The Rise of the Unconventional Maternal Figure

In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I would highlight, examine, and celebrate one of my favorite trends I’ve been seeing for female characters lately: the rise of the unconventional maternal figure. A long cry from fictional 50s housewives like June Cleaver and Donna Stone, these women defy every stereotype and refuse to be put into a box, embracing their flaws and complexities and adding texture and depth to what was once a one-dimensional role. 

Last month, Brit Marling wrote a brilliant New York Times article that dissected and criticized the archetype of the Strong Female Lead, saying that the role typically offered a “narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths” in the form of “physical prowess, linear ambition, [and] focused rationality.” In other words, masculine modalities of power.

The recent resurgence of all-female reboots and revivals seems to echo this thinking, with Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8, and The Hustle, to name a few. That’s not to say there is no place for these films (hello, I’m never going to complain about a movie that puts Cate Blanchett and Rihanna in the same room), nor that they’re unsuccessful in reinvigorating these franchises with a female bend. But there’s something refreshing about getting to know a character spun from scratch, independent of previous source material that naturally lends itself to comparison, no matter how subconscious it may be.

One show that’s subverting this Strong Female Lead trope exceptionally well is Facebook Watch’s Sacred Lies: The Singing Bones. Harper, played by Juliette Lewis, is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating new characters of the year. A disgruntled telemarketer by day and amateur sleuth by night (much to the chagrin of local law enforcement), Harper is both brilliant and a hot mess, determined and lost, rough around the edges while having a strong sense of justice. 

Her path eventually crosses with 17-year-old Elsie (extraordinary newcomer Jordan Alexander), who is comprised of many of these same dichotomies. When it comes to Elsie, Harper toes the line of cold and caring. She initially tells her to beat it when Elsie comes knocking at her door but doesn’t bat an eye when she starts digging through the fridge. She kicks her out of her sister’s room but gives her a safe ride back to school. And though she initially harshly refuses to let Elsie help with an investigation, she eventually softens, even protecting her at the first sign of danger. While she repeatedly says it’s all about the case—a “you scratch my back” situation—it’s clear there’s a genuine warmth and fondness there.

A relative hermit with no real friends and multiple run-ins with the police, it’s rare to see a character like Harper lead a show at all, let alone be a quote-unquote hero. She struggles, and the validity of actions and size of victories exist on a spectrum filled with far more grey than black and white, but that’s what makes it so progressive. The fact that Sacred Lies not only takes her seriously but also gives her the facets to show that she has the ability to be both empowered and nurturing in her own way is something of a revolution. 

A character like Harley Quinn, of course, is a bit of a different case, being that she’s appeared in countless iterations throughout various mediums, including comic books, video games, and cartoons. Birds of Prey, however, felt like a rebirth in a way—an untraditional journey of self-discovery that subverted expectations, taking big swings and knocking them out of the park. 

Falling into the Strong Female Lead trap Marling analyses would have been the easy route to go for Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey. After all, the pieces seemed to already be in place from the jumping-off point of Suicide Squad. But instead, we get something different entirely. Someone who’s not afraid to own both the feminine and masculine parts of herself in equal measure. 

This is never more apparent than in the scenes with the similarly naive and feisty Cassandra Cain. The decision for Harley to take her under her wing is a surprising one, and although she is arguably changed in some ways after doing so, her brash, impulsive personality remains intact. She’s never forced to sacrifice her spunk, sexuality, or identity, and she’s not viewed as weaker or even more socially acceptable after having done so. On the contrary, by teaching Cassandra how to steal food from the supermarket and giving her tips on how to pass a diamond through her intestine, Harley is showcasing a different brand of strength—a twisted, more interesting version of a maternal figure.

Her doubt about whether she’s the right woman for the job and moments of hesitation to take on the role only adds to this. Whereas both the moms of the 50s and the Strong Female Lead stereotype are characterized by unwavering confidence, this new brand of female character knows there’s courage in vulnerability, too. 

There seem to be a few patterns emerging for this new breed of mother figure. One of the most intriguing has to do with the characters’ relationships with food. Both Harper and Harley are characterized by their unapologetic love of it. However, they’re not tying a ruffled apron around their waists and making entire pot roasts every night like the housewives of yesteryear, nor are they throwing back kale salads (because they’re watching their figure) and beer (because they’re not like other girls and can hang with the boys, of course) in a skintight dress like the Strong Female Leads.

Instead, they indulge in more common cuisine. Juliette Lewis has said that she loves that Harper is always snacking, from Red Vines to tortilla chips, and has a mostly bare fridge save for a box of leftover pizza. A pivotal plot point for Harley is, of course, the mission to enjoy the perfect breakfast sandwich, and the scene on the couch with Cassandra shows them eating cereal. Their diets aren’t a statement waiting to be picked apart by others. Food a pleasure partaken in without shame or commentary on its impact on body image.

Another is their unique role as a mentor and educator. In the fourth episode of Sacred Lies, Harper agrees to let Elsie help her with her investigation, and Elsie, in turn, begins eagerly introducing herself as Harper’s intern. Towards the end of Birds of Prey, Harley says she’s taking on Cassandra as her protégée. 

This creates an interesting dynamic, as through this, it’s clear Harper and Harley see Elsie and Cassandra more as equals, recognizing a duty to guide them in terms of skill rather than morality. It’s fair to say that there are elements of themselves each sees in their mentee.

Whereas the mothers of the past existed only to serve a familial unit and the Strong Female Character is a lone wolf who is unable to form any type of connection, this new brand of female character sees pseudo-parenthood as neither a requirement nor a burden. Instead, it’s an enrichment that doesn’t compromise autonomy. Not defined by blood or obligation, these relationships authentically reflect a modern-day family—one with choice at its core as opposed to DNA. It proves that family can be found and formed anywhere.

It should come as no surprise that women are overwhelmingly responsible for both Sacred Lies and Birds of Prey. Raelle Tucker is at the helm of Sacred Lies, acting as creator and showrunner. Molly Nussbaum is another powerhouse in regards to writing and producing. Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson are famously behind the direction and writing of Birds of Prey, and I’d be remiss not to mention how Erin Benach’s costume design elevates every moment of screentime. 

The emergence of the unconventional maternal figure goes to show that new, exciting things are bound to happen when you take a chance on women behind the camera, especially when it comes to the depiction of women. The time for clean, easy categorization is over—long live the rise of female characters who don’t just push the envelope but burn it completely.

— Taylor Gates

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