What if Mom’s Not to Blame?

IN ANY DISCUSSION of the enduring cultural madness surrounding the subject of mothers and sons, it would probably be natural to start with Sigmund Freud. But let’s treat as a given all the ways in which he blazed a trail for decades of mother bashing and jump one century forward, so that we can examine the philosophy of a different scholar of male frailty and its relationship to unresolved maternal trauma. “Boy, I love meeting people’s moms,” Ted Lasso says in a 2021 episode of the character’s namesake Apple TV+ series. “It’s like reading an instruction manual as to why they’re nuts.”

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It’s a funny line, it’s a brutal line, it’s an unfair line — and it’s also an exquisite setup for a big reveal that wouldn’t air until two years later, during the show’s third season, when, for the first time, we meet Ted’s mother and finally learn (or think we do) just where his own blind spots, irrationalities and insufficiencies come from. It’s an “aha!” moment of a kind in which television and movies have long specialized: If you’re seeking the deepest understanding of why any man is the way he is and can’t be anything more, different or better, there’s someone you have to meet. And it’s all her fault.

The tortured dynamic of mothers and sons in popular culture has always been its own peculiar thing. Mother-daughter narratives have as profuse a tradition, but with a key difference: In those stories, no matter how complex the interplay of competition and control and selfishness and sacrifice and ego, there’s the base line belief that a relationship is supposed to exist into adulthood. Mothers and sons, though? Not so much. As movies and television have often had it, theirs is a bond that, if both parties are healthy, is meant to reach some kind of tacit endpoint that results in male independence and maternal letting go. If a grown man and his mother are still somehow at each other’s throats or in each other’s business, that’s pathology. Whether played for laughs, tears or shrieks, it’s almost always treated as a sign of dysfunction. Over decades, the pop-psychology conversation about mothers and sons has evolved from a fixation on all the ways in which the former can ruin the latter to more nuanced fretfulness about toxic masculinity and the difficulty of raising proud boys who don’t become Proud Boys or turn horrible in any of the other ways the world encourages them to be. But when that talk turns toward mothers, the verdict, as reflected in movies and television, has never moved all that far beyond “You’re doing it wrong.”

Armen Nahapetian (left) and Zoe Lister-Jones in 2023’s “Beau Is Afraid.”Credit…Courtesy of A24

That may, at long last, be changing. The past year has brought an exceptionally varied and thematically rich crop of movies exploring men and their — to use the proper scientific term — mommy issues. They range from the extremely dark comedies “Beau Is Afraid” and “Saltburn” to the more heartfelt and sincere “All of Us Strangers” to the coming-of-age period piece “The Holdovers” to the singular mash-up of character study and tabloid scandal excavation that is “May December.” The movies all showcase mothers and sons; many of them seek to untangle relationships knotted and gnarled by neediness, selfishness or cruelty. By the end of most of them, blood is on the floor, and the collateral damage is steep. But as different as their approaches are, what these films have in common is a questing, thoughtful desire not simply to return to an old trope but to complicate, undermine or even explode it. That said, old tropes die hard, and this one — the hapless son who’s been emotionally mangled by a monster mother — has been entrenched in movies and television for close to 75 years. Freud himself may not have been around to watch them emerge but, by the 1950s, references to psychiatry and analysis were ubiquitous in movies and on TV comedies and talk shows, and mothers, in the cultural parlance of that era, were a necessary evil — something for healthy and well-adjusted men to get past and get over. Men who couldn’t, or worse, didn’t want to, were portrayed as marionettes tied to and practically strangled by their mothers’ apron strings. They were labeled neurotic, and often implicitly labeled homosexual — an accusation that couldn’t then be made overtly in entertainment but could definitely be winked at. Doting mothers, not to mention distant or domineering or strong or fragile ones (for mothers, there was no winning path except quiet self-sacrifice), could make their sons timid, unstable, sexually dysfunctional, effeminate, perverse or outright mad. It became a kind of cruel, knowing joke: Think of Robert Walker’s simpering, coy, mommy-obsessed murderer in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951) or Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, whose macabre credo “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” earnestly stated to Mommy stand-in Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is the closest thing “Psycho” (1960) has to a punchline. Or in a more benign mode, consider the hanging-on-to-heterosexuality-by-a-thread beta male that Tony Randall used to play in all those Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies. “I’ve been talking to this psychiatrist about my mother for two years now,” his character says in “Pillow Talk” (1959), adding, “It’s perfectly healthy. He dislikes her as much as I do!”

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