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New Women’s Studies Course Explores ‘Bad Mothers’ In Entertainment And Literature

Professor Tracy Rutler doesn’t watch TV and read books the same way you do.

While most would focus on the happily ever after, she uses her research on queer formations of kinship in 18th-century French literature to examine how literature and the media represent families. After examining one too many fairy tales, a particular theme stood out to Rutler.

“One thing that I’ve always noticed is bad mothers as this recurring trope in a lot of literature, movies, and television shows. It seems like a lot of the times there’s either a missing mother or a bad mother that a child has to overcome,” she said. “Even if you think of stories that you read when you’re a kid, like Cinderella, there’s this evil stepmother that’s causing a problem.”

Rutler was entering her second year as an assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies at Penn State when she presented the idea as the focus of a new course to the Women’s Studies Department.”I really just wanted to do a class that focuses on motherhood and bad mothers and why it is that there always seems to be this horrible mother figure for a child to be successful,” she said. “I proposed it to the head of the department and she loved it, so we put it on the schedule.”

The course, simply titled “Bad Mothers,” falls under WMNST 497: Special Topics in Penn State’s course catalog. Penn State offers the course for the first time this semester.

The Bad Mothers syllabus centers around a screen grab of Arrested Development‘s Lucille Bluth and homework that looks more like a late-night Netflix marathon — students must watch TV shows and movies like Gilmore GirlsAli Wong: Baby Cobra, Modern FamilyBlack-ish, and Orphan Black throughout the semester. Rutler says the course aims to pair pop culture pieces like these with readings that dig deeper into the concepts they present.

“What we typically do is read these theoretical texts next to comic books, televisions shows, movies, and sometimes poems. We look for the questions that are coming out from the theoretical texts and examine how they’re expressed in the creative material.” 

Rutler’s biggest challenge while creating the syllabus was sorting through the massive amounts of source material and deciding what to include. She designed the class to change focus every two weeks, concentrating on themes like the invention of motherhood, pregnancy, and the racial dimensions of motherhood. However, Rutler says the syllabus can often go through adjustments to reciprocate her students’ interests.

“Since this is the first time I’m teaching the class, I’m noticing that sometimes the students are more interested in certain topics, so I’ve been updating the syllabus to focus on a couple of different chapters because I’ll think they’ll be more interesting for my students,” she said. “That’s been one of the fun parts — seeing what the students respond to and kind of updating the syllabus as we go.”

During the first few weeks teaching the course, Rutler discovered that her favorite part is hearing her students’ reactions to the material.

“I think it would be a really fun class for anybody. We’re really mixing fun things that you would watch or read anyway with theory thinks through the implications of what you’re watching and reading, or even some video games you might playing,” she said. “I believe it’s a class that could appeal to anyone.”

Above all, Rutler believes Bad Mothers is a course that’s important and relevant to the current social atmosphere of the world.

“We’re living in a time in which women’s rights are being discussed everywhere — this is a very important time for women. I think as women, so much of our lives are defined by whether or not we’re mothers, what we’re thinking about mothering, or how we’re raised to be mothers,” she said. “I think it’s the perfect time to think through these issues and think about why our society is the way it is and why women are raised the way that we are.”

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About the Author

Gabriela Stevenson

Gabriela is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and Onward State's student life editor. She is from Norristown, PA, which she normally refers to as "30 minutes outside of Philadelphia" (she looked up the exact driving time). She enjoys Broadway musicals, neck pillows, and eating cereal at night. To contact Gabriela, e-mail her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @GabiStevenson if you want to feel young again.

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