Not Your Mother's TV Moms: Emmy Voters Recognized Nuanced Portrayals of Motherhood

BLACK-ISH - Hair Day -MARSAI MARTIN, TRACEE ELLIS ROSS- H 2020
Courtesy of ABC

Move aside, Carol Brady: Steely moms have stepped into the spotlight, from Laura Dern's character in 'Big Little Lies' to Octavia Spencer's in 'Self Made.'

When asked to imagine the quintessential TV mom, you might recall any number of firm, wholesome or uplifting characters from across the decades. June Cleaver and Carol Brady remain the paradigms of chipper blond matriarchy. Marge Simpson and the doyennes of The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie made hearth and home. On classic sitcoms, Clair Huxtable eased you with her patrician comfort while Marie Barone and Roseanne Conner smothered you with bullish affection. In later years, TV drama mamas Lorelai Gilmore, Tami Taylor and the Pearson women could help you feel like you always had a place to turn.

As TV content continues to swell and deepen in the streaming era, so do our definitions of onscreen motherhood. Competition increasingly has led platforms to seek innovative auteurs and groundbreaking stories, which has revolutionized representation onscreen for marginalized folks but has also changed how we engage with archetypal roles. This year, the Emmys have pointed a lens at an emerging trend in longform storytelling: the plight of the steely mom.

The steely mom isn't necessarily unloving; she's just emotionally complex, often caught between her core desire to do right by her kids and the call of her overarching ambitions. Sometimes she risks her life or profession for her children; other times she distances herself from her spawn to focus on her own needs. Still, she's constantly grappling with her dual personae as a devoted caregiver and an autonomous striver.

In the 2020 Emmy drama categories, The Crown's Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), Unorthodox's Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas), Self Made's Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) and Mrs. America's Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) could each easily imagine life as a stay-at-home mother, running a household and wrangling kids in ways that uphold traditional values (and gender norms). The queen progressively learns to accept her duty as sovereign, but still sometimes indulges in the fantasy of being a simple country wife who breeds horses. The others, however, know deep down that they weren't meant for domesticity.

Pregnant newlywed Esty escapes her cold husband and suffocating Brooklyn Hasidic community to pursue a classical music career in Berlin, while middle-aged wife and mother Walker endures the racism and misogyny of the Jim Crow era to grow her backroom hair-care tonic business into a full-blown cosmetics empire. Even conservative activist Schlafly manages to convince her husband to let her apply to law school in a mid-career shift toward policy-crafting.

For some Emmy-nominated moms, though, parenthood itself is the challenge. On The Morning Show, fed-up talk show co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) struggles to connect with her college-age daughter (Oona Roche), both cognizant that Alex has always prioritized career over family. Ozark's manipulative Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney), often wrapped up in expanding her criminal enterprise, treats her kids like she treats everyone else: people she needs to lie to. Succession's barbed Caroline Collingwood (guest actress in a drama nominee Harriet Walter) tends to dismiss her needy children as casualties in a psychological war with their explosive billionaire father (Brian Cox), while Killing Eve's MI6 renegade Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw) seems to barely even acknowledge her hacker son at all until his death.

Sometimes TV characters have had to adorn the "steely mom" persona to protect their kids (and communities) at all costs. On miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, Emmy nominee Kerry Washington is a broke artist struggling to keep her daughter secure in the white, middle-class suburbs. Watchmen's Angela Abar, aka Sister Night (Regina King), a mother of two, is a police detective who moonlights as a vigilante superhero. On Westworld, sentient AI Maeve (Thandie Newton) consistently faces violence (or acts violently) for the chance to be reunited with her "daughter" from a previous simulation. And the tart, misguided mothers of Big Little Lies — in particular, the characters played by nominees Laura Dern and Meryl Streep — fool themselves into thinking their aggressive, self-preservationist mama-bear routines benefit anyone but themselves.

This maternal unease extends to the comedy categories as well, with the Emmy-nominated women of Schitt's Creek, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and GLOW all playing characters balancing showbiz jobs and detached relationships with their children. Schitt's Creek's glamorous former soap star Moira Rose (Catherine O'Hara) maintains a stiff upper lip when it comes to her two adult kids, but newfound poverty and tenancy in rural hicksville have softened her motherly instincts. Maisel's stand-up comic Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and GLOW's wrestler Debbie (Betty Gilpin) both struggle with life on the road as performers, acutely feeling the distance from their young children. But not enough to forgo their ambitions.

If any of this year's nominees embody the tenderness of a traditional mother figure, it's Black-ish's Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), an effervescent doctor in charge of a brood of five, and Pose's Pray Tell (Billy Porter), a larger-than-life emcee and fashionista who mentors the young queer members of New York's underground ballroom community. Warmth is nice, but still sometimes I long for the cold clarity of steel.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.