Myth of the mama's boy
"There are few pop culture trope ... that are as ridiculed and reviled as the “mama’s boy”." Photo: satccaptures.tumblr.com
When in doubt, blame it on Freud. The early twentieth century psychoanalyst has a lot to answer for: orgasm anxiety, penis envy, and the conviction that there was something very fishy about men who maintain a close relationship with their mothers.
There are few pop culture tropes – and in particular, few pop cultural tropes oriented towards men – that are as ridiculed and reviled as the “mama’s boy”, argues Kate Stone Lombardi, author of The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger.
The mama’s boy is the guy who lives with his parents past the socially acceptable use-by date, who never bothered to learn to cook his own dinner or iron his own shirts because he always had someone else to do it for him. He’s the man so coddled that, Matthew McConaughey meets Sarah Jessica Parker style, he “failed to launch”. He’s the guy who can’t order a beer without consulting his mum, and who can’t say “no” to her demands, no matter how much they conflict with his own desires.
In short, the mama’s boy is the anti-man: a man so emasculated that whatever “maleness” he possesses has been sucked out of him.
Nobody wants to raise a child, male or female, who can’t take care of themselves as an adult. Nor do many people aspire to be that adult... however nice it sounds not to have to do your own washing, cooking or cleaning. But what separates the “mama’s boy” from similar aspersions on “kidults”, “adultescents” and the “boomerang generation” is that it is deeply gendered. Mama’s boys aren’t just losers who decided they didn’t want to leave the nest, but human motifs of what happens when mothers fail to get the memo that too much female influence will make their sons mentally and physically weak. Real men, or so a 2009 Bud Light commercial advises, are their “father’s sons”.
Lombardi was moved to start researching mama’s boys when she noticed the “huge disconnect between the way the relationship between mothers and sons was being portrayed in popular culture” and the loving relationships she and her friends had with their own sons. “The only way that you saw a close mother-son relationship portrayed was this kind of pathological view,” Lombardi observes.
So, what does Freud have to do with all this? For one, he turned an obscure Greek myth into a catch-all analysis of the parent-child relationship. Freud’s Oedipus complex wasn’t literally incestuous – it was less about “sex” as we understand it, than a theory of how toddlers come to terms with their gender identity – but its popular interpretation has never diverged far from the mother-loving, father-killing tale that inspired it. “When I interviewed mums, so many of them would bring up Freud,” says Lombardi. “[They’d say things like] ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be giving him this long a hug now that he’s 13.’”
And so it is in popular culture. In new “reality” show Mama’s Boys of The Bronx, a henpecking Italian matriarch (sure, have some racism with your sexism!) warns her adult son not to bring home any “sluts” while she’s away for the weekend. In the 2010 film Cyrus, a socially awkward Jonah Hill has no qualms walking in on his mother in the shower... or battling it out with new lover for her affections. Even the classic mother-in-law joke relies on a subtext of competition for husband-slash-son – if not for sex, then for his love.
Less incestuous interpretations don’t fare much better. Properly resolved, the Oedipus complex may not have sons literally bonking their mothers, but it does advise they break away in order to affirm their bond with their fathers. Which is just how, until relatively recently, mothers used to be advised to parent their sons. Respectful distance. Not too much physical affection. No crying over bruised knees.
Modern psychology has a very different take on the matter. Lombardi points to a study of 400 New York middle schoolers which showed that boys who were closer to their mothers were less likely to define masculinity as being tough, stoic and self-reliant. They also had less anxiety and depression than their peers, and were getting better grades. “There is good research showing that boys who have a violent break with their mothers have a weaker sense of masculinity,” says Lombardi. “It’s not so simplistic anymore that being a guy means rejecting everything ‘female’.”
Ironically, the behaviours we most revile in “mama’s boys” may be a product of the same social forces that caused people to roll their eyes at close mother-son relationships in the first place: rigid gender roles and sexism.
It is not an excess of emotional intimacy and support that breeds a man who can’t take care of himself, after all, or who can’t find a partner who lives up to his mother’s image. It’s a society that says that men shouldn’t need to know how to take care of themselves, and that puts women in constant competition for male attention and validation. And that – thankfully - is a society we are growing out of.