Mommie Dearest, Daughter Dearest
Happy Mother’s Day! For a break from idealized greeting-card depictions of the parent-child bond, this map explores some none-too-happy relationships between mothers and daughters in popular culture. From mid-century melodramas to tell-all memoirs, we present some ungrateful, nasty and murderous girls and a few mightily struggling mothers.
A superstar from Hollywood’s early Golden Age in the late 1920s and 1930s, Joan Crawford was known for playing independent, hardworking women. After a career lull, she made a successful comeback and won a best actress Oscar for the 1945 film-noir classic Mildred Pierce. Based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce follows a working single mother (Crawford) as she struggles to transcend her station, in part for the sake of her snobby, sullen and spoiled teen daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). Despite Mildred’s business success (she founds a restaurant chain) and the wealth and privilege it confers, Veda has only disdain for her mother’s working-class roots.
An emotional impasse between mother and daughter also grounds Mommie Dearest, Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina’s scathing tell-all memoir. Published in 1978, following Joan’s death (some say written in response to Christina’s being cut from her will), Mommie Dearest recounts Christina’s suffering at the hands of a volatile, alcoholic, abusive Joan. Unlike self-sacrificing Mildred Pierce, who desperately wants to please her daughter, Crawford in Mommie Dearest identifies as a doting mother (and exploits that image in the press) but habitually and ruthlessly punishes her daughter for her alleged ingratitude and impertinence.
Rhoda Penmark, the creepy eight-year-old sociopath at the center of William March’s novel The Bad Seed, has been dealt a rough hand: The granddaughter of a serial killer, she has inherited a genetic predisposition to kill repeatedly and without remorse. Published when psychoanalysis was at the height of its popularity in the U.S., the novel features characters whose inner and outer landscapes are at odds. Whereas Rhoda’s conflicted mother, Christine, struggles to accept the hard truth of her pigtailed girl’s evil nature, Mildred Pierce turns a blind eye to the sociopathic tendencies of her eldest daughter, Veda. Social-climbing Veda seethes with resentment that a place in high society is not her birthright but has been hard-earned through her mother’s drive and entrepreneurship. Despite, or perhaps because of, Mildred’s immoderate motherly devotion, Veda remains judgmental and distant and eventually murders her stepfather for rejecting her advances. Finally realizing she can no longer excuse Veda, Mildred turns her in to the police. Rhoda’s mother also reaches a breaking point at the end of the novel, when she decides that the only way to save her daughter is to kill her (which she fails to do) and herself (which she accomplishes).
Sometimes our daughters don’t turn out the way we want them to, despite all we do for them. Sometimes our mothers just don’t understand us, and we withdraw into secret worlds. Released nearly 50 years apart, the novel The Bad Seed and the film Thirteen explore a timeless theme: the emotional bond between suffering mothers and their amoral daughters. Both also challenge the myth of idealized, innocent childhood and present the experience of girlhood as violent and inscrutable. A former honor student, Tracy Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood), the alienated adolescent protagonist of Thirteen, experiments with drugs, alcohol and sex, and mutilates herself. In a memorable scene, Tracy and her friend Evie get high from inhaling computer cleaning spray and then have a “hit me” face-off that demonstrates just how numb—physically and emotionally—they have become. The Bad Seed’s enigmatic grammar-school killer Rhoda Penmark is utterly monstrous and cold-blooded; beyond the control of her loving, largely duped parents, she murders three people. Extending the nature-vs.-nurture debate to its stark conclusion, Thirteen suggests Tracy would have been different with a better home life, while The Bad Seed has a more deterministic moral: Some people are just plain born bad.
Evan Rachel Wood stars as the confused, suffering adolescent Tracy in Thirteen (which earned her a Golden Globe nomination) and also plays the unscrupulous teen Veda in Todd Haynes’s 2011 HBO miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce (for which she received an Emmy nomination). Coincidence? In both films, Wood portrays a difficult daughter whose enabling mother refuses to see her failings—or sees them only when it’s too late. In Thirteen, Melanie Freeland (Holly Hunter) is a harried single mother, a high-school dropout struggling to keep her alcoholism in check and support her children as a hairdresser. She acts more like Tracy’s friend than an authority figure. Mildred Pierce is also guilty of bad mothering; she is excessively attached to Veda and gives in to the girl’s every expensive whim and demand. Melanie’s parenting style may be too hands-off, but Mildred’s is too indulgent, and in the end both characters pay a high price for their misguided mother love when they helplessly watch their daughters descend into crime and self-destruction.
Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce would have much to commiserate about—hard times, bad luck, inconstant men and strong attachments to their daughters. Their namesake films, released only eight years apart, explore similar social territory: women’s shifting roles, society’s ambivalence toward their aspirations and desires, class mobility, class anxiety and the tensions between a woman’s ability to be independent and the “protection” a husband may provide. Low-born Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) lands mill executive Stephen Dallas, and both adore their daughter, Laurel. But the young girl, having inherited her father’s inborn refinement, grows embarrassed by her mother’s innate vulgarity. Mildred, despite her devotion, manages only to alienate her spoiled daughter, Veda, who wants nothing more than to escape from a world she feels is beneath her. Veda’s inability to love anyone, especially her mother, seems a punishment for Mildred’s decision to devote her energy to her career (though she does so to provide for her daughters). Although Laurel loves her mother, Stella’s coarseness puts her daughter’s social prospects in jeopardy, and maternal self-sacrifice is required to secure Laurel’s happiness: In the end, Stella watches from a distance, alone and uninvited, as her daughter marries into an upper-class family.
Pop culture’s ultimate stage mother is Rose Hovick of the musical Gypsy. An adaptation of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoir, Gypsy tells the story of overbearing Rose (Rosalind Russell), who pushes her two daughters, June and Louise, to become vaudeville stars. After the teenage June escapes by eloping, Rose focuses her vicarious ambitions on the talentless, older Louise (Natalie Wood), who ultimately transforms into a successful striptease artist.
Rose’s story at times parallels that of another tough-talking, ambitious mother, Stella Dallas. Both are outshone by their daughters and reach tragic epiphanies as they finally loosen their toxic maternal grip. Their bad performances as mothers are underscored in theatrical ways. Rose breaks down on the empty stage of a burlesque theater, where she confronts her destructive influence and concedes, “Kids grow up.” At film’s end, the reconciled mother and daughter laughingly stroll arm-in-arm to a party. Stella playacts to trick her daughter into believing she “wants to be something else besides a mother” and rejects Laurel in a painful scene. By sacrificing her maternal privilege, Stella allows her daughter unfettered access to her “true,” genteel family, on her father’s side.
Mythologized as the rise and fall of punk rocker Sid Vicious has become, the track of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen’s life from comfortable Philadelphia suburb to heroin-fueled squalor is known primarily via her mother Deborah’s memoir, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life. Its title taken from a poem Sid wrote about Nancy, the book is Deborah’s attempt to reframe Nancy’s lurid public image by chronicling her family’s suffering. Deborah gives this explanation of Nancy’s fitful, punishing life: “She didn’t want to live. She was like a person who came to visit and decided she didn’t want to stay.” In October 1978 Nancy was found dead in the bathroom of her apartment, presumably stabbed by a drug-addled Sid. Within days, Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s scandalous memoir of life with her mother, movie icon Joan Crawford, was published. Like Nancy, Joan was dead, and her friends (including Ann Blyth, Veda in Mildred Pierce) defended her against accusations of child abuse. The memoirs are inversely related. In one, a mother corrects the media’s uncaring portrayal of her out-of-control daughter; in the other, a tortured daughter reveals the shameful private life of her publicly revered mother.
After the English punk-rock band the Sex Pistols broke up, in 1978, Sid Vicious, the charismatic, nihilistic bassist, moved to New York with his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, managing his solo career. Spungen was defiant and outrageous (her tabloid nickname: Nauseating Nancy). Punk magazine founder Legs McNeil said Nancy “could be very, very nice,” while Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, Vicious’s bandmate, called her “vile, worn and shagged out.” But Spungen’s mother Deborah’s memoir, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life, offers an account of the punk princess by one who tried in vain to save her. Marketed as the story of “a daughter no amount of love could touch,” the book details Nancy’s troubled childhood from temperamental infancy through schizophrenic teendom, when she experimented with drugs, sex, violence, crime and self-mutilation. The damaged protagonist of Thirteen indulges in much of the same, and although her mother cannot stop her decline, the two share a tearful closing embrace, the mother kissing the self-inflicted cuts on her daughter’s arms. According to Spungen’s memoir, Nancy’s family suffered most, hurt by a daughter “so uncontrollable she tore her family apart,” a wound no amount of posthumous public reconciliation can heal.