The A.V. Club’s guide to domineering pop culture moms
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“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” Anthony Perkins famously remarked in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, proof positive that a boy’s best friend should never, ever be his mother. The overbearing mother is a constant trope in TV, film, literature, and life (and video games). With Mother’s Day this weekend, we thought it’d be a good, healthy, constructive idea to compile a list of some of fiction’s most domineering matriarchs.
If anything, it’ll put your own mommy issues in perspective this Sunday as you shift uncomfortably through some mid-afternoon brunch engagement while your hen-pecking mother nags you to stop squirming and passive-aggressively implies that you need a haircut. Happy Mother’s Day!
Tress MacNeille as Agnes Skinner on The Simpsons
Springfield’s got its share of unhealthy mother/son relationships—Mr. Burns and his 122-year-old mom come to mind. But Seymour and Agnes Skinner’s live-in scenario takes the cake. (Or maybe not the cake. After all, Agnes doesn’t care for cake—too sweet.) Despite being a grown adult man who runs his own elementary school, Seymour Skinner remains at the beck and call of his overbearing mother, who will punish him by covering her half of the television or hiding his car keys; she also forbids him from driving through tunnels (she doesn’t like what they represent). Still, by his own admission Seymour Skinner owes everything he has to his mother’s watchful eye… and swift hand.
M.U.T.H.E.R. in The Venture Bros., “What Goes Down, Must Come Up”
A supercomputer built to run an underground fallout shelter should probably be more than a little strict. After all, it has dozens of honorary Rusty Venture Fan Club members to look after, and if anyone needs supervision (and mood-altering drugs) more than Doc, it’s his fans. What it shouldn’t be is a morally righteous matriarch with access to a nuke. Given a sentient sense of right and wrong to go along with absolute power, M.U.T.H.E.R. reacts to Jonas Venture’s drug problem with cold, stern irony, poisoning the shelter’s occupants and locking many of them inside. Accidentally awoken after 30 years offline, M.U.T.H.E.R. requests Jonas (despite him being dead for 20 years) and threatens to launch a nuclear arsenal unless her demands are met. It serves as the episode’s villain, sure, but also the ultimate maternal surrogate for a series with few mothers and an abundance of daddy issues.
Avril Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
The matriarch of the central family in Wallace’s epic comic tome, Avril is more than just a little overbearing. Following the death of her husband, she assumes complete control over the lives of her sons Hal, Mario, and Orin. Despite suffering from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder (as well as hypochondria and agoraphobia), she appears totally genuine and loving, even to the point of suspicion. While “the moms,” as she’s often called, projects an air of unimpeachability as a mother, she’s no great wife, possessing a storied history of adultery (and, maybe, incest). Oh, and she may also be involved with a Quebecois terrorist plot to cripple America using the titular, lethally entertaining video cartridge.
Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Brian De Palma’s Carrie
To call Margaret White a religious fanatic would be an insult to Piper Laurie’s Oscar-nominated performance. She is downright abusive to her daughter, Carrie, portrayed by Sissy Spacek, and it’s all under the guise of her deranged religious convictions. Beyond her rants, accusations, and freakish proselytizing that results in their status as community pariahs, her abuses include neglecting to give young Carrie the ol’ birds and bees talk, so that when she gets her period for the first time (naturally in the school showers for everyone to notice and ridicule), she is humiliated. Her mother’s response? To lock her in a closet to pray since she has been cursed with blood as punishment for her sin. As we all know, blood figures heavily into this flick, and Margaret—along with much of the town—ultimate pays with her own at the hand (and psychokinetic mind) of Carrie.
Fionnula Flanagan as Eloise Hawking on LOST
Before she was revealed to be Daniel Faraday’s mother, the mysterious Eloise Hawking appeared mostly to offer cryptic pronouncements and act as an oracle of sorts. Once her true identity came to light, she quickly jumped to the top shelf of overbearing motherhood. (She also acted as an overbearing surrogate mother of sorts to Ben Linus and Desmond at various times, manipulating them to her own ends.) She forced Faraday to abandon music and she meddled in his love life, all in an effort to keep him in focused entirely on studying physics. To be fair, she wasn’t just hoping to have a famous physicist son to brag about, she was trying her damnedest to figure out a way to change the past, to keep herself from murdering her own son when he was time-traveling. You have to admit, it’s a better excuse than most overbearing moms have.
Jessica Walter as Mallory Archer on Archer
Sterling Archer is an immature, insensitive, and largely irredeemable womanizer, alcoholic, and reprobate. That might be unforgivable. But once his mother comes into the picture, everything makes a lot more sense. Mallory Archer offers that special combination of emotional abuse, evil manipulation, and horrific neglect that only a select few mothers can bring to the table. She’s broken up his relationships, had his car stolen to “teach him a lesson,” had him tortured, and at least once ordered him killed, on top of forgetting to pick him up at the train station when he came home from boarding school as a child. She may not be the worst mother on this list (Carrie’s mom probably just manages to sneak into the pole position) but she shoots well past overbearing and into territory most of us can only imagine in nightmares.
Sophie Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint
In the very first sentence of Philip Roth’s comic therapy session, Alexander Portnoy claims that his mother was such a force in his life that he thought every one of his teachers was Sophie in disguise. The so-called “patron saint of self-sacrifice” has the ability to exert influence over her son, an influence that only grows as he ages. From forbidding Alex to eat hamburgers and french fries because he might perish of diarrhea in childhood, to guilting him into calling home constantly as an adult by asking him what would happen if she died, Sophie leaves her son with a textbook’s worth of psychological issues that require several hundred pages’ worth of monologue to even begin to work through in therapy. In the process, Sophie Portnoy became the definitive template for the nightmare Jewish mother that lives on in the neuroses of nice kosher boys everywhere.