In TV shows, the challenges of flawed mothers — such as Bonnie (Allison Janney), a recovering alcoholic on “Mom” — are typically played for laughs.
In a pop-culture world in which almost anything goes in terms of foul language, nudity, alcohol and drug use, imperfect moms are among the last taboos.
Which is why the hedonistic behavior on display in the film “Bad Moms” — including the scene in which Amy (played by Mila Kunis) arrives at a school bake sale with store-bought doughnuts — can be so startling.
“When you put the word ‘mom’ in there, this certain set of characteristics subconsciously infiltrates your mind,” said actress Kristen Bell, who plays another beaten-down “bad mom” in the film. “You enter this realm of martyrdom. People are scared to write mothers who take time for themselves.”
That reluctance, though, might be starting to change.
“Bad Moms,” written and directed by “Hangover” filmmakers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, is among a handful of recent films and TV shows that push back at mom shaming.
With an empathetic view on modern motherhood, these films and shows often reflect the anxieties of women stretched to the limits by an era of helicopter parenting, tiger moms and Pinterest-ready perfectionism.
Hoping that moms just want to have fun — at least occasionally — distributor STX has been marketing “Bad Moms” as an opportunity for mothers to have an R-rated night out, partnering with brands such as Uber, Match.com and the lingerie line Cosabella. TV ads for the film have a “ Hangover”-like feel, emphasizing debauchery and clearly making the judgmental moms into the villains.
Besides Bell and Kunis, the “Bad Moms” stars Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kathryn Hahn and other relatable women acting in unfamiliar ways.
In “Tallulah,” a film with a more serious tone streaming on Netflix and in theaters, the title character (Ellen Page) steals a baby from an irresponsible yet compassionately drawn mother named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard).
After “Tallulah” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, writer-director Sian Heder was surprised to be accosted by women who said they connected to Carolyn, a supporting character who drinks too much, has an affair and doesn’t seem to know how to diaper her daughter.
“After the premiere, I became this weird priest hearing these bad-mommy confessions, and I realized all moms feel like failures,” said Heder, a mother of two. “There’s a disconnect between the role of the mother as it’s presented in the movies and what it actually feels like to be a mom, the amount of guilt and shame you put on yourself.”
On television, the challenges faced by flawed modern moms are often played for laughs, as in the satire “Odd Mom Out,” now airing in its second season on Bravo, in which writer and star Jill Kargman warily navigates the wealthy mommy clique of New York’s Upper East Side.
Or on “Mom,” a CBS show set to begin its fourth season in the fall, which centers on the lives of a mother-daughter duo of recovering alcoholics played by Anna Faris and Allison Janney (Janney also plays a stressed but sympathetic mom in “Tallulah”).
Not everybody thinks such flawed screen models of motherhood are a good idea.
After the “Bad Moms” trailer premiered — showing Kunis, Bell and their co-stars drinking, partying and seeking other escapes from maternal responsibility —Taylor Baehr, a writer for the Christian movie website Movieguide, posted a YouTube video protesting the movie.
“When I see media portrayals of moms running from their children, it’s hard for me to watch,” said Baehr, a mother of one with another child on the way. “It puts out this message that decisions you make as an individual mom don’t have a ripple effect on your family.”
Historically, moms on screen who aren’t wholly self-sacrificing are often portrayed as self-absorbed villainesses, such as Faye Dunaway’s abusive Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” or Mo’N ique’s dysfunctional matriarch in “Precious,” — archetypes that have centuries-old roots, as Heder recently discovered while reading to her children.
“The idea of the wicked mom is so prevalent in fairy tales,” she said. “But the evil father doesn’t really exist.”
Through the years, women have vented their maternal anxieties in popular culture — cartoonist Roz Chast’s depictions of bad moms in the pages of the New Yorker became so popular you can now buy them as trading cards. (Card No.17: Gloria B. “promised to take daughter to mall after school and then didn’t.”)
But in 2016, the new standard for women is to measure themselves — and find themselves lacking — against their friends’ impeccably curated social-media profiles. Heder noted that as she was groggily editing her movie and writing for “Orange Is the New Black” while caring for two children younger than 2, her photographer husband was sharing idyllic-looking family photos on Facebook.
“On social media, my mom friends are seeing this superwoman, this image of perfection,” Heder said. “The thing that they’re not seeing is that I’m almost traumatized by leaving my toddler to go to the set. Or that I pulled over my car on the way to work and took a 45-minute nap.”
In test screening audiences of moms for “Bad Moms,” Lucas and Moore, both fathers, said they were surprised to find that many women actually wanted more maternal misbehavior in the movie.
“We were concerned some of the stuff was going to be too raunchy,” Lucas said. “We were pleasantly surprised that moms wanted us to push the raunch. They were disappointed there wasn’t more male nudity.
“One thing we heard from several women was, ‘People don’t make movies like this for us.’ ”