There’s a scene in just about every old sheriff-vs-outlaw Western where the hero has to leave his wife (usually the town schoolmarm, respectable and nurturing) and son (the next generation hero who must learn a valuable lesson from his father’s sacrifice) to go face certain death in the performance of his duty: the pacification of the American West as an allegory of post-war imperialism.
Similarly, there’s a scene in just about every gritty cop movie where the noble loose cannon — the “straight talker” who just can’t understand the difference between rules and red tape — must call his (now ex-) wife and ask her to tell his daughter how much he loves her, and that he’s going to face certain death finally doing the right thing, taking down the criminal conspiracy, or thwarting the plot to kill the President, so that she can live in a better world, and maybe learn to respect him again — because let’s face it, he’s a complete asshole.
We know these characters. They fill books and movies the world over.
Now I want to try a thought experiment. Take those exact same roles, and all the others like them, only make it a woman. Keep everything else the same, including the children. In other words, make those characters mothers instead of fathers.
We’re seeing a wonderful surge of butt-kicking fictional ladies these days. Secret agents. Superheroes. Starship captains. But ask yourself, how many of them are also mothers? Not in some future timeline glimpsed in a time-traveling episode. Not in the past as part of their dramatic origin story, where perhaps the child was lost. But right now — kids at home while they’re out nearly dying in battles with the alien invaders or mafia hitmen. Our reaction isn’t the same.
Women are still seen as primary caregivers, so their duties as parents are supposed to take primacy. That leaves fathers more or less expendable, the president pro temp of the family. We’re free to root for the rogue cop with a drinking problem and a penchant for violence because at least someone responsible is looking after his kids.
Imagine a female detective whose now- or soon-to-be-ex-husband took custody of their children because she’s too busy car-chasing criminals to remember to pick them up from school, or because she curses and drinks, or because she dropped a suspect down an open elevator shaft to punish him.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of mothers in fiction, or that they don’t ever find themselves in mortal danger. They do, it’s just unintentional — the plucky ER doctor/single mom gets pulled into a web of international intrigue after saving a mysterious (and handsome) secret agent. Unexpected danger isn’t bad. It’s good suspense! But once it’s over, she needs to go right back to those kids, preferably with the secret agent in tow. (We’re supposed to believe such a man would be happy with suburban life.)
Similarly, mom can be a resistance fighter or interstellar smuggler, always on the run from gangsters and the Imperial police, as long as she lives in a dystopian worls where those are the only real options she has of fulfilling her primary duty: providing for her children. That’s simply an extension of the threat-to-family justification (trope), a danger by proxy.
Fictional fathers experience this as well, of course, as we saw in Marvel’s Ant-Man. It’s not that parenthood shouldn’t change anything. Children are a fantastic, terrible, glorious responsibility, fictional or not. Rather, it’s that men don’t seem to share the same limitations. If Rey from Star Wars left a child back on Jakku, we would feel differently about her running off to become a Jedi, but as soon as Scott Lang’s daughter is safe, he is free to join Captain American and (at least theoretically) risk his life being a hero in Civil War. Same for Hawkeye, who can retire and unretire as the action demands it.
And while every other major character in the MCU, male and female alike, is portrayed as childless, Tony, Thor, and Steve are all free to change that at any time. We learned in Age of Ultron, however, that Black Widow — for the longest time, the lone woman — was forcibly sterilized precisely because that’s the only way we’ll accept a female character kicking butt forever.
This is why sequels, when they happen, almost always involve a revenge kidnapping of the kids or the husband or something. There has to be legitimate reason for the main character as a mother to go risk her life a second time. In the case of butt-kicking Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise, it’s because SkyNet has targeted her child, which was the whole reason Arnold was trying to kill her in the first place: because she was the mother of the real hero. She even delivers a tirade on the mystical power of motherhood in Judgment Day.
Putting the family in peril in the sequel also serves the secondary purpose of demonstrating, both to the character and therefore to the audience, that being a full-time international super-spy, or pirate captain, or whatever, is just not a good job for a mother. So at the end of the story we’ll see her hug her kids and promise never to leave again.
I like to switch things up in my books, especially with gender. This doesn’t always work in my favor. In my first novel, for example, I played with the gender of the POV characters in deliberately provocative ways and earned a few reprobations. But I believe art should challenge, at least a little, so I don’t plan on stopping.
The character Xana from my superheroey sci-fi thriller THE MINUS FACTION is the mother of a small boy, and at the beginning of the story, that role is both central to her self-image and her primary motivation. But as I started writing the later episodes, I became increasingly uncomfortable leaving it there. Even if I could demonstrate emotional development in other ways, I didn’t want her to simply pull a Connor, or a Ripley: to kick ass — rather than retreat to safety, as any sensible person would as soon as circumstances allowed — because her child was being threatened.
In the case of Newt from Aliens, it’s symbolic. Ripley, hugging the child close in that iconic scene with the flame thrower, is clearly supposed to function as surrogate mother. Thus, to free her up to kick butt in Alien 3, the little girl has to die. That kind of writing is easy. There’s no challenge, either to me or the reader. After all, we expect — even demand — mothers do exactly that, a fact I acknowledge several times in the series when I describe Xana as going into “mother bear mode.”
I wanted the challenge case. I wanted to show a woman, a mother, legitimately make the choice the classic hero makes — the lone sheriff in the Western, the wounded officer in the war drama, the broken cop in the crime thriller, the space pirate in the sci-fi adventure, the superhero in the big name franchise — to go and fight, probably to die, because there was more at stake than just her family, because she felt it was the right thing to do.
The difficulty was how to pull this off in a way that didn’t make her seem either too callous or too weak. Stories can lead their audience, but they can’t get too far ahead! If Xana is flippant with her decision (as a man might be), she’ll seem cold-hearted and readers will have difficulty connecting: a betrayal of her role as mother. But, if she wrings her hands too much, if she frets (or pouts), she’ll seem indecisive, passive, and weak: a betrayal of her role as hero.
I wanted with the story to stay between those two rails, to show a mother as a hero, while at the same time answering for the reader the unspoken questions: what happens to the little boy if she dies, and has she considered that? My solution, inelegant as it was, appeared in Episode Six. Hopefully, I didn’t screw it up.
Here’s to kick ass moms.