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Call Me ‘Mom’

A word that used to be tinged with condescension and snark has been rehabilitated as a marker of female solidarity

Marjorie Ingall
May 11, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

“Mom,” when used by people you did not raise, used to be an icky word. It was a lazy substitute for your actual name. When you had a baby, doctors would breeze in and out of your hospital room airily calling you “Mom,” as if your given name had suddenly disappeared along with your placenta. “Mom jeans” were, of course, ugly, wrongly high-waisted, unappealingly roomy-thighed, and unfashionably tapered. The very word mom (usually pronounced with an endless whine of the letter o) sounded like a bleat from an irritated, entitled teenager who found you mortifying.

But now, “mom” is cool. Young women on the internet gush, “mom!” at cool older women—Beyonce, Cher, Michelle Obama. Carrie Fisher was “everyone’s space mom.” I asked my own social-media-savvy teen what it means when a kid gushes, “mom!” She replied, “It means ‘I adore and respect her and feel she would be a very good mother to me.’” When I gulped, she amended, “I mean, an honorary mother.” (This child may or may not have announced once at the dinner table that Elizabeth Warren was mom.)

Today, “mom jeans”—a term that began as a snarky 2003 SNL sketch about middle-aged ladies’ stylistic cluelessness—are the height of fashion. Cool NYU students are way more likely to sport jeans with a waist that reaches their rib cage than the jeggings popular a few years ago. For many young women, the ’90s styles (and music, and movies) that are so in vogue are precisely what their moms wore (and listened to, and watched) at their age.

A teenager or 20-something may call a friend “mom” too. “Mom” is your pal who’s a little more responsible and mature, the one who comforts you when you’ve been dumped, makes sure you have healthy snacks, texts to be sure you’re ready for the quiz or to cheer you on when you have a presentation to do. If you need help with humanities homework or advice on dealing with a difficult coworker, your mom friend’s the one you ask. Young celebrities who seem smart and competent as well as beautiful are mom: Taylor Swift, Solange, Selena Gomez.

Some trend-watchers try to compare “mom” with “dad.” It’s not a good parallel. “Dad bod” may be a recognizable phrase now that Leonardo DiCaprio has become doughy, but dad bod is not regarded as desirable, not like being a golden triangle (hello, Dorito-shaped Chris Evans). (And “mom bod” is not bandied about the way “dad bod” is.) “Dad jeans” aren’t cool; millennials may love Barack Obama like a dad, but they mock his dorky denim choices.

Calling celebrities “dad” does happen, but celebrity dads are few and far between and often gain their status by association with celebrity moms. Kanye, for instance, got dadded after Kim Kardashian was mommed. (And Kim became mom after a younger celebrity gave her the moniker: When Kim “broke the internet” by posing nude for Paper magazine in 2014, impressive posterior out there loud and proud, the singer Lorde tweeted the one word “mom” at her. The term wasn’t new (a Google Trends search shows that it’s been growing steadily; in April 2017 it was twice as common a search term as it was in May 2012) but it was the first time most media people—me included—saw it. And like a lot of olds, I thought Lorde was slut-shaming Kardashian. I thought “mom” in this context meant: “Jeez, Kim, you are a mother now! How can you pose with your gleaming tuchus bared to the world?” In other words, I saw Lorde’s “mom” as the same old “dump your former identity, lose your sexuality, care only for your spawn” mishegas that “mom” had seemed to be in the late ’90s and early aughts. But no! In a Tumblr post that almost audibly rolled its eyes, Lorde wrote (the hipster spelling and typos are hers):

I retweeted kim’s amazing cover and wrote ‘MOM,’ which among the youthz is a compliment; it basically jokingly means ‘adopt me/be my second mom/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic’ (obviously i love my own mama and she is the best tho) but straight after that i think someone else called out the cover saying kim has no right to look that sexy as she is a mother which is TOTAL trash—why should that stop her? if anything i think she gets even more beautiful and sexy all the time like a fineass wine, and of course has every right to showcase that.

I am not a Kardashian fan, but I appreciate what Lorde was going for.

“Mom” is now huge: It was a nominee for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2016. But what’s important here is that it’s part of a larger cultural trend that commenters on the “mom” phenomenon have mostly missed: “Mom” is a sign of increased rapprochement between younger and older women. The generations have often been played against each other, and sadly, we’ve often taken the bait. The notion that “You can’t shave your legs/wear a miniskirt/like men and be a real feminist” is not what most older women believe. Yet younger women have heard it over and over as if it’s canon. Our culture tells women they’re less valuable as they get older. It tells women that feminism is only about “empowerment” as a marketing tactic. It employs a divide-and-conquer strategy promoted by the powers that be. It creates a distraction that keeps us from fighting the real battles against common enemies and building generational and cultural bridges.

But women of all ages are clueing in. As the dewy millennial website The Hairpin noted, “mom” is worlds away from “MILF.” MILF is “rooted in porn-driven horny-boy fantasies where some naive teen boy pines for or gets it on with some older mother figure. Thanks, ‘Stacy’s Mom’ and American Pie.” “Mom,” on the other hand, is inclusive; it’s about older women as subjects rather than objects. I’d add that porn-driven horny boys venerate young Carrie Fisher in a chained collar and gold bikini; character-driven funny women venerate Carrie Fisher as a dog-loving, open-about-mental-illness-having, sexism-calling-out older badass.

“Mom” is often explicitly political. Last year, Jezebel headlined a piece “You Leave Our Mom Ruth Bader Ginsburg Alone, You Monster.” Hillary Clinton gets so much “mom,” you would not believe how much mom she gets. It’s incredible. Bigly.

And as Hillary is mommed, women imagine Hillary momming back. The most retweeted post of the campaign season was Hillary’s “delete your account” (a classic new-school Twitter slap) to Trump, who had just tweeted: “Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama—but nobody else does!” Of course, savvy social media folks know that most famous people do not run their own Twitter accounts. (Except, of course, Donald Trump. To his aides’ endless grief.) So journalist Caroline Moss tweeted her own fantasy about how the classic tweet went down:

HRC social media manager: We just tweeted ‘delete your account.’
Hillary: mom
Hillary: yas
Hillary: drag him

— Caro (@socarolinesays) June 9, 2016

A 20-something female writer depicted the voice of a 69-year-old female politician as that of a snarky millennial. Of course Hillary does not talk like that, which makes the tweet funny. But imagining that Hillary does talk like that feels like a proud, sisterly, affectionate act.

Dudes may not always see how the generational divide among women seems to be lessening because women of all ages don’t talk to dudes about it. The ugly campaign season held a lot of lessons for us. Hillary hatred, which grew and grew, made a lot of women realize just how fervent and outsized male disgust for this woman was. We got used to getting sneered at for loving Hillary, so we created private spaces on Facebook—spaces that still thrive—where all we do is seethe at male venality and sing a song of Hillary. We came to love Samantha Bee (MOM) because she loves Hillary as much as we do, and we’re saddened by how much Trevor Noah (oh, Jon Stewart, come back) seems to viscerally loathe a certain hardworking, more-sinned-against-than-sinning lifetime civil servant. Still. He’s still mad. Look, we ladyfolk don’t want to hear men drone on about what a mediocre candidate Hillary Clinton was. We want men to acknowledge that she lost because of racism, sexism, and ageism.

And Hillary isn’t the whole story. Black Lives Matter was started by young women; older women helped carry the torch. Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor speak for women young and old. Men tut-tutted about the Women’s March (couldn’t we call it something more inclusive?) and said that pussy hats were unserious and that protest was pointless and that grassroots activism didn’t lead anywhere. Women found support and encouragement and shared humor and self-expression and rage with other women, older and younger, and they liked it.

The Jews, of course, have their own special maternal love and ambivalence. Jewish American Princess jokes (aimed at younger women) and Jewish mother jokes (aimed at older ones) reflect that dichotomy. But their heyday has passed. Humor today is more observational, more grounded in storytelling.

Additionally, when women get to control how culture is made, they seem less likely to default to stereotypes of other women. Central to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the friendship between an older woman and a younger one. Ilana’s mom on Broad City gets pedicures with her daughter and her daughter’s best friend, encourages healthy body image (“would you look at that gorgeous tush!”), and is cheerful about sexual expression. She and her daughter even hold hands, aw. This year’s Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures, an intergenerational story about black female scientists helmed by a black female director, made more money than any other Best Picture nominee … and gosh, as it turns out from doing the actual math, movies like it that pass the Bechdel test (meaning they feature two female characters who have names and have a conversation about something other than a man) make more money than movies that don’t. Yet everyone is newly stunned all over again when this happens. (And yes, movies about black people make money, too! But that’s a whole other column.)

This Mother’s Day, you can call me mom. I’m happy to reclaim a word that used to make me shudder.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.