If ever there were a TV universe replete with bad mothers, it’s Shondaland.
Of course, not all Shondaland shows exist in the same fictional world, which allows bad mothers such as Ellis Grey on Grey’s Anatomy to be reincarnated as a reprehensible Vice President of the United States on Scandal. (But don’t let the different fictional worlds fool you: Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice consistently used actors from the former to play different characters in the latter.)
It’s fascinating that all four of Shonda Rhimes’ protagonists have strained relationships with their mothers when Rhimes herself (from what we commoners can see) couldn’t be any further from that trope, having adopted three daughters as a single (and seemingly awesome) mum.
The first, and most obvious, of these Mommy Dearest connections is Meredith Grey and her aforementioned mother, Ellis. Throughout 11 seasons of Grey’s, we see Meredith’s internal struggle with the distant mother she simultaneously strives to live up to while resenting her for putting her career above her daughter and her early onset of Alzheimer’s which resulted in her death in season three. Ellis continued to haunt Meredith from beyond the grave when it was revealed that Meredith had yet another sister, Maggie, who Ellis put up for adoption when Meredith was a child.
With the sustained appearance of Meredith’s copious family members and the adoption (shout out to Shonda!)/birth of her own three children, the struggle to be a good mother and, thus, a good person is at the forefront of Grey’s Anatomy, whether it’s always palpable or not.
The somewhat forgotten Shondaland creation, Private Practice, also featured a strained mother-daughter relationship between Addison Montgomery and her mother, Bizzy, who committed suicide when her partner died. Of course Rhimes painted a more nuanced picture than this, but I imagine it’s pretty hard to forgive your mother for committing suicide and leaving you to fend for yourself, no matter your age. (Ellis also tried to kill herself when Meredith was a girl, right around the time she found out she was pregnant to Richard Webber with Maggie.)
Scandal, perhaps the crown jewel in the Shondaland empire, has a truly evil mother (and father!) in Maya Lewis/Marie Wallace, an alleged terrorist and murderer. Proving some people are never meant to be parents, last week’s season four finale showed Olivia continuing to be used as a pawn in her parent’s power games, with Maya/Marie choosing freedom over helping her daughter and Rowan/Eli thwarting Olivia’s attempts at revenge at every bloody turn.
Mellie is another Capitol Hill resident that struggles in her motherhood. Sometimes portrayed as ruthless and vindictive, it is Mellie who expresses sensitivity when daughter Karen has a compromising video taken of her and who wallows in grief after son Jerry is murdered. Mellie is perhaps a less rigid characterisation of motherhood than Maya/Marie as she is permitted to express a range of emotions that I imagine one would experience as a mother.
Finally, we see the mother of Annalise Keating rear her head towards the end of this year’s first season of How to Get Away with Murder. In what I think is arguably the most fascinating dynamic since Meredith and Ellis, Annalise’s mother Ophelia (played by Cicely Tyson) first comes across as rigid, unfeeling and old school, guilting her daughter (formerly Anna Mae) into remembering her humble beginnings and the sacrifices Ophelia made for her. Annalise resents Ophelia (someone write a thinkpiece unpacking that naming choice!) for not protecting her from being molested by her uncle and, while Ophelia is combing her daughter’s hair, she reveals that she did indeed seek revenge by burning their house down with Annalise’s uncle inside. Talk about protecting your children!
Like her fondness for mistresses, you have to wonder whether Rhimes is dealing with some mommy issues of her own when she writes bad mothers so often. (Even her debut screenwriting gig featured a bad mother.) What Rhimes really excels at, though, is writing real, nuanced people who happen to be mothers. On the season 11 finale of Grey’s Anatomy, Maggie finds out her adoptive parents are divorcing while Amelia, the black sheep of her family, is still struggling with the death of her brother. Meredith, already a mother to three, takes Maggie and Amelia by the hands in a rare demonstration of something other than contempt, with the final scene being the sisters three dancing at Richard and Catherine’s wedding.
While we all have mothers in some incarnation, Shondaland’s shows work to combat the stereotype that if you don’t have a functional family unit, replete with a doting, competent mother, you’re alone in the world.
Scarlett Harris is a Melbourne, Australia-based writer, broadcaster and blogger at The Scarlett Woman, where she muses about feminism, social issues and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter here.