I am not a mum. Due to a crappy biological lottery and a desire to be able to sleep in for the rest of my life, I may never be a mum. Nevertheless, I bloody love movies about ‘bad mums’.
They have become their own subgenre within the awfully titled ‘chick flick’ category: Bad Moms, Fun Mom Dinner, Girls Trip, and now Bad Moms 2 (aka A Bad Moms Christmas), all released within eighteen months of each other. Perfect for a girls’ night out, the marketing goes – for upgrading to fancy seats and ordering cocktails, or for collapsing on the couch, laughing at the women on screen; women who push back against the heavy demands made of them, not giving a shit about the consequences.
While these are both valid marketing strategies, to dismiss these films as escapist frivolities is to do the subgenre (and its audience) a disservice. These movies don’t just push back at the demands of motherhood, they push back at the sexist expectations made of all women, and the gendered stereotypes that follow. That women are inherently maternal and born to be mothers. That women who do not have children are career-obsessed and selfish (unlike men who are ‘ambitious’). That being a mother means that a woman is no longer worldly, sexy or fun.
These films work to throw these outdated tropes out with the bathwater. Bad Moms was the first released and is arguably the best known title in the genre. Labelled ‘The Hangover for suburban mothers,’ the movie heavily rejects the falsehood that women can ‘have it all’ without going insane. This theme is essentially maintained in the ‘bad mum’ movies that followed – each rallies the characters and the audience through trademark scenes of women shaking off the ridiculous expectations put on them, embracing imperfection, and having a bloody good time with their friends.
While movies about male friendship – buddy comedies such as Superbad and The Hangover series, or movies that further rail against men’s responsibilities like Daddy’s Home or Dirty Grandpa – certainly look at friends coming together in formative times of their lives, they also add to a culture that often portrays women as sex-withholding ‘naggers’ or Yoko-Ono-types that actively work to break up male friendship. From advertising to the Simpsons, the notion that becoming a husband and father means a man is no fun anymore – his wife won’t let him out, he’s ‘pussy-whipped’ or has let his wife ‘wear the pants’ – is a destructive take on heteronormativity that hurts men as well as women.
It’s important to see movies about women working together to get through everyday struggles, because it speaks to the visibility and representation of women’s real lives.
What I love about the ‘bad mum’ genre is its celebration of friendship between women without furthering these misogynistic tropes. It’s important to see movies about women working together to get through everyday struggles, because it speaks to the visibility and representation of women’s real lives.
Films in the ‘bad mum’ genre also employ and then demolish the trope that women cannot be friends with other women; the idea that women are inherently competitive for the same men and jobs, or to prove their ‘motherliness’ by outperforming each other at bake sales (a pivotal scene in the setup of Bad Moms).
In Girls Trip, gossip journalist Sasha (Queen Latifah) has an opportunity to save her failing career by exposing the marriage difficulties of her friend (and Oprah-like celebrity) Ryan (Regina Hall). However as time goes on, we see that Sasha has been using her contacts to protect Ryan, rather than throwing her under the bus. This rejection of female competitiveness is also seen at the end of Bad Moms when Amy (Mila Kunis) reaches out to her competitor in the race for PTA presidency Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), and in Fun Mom Dinner when cynical Kate (Toni Collette) and the effervescent Melanie (Bridget Everett) come together to help Emily (Katie Aselton) when they suspect she’s in danger. Each film has a critical moment where the women stand up for each other in a time of crisis, and in doing so, they demonstrate a key rule of friendships between women: that we look after each other, and know that our friends will always look after us.
Each film demonstrates a key rule of friendships between women: that we look after each other, and know that our friends will always look after us.
The women in these films push one another to be their best selves in front of others, but also allow each other to let their guard down and be vulnerable, knowing their friends will protect them from potential harm. The scenes that stay with me most happen in the unguarded moments: laying around in pyjamas eating room service after a night out in Girls Trip; laughing through a hangover together in Fun Mom Dinner; drinking cheap wine and dancing in your living room in Bad Moms.
There is a subversive rallying cry within the dialogue between women that I particularly enjoy. In Bad Moms 2, while venting to each other about the pressure of Christmas and the expectations of their visiting mothers, Carla (Kathryn Hahn) says to Amy and Kiki (Kristen Bell), ‘This is bullshit’. Mothers – women – do not stand for this.
Carla: ‘What do we do?’
Kiki: ‘We cry in the bathroom!’
Carla: ‘No! We stand up for ourselves, and we fight back!’
‘Bad mum’ movies centre on characters who are mothers, and of course there are large slices of plot that talk about motherhood (less so in Girls Trip). But as a single, childless 35-year-old woman, there is still something deeply relatable about these films; they’re not about being just a mum, they’re about proudly being your best self, in a Beyoncé-era reclamation of the word ‘feminist’ kind of way. There is a lot that remains unexplored, particularly in the characters’ careers and their ability to maintain (predominantly) middle-class lifestyles – but in a summer when Bad Moms 2 is competing at the box office up against Daddy’s Home 2, I don’t really mind if they don’t quote seminal feminist texts or find solutions for dismantling the patriarchy, as long as they start a conversation. Because if these films can help women come together, have a laugh and feel seen, that’s an enormous first step. Opening an accessible conversation about the lifestyles and desires of the audience both as mothers and as women is an important contribution to feminist discourse and should be acknowledged as such.
There is a lot that remains unexplored, [but] if these films can help women come together, have a laugh and feel seen, that’s an enormous first step.
Rebecca Solnit writes of her love of Elizabeth Taylor in the film Giant in her essay ‘Giantess’:
Taylor is that rarest of joys, a woman who breaks rules and triumphs and enjoys herself rather than winding up dead or deserted or defeated, as too many female rebels have in too many patriarchal plots.
I share a very similar feeling towards the characters in these films. ‘Bad mum’ films pass the (seemingly easy but surprisingly rarely met) Bechdel test; the women begin exhausted and dissatisfied, but soon realise they’re not alone and work together with their friends to build happier lives for themselves. Despite the sex, drugs and rebellion there is no violence of any kind, let alone towards women. When I watch these films it’s for enjoyment and enjoyment alone – a rare feat when it comes to movies for or about women.
Bad Moms, Girls Trip and Fun Mom Dinner all star women over the age of 35, strongly pushing back on the Hollywood gender-age gap, and this year’s expansion of the Bad Moms franchise sees significant roles for three women in their 50s to 70s. While there is certainly more that could be done in exploring queerness and body diversity and in featuring women of colour, the backlash against the traditional roles and stereotypes that have defined womanhood results in a genre that offers all kinds of women something to identify with.
Set to fun power pop and full of scenes of animated and unashamed female friendship, ‘bad mum’ movies aren’t to be snobbily denigrated as mindless tales of suburbia or as guilty pleasures, watched hidden away in a megaplex and instantly forgotten. These films are a reminder that not all backlash to the patriarchy needs to come in an academic form; often the best form of defiance comes from simply celebrating what makes us who we are.
Bad Moms 2 is in cinemas now.