Of the many charges one can lay against a woman in order to cut her down to size, a list which includes those old chestnuts such as she’s fat, ugly, angry, irrational, a slut, the worst may likely be the accusation that she’s a bad mother. The trope of the bad mother has had a long shelf-life in culture from Euripides’ Medea down to the present day. You can’t swing a dead rat without stumbling on some version of the ultimate put-down leveled against women, because motherhood is a role that all women are expected to perform with some essential, innate gift or talent. When women fall short of anything less than perfection as a mother, in other words, living only for your children, well someone will issue a hissing smackdown. Among the infamous mothers fictional and real to follow in the tradition of the spurned Greek heroine, there’s Anna Karenina, Joan Crawford, Sophie Portnoy, Mrs. Bates, Precious’ mother Mary, Frances Farmer’s mother Lillian, Courtney Love, Britney Spears. Ayelet Waldman wrote a controversial book where she called herself a bad mother since she loved her husband more than their children. The field remains wide open for the varying criteria that designate a bad mother.
The bad mother in print or onscreen operates as a cudgel to police other women, but what is more problematic is that they are all too often static, flat, two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. When I recall the Oscar win for Mo’Nique’s performance as Precious’ mother Mary, I shudder at the single note of monstrous evil she brought to the screen. Characters are more complex than the raging, harpy harridans we frequently encounter in the convention of the bad mother. There’s little nuance or true inner life to a sinister, abusive mother, nor do we in the audience get a sense of why or how they came to be that way. Bad mothers are boring one-trick ponies.
Then there’s Toni Collette in “The United States of Tara,” who is a marvel to watch. Collette’s Tara is a singular woman onscreen, a dynamic character who’s flawed beyond measure, and yet still compelling and likeable. The first season rankled my patience by the way the series argued that Tara’s Dissociative Identity Disorder was a pathological result of her inability to handle stress. The second season, by contrast, renders that objection obsolete, because the narrative arc suggests that Tara’s DID serves as a coping mechanism to assist her through horrible experiences from the past, including having been raped. Tara’s alternative personalities offset the memory of trauma. Tara’s alters bring what she needs to the surface, as in the first season when Buck, a Vietnam Vet personality appeared to kick the crap out of a boy who was bullying her daughter. Alice, another alternative personality is in many ways the idealized June Cleaver style mother, and yet everyone finds her creepy, nosey and manipulative, which raises additional questions about what we mean by a good mother.
Tara’s a classic bad mother, not the best wife and she’s completely focused on putting herself first. When do we ever get to see women like this onscreen? In Sex and the City, Kim Cattrell’s Samantha Jones claimed that you could become liberated through promiscuity, by having string-free sex as she said men enjoyed. No, the sure way to even out the social inferiority reserved for women would be to take Tara’s approach and put yourself first, above the normative roles that call for women to sacrifice themselves in care of others. Now this is not exactly programmatic for every woman taking breath, it is just a television show, but with so much buried trauma, it makes sense for Tara to risk the label of bad mother and take care of herself. A woman who puts herself first above her family may be the most subversive character on television.
I can’t isolate another example of a mother who spends less time in the messy business of raising children. In the second season, when Tara begins to transition, it’s as Buck, who takes up an affair with a bartender played by Joey Lauren Adams. Tara later transitions into a new alter, the psychotherapist Shoshonna, after her husband Max (John Corbett who’s funny as hell) delivers the ultimatum that she needed to get professional help. How wonderful is it that she’s the expert working on herself and her husband at the same time? Tara also spends episodes working on her art again.
Collette’s range as Tara marks her out as hilarious, distressing, pitiable, outrageous and versatile. If nothing else, she proves how complex and interesting women are as actors and characters. It’s impossible to not care about Tara. The rest of the cast offer accomplished performances. Corbett is as charming as he was on Northern Exposure. Rosemarie Witt, Patton Oswalt, Viola Davis, and especially Keir Gilchrist as Marshall and Brie Larson as Kate are talented in their roles. Marshall and Kate hold barely disguised antipathy for their mother, and while the viewer understands their frustration, Tara is too fabulous to hate.