OVER*FLOW: Millennial Angst and the Bad Mother from the News to Netflix
Miranda Brady / Carleton University


Lori Loughlin with daughters
Lori Loughlin with daughters Bella and Olivia Jade

In the spring of 2019, stories about the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin gained wide attention. That these two mothers had tried to bribe their children’s way into prestigious universities outraged some, while others were not at all surprised that this is the way it works for the very rich. Out of many possible stories about which to be outraged in 2019, why did these two women stick in the craw of so many? Was it because this was such an egregious departure from Loughlin’s wholesome onscreen persona as Aunt Becky on Full House (ABC, 1987-1995) and Netflix’s reboot Fuller House (2016-)? Or was this story so appealing because it involved a crime committed by famous, rich white women?[ (( Hiltz, Emily. (2018). The Notorious Woman: Tracing the Production of Alleged Female Killers through Discourse, Image, and Speculation. (Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada). https://curve.carleton.ca/037b3ef0-69db-49da-9a6a-fb5d79558e2b))]

Perhaps more interesting, the story aligned with a growing disdain for hovering mothers, especially amongst millennials who are eager to establish their independence in an economy that categorically disallows it. Picking up on this Zeit Geist, the story evokes the tried and true tropes of mother blame and the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary.[ ((See Blum, Linda. (2007). Mother Blame in the Prozac Nation: Raising Kids with Invisible Disabilities. Gender and Society, 21(2): 202-226. and Caplan, Paula J. (2010). Mother Blame, Encyclopedia of Motherhood.))] Regardless of the fact that 50 people were accused in the case, like several recent forms of popular entertainment, the news media and authorities could not resist comparisons between the two ‘types’ of women even though they were both implicated.

Huffman pled guilty to a single charge, admitting her guilt in paying $15k to enhance her daughter’s SAT scores, and subsequently spent 14 days in prison. Loughlin and husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli pled not guilty to charges related to paying $500,000 to have two daughters admitted to university on fake crew scholarships – an affront to fairness and crew. They now face additional charges and potentially much longer sentences resulting from their failure to cooperate.

The news media and authorities clearly privileged Huffman for her admission of guilt, lesser crimes, and demeanor. The New York Times pointed out the women’s “Diverging Paths,” and CNN identified them as the “contrasting faces” of the scandal. Huffman, described as “Tearful and Stoic,” was compared with Loughlin, who seemed to treat her appearances in federal court “with an affect more common on the red carpet,” smiling, waving, and autograph signing; she was even blamed for tarnishing the brand equity of her daughter, Olivia Jade, beauty blogger.


Huffman looking contrite
Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy

These kinds of stories about women have been told before, but Huffman and Loughlin illustrate millennials’ particular tensions with their mothers, and popular culture is more than happy to play with this variation on a theme, even when recycling the same old tropes.

Generation Gaps and
Popular Fantasies

There have, for many years, been generational gaps and tensions which are exacerbated by popular culture because driving a wedge between target markets is profitable: from Elvis and rock n’ roll to Tipper Gore and gangsta rap. In the 1980s, the Beastie Boys and Cindy Lauper respectively complained that their parents infringed on their “right to party” and “have fun.”

In an era where young adults live with their parents longer than previous generations and often rely on them financially if they do move out, it is not hard to see why Loughlin and Huffman became media examples. Perhaps the helicopter mom represents the parent on whom millennials simultaneously depend but who stands in the way of their self-actualization with her misguided meddling or reluctant financial support that comes intact with strings. Huffman and Loughlin represent this mother – they try, without success, to control their children and their futures.

In popular culture, we see rejection of such figures and fantasies of super-wealthy youth who maintain privilege while breaking away from their parents as exemplified in Netflix’s The Politician (2019).[ (( This comes out of an attention economy where millennials are told to brand themselves and that reputation management matters above all so that their data may be properly slotted into marketable packages (See Draper,Nora. (2019). The Identity Trade: Selling Privacy and Identity Online. New York: NYU Press. and Steyerl, Hito. (2018). A Sea of Data: Pattern Recognition and Corporate Animism (Forked Version) in Apprich, Clemens, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Florian Cramer, and Hito Steyerl (eds). Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis: Meson Press and University of Minnesota Press.) Netflix perpetuates its own flexible entrepreneurial American dream by picking up YouTube shows (eg. Haters Back Off (2016-2017).))]

Variations on a Theme: the Bad Mother in Netflix’s The Politician

The Politician plays with the Good Mother/Bad Mother archetypes via the puritanical Gwyneth Paltrow (playing Georgina Hobart) vs. Jessica Lang (playing Dusty Jackson). It even includes a cameo by the newer mother caricature, ‘Karen,’ a popular Reddit archetype of an irritating and entitled white, middle-aged mother who is usually complaining or requesting to speak to a manager. Karen is to millennials as Archie Bunker was to hippies in All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). As with celebrity women in the college scandal, these archetypal mothers illustrate some broader social and economic tensions.


Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician
Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician

Georgina is the archetypal good mother – altruistic, elegant, and cool. She is totally self-sacrificing when it comes to her adopted son, Payton (played by Ben Platt), even willing to give up her one chance at love and wealth for him. By contrast, Lang is the monstrous mother[ ((See Francus, Marilyn. (1994). The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety in Swift and Pope. Johns Hopkins University Press 61(4): 829-851. and Riggs, Elizabeth E. (2018). Mental Illness and the Monstrous Mother: A Comparison of Representation in The Babadook and Lights Out. Film Matters, 9(1): 30-38.))] – slowly poisoning her daughter to death and doing the same to her granddaughter, who she is left to raise, for free trips and attention. Munchhausen by proxy is named as the culprit.

Where reproductive failure looms, chosen adopted family emerges as the millennial solution. Georgina has failed to reproduce worthwhile sons biologically – her birth sons, Payton’s twin brothers, are caricatures of rich, spoiled assholes who hearken back to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Georgina’s maternal dreams are fulfilled with Payton, so much so that she doesn’t know who she is without him. Even in this perfection of found motherhood, Georgina is aimless without her son. This juxtaposes well with the murderous monster that Lang’s performance embodies so well, and the annoying entitled archetype of Karen, who appears in the last episode of Season 1, in a scene that opens with the lines:

I don’t appreciate your tone, young lady. I have a very influential mommy blog. So, I want to speak to your manager.
– “Karen” in “Vienna.” The Politician. Netflix. 27 September 2019.

Astrid, the wealthy snob turned chain restaurant server rolls her eyes at this Karen figure with flock of embarrassed children in tow. Astrid (played by Lucy Boynton) has left her parents and wealthy lifestyle behind – having her father arrested for fraud and refusing her submissive mother (played by January Jones) who earnestly asks if she can come too, with a short “No.”[ ((It is worth noting the intertextuality in both Jones’ character on AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and Lang’s character on FX’s first season of American Horror Story (2011-). While Jones played a submissive 1950s house wife in the first seasons of the show, Lang played another version of a monstrous mother.))] She has asserted her independence and chosen to serve people like Karen and her children rather than live a life of privilege under the control of her parents. But there is an escape hatch from both – like several of her cohort from high school (a chosen family), Astrid will follow her once-rival, Payton Hobart, a young, ambitious male politician. She has come to understand that her true enemy is not Payton, but the parents.

After a failed attempt at high school politics, Hobart is positioned at the end of Season I to make a run for New York senate and upset successful female incumbent Dede Standish (played by Judith Light) and her lackey chief of staff (played by Bette Midler). Standish, an established politician who seems to be pretty good at her job otherwise, is apparently unaware that Payton is coming for her, and that his team of millennials has identified her Achilles heel – gross technological incompetence (her team is running Windows 99, just like Grandma). Therefore, Standish is a prime target for the ambitious white male millennial and his super-team of attractive and sexually fluid youths. They are ready to take on the establishment, but despite their progressive facade, they actually reproduce the establishment in many ways, namely through deeply entrenched misogyny.

Ironically, attempts to reflect millennial sentiment back to millennials in The Politician were met with lukewarm responses and only a 56 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer.

Where the News and Netflix Meet

So, are Loughlin and Huffman the monstrous mothers or Karens of Netflix? Maybe not exactly, but their appearances in the popular imaginary pander to the millennial fantasy that, unlike their parents, the youth have the path forward figured out. And, if they could just cut the umbilical cord, they could change the world. Who’s to say they’re wrong? But if Netflix is any indicator, they most certainly have not escaped the sins of their parents.


Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Emily Hiltz and Erika Christiansen for introducing me to Karen.


Image Credits:

  1. Lori Loughlin with Daughters Bella and Olivia Jade
  2. Felicity Huffman looking contrite with husband William H. Macy
  3. Bad Mother, Good Mother, and Millennial in The Politician


References:




Museum TV and Hollywood Films: How the Smithsonian Became Big Media’s “Pile of Loot”
Miranda J. Brady / Carleton University

Who’s looting whom?

The growing relationship between the Smithsonian Institution and the media has been almost impossible to ignore, especially as the many buses advertising Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian made their way throughout cities around the world earlier this year. While some may be disappointed that the ads are not for a reunion tour of The Village People, they might be interested to learn that the Smithsonian has, for the first time, participated in a full-length, feature film reflecting its namesake and featuring its museums. The film, a sequel to Twentieth Century Fox’s 2006 Night at the Museum, opened at number one at the box office over Memorial Day weekend with $70 million in ticket sales and has facilitated an array of synergistic cross-promotions. ((Michael Cieply, “Fire Power? ‘Night at the Museum’ Outguns ‘Terminator,’” The New York Times, May 25, 2009. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/movies/26box.html; Jesse Rhodes, “Flights of Fancy,” Smithsonian, June 2009.)) Examples include screenings of the movie in the IMAX theatres on site, content in Smithsonian magazine, a themed exhibit in the Smithsonian Castle, merchandise sales, and a video game, not to mention the inevitable increase in traffic to the museum complex for movie-related events. The resulting spectacle foreshadows more big media/Smithsonian ventures to come, but what of the Smithsonian’s commitment to public education as a mostly federally funded institution? ((Former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small estimated in 2006 that the Smithsonian received approximately 75 percent of its budget from federal funds. “Committee on House Administration U.S. House of Representatives Hearing on Smithsonian Business Ventures Testimony of Lawrence M. Small Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” May 25, 2006. URL: http://webzero.si.edu/about/documents/testimony_Small_SBV_5-25-06.pdf))

Unfortunately, recent collaborations with media conglomerates have meant secret contracts, limitations for independent filmmakers and public television by extension, and the privileging of customers paying for media products. By entering into partnerships with big media, the Smithsonian has compromised its reputation and its mission, “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” ((James Smithson, the namesake of the institution, charged the Smithsonian with the “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” when leaving the initial endowment for the institution in his last will and testament. See “Smithsonian: History” at http://www.si.edu/about/history.htm))

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTWwF3_Oe6A[/youtube]

The official trailer for Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian

While “news” of the blockbuster hit has created quite a buzz, the Smithsonian Institution has actually been an important resource to filmmakers for a very long time, especially those creating public television programming. The institution has been invaluable for PBS and WGBH series such as Smithsonian World, American Experience, and NOVA as well as highly acclaimed documentaries by filmmakers such as Ken Burns. ((Margaret Drain, personal communication, Oct. 24, 2008; Ken Burns, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2008.)) However, despite the long and fruitful partnership with public television, agreements over the past several years with for-profit media entities like Showtime Networks and Harper Collins have set the Smithsonian Institution on a new course from public interest to profit generation.

The adoption of a competitive market model at the institution was entrenched with the creation of the for-profit branch, Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV) in 1998. SBV entered into an exclusive, secret, and controversial contract with CBS subsidiary Showtime Networks in 2006, creating Smithsonian Networks and the Smithsonian Channel. The contract stipulated limitations on the number of film and television projects permitted at the institution. Media products including more than “incidental” use of Smithsonian resources were to be curtailed in order to limit competition with the Smithsonian Channel.

It is now obvious from Night at the Museum 2, that certain kinds of film projects are welcomed, namely those producing great economic success and capable of reproducing the institution’s brand in mainstream media. Another exclusive deal, which laid the groundwork for the Showtime contract, limited distribution of Smithsonian branded books to the publisher Harper Collins. The details of both the Harper Collins and Showtime contracts were withheld from the public in order to protect “proprietary” information. It is likely that future contracts with media conglomerates will not be publically vetted, if this precedent continues.

The Smithsonian Channel’s contract controls the number of projects allowed to feature the museum

In 2006, activists wrote letters requesting details of the Smithsonian/Showtime secret contract under the Freedom of Information Act to no avail. ((Carl Malamud, “Freedom of Information Act Request Letter to the Smithsonian Institution,” April 4, 2006. URL: http://www.americanprogress.org/kf/sunshine_foia.pdf.)) They were especially concerned with the more than “incidental” use clause. There was no clear formula for measuring such a thing, and the institution was not required to explain the criteria by which it approved or rejected film projects using its resources. Even more sinister sounding were rumors that Smithsonian Networks would have “right of first refusal” for media exceeding “incidental” use, an unprecedented practice that would pressure filmmakers to pitch their projects to Smithsonian Networks rather than alternative outlets like public television. ((See for example, E. Wyatt, “Smithsonian-Showtime TV Deal Raises Concerns,” The New York Times, March 31, 2006. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/washington/31smithsonian.html;
E. Wyatt, “Smithsonian Agreement Angers Filmmakers.” The New York Times, April 1, 2006. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/01/arts/television/01smit.html))

The details of the contract that did emerge were galling. The Smithsonian had leased its brand to Showtime and promised to reduce competition with the new Smithsonian Channel for 10% of the take. Moreover, the audience was extremely limited. ((Committee on House Administration U.S. House of Representatives Hearing on Smithsonian Business Ventures Testimony of Lawrence M. Small Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” May 25, 2006.)) Full Smithsonian Channel programs are only available via iTunes, DVD, on demand, and through limited cable and satellite offerings, which can be quite costly. Distributors of the channel like DIRECTV boast that their offerings reach a “higher quality” audience, and as Joseph Turow (2006) explains, such language is generally a euphemism for high socioeconomic position or spending among customers. ((DIRECTV Group. “DIRECTV Group Announces Second Quarter 2008. Results,” Aug. 7, 2008. URL: http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/DTV/403790402x0x220865/7a8c4970-ee684d74-afa1-2f0fe8bf43b2/DTV_News_2008_8_7_General_Releases.pdf; Joseph Turow, Niche Envy: Marketing discrimination in the digital age. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.))

In response to the public outcry and secretive Smithsonian/Showtime arrangement, Congress cut the Smithsonian’s proposed 2007 budget by $20 million and launched an investigation by the Government Accountability Office. ((Kathleen Day and Jacqueline Trescott. “Small Linked to Scandal at Fannie Mae: Smithsonian Secretary’s Role is Scrutinized,”The Washington Post, May 25, 2006. URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/24/AR2006052402825.html)) On May, 25 2006, former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, an ex-Fannie Mae executive, and several executives from SBV were called before a Congressional Oversight Hearing to testify about the secret contract. But, even Congress, like the crusading Washington Post and vocal media activists, could not penetrate the ironclad discourse of “competition.” Members of the Congressional committee were allowed to see the contract a mere two days before the hearing only after swearing to keep its “proprietary” contents secret. Years later, the federally funded investigation into the contract continues. ((Smithsonian Institution Office of the Inspector General, “Audit Plan Fiscal Year 2009,” Sept. 2008. URL: http://www.si.edu/oig/AuditReports/AuditPlanFY09.pdf))

A 2006 hearing into the Smithsonian’s contract details. Full video can be found here.

The effects of the secret contract and the competitive model it entrenches are already evident, and made particularly salient by the for-profit and for-public depictions of American Indian characters now emanating from the Smithsonian Institution. In Night at the Museum 2, the character Sacajawea, a stoic mannequin come to life, has a romance with President Theodore Roosevelt, and partners with General George Armstrong Custer, both of whom were known for their beliefs in expansionism and white superiority over “savage” American Indians. ((See Thomas G. Dyer, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.)) The a-historical depictions of the iconographic characters is not surprising given Hollywood’s track record but stands in awful tension with the efforts of the Smithsonian’s own National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to dispel such misleading representations. ((See Richard West. The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Cultures, University of Washington Press, 2000; See Shari M. Huhndorf, Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination, Ithica, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2001.)) As a point of comparison, the NMAI partnered with WGBH and PBS to create “We Shall Remain,” a much more thoughtful and historically-rooted “American Experience” series on American Indian people successfully airing this year. Each of the episodes in the series included consultation and collaboration with American Indian people/experts and several were also directed and written by Native filmmakers such as Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho) and Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo). In addition to the educational content and supplemental materials designed for use by teachers, filmmakers appeared at international film festivals and participated in talks with the public.

Although the comparison between a Hollywood film and a public television documentary might not be entirely fair, it emphasizes a major difference in orientation. The pedagogic mission demonstrated through the “We Shall Remain” project parallels that of the Smithsonian’s original charge to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”; limiting access and audiences does not. Although some of the anxieties about access have been assuaged for the Smithsonian’s longtime partners at PBS and WGBH, the future is uncertain for independent filmmakers with less clout. As filmmaker Ken Burns and Margaret Drain, Vice President for National Programming, WGBH Public Television suggest, ambiguity about a filmmaker’s rights may lead to their avoidance of the institution and therefore less pluralistic interpretations of the collections. ((Margaret Drain, personal communication, Oct. 24, 2008; Ken Burns, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2008.)) Conversely, for big filmmakers like Shawn Levy, Director/Producer of Night at the Museum 2, the proverbial path has been cleared. His ease comes with the status of being “one of the most commercially successful film directors of the past decade” as the Night at the Museum 2 website boasts.

In light of the recent change in orientation at the institution and the profit-generating lead of SBV, it is not surprising that Night at the Museum 2 would be the kind of project with which the Smithsonian would partner. The groundwork for such conditions has certainly been laid as members of Congress pointed out in the 2006 oversight hearing. However, while media oligopolies stand to benefit from the Smithsonian’s brand and control of its resources, they have no formal obligation outside of profit generation.

Appropriately, at one point in Night at the Museum 2, a pile of collections objects stolen from the institution by a nefarious villain indicates the disrespect the character has for the Smithsonian and its legacy. Perhaps this is an appropriate metaphor for the relationship media oligopolies have cultivated with the Smithsonian, creating unprecedented opportunities to pilfer the public trust. For big media, an institutional reputation forged over more than 150 years is just another trinket in its “pile of loot.”

The Smithsonian Castle exhibits a prop from Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a pile of faux Smithsonian artifacts featured in the film

The author would like to thank Margaret Drain at WGBH in Boston and filmmaker Ken Burns for agreeing to participate in interviews with her. Additionally, she would like to thank Carl Malamud with the Center for American Progress, who pointed her to the valuable resources available through http://public.resource.org/si.edu/index.html.

Image Credits:
1. Who’s looting whom?
2. The Smithsonian Channel’s contract controls the number of projects allowed to feature the museum
3. A 2006 hearing into the Smithsonian’s contract details
4. The Smithsonian Castle exhibits a prop from Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a pile of faux Smithsonian artifacts featured in the film

Please feel free to comment.