Some of our chosen moms
Illustration: Derek Erdman
A.V. To ZAn alphabetical survey of pop culture

Note: This A.V. To Z originally ran on Mother’s Day 2015.

What makes a mom? Is it just a biological qualifier, or is it more? Can someone be a mom to a log? And beyond that, what makes a good mom—one that we’d not only want to have, but might even model our own parenting styles after? Is Lucille Bluth a good mom, or a whirling hellscape encapsulated in one maternal figure?

In honor of Mother’s Day, The A.V. Club set upon picking the best fictional moms, trudging through hundreds if not thousands of matriarchs from books, TV, movies, and games. While some choices were easy (Tami Taylor, duh), others inspired debate about what makes a good mom, or whose fictional birth canal we’d want to be pushed out of. Some tough love was required, but like these moms, we knew it would only help this story, our metaphorical offspring, grow big and strong in the long run.

A: Malory Archer, Archer

Of the two matriarchs who made Jessica Walter the grande dame of the pithy putdown, Malory Archer is the one who takes “mothering” beyond its biological definition. Lucille Bluth might love all of her children equally (although she doesn’t care for GOB), but Malory Archer so loved her only son that she made her first name his middle name—that way she’d always be with him, even after she shipped him off to boarding school. So maybe Malory’s only a slightly better mom than Lucille—but at least the maternal attention and care that she withheld was then channeled through her work as CEO of the extra-governmental spy agency ISIS. The business is her real baby, even if it treats her as poorly and drains her of as much money as Sterling Malory Archer does. (And as an ISIS agent, he’s part of the problem!) [Erik Adams]

B: Peg Boggs, Edward Scissorhands

Lucky for Edward Scissorhands, he’s discovered by the kindest Avon Lady in the whole wide world, Dianne Weist’s Peg Boggs. When Peg finds Edward, abandoned in the Inventor’s mansion, she unflappably insists that he come home with her, as she attempts to integrate this unusual creature into suburbia. She then welcomes him into her family as she encourages creative pursuits in topiaries and hair-styling to take advantage of his scissors-for-hands. Tim Burton’s own favorite of his films, Edward Scissorhands has a less-than-happy ending, despite all of Peg’s positive efforts. As this beyond-supportive mom tells a television audience, “Edward will always be special.” [Gwen Ihnat]

Runner-up: Linda Belcher, Bob’s Burgers

Linda is an unabashedly enthusiastic woman (always willing to pursue the most fleeting of passions), and her self-love is only rivaled by the love she has for her kids. In many ways, she’s the “anti-nag,” ceaselessly cheering on her family and encouraging them to be their best, most eccentric selves. [Cameron Scheetz]

C: Charlotte, Charlotte’s Web

In E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Charlotte the spider saves Wilbur the pig from slaughter by weaving his praises in her webs; only through her intervention does Wilbur survive into pig adulthood to be entered into a county fair. Charlotte’s done such a good job that even though Wilbur isn’t good enough to win any prizes at the fair, he’s so beloved that he can’t possibly be killed. But it’s here that Charlotte lays her eggs and, exhausted, dies at the fair, alone. Wilbur takes her eggs back to the farm and ends up with three new friends, and enjoys generations of spider companions thanks to Charlotte. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

D: Rusty Dennis, Mask

Rusty Dennis—played by Cher—probably isn’t anybody’s idea of the perfect mom, considering her predilection for drugs and biker gangs. But as the mom of a son—played by Eric Stoltz—with a serious physical deformity in Mask, she’s exactly the tiger you’d want in your corner. In various scenes throughout the movie, she brooks no bullshit from various authority figures who want to treat young Rocky like a freak—doctors, teachers, other kids. She loves and defends him fiercely, so much so that he doesn’t really need his own defense mechanisms; he’s free to be a kid. [Josh Modell]

E: Elastigirl, The Incredibles

The Incredibles begins with an inventive series of interviews with heroes like Mr. Incredible and Frozone, talking about superhero life. But the interviews prophetically end with one final quote from Elastigirl: “Girls, come on! Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so!… I don’t think so.” Elastigirl goes on to save her lunkhead mid-life crisis husband from Syndrome’s evil island, empowering her own kids in the bargain on their very first mission. Classic parental guideposts like “I know what I said then! Listen to what I’m saying now” are never more appropriate when your jet’s about to go down and you’re trying to get your daughter to conjure up a forcefield. In the end, everyone in the family embraces their powers, especially Elastigirl as she saves the kids from an explosion and knocks out a couple of guards on her way to rescue her husband. Elastigirl is The Incredibles’ true hero. [Gwen Ihnat]

Runner-up: M’Lynn Eatenton, Steel Magnolias

Played by one of the all-time-best portrayers of beloved matriarchs, Sally Field’s M’Lynn Eatenton from Steel Magnolias is the kind of mom you’d want in your corner. Granted, she can be a bit overbearing, especially when it comes to daughter Shelby’s diabetes, but what kind of good southern mama would she be if she didn’t get involved? [Marah Eakin]

F: Kitty Forman, That ’70s Show

In Kitty Forman, Debra Jo Rupp brought about one of TV comedy’s greatest living cartoons, a creation of pure emotion whose laugh could crack the toughest of studio audiences. Tied up in those extreme feelings is Kitty’s devotion to her children: Eldest Laurie (Lisa Robin Kelly), youngest Eric (Topher Grace), and surrogate son Hyde (Danny Masterson). The connection between Kitty and Masterson’s gold-hearted burnout is the heart of That ’70s Show, but at some point or another, she served as a watchful eye or a considerate ear for each of the knuckleheads who gathered in her basement. That’s one of the unforeseen byproducts of the character’s emotional range: It gave her a great depth of compassion, too. [Erik Adams]

G: Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls

Though moms like Terms Of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway and Mean Girls’ Mrs. George gave her a run for her money, we had to go with Gilmore Girls’ Lorelai Gilmore for G. Though at times she’s more of a pal than a mom, Lorelai ushers daughter Rory through life with grace and aplomb, never sheltering her from adult influences or difficult characters. That’s the kind of trust we’d want from a mom, and, along with good genes, it’s what helps shape Rory into such a model young citizen. [Marah Eakin]

H: Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show

Although the snowballing disgrace of its star has made The Cosby Show less of a wholesome memory than it once was, Clair Huxtable’s legacy remains intact. Phylicia Rashad played the mother of five with an effortless grace and a quick wit: Clair is the kind of woman who can unleash an electrifying monologue about gender equality in the midst of offering to make some coffee. And she lives her egalitarian philosophy, too. As a successful lawyer—she ascends to a partnership over the course of the series—she makes up one half of a true Brooklyn power couple, along with her obstetrician husband. [John Teti]

Runner-up: Peggy Hill, King Of The Hill

Peggy Hill judges success by her own metric. Whether it’s establishing the “Substitute Teacher Of The Year Award” just so she can win it, or getting a full-time teaching job at a Catholic school by posing as a nun, Peggy doesn’t take no for an answer. It’s something that’s evident in the way she supports her family, making sure they not only have high self-esteem, but a cheerleader in their corner at all times. [David Anthony]

I: Caroline Ingalls, Little House On The Prairie

You would be hard-pressed to find a better TV mom than Ma Ingalls (portrayed throughout the show’s run by Karen Grassle): lovely, sweet, even-tempered even when faced with that horrible Mrs. Oleson. In the face of rough prairie life on the TV show inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books, she still manages to wrangle wonderful meals out of her primitive stove and craft pretty calicos for her daughters to wear. In between, she ruled her modest but love-filled household with a strict set of rules and a long list of chores. The woman worked from sun-up to sundown, but Ma never uttered one cross word or a note of complaint. No wonder Pa was so smitten. [Gwen Ihnat]

J: Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo

There isn’t a sadder mom on this list than Mrs. Jumbo (from the movie Dumbo). In an effort to defend her poor son Dumbo from being mistreated in the circus, she gets locked up for being a “mad elephant.” In a scene only someone with a heart of bronze could withstand, she swings her baby through the bars of her cage to the tune of “Baby Mine.” Luckily, Dumbo soon finds out his giant ears are an asset, not a hindrance, as his flying ability makes him the star of the circus. The last we see of Mrs. Dumbo is at the very end of the movie, waving to her son from her own train car. Frankly, those 10 seconds of happiness do not wash away all the anguish we’ve already seen her endure. The seemingly innocuous Dumbo is one of the darkest chapters from the Disney canon. [Gwen Ihnat]

K: Beatrix Kiddo, Kill Bill

The motherhood that was taken from Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo is the driving force behind “what the movie advertisements referred to as a roaring rampage of revenge.” Powered by a tremendous sense of grief, she roars and she rampages through the first volume of Quentin Tarantino’s martial-arts epic, but only the audience witnesses the film’s parting shot: The Bride’s daughter is still alive. Flash forward through a few more grisly deaths, one grueling training montage, a live burial, the reveal of The Bride’s real name, and one successful deployment of the Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, and Kill Bill: Volume 2 arrives at its tearful mother-child reunion. It’s touching because Beatrix thought it’d never happen; it’s cathartic because of all she had to go through (and all the lives she had to end) to make it happen. [Erik Adams]

L: Cookie Lyon, Empire

No one—no one, goddammit—is going to come between Cookie Lyon and her kids—save maybe the criminal justice system. Empire’s fiery and fur-clad matriarch, Lyon is always looking out for her offspring, whether that means eagerly boosting their musical careers or cradling them as they struggle with mental illness. And, in a move only Lee Daniels could write, Cookie was there when her now ex-husband, Lucious, threw her gay son Jamal in a garbage can. Granted, she could have stopped him before Jamal actually went in that can, but at least she was there for the aftermath. [Marah Eakin]

Runner-up: The Log Lady, Twin Peaks

Can a log be considered a child? Would that make Twin Peaks’ most mysterious resident the log’s mother? Only the log has the answer, but The Log Lady sure cradles this piece of kindling like it’s a kid. [Erik Adams]

M: Elaine Miller, Almost Famous

As rigid as she is progressive, Frances McDormand’s character in Almost Famous is a no-nonsense, discipline-minded square who also celebrates Christmas in September (so it’s not commercialized) and forbids her kids from eating white flour and sugar. All of it comes from a place of utter devotion to her children, particularly son William (Patrick Fugit), who’s less rebellious than his older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel). Although her methods are embarrassing—“Don’t take drugs!” she shouts as William walks into his first Stillwater concert—what parents aren’t? She’s also wise enough to see the rare opportunity afforded to her son, even though she claims rock music is “about drugs and promiscuous sex.” Best of all, she astutely understands how musicians want to use William and protects him ferociously: “If you break his spirit,” she tells stunned rock star Russell (Billy Crudup), “harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession, which is law—something you may not value, but I do—you will meet the other end of this telephone and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?” [Kyle Ryan]

N: Katie Nolan, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Katie Nolan is a “made out of thin invisible steel,” a woman who never stops working, determined that her children will have a better life. In the tradition of American immigrant stories, she perseveres through poverty and hard times, the sole provider for her family and the constant anchoring presence in Francie’s life. Married to an undependable but lovable drunkard, Katie Nolan makes the best out of her hard life, pinches pennies, and turns day-old bread into delicious meals. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

O: Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree Of Life

Jessica Chastain plays Mrs. O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s gorgeous, floaty The Tree Of Life as the sort of embodiment of perfection: She’s the film’s “grace” against the brutal “nature” of her husband, Brad Pitt. So many of the film’s passages are nearly wordless, but she conveys an ideal mother’s greatest trait—an uncontainable love for her three boys—with words and looks. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences—and there are a lot—Pitt has left town, and she’s free to run around the house, chasing and being chased, really living. [Josh Modell]

P: Mildred Pierce, Mildred Pierce

Although pegged as a “woman’s movie,” Mildred Pierce was penned by crime writer James M. Cain, who offered a rich portrait of a hard-working single mother with great legs who sacrifices everything for an ungrateful daughter. Joan Crawford personified this character with aplomb in 1945 (as did Kate Winslet in 2011). Mildred is so industrious and hard-working that she moves up from waitress to restaurant-owner, which is still too working-class for that sneering guttersnipe Veda. This vile offspring swipes her Mildred’s husband at the end, shoots him when he threatens to leave, and almost lets her mother take the rap. Mildred Pierce remains an admirable character, and one of the strongest women’s roles in the ’40s era, but really, there are limits to maternal sacrifice. Although it’s ironic that the real-life Mommie Dearest would win her only Oscar for playing one of the most devoted mothers in cinematic history. [Gwen Ihnat]

Q: The Queen Mother, Aliens

Feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick argued that mothers, by virtue of their maternal experience in creating and nurturing life, abhorred violence and the social norms that fostered it. She clearly had never met the Queen Mother. The next time you think it’s impressive how Mom managed to juggle raising a family and having a life, ask yourself this: Did she ever rip herself apart just for the chance to exact vengeance on someone who hurt her babies? That’s the standard set for parental dedication in James Cameron’s masterpiece, as the rage-filled matriarch pulls herself apart after Ripley torches the eggs containing her future brood. Sure, it’s a high bar, but when it comes to the question of how committed a mother can be to her offspring, there are those who will drive twenty minutes out of town to find the right action figure, and then there are Queen Mothers. And so far, Queen Elizabeth is still in one piece, no matter how impressive Helen Mirren makes her look. Also, selling Girl Scout cookies is probably easier when the little ones will literally get in the customer’s face about it. [Alex McCown]

R: Ann Romano, One Day At A Time

One Day At A Time was a half-hour sitcom, but its premise alone—a recently divorced woman raises her two teenaged daughters—signaled that there would frequently be something deeper afoot. As Ann Romano, Bonnie Franklin dealt with issues ranging from teen sex to suicide to sexual harassment, long before it was commonplace to do so. (It was still uncommon to make a divorced person the center of any show at that point.) She didn’t always make perfect decisions, but Ann Romano was the type of level-headed mom that any teen would be lucky to have—stern and loving. [Josh Modell]

S: Catelyn Stark, Game Of Thrones

In the Game Of Thrones TV adaptation, Catelyn Stark is a no-nonsense mother and strategist, but it’s her role in the books that takes her role of mother and ups it by one million. (Stop reading if you don’t want this spoilt.) After she’s killed by the Freys in the Red Wedding, Catelyn is brought back to life by Lord Beric Dondarrion (the Lightening Lord), assumes the name Lady Stoneheart, and goes on a crusade of unforgiving revenge on those who murdered her and her son. She wants to kill—and does kill—anyone who’s even associated with those who murdered her son and husband. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Runner-up: Marge Simpson, The Simpsons

The apotheosis of the eternally patient, pathologically unappreciated TV mom, Marge Simpson lives for her family with a devotion that seldom considers her own happiness. (That creates its own problems, as episodes of The Simpsons have shown.) Although this is The A.V. Club and we’re legally bound to mention The Simpsons in every feature, we felt Marge was too obvious a pick for the top spot here, as much as we love her. [Kyle Ryan]

T: Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights

In a football-mad town like Dillon, Texas, it follows that the coach of the local high-school squad would be viewed as a father figure to the whole community. That could make Coach Eric Taylor’s wife, Tami (Connie Britton), the town matriarch by default—but that’s a distinction “Mrs. Coach” straight-up earns. In turn, she makes the young people she mentors (as a principal, guidance counselor, and volleyball coach) earn her respect. Some do, some don’t—and when they don’t, Friday Night Lights gives Tami the space to express her disappointment. (See: The tragedy of Tami and Epyck in season five.) And she shoots just as straight with her children: When eldest daughter Julie gets serious with the Dillon quarterback, Tami kicks off a conversation on the topic with a no-nonsense “I saw Matt Saracen buying condoms today.” Not as succinct as “Hey, y’all,” but a quintessential Tami Taylor line nonetheless. [Erik Adams]

Runner-up: Edna Turnblad, Hairspray

Played adeptly by the sublime Divine in the 1988 version of the John Waters movie, Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad starts off the movie as a bit of an iron-centric square, but as daughter Tracy comes out of her shell, so does Edna. The two support each other unconditionally, dealing with race riots, bombs, and fat-shaming, and it’s a marvelous thing to watch. For the record, John Travolta’s Edna Turnblad is a pale imitation. [Marah Eakin]

U: Ursa, Superman

When you’re confined to an interdimensional prison with your partner in failed global rebellion, you might as well reproduce—the more the merrier, even in the Phantom Zone. Kryptonian criminal Ursa was a creation of the first two Superman movies, but she became an actual part of The Man Of Steel’s universe in the pages of Action Comics, mating with her partner-in-foiled-conquest General Zod, giving birth to a son, Lor-Zod. The rebellious apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, though: When it came time for another attempted Kryptonian invasion of Earth, Lor-Zod fought on the side of his adopted parents, Clark Kent and Lois Lane. [Erik Adams]

V: Pamela Voorhees, Friday The 13th

As the mother to a hydrocephalic child, Pamela Voorhees has been willing to fight for her son from the very start. Giving birth to Jason at 16, and nurturing the child on her own, Mrs. Voorhees did everything to care for him, including protecting him from an onslaught of ridicule. Jason would go on to drown in the murky waters of Camp Crystal Lake, but that didn’t stop Pamela for continuing to go to bat for her son. Years after his death, Mrs. Voorhees did everything in her power to prevent such a tragedy from striking again, even if her measures were a bit extreme. It’s that unending devotion that makes Pamela Voorhees such an ideal mother, and her knife skills are nothing to scoff at either. [David Anthony]

Runner-up: Alba Villanueva, Jane The Virgin

An unconditionally loving madre and abuela who dealt with daughter Xiomara’s young pregnancy with love and only a bit of disapproval, Jane The Virgin’s Alba Villanueva is everything a good but not hideously stereotypical matriarch should be. Calm, empathetic, but still fiercely protective, Alba is the picture of ideal fictional motherhood. [Marah Eakin]

W: Molly Weasley, the Harry Potter series

Molly Weasley is the embodiment of maternal, with enough motherly warmth to go around to not just her seven children, but also to Harry Potter and pretty much everyone in the Order Of The Phoenix. But beneath her cardigan-clad exterior is the steely soul of a total badass, as evidenced during the Battle Of Hogwarts when Mrs. Weasley gave her infamous cry, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” to Bellatrix Lestrange when she advanced on Ginny Weasley. She fights and kills Bellatrix, releasing the inner Gryffindor lion that’s been hiding in her unassuming motherly figure. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

X: Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess

Motherhood is difficult enough in the realm of mere mortals, but the hero of Xena: Warrior Princess has an added burden: She has to protect her daughter, Eve, from the wrath of the gods. When Eve is born—after being immaculately conceived by divine intervention from the goddess Callisto, in keeping with Xena’s Sapphic vibe (although Xena also gives birth to a son, Solan, the old-fashioned way)—the immortal denizens of Olympus set about to kill the newborn. It’s not just a grudge against Xena, as the gods are convinced that Eve is the “bringer of twilight” who will end their reign. They’ve got a prophecy and everything! Xena decides to fake her death and Eve’s to throw the Olympians off their trail, a plan that goes awry when it traps Xena in a 25-year nap. The warrior princess’ quarter-century fast-forward is a sacrifice that works on two levels: Not only does it save Eve, it also allows the show to instantly make her a recurring character in her grown-up form. When motherly love pays narrative dividends, everybody wins. [John Teti]

Y: Lena Younger, A Raisin In The Sun

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In the Sun became the first play written by an African-American woman to grace a Broadway stage, an especially moving landmark considering Raisin deals directly with African-Americans’ efforts to occupy spaces not designed with them in mind. Lena, the dignified matriarch of Chicago’s Younger family, leads the charge in the play, earmarking the bulk of an insurance settlement for a house in an exclusively white neighborhood in the 1950s. A smooth-talking suit from the neighborhood association tries to pay the Youngers off to get them to stay put, and when Lena’s son Walter advocates taking the money, she sets him straight as only a mother could: “Son, I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers, but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ’em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We ain’t never been that poor.” [Joshua Alston]

Z: Sophie Zawitowski, Sophie’s Choice

The phrase “Sophie’s choice” has ingrained itself so deeply in the pop-culture lexicon, the connection to its source—William Styron’s novel and the film based on it—is tenuous at best. But before the phrase was widely applied to such momentous decisions as feta versus gorgonzola in a build-your-own salad bar, it belonged to Sophie Zawitowski, who was forced to choose which of her two children would be immediately put to death at an Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s a choice so excruciating and unconscionable, the colloquial usage isn’t even terribly accurate, deployed when describing a difficult decision rather than a fundamentally unwinnable one. But that choice lends itself to the type of raw performance for which Meryl Streep became known, thanks in large part to her starring role in the film, for which she won her first Academy Award for Best Actress. [Joshua Alston]

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