The Wicked Stepmother

Missy

As you all know I’m a big Survivor fan and part of the reason I love the show is while it is fabricated and packaged as entertainment, it is also an interesting window into human nature.  We see the way people behave when eating 100 calories a day, pushed to extremes and how they interact when forced to make choices that service themselves and the group.  That is fascinating to me.  The power structures, social customs, group theory and patterns that develop are interesting and the fact that every winner has been different is a testament to the show.  There is no one way to guarantee a win because what is effective in a game amongst one group may not be in another.

For me season 29 was a disappointment.  This is partly because I loved the previous season 28 so much.  We had so many dynamic personalities in Cagayan that made it fascinating (and hilarious) to watch.  This season San Juan Del Sur I never bonded with anyone (or hated anyone).

But it had its appeal and curiosity factor as every season does.  And one of the interesting threads was a mother daughter pair named Missy and Baylor.  Missy was announced on the show in her introduction that she had been married and divorced 3 times.  I’m not sure why this was such a big deal?  Surely there have been Survivor men who have been married that many times and it was never brought up?

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From the beginning it seemed like the show was disdainful of Missy for her marriages even though I didn’t really see her doing much worthy of that disdain.  Certainly in the world of Survivor villains she was very thin gruel (and if they had the footage we would have seen it!).  She did protect her daughter (who I also didn’t ever see proof that she was that bad) but I didn’t think much more than any other person protected their loved one in the game.

She may have been a real jerk but this was not proven in the footage I saw, even the extended footage outside of the show.  There was really only one spat Missy had with Reed where he called Baylor a brat and there was a brief exchange. But again in the world of Survivor it was nothing. I could probably think of about 100 players who have been more obnoxious and villainous in their seasons.

The reason I bring all this up is in the finale Reed, a Broadway actor, got up in his jury speech and obliterated Missy as not only a bad mother but ‘a wicked stepmother’.  Here’s the speech:

So he defines the wicked stepmother as ‘the eccentric woman who comes in and makes demands on everyone for the things to which she feels so entitled”.  Again, that may have been Missy but it was not shown in the edit of the show and I believe if it entitled behavior was there it would have been shown.

Missy was the one who made the rice and they had to barter to get more (a Survivor first) but Reed was a beneficiary of more rice so you think he would be grateful for that?  So she didn’t like her daughter being called a brat on national tv?  That makes her a wicked stepmother.  Again, in the world of Survivor villains she was so not wicked.  For instance, Kass from Cagayan was way more critical, entitled, condescending and judgmental.

It really bothered me to see a woman criticized for playing the exact same game that many men have played, especially after she refused to give up after an ankle injury.  You think the show would have treated her as a hero (they don’t have control over jury speeches but still the tone the last 3 episodes was very Missy critical and yet I never was convinced she was doing anything that bad).

The reason why I mention all of this (because I know most of you don’t watch the show) is because I think it is emblematic of our societies strange view of maternal instinct, motherhood, femininity and womanhood.

survivor-caramoan-dawn-meehanThis is not the first time a Survivor Mom has been raked over the coals.  The worst time was Dawn Mehan in Survivor Carmoan who was forced to take out her dental implants and apologize to a fellow contestant (something men who have backstabbed people have never been asked to do).  People were very tough on Dawn because they felt she had betrayed them.  She was the Mother on the island and then had used that relationship to manipulate her own spot in the game.

Again if a Father figure had done the same thing like a Bob Crowley or Tom Westman it would be seen as great game play but not for a mother. We just expect mothers and ‘mother figures’ to behave in a particular way, which is decidedly unfair as all women are not the same and not all maternal instinct manifests itself in the same way.

Dawn was also very emotional which did not help her game but I kind of get that too.I would probably also be very emotional if I was hungry, tired and away from loved ones. I think her emotional state only made people hate her more.  Missy showed that even if Dawn had not been a cry baby she would still have been looked at as a bad mother for simply playing the game as the ‘mother figure’. Dawn received incredible backlash after the season including death threats and the most vile of insults forcing her to take down her social media all together. Other people have played the game poorly and not received such backlash but other people were not a mother of 6 children. It’s just a different playing field.

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Over at Entertainment Weekly Melissa Maerz has a great article called ‘Survivor’: Why that ‘wicked stepmother’ speech enraged me’. 

She says:

” I have no beef with mothers defining themselves as mothers. I’m a mother, too, and proud of it. It’s the question of who is branding women that way, and why, that makes me uneasy”

And then she says

“the term is “rife with contradictions”: “On TV and in movies and in modern fiction, mothers are frequently portrayed as protective yet focused on the trivial, wise yet neurotic, sexy yet sexless, monumentally important but deeply silly,” she writes. Worse yet, we villainize mothers for failing to live up to the standards set by the latter-day Donna Reeds we see on screen, even though those contradictions make those standards impossible.

Mothers can be anything, we’re told, as long as they’re both that thing and its opposite, and as long they’re not any one thing too much

Going back to the broader sociological discussion (again why I like Survivor) do we put Mothers and motherhood on too high a pedestal?  Do we expect women to be perfect and to never be self-serving or make mistakes? I kind of think we might. Most of us would have a much harder time forgiving an insult from a mother than a father.  Why? I guess because our fathers typically don’t raise us and teach us what is right and wrong (even in extreme patriarchal societies Mothers do most of the teaching and caring of children).

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Perhaps because Mothers are our consolation and sanctuary from the world they are put on the pedestal, almost more a saintly role intervening in our behalf against the evils that surround us than a real person?  I guess in some ways that is a good thing but it seems part of growing up is seeing your parents as flawed creatures who did their best but made mistakes too.  I think that’s why Reed’s speech felt so off-putting and immature to some of us. She was doing the best she could under tough circumstances but clearly she was not the motherly figure he expected her to be.

It was interesting in exit interviews yesterday Baylor said she felt her Mom was bullied. She said normally she was the one going to her Mom for comfort from the meanness of the world but this time it was her Mother receiving it and her doing the comforting.  In that respect perhaps it was a healthy experience for her. Again helping her see her Mom as a real person and not just her role as a mother.

I guess I get annoyed when anyone tries to put me in a mold and I feel that is what happened here.  Missy did not fit the mold of what Reed and others see as a ‘mother’ so that made her wicked despite showing little to no actual villainous behavior.

If I have children or participate in child rearing activities I do not want to be pressured to behave in some socially acceptable way.  I want to be me and the best mother I can be for me. Luckily I do not have people voting on my mothering like Missy did but it makes me sad we are so closeminded in 2014 in what behaviors are befitting a woman and womanhood.

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Wasn’t the whole point of feminism to allow women to be themselves, to be whatever they wanted to be? Why does that not include a wide spectrum of mothering styles and personalities? Why must we have one way and if you are different you are wicked and wrong? I guess that’s what bothered me the most about Reed’s speech it said to me ‘there is only one way for a mother to behave and you did not act as you should’.

Melissa Maerz ends her article with a challenge to Survivor and to all of us to throw off the Motherly stereotypes and see people for who they are not an idealized vision of who the perfect mother should be:

“Maybe it’s not Survivor‘s fault that Reed has such a twisted view of motherhood. Even so, it’s time for the show to stop devoting so much airtime—including a big chunk of the reunion—to rehashing unfair stereotypes. And it’s time for Survivor‘s host, Jeff Probst, to stop defending them…

Just because she has a daughter doesn’t mean that Missy has to be a great role model in the game—though, in my mind, she is one.”

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I couldn’t agree more. In a boring season she was a fighter and certainly deserved better than to be attacked and lambasted as a villain for her best efforts to win a game.  It just shows how much more work we have to do to break down gender stereotypes and accept people as people not classifications. It will never go away completely but we can do better.  We must do better.

(At least it is good to see many in the cast come to Missy’s defense.  Reed was trying to perform to the TV audience and was probably purposefully dramatic and over-the-top but it certainly didn’t win him any points in my book but I am not a reality tv producer looking for drama…)

2 thoughts on “The Wicked Stepmother

  1. Interestingly enough the whole idea of the wicked stepmother in fairytales is there because of early notions of natural vs adopted mothers and what was acceptable in maternal behavior and attachment. Somehow something suspect about a person pretending to be a mother in traditional folklore, so this all goes way back!

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