are mothers less convenient than fathers?).
(3) It was a contemporary theme - single parent families (Aren't there as many, if not more, single mothers as heads of households today?).
One may rationalize that missing mothers may reflect present-day reality; however, none of these reasons explained why classic tales reflected the same pattern. Fathers still remained in the narrative context of these stories while mothers were missing or maligned. Even in Disney's Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, paternal images ranged from the powerful to the lovable. In contrast, these same stories portray evil stepmothers pitted against powerless daughters, who find their only validation in the arms of a prince. Clearly, this subtle ideology has helped to shape a myth, from the adolescents' point of view, that minimizes maternal goodness and wisdom and that suggests that trading mothers for princes is a step toward maturity.
In two texts for our junior high school, mothers seemed to suffer the same flat portrayals found in most fairy tales: Marmee of Little Women is a model of perfection. She is all-nurturing, all-loving, selfless - a kind of godmother. In contrast, the wellmeaning Mrs. Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank is perceived, at least by her adolescent daughter, as nagging and critical, a figure who constantly reminds Anne that she must conform to certain cultural expectations. Is it just a coincidence that Anne also turns to her father for wisdom and validation like so many adolescent fairy tale heroines?
In The Uses of Enchantment well-known child psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, suggests that "fairy tales reveal important truths about culture" (p. 227) and an understanding of what it is to be human. If so, then we must be wary of the silent messages these narratives reveal about maternal absolutes. For those who help in their daughters' quest for a "prince" are godmothers, but those who thwart their romantic pursuits are stepmother/witches. Mothers seem to have no role other than to help in her quest for a man - who, according to the myth, will be able to fulfill all her needs. Harlequin romances and other teen novels, which millions of girls read voraciously, thrive on this formula.
There were more questions. Was there an ethnic consideration here? Marginalized and stereotyped, most of the maternal portrayals in popular adolescent film narratives and in most teen novels were of European descent. Was it just a coincidence that the same was true of our literature curriculum? In fact, the only maternal figures who approached full development as characters were African-American (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and "Thank You, M'am"). How were mothers of other ethnicities portrayed in adolescent literature? Where were they?
In Elizabeth Debold's Mother Daughter Revolution, a study of the cultural shaping of female ideology, there were significant statistics which determined a high (94.5 percent) expressed respect by African-American daughters for their mothers "in terms of strength, honesty, ability to overcome difficulties, and ability to survive" (Debold, p. 68). Interestingly, although African-American women suffered multiple oppressions, one of the outcomes seemed to be that these mothers and daughters were not as often victimized by the dichotomous, maternal ideologies that often debilitated women of other ethnicities.
Perhaps having little room for hypocrisy and euphemism necessitates a more honest communication. In the genre of African-American literature, stories by Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and many others are filled with love and gratitude for courageous and realistic mothers who help their children dream and achieve lives that are often inaccessible to themselves. Were there similar stories about other mothers? If so, why are there so few in our curriculum?
Of course, there is always a wide range of social practices in any group, and generalizing is always dangerous; but it does not negate my sense that there is a constant presence of a maternal mythology in any given culture that needs to be explored. My own experiences both as a mother and daughter tell me this. There are meaningful stories about mothers that have never appeared in the context of a junior high curriculum - or any curriculum - but they should.
The enormous power of films and fairy tales, as well as the choices of literature in our curricula, has been in its subtle ability to shape our students' thinking. That maternal relationships have largely been minimized and/or stereotyped in so many narratives perhaps speaks to its devaluation in reality where adolescent females often "discount their mothers' warnings and respond with anger and contempt...to limits on their freedom and independence" (Debold, p. 67). Unlike fathers, mothers must contend with the contradictory, absolute portrayals created by cultural myths. As a result, the attempts of many real mothers to exercise their wisdom too often align them more closely with the evil stepmothers.
In returning to the original question about the lack of maternal portrayals in Shakespeare's plays, I found no clear answers in any text or research except that of tradition. There were other plausible explanations, however. First, women's roles were scripted to be performed by youths which probably limited the chronological range of realistic female characterization. Secondly, perhaps the the high rate of maternal deaths during childbirth necessitated fathers' raising adolescent daughters in earlier times. In any case, these culturally-created, often maligned images of motherhood from fairy tales to Shakespeare still pervade and invade our present reality.
Narratives have always helped to shape our thinking about real heroes and heroines, and so it must with mothers. In my opinion, the stories about maternal wisdom, about sacrifices forged out of strength and caring, about a group which celebrates relationships and connections are largely missing in our curriculum. Nanyamka recognized it immediately.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. Vintage, 1989.
Debold, Elizabeth, Marie Wilson, and Idelisse Malave. Mother Daughter Revolution. Bantam, 1993.
Gaines, Judith. "Where Have All the Mothers Gone?" San Jose Mercury, August 13, 1995, p. 46.
Prentice Hall Literature. Prentice Hall, 1989.
Aileen Miyuki Tsujimoto teaches English at Centerville Junior High School in Fremont, California.