I had high hopes for Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), the tough, pragmatic wildling leader, when she made her debut on a recent episode of “Game of Thrones.” The only woman gathered among a tribunal of free-folk, debating whether to become Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) allies and accompany him back to the Wall, Karsi was sensible, quick-witted, and though we had yet to see evidence of it firsthand, clearly skilled at combat.
She was also a mother.
As wildlings began evacuating the North and boarding boats headed to the Wall, Karsi made sure her two daughters were safely aboard and promised that she was “right behind them.” We knew then, of course, that she was a goner. But, as a mother myself, I found the catalyst for her demise pretty disappointing.
After laying her ax to the skull of many a white walker, urging other wildlings to board boats before her and providing impromptu strategic combat counsel to Jon, Karsi ultimately meets her fate when she preps to square off against the next wave of undead assailants, only to discover they’re children. Her eyes go soft and she’s rendered momentarily immobile, leaving just enough time for those zombified kids to pounce.
That moment of weakness – that “Aw, they’re just children” beat that results in a deadly hesitation or that assumption that “maternal instinct” will override survival instinct – is a familiar plot device for tough onscreen mothers.
Snow White’s revenge
In ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” motherhood as an essential vulnerability is a recurring theme. Early on, both Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her antagonist, Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), are presented as powerful women, capable of felling formidable opponents. But as their children are threatened or their ability to parent is questioned, they’re temporarily undone. The custody fight between Henry’s biological mom, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), and Regina, his adoptive mom, dominates a large part of the show’s early seasons. Regina, though “evil,” can be manipulated when her love for Henry is disputed. Emma, though initially not receptive to being a mother, warms to Henry with unusual quickness and rapidly, almost inexplicably, assumes an intense desire to claim him as her own.
Similarly, when Snow realizes that Regina robbed her of her ability to raise Emma and, through a memory curse, took away her recollection that she’d borne a child at all, Snow is also consumed by a desire to parent to avenge her lost years of motherhood, and to punish Regina by joining the charge to remove Henry from her custody. That all three women know that the others’ “maternal instinct” is an Achilles heel makes their attacks on another repetitive after a while. It becomes too convenient.
‘A crippling empathy’
Like Karsi, each of the women is established as calculating, confrontational and, when the occasion calls for it, unyielding. They’re capable of besting giants and pirates and any number of supernatural forces set against them. But a mere mention of their kids and the characters as well as audiences are expected to allow these women’s status as mothers to supersede their other traits.
For all the strides contemporary television is making in creating nuanced, complicated women who happen to be mothers – “The Americans” Elizabeth (Keri Russell), “The Good Wife’s” Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and “Mad Men’s” Betty Francis (January Jones) spring immediately to mind – there’s still the urge to present motherhood as narrative shorthand for empathy, particularly a crippling empathy.
In real life, motherhood is no easy analogue for mercy, kindness or vulnerability. It can make a woman crueler as often as it can make her kinder. Its temperamental effects are specific to each mother.
Hard mothers are rare
One of my own favorite representations of onscreen “tough woman motherhood” was one I saw long before I had my own child. It’s 1996’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” I’m thinking of a particular scene – and I bet it’s pretty easy to guess the one. Fittingly, a YouTube user labeled the clip, “Scary mom.” Amnesiac suburban mother Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) is having a rare moment of recollection, when her former life as assassin Charly Baltimore breaks through her saccharine veneer as she teaches her 8-year-old daughter, Caitlin (Yvonne Zima), to ice skate.
Caitlin falls and before long, every trace of sweetness leaves Samantha’s voice. “Stop being a little baby and get up,” she grits. “Life is pain. Get used to it. You will skate all the way to the shore, and you will not fall again.” I remember that being both unnerving and deeply gratifying to watch as a teenager. It was both harsh and exactly what Caitlin needed to hear. When the line returns in the film’s final act – this time coming from Caitlin – Samantha’s motherhood is affirmed.
That remains one of few times I saw a hard-edged mother rewarded. I’d hoped that Karsi would survive (as a mortal, that is), but if she had to die, it would’ve been nice if she’d died the way men on “Game of Thrones” tend to die in big battle scenes: simply fighting someone who got the best of them.