On my website is my own personal motto:
“Writer, mom, geek, and superhero.”
The last, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, but as I was writing this column, I noticed that I unconsciously put “writer” before “mom,” perhaps because I’ve considered myself a writer all my life. Being a mom came later.
Temporary pause of obligatory SPOILER warning for Avengers: Age of Ultron to follow.
But thinking about why I had put “writer” first, along with the controversy about Black Widow’s role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, started me wondering about the boxes society puts women in. Because in pop culture, it often seems like a women’s primary role is either as a mom or something else—usually something dangerous or time-consuming that moms shouldn’t do because, hey, who else should watch the kids?
What if, like me, you’re two things at the same time?
Let’s take Age of Ultron. I love that Hawkeye’s a dad. I’m also completely cool with Laura Barton doing the stay-at-home mom thing. I’ve done that and I don’t regret it for a second. Women fought for equal rights to have choices. All choices are equally valid, so long as the ability remains to choose.
After all, that’s what Black Widow was mourning in the same movie. Not that she necessarily wants kids or that she can never do what Laura Barton has done. No, Widow’s in mourning because the choice was taken from her, one of many ways those who raised her to be a weapon took away her individuality.
But it started me wondering: There are action heroes who are fathers—the Rock is all over my television screen in his new San Andreas trailer—but very few action heroes in pop culture are mothers. Hawkeye can be a dad and be a superhero, but the women are divided into mom and not-moms.
Then, I started making a list of great mothers in science fiction and fantasy, either books or movies, and realized that most of the ones on my list were known as mothers first. Even Sarah Conner is protecting her son in the Terminator movies and Elasti-Girl/Helen Parr, who is awesome, is best known as part of a family unit.
Where are the mothers who are equally moms and something else?
The first example I could think of was Amanda Waller from the original Suicide Squad in DC Comics. She was a single mother who lost her husband and one of her sons to violence, and developed a career. When you first think of Waller, the image that comes to mind is “stands up to Batman,” not motherhood. Of course, DC has since decided to de-age Waller and change her physical appearance so now she’s younger, hotter, and presumably not a mom anymore.
There’s also Joss Carter from Person of Interest, whose first adjective is police officer, though she’s also a fiercely protective mom. And there’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, who’s so complicated that one adjective doesn’t begin to describe her. (Bujold also made a Dowager Queen, Ista, the heroine of one of her fantasy novels, Paladin of Souls, and Ista’s adventure has little to do with her children.)
Less well know is Kate Spencer, DC’s comics Manhunter, who is a lawyer, superhero, and mom. (Unfortunately, she’s not appearing anywhere in DC Comics right now.)
But the list is frustratingly short. Complex women who are something else and mothers were hard to find in science fiction and fantasy.
I suspect it comes down to that the general feeling is that once women become mothers, their adventures are over. Jack Bauer of 24 can be a super-spy and a father. The Rock can be a rescue pilot and a dad. Their action “jobs” have little to do with their being parents, though sometimes they use their skills to save their kids.
The vast majority of women in action movies who are mothers just need that simple description “wife,” “mother.” Not, “spy” or “police officer” or “soldier” for whom that role means as much as their role as mothers.
It sends the message that while men can go off and do dangerous jobs and define themselves not just as fathers but as something else, a women’s role of mom takes precedence over all. Once motherhood begins, that’s it. Television dramas do somewhat better. Witness Alicia on The Good Wife, not SF/F, though it’s nice that Alicia’s identity as a lawyer is as important to the show as her role as a mother.
In season 2 of Castle, an FBI Special Agent, played by Dana Delaney, is introduced as an intelligent, competent FBI agent who chases serial killers. Only later is it revealed that she’s also a mother. This surprises Beckett and it surprised me, because it played on my subconscious assumption that someone with this kind of job wouldn’t also be a mother.
If women want to be mothers above all else, that’s great. I’d just love to see more professional women (for lack of a better term) in SF/F succeeding at motherhood and their chosen careers, just as fathers can do. It’s obviously a situation that we, as a society, still don’t fully accept.
My dream is that in Maria Hill’s next appearance, we find out her husband and kids live on a ranch in Montana, that her family is totally supportive of her work as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s premier agents, and that we, the audience, don’t judge her for her periodic absences caused by the need to do her part in building a better world.