An analysis of the ideology of “Bad Moms” by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

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Bad Moms is a comedy film directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. The two are perhaps best known as the writing team of The Hangover, and this is their directorial debut as a duo.

The humour is very much like that of The Hangover movies, with the exception being that Bad Moms primarily, and almost exclusively, stars an-all female cast and is centred around the concept of motherhood. Therefore, it automatically becomes interesting to analyse because it can be taken as a prime specimen for an analysis on the way in which Hollywood’s male gaze is able to look at the theme of modern-day motherhood in contemporary cinema.

For starters, Bad Moms features a stellar cast, headed by Mila Kunis in the role of Amy. Amy is a mother of two. She is a working-mom and from the start we see her running around on her heels trying to keep some sort of balance between work, shopping, school etc. She also cooks the family means. But she is unappreciated. Her kids reproach her constantly and her husband, Mike, masturbates to a woman on webcam. When Amy finds out about his nightly habit, she kicks him out of the house, thus the film begins. Shortly thereafter, she makes the acquaintance of Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristin Bell). Carla is a free-spirited and sexually-active mom; Kiki, on the other hand, is a stay-at-home mom with a submissive personality. There is also an antagonist in the film: Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) is the snobbish president of the school’s Parent Teacher’s Association, and seems to have massive control over the parent teacher population in the school, manipulating them for her selfish reasons.

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Gwendolyn’s presence is significant for one reason; she is the antithesis of Amy’s motto, implied in the film’s title. For the entire duration of the film, Amy refers to herself as a “bad mom” and tells others around them to, basically, stop lying to themselves and understand that they too are bad moms. This realization should, it is implied, lead to a happiness as a result of a brand new perspective on life. Gwendolyn, on the other hand, preaches perfection among moms: she organizes emergency meetings for upcoming bake sales, sensationalizing them theatrically.

It is at the end of one such meeting that Amy realizes that she would rather accept herself as a bad mom rather than be a good mom, if being a good mom is being like Gwendolyn. She announces this at the PTA meeting in front of all the other moms attending; this is the first ideological “shoot-off” between the two.

Bad Moms is indeed the story of this confrontation of ideologies on the concept of motherhood, which will culminate in a final election of a new president of the PTA: Amy, the “imperfect mom,” or Gwendolyn, the “perfect mom.”  It is basically, the fight between “imperfection” and “perfection.” Yet, the film’s idea of imperfection is still absolutely faithful to a middle-class perspective. Therefore, it is also perfectly integrated in middle-class, capitalist ideology. There is a fundamental lack of what truly makes a parent imperfect in Amy’s doings; the worst that she does in the entire duration of the film is, probably, force her kids to make their own breakfast (although, by more conservative means, Amy’s awakening to a sexually-active lifestyle – though quickly and ultimately botched – will be the most shockingly un-motherly thing she will do).

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Furthermore, perhaps more importantly, the idea of perfection is somewhat attached to male sexuality, while imperfection is relegated to the judgement of female sexuality. As Amy’s self-flagellating label of “bad mom” dominates the narrative (there is never any verbal accusation of “bad dads” in the film), only two men play a significant role in it. They are Mike, Amy’s husband, and Jessie, a single-dad and widower with a sculptural body, who becomes Amy’s love interest.

The two are polar opposites of each other: Mike is a scruffy, lazy and unappreciative guy; Jessie is a well-groomed man with rock-hard abs. Jessie is also a gentleman: on the night of his first significant encounter with Amy, which takes place at a bar and follows a number of disastrous attempts to approach men and “get laid,” not only does he rescue her from a possible regretful experience (and from the degradation of her character’s morality, from a mainstream audience’s point of view), he also safeguards her dignity by not sleeping with her that same night.

It is also important to point out that Amy is sexually innocent. Before this night out, during a conversation with Carla and Kiki, she admits that she only ever slept with Mike. This revelation comes just in time and somehow balances not only her representation of “imperfection,” but also justifies her human desire to “get laid.” But this justification is also gratuitous; it would be unlikely to find a similar situation in a film about “bad dads,” so to speak. The film, perhaps wanting to maintain a gloss of feminine perspective and ethos immediately succeeds this revelation with an awkward conversation about the male symbol of sexuality: the phallus, and more specifically, the foreskin. In doing so, however, it again fails significantly in representing a proper counterpart to the male-dominated films of the comedy genre. Women are traditionally figures of castration in Freudian analysis: this is merely a scene illustrating “penis envy,” so much so that Kiki, standing in the middle of the two, is actually objectified and used as the illustrative representation of the penis, with her hooded zip-up jumper as the foreskin (at the end of this scene, Kiki announces that she will never wear the jumper again, immediately distancing her from the representation of her character as male figure).

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This is perhaps the scene which points towards the fundamental male gaze of the film the most. The three women not only figuratively-metaphorically transform themselves into a male phallus in this sequence, but also do so in front of the mirror. The presence of the mirror points to a reflection of their own sexuality; while in the physical world they are, at this moment, representing a phallus, in the reflected world, they remain female. In reference to Lacanian psychoanalysis, the “mirror stage” is a moment representing a permanent structure of subjectivity during which a person’s external representation of the human body is shaped by reflected image and/or in relation to the objects and people around them. Physically, Amy, Carla and Kiki may be likening themselves to the male sexual organ, but they are just as reassured in their reflection as women. Because this scene will be follows by their manifestation of sexual activity, during which Amy and Carla (Kiki is apparently happily married) will try to get laid. It is therefore important for the film to establish an introductory cross-over between the male and female gender before dragging its female characters in a usually male-oriented filmic sequence.

Let’s return to the lack of active male figures in the storyline of Bad Moms. This is directly linked to the theme of perfection and imperfection because it automatically implies a drastic division of the the heterosexual male and heterosexual female sexes (there is no homosexuality in the film at all).

In the wider scheme of things, Bad Moms could essentially be disguised as what has been called in the past a “slobs vs. snobs” (whose range covers anything from M*A*S*H to Revenge of the Nerds), with the slobs headed by Amy and the snobs headed by Gwendolyn. But the lack of active men in the plot also seems to gaze upon this world and overall ideological altercation as one that is exclusively created by females: it is an anti-feminist film, despite its best intentions, because it seems to imply that the greatest opposition to the empowering of the female sex originates from other women. Gwendolyn’s idea of a perfect mom is also a conservative idea of a perfect mom. Furthermore, despite this gaping lack of active men in the narrative, the greatest source of acceptance and gratification remains tied to the male sex in one way or another.

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In the end, Amy can only really be happy in her role as a “bad mom” because Jessie is in her life, and it is the look she shares with him at the end of the movie that effectively ends the film (at least in the sense that it wraps it up in a satisfactory resolution). This is true as far as the other characters are concerned as well: Kiki, for instance, in the end seems to have submitted – to return to Freudian terms, castrated – her husband, whom we see doing most of the work on the way to school and getting reproached when he realizes that he has forgotten his little daughter’s bag at home: he takes this reproach without a peep.

It is disappointing to note that we had only previously fleetingly seen the husband twice in the film, and at both times he simply asked Kiki to go home and look after the kids. Gwendolyn too, it turns out, owes her obsessive behaviour to the fact that she is neglected by her husband. Implausibly, she is even a friend of the central trio of imperfect moms: it is actually her presence’s shift in ideology that effectively concludes the movie, as she invites the Amy, Kiki and Clara on a ride on her husband’s private plane, a symbol of capitalism and power.

The message of motherhood has therefore been replaced by that of female middle-class fulfilment: men and money.

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This is the same reason why Clara, who has been the least “motherly” of all three central characters in the movie, must therefore be redeemed in her final scene, which sees her lovingly hug her son and tell him that she will attend his next baseball game from the start to the end. Clara’s character was vital in constantly taking both Amy and Kiki out of their comfort zones by influencing them with her free-spirited personality. It is up to the film’s ideological structure to conclude her story with her a moment that convinces us of her legitimate conventional motherly love at the last minute.

Bad Moms destroys its commitment to the film’s diegesis with a prologue portraying the lead actresses’ mothers tell anecdotes of moments in which they were not “perfect.” It’s hard to understand why scenes like these are ever included in films; one can only really understand this as a final touch adding an endearing element to the actresses, perhaps as a counter-act for those (presumably females) in the audience who might still feel unconvinced about the sanctity of the characters’ objectives and overall personalities. This “realistic” promo further strengthens the final twist: in the end, the word “bad” does not correspond to the word evil; there is no evil people, there’s only bad (imperfect) people, and we (women specifically) are all imperfect, but that’s okay.

There is no update to the old female stereotype: female remains an object of castration. Ultimately, the reason why by the end of the film there cannot be any true “villain,” so to speak, is because none of them have a penis. This is why the very final sequence sees the four women, former antagonistic figures, take advantage of a husband’s neglect and uniting, metaphorically, against male sexuality.

The reason why women can remain castrating objects in a film that has no regularly active male characters to castrate is because it is perfectly normal for us to perceive female characters in movies as objects to be looked at, rather than bearers of the look driving the film. The bad moms in the movie are not “bad” because they say they are bad, they are only bad because they overstep their boundaries of traditionalist boundaries of the female sex, dictated by traditionalist ideologies. Yet, the filmmakers never allow their female characters to go to far; even the most explicit of characters, Clara, is never shown engaged in explicit sexual activities. Sure, we know she sleeps around, but film is primarily a visual art and the fact that we do not see her sexual endeavours is as important, in the wider scheme of things, as seeing Amy’s clumsy attempts at flirting with guys in a bar failing and in asserting a nonetheless reassuring vision of femininity in general.

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