Meet “The Walking Dead’s” Carol Peletier, and “American Horror Story: Freak Show’s” Ethel Darling and Gloria Mott for starters. And we kind of love them for it.
Shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story may pride themselves on stretching the TV-MA rating with zombies and humans being dispatched with hatchets and crossbows and teeth to the throat, and sinister, angry clowns terrorizing, and brutally murdering, suburban families. But the most transgressive element of each show isn’t its Grand Guignol of undead bloodletting and tributes to John Wayne Gacy. It is, of all things, the ways in which each series has allowed female characters to subvert, or outright reject, identities that hinge on motherhood.
Characters like Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) from The Walking Dead, “Bearded Lady” Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), and befuddled wealthy society woman Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) from American Horror Story: Freak Show (and Jessica Lange’s Supreme witch, Fiona Goode, and Sarah Paulson’s ambitious lesbian reporter, Lana Winters, from earlier seasons of AHS), offer a safe zone in the Mommy Wars, a place where women can enact the anger and ambivalence, the regret and genuine heartbreak that male characters (e.g., Don Draper) are so often allowed to feel toward their children, and their roles as fathers. When discussing the accidental death of his young daughter, True Detective’s philosopher king Rust Cohle muses that he is now, at least, “spared the sins of being a father.” Cohle’s nihilistic ambivalence toward parenthood only adds to his allure as an anti-hero, the gutsy bastard who speaks aloud every cold curdled thing you’ve ever held in your heart (and sounds infinitely smarter and more poetic while doing so).
True equality in representation comes when a woman can admit that she wants to be spared the sins of being a mother and still be seen as a three-dimensional character, not some cardboard cutout labeled “failure” or “villain”; it happens when women can see our onscreen counterparts take a bite out of the low-hanging fruit and indulge our natural taste for the bitter.
Carol’s arc on The Walking Dead takes a sharp left turn off the conventional route of TV moms—the Huxtables and Gilmores, women who get a stronger sense of power and purpose from motherhood; she gets richer, more complex and formidable when she is liberated from parenting. Though the cultural static about moms who lean in or opt out crackles on, and women are so acculturated to sacrifice for family that the idea of “taking me time” is marketed as a delectable transgression (hence ad after ad of sweater-and-Keds-clad moms smiling serenely into a coffee mug filled with “low-fat creamer, high-quality taste” as wild children smear runny eggs against the walls), Carol’s transformation from battered wife to one-woman assault squad is all the more radical: She is only able to become her better, stronger self after her child is killed by zombies.
She has muscled out of her chrysalis over the course of the past several seasons, learning to hunt and use all manner of weaponry, sharpening her mind on the whetstone of certain truths: There is no room for softness or compromise in a world overtaken by the ravenous dead; anything or anyone that can be lost, will be lost; and the living are infinitely crueler than any snarling, shambling monster. One of this season’s key villains has been a group of cannibals who slaughter their victims like hogs, a group that gets the better of the show’s hero and his crew of buff survivors—until Carol takes them out and rescues her friends in a ballet of ballistics that would have done Rambo proud.
Up until now, The Walking Dead hasn’t exactly been at the vanguard of gender complexity onscreen: The hero’s nagging wife dies in childbirth and the other formidable female warrior, Michonne, is treated like a dreadlocked, katana-wielding Man With No Name—until a rather bland, predictable attempt to humanize, or, rather, feminize her. Of course, she loses a young child in the apocalypse. Of course, after the loss of her child, she ceases to feel like a person. Of course, the only way for her to heal is to bond with the hero’s baby daughter. This makes Carol’s turnabout more powerful. Nothing in her characterization now is expressly tied to her identity as a mother (and arguably, her prior passivity in the brunt of her husband’s brutality against herself and her daughter wasn’t going to win her any Mother of the Year awards).
In fact, she actively rejects this identity, even when she and a male survivor, Tyreese, find themselves on the road with two young girls, Lizzie and Mika, whose parents died in the apocalypse. The impromptu family dynamic is inverted: Tyreese takes a more direct, engaged role in caring for the children; Carol openly rebuffs Mika’s attempt to call her mom. The horrors of the new world break Lizzie in mind and spirit; she goes feral and kills Mika. The girl is a threat to herself and to others. And, in what many critics have called the single most shocking moment in The Walking Dead’s run, Carol takes her out behind an abandoned home (which, in the days before the End of Days, would’ve looked the very model of Rockwell Americana) and shoots her in the back of the head.
Though she commits the ultimate act of violence against a child, Carol isn’t pilloried; she’s portrayed as a tough-minded woman who had to break her own heart to do the right thing. She has not only become a truly powerful, autonomous figure, but a fan favorite. Carol’s single-handed siege of the cannibal compound launched a fleet of memes usually dedicated to the show’s male stars (“If Carol dies, we riot!”).
Perhaps women like Carol, or the various dark mothers of American Horror Story, are exempt from the expectations of unfailing, uncomplaining maternal devotion, because in the hells they inhabit, there are no PTA bake sales that demand slaved-over cupcakes. Each ring of the inferno that is American Horror Story presents us with women whose approaches to motherhood can be variously bristling and smothering, but always compelling.
AHS: Asylum introduced us to the intrepid Lana Winters, who was impregnated by a rapist–serial killer and must eventually shoot the son she placed for adoption point blank in the face; Coven gave us the torrentially selfish Fiona Goode, who abandoned her daughter so she can live fast and free. And now, Freak Show brings to the stage one Ethel Darling, the bearded lady who both embodies and complicates the tropes of the noble, long-suffering mother.
Ethel may be the most nuanced of these women, at least in terms of her relationship with her son, Jimmy, the Lobster Boy. Characters like Lana and Fiona feel invigorating, even radical, because of their unabashed lack of maternal regard, but Ethel views her failings with a wrenching regret that invests her story with great pathos. Jimmy’s White Knight gallantry—he’s protective of his fellow freaks and willing to risk his life to rescue strangers from a duo of killer clowns—shows that he has been raised with compassion and a clear sense of values. Ethel even remembers her little Lobster Boy’s favorite Halloween costume: “He always wanted to be a solider.”
Yet, when recounting the story of her son’s life she weeps, “All he’s known is exploitation.” But she has undeniably been the architect of that exploitation. Jimmy—whose Brando-esque wardrobe, lack of impulse control, and drive to rebel against the townies and cops code him as a teenager—has been moonlighting as a gigolo, using his unique appendages to pleasure suburban housewives; when he presents his earnings to Ethel, she chides him for not charging one young woman who came instantaneously and asks him if he was sure to sneak in and out through the back door with a vaguely peeved tone more apt for reminding an errant child to put on his coat or stop sniffling.
This scene is curiously underplayed, especially on a show that exalts in its own grotesquery (Coven featured not one, but two mothers who sexually abuse their young sons). Ethel has presumably been pimping Jimmy out long before he was of an age to register what he was doing, let alone consent, and yet she is not vilified; her choices are shown as a reaction to, and continuation of, the exploitation she’s endured herself. She’s suffered terribly at the hands of the boorish strongman she loved despite (or perhaps to spite) herself—he coaxes her out of a successful vaudeville act into Shakespearean set-pieces that leave her destitute and humiliated, turns her live birth into a sideshow attraction, and tries to murder her son before finally abandoning her altogether—and this abuse explains, with more pity than judgment, how a woman who truly does care for her child can allow horrors to befall him.
Mother may be the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children, but Ethel is merely human. And Freak Show’s other maternal figure, dotty heiress Gloria Mott, shows the clear and present danger of trying to be that figure of perfect God-like beneficence. She plies her sociopathic son, Dandy, with gifts and toys, impromptu clown parties and servants—and he’s still skinning the neighborhood cats. But it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. Gloria is woefully out of her depth, and more than a little terrified of her son, and yet she willfully refuses to concede that he may need more serious intervention (like a trip to a padded room, for starters).
By retreating to the tiny, pink-curtained room of her own obliviousness, Gloria spares herself from the sins—and the responsibilities—of parenting. She is, in this regard, not unlike Jessica Lange’s Constance Langdon from AHS’s first season story, Murder House, who is so absorbed in her own affairs that her son grows up like a weed through cracks in the concrete: dark and crooked. Still, Lange is such a charismatic performer and Constance does get the best lines (“My womb was cursed. My husband was the spitting image of Van Johnson. Our combined beauty was an affront to the gods!”), we can’t help but be compelled to forgive her those sins and savor her presence.
One of the primary appeals of horror-based entertainment like The Walking Dead or AHS is that it offers us catharsis; the chance to see our most brutal (or, at the very least, less-than-stellar) impulses enacted onscreen. It makes sense, then, that these shows in particular would feature characters that can embody and express attitudes towards motherhood that most women could never feel truly safe admitting. After all, motherhood is often referred to as the toughest job on the planet; but it may be the only job where any random internet commenter or nosy-pants in the grocery store thinks that she or he qualifies as a supervisor, full of “constructive criticism” and “helpful feedback.” And women who fall short of the maternal ideal (or, worst of all, opt out of having children altogether) are made into monsters. This makes women like Carol so essential: They can blast those monsters back to oblivion.
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