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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination : Missing, Presumed Dead


Dead, But Not Gone: Mother and Othermother in Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s The Good Neighbors

Kirsten M0llegaard

Situating the Missing Mother as Narrative Script

The missing or dead mother is an enduring, widely popular narrative script in folklore and literature, in particular in stories featuring a young female protagonist. This script highlights cultural assumptions about motherhood and gender performance in central ways. While there are many variations of this script, it has several characteristic components. Within the family unit, the missing mother leaves behind a social and emotional vacuum, which in many classic fairy tales is filled by an evil stepmother,1 whose cruel designs force the motherless girl into poverty, servitude, or even expulsion from home. The father, if present, is either weak or too unconcerned with the plight of his daughter to protect her position in the household. The character of the innocent, persecuted heroine is thus intimately tied to domestic conflicts involving a weak or passive father, an absent, possibly dead, mother, and a domineering stepmother.

The interpretation of this narrative script takes many directions. Bruno Bettelheim interpreted such conflicts as Oedipal in nature, with the

K. M0llegaard (*)

Chair of English, University of Hawai’i, Hilo, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_11

daughter and the stepmother vying for the father’s love and, implicitly, his name and property. Feminist critics tend to see the angel mother versus monstrous stepmother dichotomy as falsely emphasizing the father’s role (Joosen 2011, 1-8). It is argued that the conflict is really between the mother and daughter because the mother figure cannot accept the daughter’s maturing. From this perspective, the stepmother’s position is always- already imbued with the daughter’s hostility and the haunting shadow of the missing mother, whose ghostly presence is nurtured by the father’s mourning. From a post-structuralist point of view, it can be argued that the narrative script of the missing mother, which idealizes the biological mother and demonizes the woman who replaces her, presents motherhood (including surrogate motherhood) and heterosexuality as natural desires for women and constructs domestic conflicts as women’s primary concerns, since their individual identity depends not on their achievements outside of the home, but rather on their marital status and kinship position within the family hierarchy.

In spite of how normative this narrative script appears to be in classic fairy tales, literature, and popular culture, its discursive frame is in fact malleable enough for counter narratives to emerge. It can be used to question positions of maternal authority in traditional gender hierarchies and to expose the myths of ideal motherhood. Shari L. Thurer points out that ‘mothering is largely socially created and, sometimes, politically remediable. And the power of a child’s own psychodynamics should not be underestimated’ (1994, xxii). Being of similar gender, the daughter is a powerful focal character for both mother and othermother,2 not only because her existence forces the two women to define themselves in terms of their relative ability to mother her, but also because their relationship to the daughter influences their relationship to her father.

The mythologies surrounding motherhood, and the stereotypes they produce, reflect the desires and anxieties of the societies that create them. Similar to the concept of metanarratives that was criticized by postmodern philosophers like Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard in the early 1980s, narrative scripts tend to naturalize stereotypes and support ‘the dominance of certain kinds of world knowledge’ (Herman 2002, 108). Narrative scripts create semantic frameworks that represent ‘various aspects of reality and guid[e] perception and comprehension of these (or related) aspects’ (Prince 1987, 84). But while semantic frameworks are often embedded as discourse within a text, they can also be counterpointed within the same text. The medium of graphic novels, which unifies images and words into visual narrative text, is eminently suited for counterpointing and crossover techniques, ‘where words and images collaborate beyond the scope of either alone’ (Nikolajeva and Scott 2000, 226). Graphic novels are a ‘hybrid art form’ (Meskins 2009, 219) that crosses over into other genres and styles ‘in order to challenge the way that we read a text and to open a space for political critique of existing systems of cognition and interpretation’ (Jakaitis and Wurtz 2012, 19).

Since the narrative script of the missing mother frames story logic and hence reflects the social norms and values that shape story content, it is relevant to consider its dynamics in graphic novels, which is a medium that is ‘inherently dialogic due to the co-existence of printed text and visual images’ (Hudson 2010, 35). Graphic novels are dialogic in form because text and images create a deliberate narrative sequence (McCloud 1993, 9) and allow story content not told explicitly in the text to be shown in the images to the effect that ‘discourse becomes a series of views’ (Bongco 2000, 58). Graphic novels offer a rich opportunity to examine how motherhood is represented visually and to explore how a familiar narrative script like that of the missing mother also contains an often overlooked racial dimension. Motherhood, while obviously the result of sexual reproduction, is not one universal experience. As Joane Nagel points out, ‘differences of color, culture, country, ancestry, language, and religion are the materials out ofwhich ethnic, racial, and national identities and boundaries are built. Ethnic boundaries are also sexual boundaries’ (2003, 1). Even in contemporary Western culture, the visual representation of mothers as white is predominant in both popular and academic literature. E. Ann Kaplan refers to this script as the ‘“Master” Motherhood Discourse... [which] position[s] white, middle-class women as subjects in very specific ways’ (2000, 8). It is therefore relevant to examine what happens, when the dominant narrative script is complemented visually by illustrations that undermine the racial assumptions and Eurocentric biases upon which it is founded. Knowledge derived from narrative scripts is never innocent of the politics, history, and economic contexts that dominant paradigms marginalize. With its dialogic form and obvious reliance on visual representation as part ofthe narration, the graphic novel is a medium well suited to subvert, challenge, and make visual assumptions about motherhood.

Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s neo-gothic graphic novel trilogy The Good Neighbors (2008-2010) features a missing mother, a grieving father, a surrogate or substitute mother, and a young heroine who is persecuted not only by evil fairies and faun-like creatures, but also by her (presumably) dead mother. Propelled by the intertwined narrative properties of images and text, The Good Neighbors trilogy puts a dynamic spin on the mother-stepmother-daughter constellation. Importantly, The Good Neighbors presents race as part of its narrative script through the portrayal of a resourceful black othermother who fills the roles of surrogate mother, social activist, and educator for the haunted white protagonist. Moreover, The Good Neighbors situates the narrative script of the missing mother alongside the enduring script of coming-of-age, and hence the daughter’s process of maturing and gaining an independent adult identity, while haunted by her spectral mother’s shadow.

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