The Mother — that role that was once cautioned against for young actors — is far more realistic than it used to be. This year’s crop of comedy actress Emmy nominees plays an array of characters that embrace the authenticity of motherhood as a piece (not entirety) of the female experience, relegating June Cleaver archetypes firmly in the rearview mirror.
“The industry is finally opening it up. We do have a voice that isn’t a man writing a movie about two women being catty and then being the Type A mom,” says “Dead to Me’s” Christina Applegate. “They do exist, but most of us aren’t like that. Most of us are suffering. Most of us are struggling to be — not the best that we can be, but just be enough.”
Applegate adds that there is an importance to reflecting that struggle on-screen. Making mistakes as a mother doesn’t indicate her character, widow Jen Harding, is a bad one.
“We went through the ’80s where every family was perfect, and it made everyone feel like s— because their families were messed up,” she says. “Now it’s just real. Jen’s a real person. She lost her husband. She is a flawed human being. People are looking towards relatability as opposed to escapism right now.”
As Moira on “Schitt’s Creek,” Catherine O’Hara’s character was given a second chance to connect with her children after being too insecure to establish meaningful relationships while the family was rich. Those mother-child dynamics felt fresh to the actor since they were alien to the character.
“It’s great to play a realized mother because it is one of the most important roles in life,” she says. “I can’t see one more scene where the actress is juggling not just a role, but all kinds of props and business and choreography with child actors in a kitchen scene. The actress is working her ass off and the male actor stands there doing his lines. It is bulls—. Just like it’s bulls— in life. I want to see more couples and children that are old enough to share the work of the home. Make that the norm.”
Rachel Brosnahan admits that the audience of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has been less forgiving about her titular comedian’s failures as a mother while she pursues a career. But “telling stories about women trying to do it all and focusing on their failures in the workplace and at home [helps] move away from stories where the mother character is secondary to a more interesting man, or motherhood is presented as a singular identity.”
Part of the reason Tracee Ellis Ross was attracted to the role of Rainbow Johnson on “Black-ish” was the healthy relationship between her and her husband, Dre (Anthony Anderson). Seeing two people shed marital tropes and actually love and respect one another also naturally led to a more realistic exploration of motherhood, especially as the series itself centers Dre.
“The questions they were exploring in their relationship and in their family were about how to make sense of the evolution of where we are as Black people in this country. And that was coming in the context of thriving and not just surviving,” she says.
“We’re all in this evolution of letting go of these rigid definitions, the status quo of who we’re supposed to be. We’re throwing out this oppressive expectation that you’re supposed to fit into this narrow definition of what motherhood is or what a woman is.”