Television’s Most Realistic Mom-Child Relationships


There was something oddly comforting about watching Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson having an awkward mother-daughter spat with mom Melanie Griffith on the Oscars red carpet. When asked if Griffith had seen the film, in which Johnson plays an oft-nude virginal initiate into the world of BDSM, she said no and that she didn’t need to see it to know her daughter was a good actress. Cue a familiar eye roll and a few fed-up expletives from a bratty Johnson.

It’s telling that one of the most realistic portrayals of a mother-child relationship on television this year didn’t happen in a family sitcom, but at an awards show. But there are a few family-driven programs that have presented believable moms and children, like Amy Sherman-Palladino’s beloved Gilmore Girls. The pop culture-obsessed relationship between Alexis Bledel’s Rory and Lauren Graham’s Lorelai was dynamic. Lorelai’s complicated relationship with blue-blood matriarch Emily (played by Kelly Bishop, who celebrates a birthday today) was also unique. Bossy and often brutal, Emily was not simply a caricature of a parent who just didn’t understand. She longed to find that connection with Lorelai, whose hurt and frustrations would often get in the way of building a bond.

Here are other mother-child relationships on television that broke the mold and got real.

Roseanne Conner, Roseanne

Roseanne Conner (played by Roseanne Barr), the outspoken matriarch of one of television’s most successful working-class family sitcoms, remains the standard by which realistic TV moms are judged. The Conners face money struggles, domestic strife, teen pregnancy, and other issues familiar to the average American family. Roseanne deals with things with humor and without wrapping a neat, little bow on the family’s problems. She doesn’t have all the answers and offers realistic advice when daughters Darlene and Becky complain about the trials of young adulthood. And Roseanne has her own life to sort out while she’s busy being mom, especially her career as co-owner of the Lanford Lunch Box restaurant.

Florida Evans, Good Times

Salon on Esther Rolle’s portrayal of Florida Evans in Good Times, who raised her family with her husband (John Amos’ James Evans) in Chicago’s Cabrini–Green projects:

According to University of Michigan professor Kimberly Springer, criticism from the group Black Women Organized for Action led to Florida’s evolution from a somewhat cookie-cutter stay-at-home mom character to one whose pain mirrored the pain of many 1970s mothers. In “Florida Flips,” Florida is besieged by demands to make the oatmeal, do the laundry, make the bed, referee fighting kids and argue with her husband about the “state of her happiness” — she ultimately slaps her son Michael in a fit of frustration. Her friend Willona does what any enlightened woman of the ’70s would do: she drags Florida to a feminist meeting. By Season 3, Florida evolves into a working mother, voicing outrage about how women of that generation (and ours) must “do all the chores and be mother, housewife, diplomat, seamstress, referee, counselor, cook, and sparring partner with no pay and no fringe benefits.” This was over 30 years ago, folks.

Sophia Petrillo, The Golden Girls

Proud of her hard-working Sicilian roots, The Golden Girls’ sassy matriarch Sophia Petrillo is mother to Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) — but she cares for roommates Rose (Betty White) and Blanche (Rue McClanahan) as if they were her own daughters. Sophia and Dorothy’s bickering is epic, but it’s realistic — and it proves parenting doesn’t end at 18 years old. Like many moms, Sophia is quick to take Dorothy to task about her mistakes, but it comes from a place of love and wanting better for her child. She’s also quick to defend Dorothy and to offer a wise word, handling life’s hardships with humor.

Lois Wilkerson, Malcolm in the Middle

Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois in Malcolm in the Middle had a tough childhood, which explains her no-nonsense approach to parenting. In spite of wanting her children to overcome their adolescent urges, she overcompensates for her anxiety by controlling every aspect of her childrens’ lives. Hal, Lois’ husband, ineptly undermines much of Lois’ parental micro-managing. But whether she’s pressuring Malcolm to focus on his college education, or keeping black sheep Francis away from her three younger children, Lois is the impossibly-strong glue that holds her testosterone-crazed family together.

Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights

Her hair was a little too perfect, but there’s a reason why fans love Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights — the guidance counselor at Dillon High and beloved mom. Our own Judy Berman wrote about Tami and husband Eric: “[They are] deeply good people who are imperfect enough to never seem saccharine, they have major disagreements and relationship-changing conflicts but value each other and their marriage enough to work them out.” YA fan website Forever Young Adult lists a few reasons why Tami is magic: “Tami is a supportive wife and mother, but she’s also a strong, independent woman. For example, when she gets her dream job, she tells the Coach: ‘It’s my turn, babe. I have loved you and you have loved me and we have compromised, both of us… for your job. And now it’s time to talk about doing that for my job.’”

Joyce Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In the beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristine Sutherland’s Joyce Summers is oblivious to daughter Buffy’s secret side gig as an ass-kicking heroine. Eventually she learns the truth, expressing concerns for Buffy’s safety. It’s not unwarranted, as her daughter is considered troubled by the time the family relocates to Sunnydale, following Joyce’s divorce. But Joyce loves and supports Buffy (and even takes an interest in the particulars of Buffy’s job), which empowers her daughter to succeed as a slayer. From website Legendary Women:

By ‘School Hard,’ I think we had an idea that Joyce might handle the supernatural better than most parents. . . She could see the strength in Buffy’s actions, that what might seem like all the wrong choices were actually the right ones if you looked hard enough. . . . Even when she found out Dawn’s true nature, her first concern was for Dawn. . . . There was something comforting about Joyce Summers. Her presence affected every other character in the show, and her absence made things just a little harder and darker all around. While she lived, Buffy rarely worried about anything other than whatever Big Bad was threatening Sunnydale.

Linda Belcher, Bob’s Burgers

Bob’s Burgers‘ Linda Belcher (voiced by John Roberts) is a klutzy extrovert who likes to drink and spontaneously break out into song. She’s also a wife who dotes on her husband and a mother who encourages her kids without ever really knowing what they want or are up to. Linda defies formulaic expectations by being loud, happy, and unselfish. She’s not a nag or a bundle of nerves like Marge Simpson is, but rather a happy, proud woman with an anti-style all her own.

Eleanor Emerson, Roc

NAACP Image Award-winning sitcom Roc centered on Baltimore garbage collector Roc Emerson (Charles S. Dutton), wife Eleanor (Ella Joyce), a registered nurse, and extended family members — all living together under one roof. “Roc . . . succeeds where other shows have failed because the blackness of its characters is a component of the show, not the controlling factor,” wrote the Baltimore Sun, calling the series a “rare TV event.” They continue: “Ella Joyce, as Roc’s wife, is the calming influence who, in traditional sitcom style, keeps the family centered, but she also is allowed to have her share of fun. . . . Roc, thankfully, has not become a parody of itself, a failure that has often been the fate of black-oriented sitcoms that collapse into clownishness to achieve a mass audience.”

Ruth Fisher, Six Feet Under

Soft-spoken widow Ruth Fisher from HBO’s Six Feet Under, mother to troubled trio Nate, David and Claire, was forced to focus on herself after realizing that her children didn’t really need her. She was accommodating, regardless, and indulged in the occasional outburst to vent her frustrations about family life. Feminist journal S&F Online wrote about the welcome range of Ruth’s character:

Her process of self-discovery is activated and enabled by the death of her husband, indicating some kind of release from the stifling restrictions of the patriarchal family structure and, represented as a dowdy, middle-aged woman (hair pulled back in a stringy bun), Ruth nevertheless transgresses the cultural and televisual norms that position women as sexually redundant once child-bearing years have passed. Ruth’s exploration of her sexuality and her representation as being sexually active constitute a risky performance, an activity that Mary Russo equates to stunting, in which ‘the discourse of risk-taking’ introduces the grotesque body—freed from the restrictions of the self-sufficient, smooth, rounded, and closed ‘classical’ body, in Bakhtin’s famous formulation—into a space that leaves room for chance and the creation of new meanings. Ruth’s behavior often stands counter to ‘models of progress, rationality, and liberation which disassociate themselves from their mistakes—noise, dissonance, or monstrosity,’ and her stunts become increasingly risky as the seasons progress. Each opens up a space of possibility, even if that possibility is not fully realized: The fact, and then admission, of her affair with Hiram; her near-lesbian relationship with Bettina, which includes a flirtation with drug taking and shop lifting; the attempts to draw the much younger and more-than-slightly-weird Arthur into an emotionally intimate and sexual relationship.

Jackie Peyton, Nurse Jackie

In her thoughtful article “Working Women on Television: A Mixed Bag at Best,” NPR’s Neda Ulaby singles Nurse Jackie‘s title character (Edie Falco) out for being the exception that proves the disappointing rule about an independent working mothers on TV. She quotes documentary filmmaker Jennifer Newsom, who reports that “forty and older are actually 47 percent of our population here in the U.S., yet only 26 percent of women on TV.” Falco’s Jackie is defined by her day job stress, by her daughters, and by her dependency on prescription medication. She’s a complex woman and one of the few TV moms who’s more than just a sexless, family-oriented caregiver.