“I’m not, like, a regular mom. I’m a cool mom.” Amy Poehler’s turn as an overly-permissive, desperate to be liked mother in Mean Girls is one of those culture moments burned into our brains. Her role was brief, but threatened to upstage the film’s younger cast. A few years ago, it emerged that a film based on Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads, (the sequel to the book Mean Girls was based on, Queen Bees and Wannabes) was in the works, called Mean Moms. And now we have Bad Moms.
In the words of Alison Herman at the Ringer, Bad Moms is the summer’s latest “Wokebuster”: a “lightly feminist” blockbuster that is “theoretically about social progress and dismantling gender norms”, but in practice reinforces the same premises it claims to challenge. It follows a group of three women, Amy, Kiki and Carla, as they realise that they can never meet societal expectations of “good” motherhood, and decide to embrace being bad mothers. (If Amy is meant to be a representation of a bad mother, it fails abysmally – instead Mila Kunis, an archetypal Cool Girl herself, actually plays a Cool Mom like Poehler’s, driving her kids to school in a sports car, feeding them fast food lunches, absorbing piles of nachos and excessive amounts of alcohol, while staying perfectly skinny and fucking the hottest dad at school).
If Mean Girls’ tepid message was, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores”; then Bad Moms’s is, “In this day and age it’s impossible to be a good mom.”
Of course, the villain of the piece, and the embodiment of all the gendered bullshit women are subjected to, is still a woman. In Mean Girls it was Regina George. In Bad Moms it’s Parent-Teacher Association president and self-proclaimed perfect mother Gwendolyn James. Even the name, ludicrously, sounds like an imitation: let’s take a slightly obscure, regal-sounding name and pair it with a common male first name. Ah, perfect. (Later in the film, Gwendolyn even pulls up to the girls in her posh car, yelling “Hey, bitches, get in!” – the parallels are obvious.)
If the enemy of the piece is hypocritical patriarchal expectations (the people yelling “slut!” and “whore!” at all teenage girls or “bad mom!” at all mothers), both films choose sisterhood, honesty and vulnerability as the solution. We all remember the “All junior girls report to the gymnasium! Immediately!” scene from Mean Girls:
The girls take part in a workshop – supposedly in order to own the mean things people have said about them, disregard them as ridiculous, admit their own human failings, and learn not to judge people in return.
So, too, do the women of Bad Moms gather in a school auditorium and confess their sins. After Amy delivers a speech in support of her run for PTA president urging the parents not to judge themselves for their quirks, a barrage of mothers spill their secrets in order to reject the expectations of perfections thrust upon them by the PTA and beyond. “I can’t tell my twins apart!” says one. Another: “I like my nanny more than my husband!” Every one of these mothers has felt personally victimised by Gwendolyn James. “I don’t even have kids!” one finally yells into an awkward silence. The scenes match right down to the “she doesn’t even go here” punchline in Mean Girls.
Bad Moms is watchable, mostly funny for the ridiculous slow-mo scenes of raucous behaviour from three great comic actors. It won’t reach the sanctified pop culture status of Mean Girls, but the influence of Tina Fey’s film is obvious, over 12 years on.