Mother Myths, Mother Bodies
Myths of the good mother are intricately tied to social values about the mother’s body as soft, rounded, yielding, gentle, and ample, but not sexy. In playing visually with those conventions, Naifeh represents Nia as slim and unmarked by pregnancy, while Amanda is presented as a plump, motherly, middle-aged woman. The reader is invited to wonder at these visual representations of the bodies of the white mother as a Victoria’s Secret model and the black othermother as a Hollywood Southern mam- mie. These visual markers of perceived aptitude for ‘good’ mothering become more pronounced as Nia and Amanda advance into public space as political leaders. Nia discards the hippie-looking loose gowns and flowing hairstyle from her time as a housewife. As queen of the otherworld, her body is hyper-sexualized. She wears a tight, dark dominatrix bodice with deep cleavage and long skirt, long-sleeved gloves, with her hair tied up under a horned headpiece a la Disney’s Maleficent. Amanda, on the other hand, no longer wears matronly dresses, but sports masculine pants, military boots, a tight jacket, sunglasses, a broad bandana tied around her Afro, and carries a rifle. Strikingly, while the visual representation of the male characters (Aubrey, Thaddeus, and Dale) remains the same throughout The Good Neighbors, the two mother figures Nia and Amanda transform under the pressure of patriarchal power structures. By the time Nia and Amanda have solidified their roles as political leaders, Rue has developed a strong mother-daughter relationship with them both. But at the same time Rue has also matured enough to see that both mother figures operate under the patriarchal order because they are dependent on relationships to males for their raison d’etre: Nia who carries out her father’s plan of world domination, and Amanda whose love for Thaddeus drives her civic actions. Rue’s decision to adhere to her mother’s course of action suggests a break with that tradition.
Drawing on Adrienne Rich’s work, Natalie M. Rosinsky argues, ‘mother and daughter are estranged by patriarchal norms for female behavior and self-identity’ (1980, 280). The role of Nia’s father Aubrey in dooming Nia and Thaddeus’ marriage evidences the destructive power of the patriarchal order. Despite its deceptive focus on female protagonists, The Good Neighbors narrative script follows the core schemas of Celtic legend, in which women are exchanged, traded, or won in games between men. In flashback narration, we learn that Aubrey would only allow Thaddeus to marry Nia if he could tell her apart from her look-alike sisters. Amanda, who was with Thaddeus at that time and hoped to marry him, gave him the right clue, thus sealing her own fate of an unhappy- ever-after. She tells Rue, ‘Maybe it would have been better to let him fail. I could have comforted him. Maybe the comforting would have turned into something else’ (Black and Naifeh 2008, 112). Wedded happy-ever-after comes at a price, however. Aubrey tells Thaddeus, ‘You have won my daughter, but I set this gea? upon you—if you are ever unfaithful to her, even for a moment, I will rip her from your side’ (Black and Naifeh 2008, 112). Although Nia explicitly claims to have the right to choose her own husband—‘my permission was given, Father. Yours does not supercede [sic] mine’ (Black and Naifeh 2008, 110)—she must nevertheless reckon with her father’s right to place the obligation/curse of fidelity upon her human husband. The complete absence of Nia’s own mother in this process underscores Aubrey’s power.
Nia becomes a reluctant, strangely detached, and rather neglectful mother in the human world. As a child, Rue realizes that her mother is different from other mothers, and that it is up to Rue to ‘pretend everything is normal’ (Black and Naifeh 2009,4). Rue reflects, ‘the thing about a mom like mine is that she never really understood how to give advice’ (Black and Naifeh 2008, 43). Rue recalls how her mother did not understand why she was embarrassed that other kids laughed at her for repeating at school what her mother had told her about the language of the trees and other fairy talk. In contrast, Rue says that Amanda is ‘the most normal person in my life’ (Black and Naifeh 2010, 15). Naifeh’s illustrations show how Rue reacts to her mother’s alien-ness with embarrassment and frustration. When Rue is a child, Nia walks naked in the garden, she talks to the plants, and she makes things grow. Rue must take on the maternal role of telling her mother that walking naked in the garden is not normal and warn her that the neighbors will talk. Rue’s internalization of middle-class ideals of the mother figure as a ‘ministering angel’ makes her feel powerless and frustrated with Nia. In Rue’s bourgeois perception of ideal motherhood, ‘the responsibility for mothering lies with the biological mother for whom the role is exclusively “natural” and a mission of moral imperatives that embrace unconditional love and unconditional doing for others’ (Reyes 2002, 9). Nia, however, rejects this ideal and, once free of her marriage bonds, pursues her own political ambitions. As troubling as Nia is as a mother figure, readers will recognize that as an independent woman she carves a path as an example of the women who seek careers in public service and politics and who have to negotiate the myth of the ‘good’ mother with the reality of being civic leaders.
The dominant myths of motherhood, and hence the narrative scripts they produce, present devoted, self-abnegating motherhood as an ideal standard. Rue wants her mother to be a constant, stay-at-home feature. However, as Rue grows older, she begins to see how her childish perception of ideal motherhood is an illusion, and that her mother never intended to remain in the human world, not even for Rue’s sake. ‘Maybe that’s why she named me what she did. Rue. For remembrance’10 (Black and Naifeh 2009, 4). The marriage to Thaddeus that Nia chose so triumphantly in order to defy her father Aubrey’s paternal power, and her subsequent motherhood, develop into an entrapment. Like a rare, exotic creature, Nia keeps within the walls of the home and the fence of the garden, while Thaddeus pursues an academic career at the university where Amanda also teaches. Amanda is practical, self-effacing, empathetic, and takes care of the people around her, while Nia in contrast, and without any educational degree, remains lofty, isolated, self-centered, and oblivious to Rue’s emotional needs. When Thaddeus is arrested on suspicion of having killed a student, and possibly his missing wife as well, Amanda immediately steps in to comfort and protect Rue. She says, ‘if anyone asks, I’m your aunt’ (Black and Naifeh 2008,23). Rue reflects, ‘if it wasn’t for her, I’m pretty sure Dad would have been fired by now. She’s been covering his classes and keeping us fed’ (Black and Naifeh 2008, 23). In comparison, when Rue visits her mother in
Aubrey’s underground kingdom, she is saddened that her mother just wants to party and not comfort her. Rue tells her mother, ‘because you’re you, you probably don’t even get why that [dancing] would bother me’ (Black and Naifeh 2009, 43). Similarly Nia only laughs when Rue tells her how upset she was to find that after the fey Nia died, the corpse they buried at the funeral turned out to be made of wicker. However, what Rue construes as Nia’s failure at ‘good’ mothering can, as Naifeh’s illustrations suggest, be seen as Nia’s rejection of self-sacrificing motherhood among humans and her ambition to embrace political leadership in the otherworld. Playful, ambivalent, self-indulgent, and ambitious, Nia forces Rue to rethink what motherhood and marital relations mean in a world of constant change.