Mother as the Supporting Role.

by Meredith O’Brien


While perusing the Christmas movies and specials in my DVD collection while attempting to make a holiday viewing selection for my family recently, I had a realization: In most of the TV Christmas specials and Yuletide-focused films that have become holiday classics, the mothers – when and if they appear on screen – are largely cast as supporting characters, depicted as the helpmates for their husbands or their kids. The biggest exception to this is the single working mom Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) who ran Macy’s Thanksgiving parade from Miracle on 34th Street, to whom I dedicated a loving column a few years ago.


Take my favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, the first DVD I pulled off my shelf. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) was the focus of the film, with explorations and depictions of his disappointments, his dreams, his good heart, his loyalty, his desperation. His wife, Mary, (Donna Reed) was sharp, had a sense of humor and seemed eminently capable at everything she did. In the film, she never seemed flustered while raising their four kids or remodeling the family home or doing volunteer work. But other than the abrupt end to her night of romance with George, where they danced the Charleston at a graduation party and then flirted beneath the moon on the walk home, Mary was largely relegated to the backburner, only seen in relation to George’s life. In the scene where George learned what would’ve happened to her had he never been born, we learned that Mary would’ve been *gasp* a single librarian! The horror! (She wouldn’t have married Sam Wainwright?) Sure, Mary is a swell gal, but she wasn’t really given a lot to do.


The next DVD I put my hands on was my other favorite Christmas movie, Elf, the one with Will Farrell as Buddy the Elf. In that one, Buddy had been given up for adoption and raised by the elves who worked for Santa at the North Pole. When Buddy overheard two elves gossiping about how he’d been adopted – his ginormous size relative to the other elves never clued him in about the fact that he was adopted – Buddy traveled to New York City in search of his birth father. His birth mother had, of course, died. (What’s a family movie without a dead mother? No wait, that’s usually an animated Disney movie.) His father’s wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) was kind and patient with the uber-naïve and sugar-fueled Buddy, but again, she was just there mostly to blunt the meanness and harsh attitude her husband exhibited toward Buddy. The movie was, after all, about Buddy seeking to reunite with his dad, not his stepmother.