Supermoms: Martyred, Fridged, Forgotten

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Mother’s Day is a day we celebrate the woman (or women) in our lives that fulfill the role of “mother.” Mothers—the good and the bad ones—are an important part of our lives. Moms that worry about what media teaches their children, what superheroes are really super, and so much more. Mothers are important; their absence from the narratives of various superhero franchises is keenly felt. Even more so, it’s outright troubling. Mothers in superhero films and television shows are martyrs, one-scene heroes, villains, or more often than not sidelined for the father figures in the protagonists’ life. 

Pictured: Howard and Tony Stark in Captain America: The First Avengers & Iron Man owned by Marvel Studios/Disney. No footage found of Maria Stark.

In the Iron Man films, Tony Stark’s mother has yet to appear. Tony Stark has been in the most films and has the highest amount of physical screentime. Yet the only parental figure who has been given any significance in his life currently, has been Howard Stark. Howard has been heavily featured in the whole of the MCU, not only in Tony’s own individual storylines, but given his own as well. Howard has made appearances in Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 2, Agent Carter seasons one and two, the Agent Carter one shot, Ant-Man, and he’s been mentioned in various other Marvel films. His next set appearance is in Captain America: Civil War, along with the first ever appearance of Maria Stark. The overall importance of Tony Stark’s parents—his character legacy—has been skewed heavily towards Howard Stark, his father. Tony has been in six released movies; Howard has appeared in six MCU properties; Maria has appeared in one. Based off screen time and plot relevance alone, the MCU has positioned Howard as an important figure not only in Tony’s life but also as a part of the Stark legacy. Howard himself is a relevant and important character in the franchise, while Maria is notably absent.

When discussing Tony’s less than stellar childhood with Nick Fury in Iron Man 2, we hear nothing of his mother. The narrative focuses solely on how Tony’s relationship with his father—or rather lack of—has affected his life. The audience, however, never learns how Tony’s life was affected by Maria. As far as the audience currently knows, Tony has a mother, because of course he does, but she’s not important enough to be visible or developed on screen in any meaningful way. Maria Stark apparently doesn’t even warrant a name drop after six movies featuring her own son. This narrative exclusion continues in other superhero franchises. 

Mary and Richard Parker in The Amazing Spider-man owned by Sony guess which one is more important

In Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man, there’s extended emphasis placed on Peter Parker’s father figure while either downplaying or excluding his mother figure. In The Amazing Spider-Man, both movies focus on the mystery surrounding Peter’s father, Richard Parker, and how his death affected Peter from a child to a young man. Richard Parker takes center stage in the events that happen in Peter’s life. Richard is plot-relevant, both to the story and to the character arcs Peter goes through in both films. Peter’s mother, Mary Parker, doesn’t receive the same treatment.  While other characters, such as Uncle Ben, and Aunt May, often comment on how much Peter looks like his father, how much like Peter is to his father in personality, no characters make any comments regarding Peter’s mother. The entire mystery about Peter’s parents deaths is wrapped up in Richard and seen through Richard’s point of view. Mary, by extension, plays no substantial part in the plot or story. Her affect on Peter appears nonexistent, especially in comparison to Richard.

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the audience learns in detail what really caused the Parkers’ untimely deaths. Their plane goes down after trying to escape from a shadow organization. Mary is shot, and Richard watches her die. He stares mournfully at her before the plane goes down, presumably dying himself. Mary is seen more as a tragic figure, a device to garner sympathy for Richard from the audience in his final moments of heroism. She’s a fleeting figure that kisses Peter on the forehead quickly before being rushed off by her husband. There are no major mentions of how her death has affected Peter, just that it has because she’s his mother. The narrative doesn’t attempt to develop her beyond that concept of “Mother Figure” and “Wife” who tragically dies in front of her husband and leaves her child with a parting somber kiss. 

This occurs repeatedly in various Batman adaptions, both live action and animated. In Tim Burton’s Batman, the majority of the emphasis of Bruce’s Crime Alley trauma is mainly focused on the loss of his father, Thomas Wayne. This also occurs in the animated film, Batman vs. Robin, where Thomas takes center stage in Bruce’s memories and recollection of the Court of Owls. In the animated movie Flashpoint, Bruce is dead, and his father has become Batman, who, for all his flaws, is still positioned as a heroic man while Martha Wayne has one scene where she’s implied to have become this world’s Joker. A more interesting world reversal could have been Thomas becoming the Joker, going mad at the loss of his son, while Martha takes up the Bat mantle as a flawed, but still heroic version of the character.

In Gotham, Bruce seeks to solve the secret of his parents’ murder, but it’s only his father who plays any narrative importance to the mystery in season one when Bruce finds what’s implied to be a junior Batcave of sorts—a letter from his father awaits him. In the letter, Thomas Wayne challenges him to see the world as it is and understand that finding the truth often leads to unhappiness, but if Bruce should chose to continue seeking justice, he should do so if he finds a real cause. The scene is rather brilliant, and the audience gets a rush knowing that one day Bruce will find his true mission in protecting the people of Gotham; however, Martha, in comparison to Thomas Wayne, is left out. She is never the one giving Bruce a letter with sweeping dramatic flare that challenges him to grow as a person. Martha is hardly ever given the same narrative weight as Thomas when Bruce is struggling with the trauma of his parents deaths. Martha Wayne is typically either given a few throwaway lines about her or forgotten completely.

Then you have mothers who aren’t fully sidelined, but martyred or simply have less narrative importance than the father figure. Frigga’s role in Thor and Thor: The Dark World are examples of this. Frigga plays a minor role in both films, and her relationship with Thor and Loki is underdeveloped compared to their relationship with their father, Odin, who is portrayed as a complicated father figure. He hides Loki’s true parentage from him and banishes Thor for acting recklessly. He appears to be a harsh father and at times even insensitive. Odin is not a brilliant character, but he is a character. Meanwhile Frigga in Thor has one scene with Loki where she tells him how much Odin truly loves him. Her main interaction with her son in Thor isn’t about their relationship, but his relationship with his father and her husband. Loki desperately seeks his father’s approval while Thor idolizes his father Odin blindly. Thor doesn’t have any substantial scenes with Frigga, she is merely his Mother while Odin is both his father and Odin. Odin is given development, and the narrative showcases the importance of Odin and the relationships with his sons. Frigga doesn’t have this development within the story. 

In Thor: The Dark World, Frigga’s second longest scene is with Loki, where she acts as a supportive mother. Her next scene features her protecting Jane and near defeating the film’s main antagonist, Malekith the Dark Elf. Unfortunately, before claiming victory, Frigga is murdered. The scene is so quick—both her heroic fight and her death—it leaves the audience reeling. Frigga receives her glorious moment of being a force to be reckoned with, only to be cut down quickly after. The film gives her this singular moment—after ignoring her for a majority of the first Thor film and only giving her a handful of screen time with Loki in the next—seemingly to compensate for killing her the next. Frigga’s death then provides Loki with enough motivation to aid Thor on his quest. (Remember that earlier scene with them to build up the emotional connection before the film kills her?) Again, Thor is hardly seen with his mother, and while her funeral scene is beautifully filmed, she ends up a martyr within the narrative. Frigga dies, so Loki has a personal stake in the mission to save the universe.  

Peter Quill’s mother, Meredith, operates in a similar fashion as a tragic martyred figure in Peter’s life. Her death becomes the reason he goes into space. Her final words on the film are within a letter that tells Peter of his father and how she’ll always remember her “little Starlord.” In contrast, when Thomas leaves Bruce a letter, it’s filled with personal feelings that are about Thomas and how he feels towards his son. It’s personal and heartfelt and solely about Bruce and Thomas’ relationship; Meredith’s letter is only half about her and her son’s relationship. It’s also pushing Peter’s relationship with his father. The big mystery at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy is the identity of Peter’s father, placing his narrative importance above Peter’s mother. She doesn’t receive the same treatment from the narrative because her only purpose isn’t to be a singular character, or even a figure who holds great importance within the narrative, but as Peter’s personal tragedy which forces the plot forward.

On The Flash, Barry Allen’s mother, Nora Allen, also operates as a tragic martyred figure. Her death kickstarts the entire show and provides Barry with half his main motivation in the first season. The other half belongs to proving his father’s innocence. Nora’s death is more used to provide both Barry and his father with a personal tragedy than anything else. While his father gets lines and moderate development, Nora is seen only as that one tragedy that tore the Allen family apart—something that actually contradicts the comics canon. While Nora Allen was murdered in the comics, she was the more active parental figure in Barry’s life. It’s what made her death that much more tragic and difficult for him to deal with as a child. She was the singular parent figure, while in The Flash, it is Henry, Joe, and even Harrison who play a larger parental figure role in Barry’s overall narrative. Nora’s role in The Flash is surely emotional, and even well done, but her death is another on the list of dead mothers who die for the tragedies of their sons. 

It could be argued these women are important to the narrative because their deaths are what push our heroes forward, but their deaths aren’t treated in the same ways as the deaths of Thomas Wayne or Richard Parker. There’s no major emphasis on how these women were important to other people; their influence comes down strictly to how they affect the male hero and are quickly forgotten afterwards. They’re not developed characters, so much as a personification of motherly perfection and tragedy. Odin is allowed to both love and fight with both his sons; Frigga is only allowed to be a kindly, supportive figure with seemingly no flaws. Meredith is only seen as the sickly, compassionate tragedy, while Peter’s father plays a potentially important plot role. 

Even when mothers are given flaws they still are killed to further the plot of the male hero, such as Moira Queen on Arrow. Moira had her own singular plot: Admitting to her criminal dealings and seeking to rebuild her company, reconnect with her children, and find redemption for herself. That was all cut short when she was murdered by Slade to send a message to Oliver Queen and later disrespected at her funeral by Felicity Oliver’s love interest. Before this, Moira makes it out better than Nora Allen, Frigga, Martha Wayne, Meredith Quill, or Maria Stark in terms of character development and narrative relevance. Moira is given her own stories and a character arc, yet in the end she was still killed not to further her own story, but for her son Oliver’s. 

Agents of SHIELD’s Jiaying, the mother of protagonist Daisy Johnson, was also given the short end of the storytelling stick when the show revealed her to be a murderous, genocidal would-be dictator. Originally, the show baited that she had been murdered by a HYDRA scientist, her body graphically dissected piece by piece, before being dumped in the woods for Calvin, her husband and Daisy’s father, to find. Later, Daisy discovered she wasn’t killed, her body pieced back together, and she was running an institute for Inhumans hidden away in the mountains. What originally was a great plot became a racist nightmare when Jiaying’s evil plot twist came in and Calvin killed her. Afterwards, Calvin, who had murdered numerous people himself, had his memories erased and was set free. Happy ending for the dad, but not so much for the mom.

Jiaying’s own traumas had never been thoroughly explored within the show as Calvin’s had been. The narrative painted her as a sympathetic, if troubled leader before Agents of SHIELD decided to go for the shock plot. Jiaying being a villain could have been a great storyline had the show developed her own traumas as well at it did Calvin’s, who was made out to be better developed and more sympathetic. In the end, Calvin gets a happy ending where he didn’t have to pay for murdering various people. If the season had ended with both of Daisy’s parents being villains, placing them on more even ground, the storyline could have been a less problematic one. Instead, we had to witness Jiaying (a woman of color) being murdered twice, by two separate white men. One of those white men, her former husband and also a murderer, is allowed to go free and live happily without consequence. 

Even when mothers get to play a somewhat heroic role they end up essentially fridged. Jan Van Dyne, one of the original Avengers and the giver of the team name itself, was killed in action in Ant-Man. Her death was then used as a tool against her daughter Hope by her father Hank. Jan is immortalized as a heroic martyr figure, but one that is actively used against her child. Hank is positioned as a hero figure, even if he’s a flawed one. Fathers get to be flawed characters who receive redemption from the hands of their children whether they are murderers (like Calvin) or horribly controlling (like Hank). Meanwhile, mothers are villainized and beyond redemption (Jiaying) or fridged martyrs (Jan).

This isn’t to say there are no decent portrayals of mothers in superhero live action media. There have been mothers who have played important roles in a superhero’s narrative. In a surprising and somewhat improved elevation, Lara Zor-El gets to play an actual role on screen in Man of Steel. Whereas in previous Superman media, where the main focus has been on Clark’s father Jor-El, Man of Steel attempts to showcase Lara in a positive manner that isn’t connected to her son or husband. She ends up confronting Zod, aiding in his imprisonment, and instead of both Lara and Jor-El sending Clark to Earth, it is solely Lara who does so. She’s the final person we see as Krypton collapse. It’s not a perfect depiction, especially when Jor-El plays a larger role later in the movie, but it’s a moderate improvement. Similarly with Martha Kent, who is given time and development with Clark throughout the film. Martha also shines in Smallville, playing an active role throughout the series as both Clark’s mother and a figure of good within the overall narrative of Smallville. It is also her husband, Johnathan, who dies tragically instead of following the typically tragic mother trope. 

Both Martha Wayne and Martha Kent play a larger, and more relevant part in the depictions of Bruce and Clark’s narratives in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is Martha’s face that sears itself in Bruce’s mind. It’s Martha’s grave he visits, it’s Martha who protects Bruce from the gunman, and her name that proves to be his trigger word when it comes to his trauma. Thomas, in a reversion of other Batman adaptions, remains verbally unnamed while Martha’s name holds emotional and narrative weight. Martha Kent is the one to provide Clark with guidance, on the same level as her husband Johnathan. Martha Wayne and Martha Kent’s existence is the only reason Clark and Bruce resolve their overall conflict. It’s not much, but it’s an improvement on “Thomas Wayne’s Wife” as previously depicted. And while Martha Kent is given the same importance within the narrative as Johnathan Kent, her kidnapping falls into the troubling territory of violence against women in movies and should be noted. For both Marthas, their storylines aren’t perfect and still have flaws within them; however, they are at least given narrative importance either above or on equal ground as the fathers in Clark and Bruce’s lives. Martha does die, and that matters throughout the film; Martha doesn’t die and avoids falling into the martyred dead mothers club. 

A character that comes out well isn’t a biological mother, but still a mother figure all the same. Aunt May is given narrative importance in Peter’s life in The Amazing Spider-Man films, and acts as his surrogate mother figure. She works hard to survive the death of Ben’s death, keep their family together, even taking classes to benefit herself and Peter. Aunt May works to improve herself and Peter’s lives. She isn’t seen as a lesser parent with Ben gone and is never on the receiving end of any in-movie violence. Aunt May says to Peter in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that Richard doesn’t have the right to take Peter away because he’s “her boy” and Peter agrees. While Richard may be more important to the overall story that is featured in the films, the narrative emphasizes that Aunt May isn’t less important than Richard in Peter’s life. He is “her boy,” and her place in his life isn’t any less than the memory of his father. Aunt May is both his aunt and his mother in a sense, and more importantly, she is showcased to be important to the story. Although she unfortunately doesn’t do much to influence or enhance the plot of The Amazing Spider-Man movies, she is at least showcased to be an important figure in Peter’s life. And she is a figure that isn’t without flaws or idealized in the same way Frigga or Meredith Quill are.

There’s also Dorothy Walker in Jessica Jones. Make no mistake, Dorothy isn’t a good mother. She’s abusive to both Trish and Jessica and continues to be manipulative well into Trish’s adulthood. Dorothy isn’t a good mother, but she’s still an important figure in Trish’s life. She’s relevant to Trish’s character development and important to the narrative. Dorothy isn’t a good mother, but she’s an important one to the story and narrative of Jessica Jones. Female characters don’t have to be perfect figures; in fact, it’s better when they have flaws that make them well rounded characters (such as Jessica Jones herself). Female characters just have to matter: To hold importance in the story where they aren’t martyred or idealized or fridged for the story of male characters.

You could argue that Jiaying could be an example of a positive, complex mother figure; however, Jiaying’s story is hurt by the racism that exists within the story and by the addition of Daisy’s father, which only works to enhance the racist narrative by placing the white father in a positive and redeemable light while the East Asian mother is placed in the evil, irredeemable light. She also is killed while he gets to live on happily without repenting for his own crimes.

One of the best current depictions of mothers on screen in superhero franchises is Kara’s relationship with her mother Alura, who is both relevant to the plot as a character and directly affects aspects of Kara’s character and development. Alura is directly tied to the plot of Supergirl, as well as Kara’s overall development as a character. She’s also a positive figure in Kara’s life and inspires her in positive ways similar to how Richard inspires Peter, or how Howard holds importance in the MCU.

There are too few good examples of mothers in superhero media. While some stories have been done well, others have emphasized harmful tropes that idealize, martyrize, villainize, or outright fridge mothers in superhero media. Mothers don’t have to be perfect, in fact, it’s refreshing when they’re not as long as there are positive figures in our media to balance those stories out. Dorothy is a bad mother, but that’s okay because she’s important to the story. Mary Parker and Martha Wayne are good mothers, but their stories are weak or typically unimportant to the various adaptions. Meredith Quill and Nora Allen are all good mothers, but their place in the story is that of a tragic good mother: An untouchable figure of beautiful tragedy that gives the male hero angst and purpose. Frigga and Jan Van Dyne are heroic mothers, but both are martyred by the narrative instead of being developed as characters like their husbands —the fathers—were. Jiaying is villianized and murdered which could have been a good story had her husband—also a murderer—hadn’t been given priority over her. Moira had the beginnings of a great story before it was cut short to provide her son with angst. Martha Wayne, Martha Kent, and Lara Zor-El are given more narrative weight, which is an improvement, but their stories are still flawed. Aunt May, Alura, and Martha Kent (Smallville) are both important to the story and aren’t placed below the male father figures within it.  

Why aren’t mothers considered important? Why are they often overshadowed for the likes of the fathers in superhero stories? To idealize mothers in the stories of superheroes places them in an unreachable and dehumanizing plateau within the story. Mothers should be able to be important, as important as the fathers, in the story. They should be able to be flawed, developed characters in the way fathers often are. Mothers deserve to be more than fridged martyrs in their children’s—especially sons—stories. Mothers deserve to be respected, developed, and to be real characters within our superhero stories. 

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About Author

Desiree Rodriguez is currently majoring in Converged Communications. She's a writer, geek girl, and proud queer mestiza woman. Desiree is an entertainment writer for The Tempest, and contributor for Nerds of Color. Desiree has written for The Young Folks, The Feminist Wire, and Geeked Out Nation.

6 Comments

  1. I suppose that mothers are sidelined in these stories for the same reason that so many crummy family movies, especially from the 80s and early 90s, revolve around the overworked father trope, as well as sons bonding with their fathers. I’m guessing said reason is an abundance of daddy issues on the part of the writers/directors early on, and when it sold well the studios insisted on proliferation, and now it’s so saturated that people have a difficult time thinking of what else to focus a story on.

    When it comes to recent tentpole franchises, you could throw Star Trek ’09 in there as well. So much emphasis is put on Spock’s father and more was put on Kirk’s father than was in there entirety of the original franchise, that the mothers were practically nonexistent. You might not even notice Spock’s mother if not for being Winona Ryder.

    One of the worst offenders I’ve seen in this was a little known kids’ movie from the early aughts called Big Fat Liar. Frankie Muniz’s character arc puts so much emphasis on his father’s opinion of him as a liar whose deceptions have sunk into irredeemable territory, that the mother doesn’t even merit a word. Even as a kid, well before I identified as a feminist and I put any thought into these kinds of analyses, I was thinking “His mom’s right there in the climax with the dad; why isn’t she saying anything?”

    This lack of interest among mainstream creatives in exploring motherhood or in fleshing out mothers is a big part of why I liked the Superman story in Secret Origins (2014) #1: it isn’t told from Superman’s perspective, it’s a dual story told from the perspectives of both his Kryptonian and his Terran mothers. And it was solidly written to boot.

    …and on the subject of DC, I feel like such a heel at this point for following the Azzarello/Chiang run on Wonder Woman all the way to the end. I guess I just wanted to finally follow a Wonder Woman comic that badly. Speaking of mother figures being sidelined for father figures…ones that aren’t even present until the END of the friggin’ story…

  2. Thankfully none of this has happened to Agent May’s mom in AoS and I would LOVE to see more of her!!

    Definitely extremely tired of all these tropes.

  3. Because… patriarchy. No really. I’m currently writing a paper about miscarriage and infertility in comics so this article peaked my interest. There’s an excellent article by Jeffrey Brown out there called “Supermoms? Maternity and the monstrous-feminine in superhero comics” that discusses the exact problem you’re getting at. Although he looked specifically at superpowered moms not just the moms of superheroes like you’ve done here. Basically though focusing on the father figures reinforces the patriarchy. Motherhood makes women too strong and starts to get into the debate of whether women can be good moms and work. For instance Jessica Jones gives up being a superhero OR a private eye when she has her kid in the comics. I heard a rumor they’re resurrecting her comic so I hope they don’t kill off the kid if they do. The paper I’m working on takes this idea a step further. If we cause female superheroes to miscarry (which happens a scary amount in the comics) or become infertile due to their powers then the problem of the supermom never comes up and the patriarchy can be upheld. Great read! I focus mostly on the actual comics themselves but looking at the live action media is an important angle as well. Especially since it reaches such a wider audience. Thank you for your analysis.

  4. Given the number of heroic men to heroic women in our comic universe (at least prominent ones), it seems that the roles their fathers play in their lives would be more in the forefront than their mothers, especially since most of the writers of these same stories are men… who probably interacted more with *their* dads than with their moms when they were out of diapers.

    You cite Supergirl as a good example of a mom who has not been sidelined. Well one of the main differences there is that the hero of the story is female. A girl would likely have a good relationship with her mom, right, moreso than her dad? (Not always the case, but probably sound reasoning from a writer’s perspective.) Plus she has the solid foster mom and sister relationship in the Danvers household, but even there, she’s *driven* now by wanting to find her foster dad — his role in the story is more important than Mrs. Danvers’.

    I think a lot of the issue comes down to writer and creator bias. Most of these heroes were created by men, who grew up in a time when the households were a bit different than they are now. The writers of the scripts are influenced by that source material, and are themselves mostly men (yes? I’m actually guessing, since I haven’t seen some of the shows you mention), and while they may be a different generation, they still have so many tropes to draw from (“if it works, don’t f- with it”) that trying to write moms and other women back into the story might be such an uphill battle, they may not be willing to even try at script meetings.

    Add to all of THAT… we (women) are used to empathizing with the male characters, because that’s all we’ve been given for so long. We adapted; we’re good like that. Many men haven’t. They’ve had all these female protagonists thrown at them, and many have griped about it. Now add “their” mother into the mix (because they identify with these heroes the same way we identify with the heroines), and give her some real depth. If Martha Wayne had depth of character before she was murdered… I’m speculating here… the poisonous masculinity of our culture doesn’t allow them to deal with their emotions in a healthy way. If the female characters had depth and THEN the writers fridged them (because that’s still going to happen), those same guys who’ve been laced up so tight by the patriarchy are going to be stuck with that, with no good way to deal. I’ve sat and cried over a comic book. I’ve sat and cried in comic book movies. Not ashamed of it. Most men aren’t going to want to do that.

    I apologize for not organizing my thoughts better before writing this. I guess what I’m saying is, 1) the source material is a product of its generation, 2) the writers are only going to take so many risks with that source material (if any), and 3) we’re asking men to evolve their thinking PDQ when #1 is their old standby and #2 mostly reinforces it.

  5. Sarah Barrett on

    This is why I love Batman vs Superman. It finally made Martha Wayne important, after sidelining her all through the Nolan movies.