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Looking for Mother

The ‘missing mother’ is considered such a routine trope in the popular media environment that a number of commentators have spoken about this maternal absence. A Wikipedia entry for maternal death in fiction tells us that it is:

a common theme encountered in literature, movies, and other media... the death of a pregnant or delivering mother is a powerful device: it removes one character and places the surviving child into an often hostile environment which has to be overcome (Wikipedia 2016a).

In a website dedicated to the ‘devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations’ (TV Tropes 2016a) we find:

Death by Childbirth: An overwhelming number of victims lose their mothers during childbirth. So sad, so tragic, so heart-wrenching... such a goldmine for a plot device (TV Tropes 2016b).

Deceased Parents Are the Best: Parents are only there to cause angst for the hero. If they’re loving and supportive they must die. If they’re not then they’re mean and abusive so the hero must run away bemoaning his fate... parents are useless... they leave you and abuse you. Good Parents are hard to come by. It appears that the only decent parents are the dead ones (TV Tropes 2016c).

Missing Mom: The mother of a character or characters is missing or absent. Perhaps she died. Perhaps she left and there’s bitterness involved. Perhaps she’s a damsel in distress. Regardless of what happened—and regardless of whether or not the viewers find out what happened—dad seems to have raised his children on his own or with help from a mom-substitute ... If it was death by childbirth that disposed of the mother, this is usually mentioned because it adds an extra touch of tragedy to the character’s life (TV Tropes 2016d).

Existing web sites are pointing fun at the routine missing, absent and deceased mothers in popular media output, but this tongue-in-cheek look at television tropes becomes a little more stark when it is spoken of in relation to teen drama and science fiction. In terms of teen drama, I have noted elsewhere that shows such as Popular (1999-2001), The O.C (2003-2007), Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-), Veronica Mars (2004-2007), Beyond the Break (2006-09), 90210 (2008-2013) and Hellcats (2010) present mothers as troubled alcoholics and drug addicts first and maternal caregivers second (Feasey 2012), with many mothers absent from the lives of their daughters. One might note that the absent and ineffectual mother was a passing phase in the development of a new television genre, but it was soon clear that this particular trope has not only continued but flourished amidst the new breed of teen drama and fantasy titles. Moreover, in terms of science fiction, we are told that ‘nobody suffers like a... sci-fi or fantasy... mum’ (Mellor 2012). A website dedicated to ‘news, reviews, features, rants and bad jokes, all for those on the nerdier side of life’ (Brew 2015) makes the point that:

Parenting is never easy in the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy—from aliens and monsters, to war, abduction and deadly cyborgs, you and your children dying in a horrific manner is almost entirely certain. There are a precious few though, for whom being a mother in a dangerous world brings out the kickass in them [but] It might not always work out well for the kids— desertion, orphaning, having to be king... there’s clearly something in the water in the Supes-verse, as kickass mums have an alarming habit of sacrificing themselves for their ingrate children (Matthews 2015).

The survival rate isn’t great for a start. Should a character in a sci-fi or fantasy show find themselves up the duff, they’d be well-advised not to start any long books. Before we even come to the gravidic death rate of sci-fi and fantasy mothers, there’s the small matter of finding out just what you’re pregnant with. Anonymous alien and demon impregnations come along as regularly as the apocalypse in sci-fi and fantasy TV shows, mostly fast- progressing and mostly putting the expectant mother in grave danger (Mellor 2012).

Teen television thrives on the ‘missing mother’ trope, science fiction and fantasy appears committed to the absent mother, but it is the more recent adolescent inspired urban fantasy, or new adult genre where the maternal figure is most noticeable in her absence. According to Marina Finlayson, the author of The Proving trilogy (2014, 2015a), life routinely ends when you give birth in the urban fantasy realm:

Sure, there are older female characters, some even powerful: queens, sorceresses, seers, etc. But how often do you find a fantasy where the main character is a mother? Off the top of my head, I can think of... umm... none. You can find strong female leads ... but they’re nearly all single young women. Some of them have partners, but nobody has kids. It’s as if life somehow stops when women give birth. And, sure,

I can see how fitting kids into the life of a busy demon-slayer or white witch could be tricky, and why authors choose to free their characters from such complications ... the relationships between parents and children aren’t often explored. And yet they are such a big part of many people’s lives. It seems an untapped area just waiting to be explored (Finlayson 2015b).

Untapped indeed. I have written elsewhere about the ways in which women in the mainstream television audience are disappointed at the limited representations of motherhood on the small screen, and this in concert with the ‘missing mother’ in youth inspired programming does little to encourage such viewing (Feasey 2016). Mothers in the television audience are quick to point out that they themselves are not stereotypes, do not fit into narrow or neat maternal categories and cannot be easily classified in relation to working, domestic or familial practices (Feasey 2016). With this in mind it might well be difficult or challenging (but not impossible within the realm of urban fantasy) to create a complex and dramatic mother-child dynamic when the mother is incoherent or missing, but it would seem that few writers or creatives are keen to take on the challenge (SciFiGuy 2010; Clark 2015; Wikipedia 2016b).

Urban fantasy and new adult fiction insist on a myriad of sexual, social, racial and ethnic identities but although it offers the possibility for cultural diversity, it continues to insist on maternal death and sacrifice (CK11 2015):

The most common cause of the missing mother seems to be death—indeed, it is almost mandatory for an Urban Fantasy heroine to have a tragically dead mother. In The Vampire Diaries Elena’s mother is dead. True Blood has the orphaned Sookie; Charmed killed the sisters’ mother off before the series even started; Cassie, Diana, Melissa, Jake and Adam all have dead mothers in The Secret Circle. Buffy’s mother died part way through the series. In The Dresden Files, Harry’s mother died before the series began. In Grimm, Nick is yet another protagonist with a dead mother. The whole beginning motivation of Supernatural revolves around their dead mother. In Blood and Chocolate, both mother and father are brutally murdered. In The Craft Sarah Bailey’s mother is dead. In Underworld, Selene’s mother is murdered by Viktor.

Even in stories where the mother is lucky enough to have dodged the bullet and is actually alive, she is still often absent. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Renee, Bella’s mother, is absent, living in a completely different state. In The Vampire Diaries, Bonnie’s mother, Abby, is absent through much of her childhood and, when they are finally reunited, Abby not only presents Bonnie with a child that she raised as a replacement, but quickly disappears after becoming a vampire. Abby is well aware of the pain that her absence has caused Bonnie and yet she steadfastly finds a reason not to engage with her daughter. Once Upon a Time sets records for absent mothers—Augustus never had one, Snow White and Ruby’s mothers are dead, and Emma grew up in the foster system without her mother.

I suppose we should be grateful these mothers ducked the Urban Fantasy plague that has put so many parents in their graves, but they still have little to no actual influence and presence in their children’s—the protagonists’— lives (Paul 2012).

The plots of the short-lived Resurrection (2014-2015) and Believe (2015) are convoluted, but it is clear that the absent mother trope is key to both contemporary narratives (Wikipedia 2016c; 2016d). Perhaps in part to the predictability of the ‘missing mother’ trope, Believe only ran for one series while Resurrection was cancelled after just two. It may come as no surprise then to hear that urban fantasy and young adult audiences are said to be frustrated at the lack of invention and originality in their chosen genre (Martinez 2010). And yet, even with this information in mind, we continue to be faced with the dearth and death of the mother and the responsibility of the father as provider, protector and guide.

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