Third Party ClarityTherapy Is a Luxury for Pop Culture’s Troubled Mother-Daughter Pairs

Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever (Photo credit: Netflix)

In film and television, few relationships are as fraught as the one between a mother and a daughter. We rarely see healthy, balanced depictions of this fundamental relationship; instead, we’re treated to them at their most extreme. Onscreen, mothers and daughters hate each other, fueled as they are by resentment, like Christy (Anna Faris) and Bonnie Plunkett (Allison Janney) on Mom; or jealousy, like Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) on The O.C.; or codependent obsession, like Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) on The Gilmore Girls, and Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and Xiomara Villanueva (Andrea Navedo) on Jane the Virgin. But the introduction of a third, impartial party—a therapist—might lead to healthier onscreen representations of these relationships.

Take, for instance, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, Lady Bird, which offers up one of the most memorable mother-daughter relationships onscreen. Christine a.k.a. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf), have a strained and difficult relationship that Paste noted isn’t “‘fraught’ or ‘complex.’ It’s about maternal abuse.” Lady Bird can’t do anything right in her mother’s eyes: Marion tells her that she “walked weird” as she retrieved her diploma following her high-school graduation and Marion justifies her lack of sympathy for Lady Bird by saying her own mother was an “abusive alcoholic.” When a downtrodden Lady Bird asks her mother if she likes her, Marion just says, “Of course I love you,” and refuses to answer when prompted again with, “But do you like me?” Ultimately, Marion puts her pride and her ego before her daughter each and every time, and she avoids taking responsibility for the breakdown in her relationship with her daughter. Instead, it’s her teenage child’s fault that they can’t get along.

The film culminates in a heartbreaking moment when, upon finding out that Lady Bird applied to go to college across the country, Marion is furious to the point that she won’t speak to her, not even when Lady Bird heads for the airport. Rather than realizing the error of her ways and apologizing to her daughter for abandoning her, Marion writes letters that she keeps secret from Lady Bird until eventually her husband sneakily gives the letters to their daughter. The pair is completely unable to communicate, and it stunts them both, leaving Lady Bird alone in dealing with the various issues that plague her coming of age, from a secretly gay boyfriend to a general sense of restlessness that has her longing to be a writer who lives alone in the woods.

Marion and Lady Bird’s relationship would benefit from therapy, but—even if it’s something neither of them would consider—it’s not something they can afford. A 2016 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that therapists are less likely to work with people who aren’t white and middle class, and are more likely to ignore clients who are working class: Lady Bird’s parents would like her to attend a local college, and she lives on the “wrong side of the tracks,” which she tries to hide by lying to her classmates about where she lives. Socioeconomic status impacts Marion and Lady Bird’s relationship just as much as it impacts their ability to get professional help to repair it. For example, in a moment that illuminates her town’s class issues, Lady Bird claims to live in what she calls her “dream house” only to realize that her boyfriend Danny’s (Lucas Hedges) family actually lives there.

The fact that Lady Bird dreams of being wealthier than she is only puts more strain on her relationship with her mother, who works constantly but feels unappreciated. “Money isn’t life’s report card,” Marion tells her daughter. “Being successful doesn’t mean that you’re happy.” But to Lady Bird, money would at least make happiness a little easier to achieve. Money, and the resources it gives us access to, allows clarity to permeate the mother-daughter relationship depicted in Love Life, a new HBO Max series that uses each episode to explore a different romantic relationship in Darby’s (Anna Kendrick) complicated life. But Episode 7, “Claudia Hoffman,” flips the script by focusing on Darby’s contentious relationship with her mother, Claudia (Hope Davis). Darby harbors a lot of resentment about her parent’s divorce because she believes Claudia ignored her and centered herself rather than taking care of Darby.

As Darby recovers from an unexpected surgery, her mother is supposed to be taking care of her, but she can’t stop making demands on Darby, asking her to move rooms, eat certain things, and give feedback on her dating profile. She sits with her in the bathroom while she pees. She asks weird questions about butch lesbians. While Claudia and Darby are shopping for mattresses for Darby’s younger brother, they have massive revelations about their connection as mother and daughter. “Nobody ever bought me a mattress,” Darby says, crying. “Why can’t you just connect with me? I feel like your audience, like I could be anybody.” Claudia says she feels like Darby never wants her around. The women discuss the walls they have up, and Claudia shares that it takes work for a mother and daughter to connect. The episode validates both women, acknowledges Claudia’s anxiety and her panic attacks, and it doesn’t make either woman look melodramatic or as if they should be mocked for their pain.

Sometimes, stigma prevents people from going to therapy, especially when it comes to things that are supposed to be “easy,” like maintaining a healthy mother-daughter relationship.

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Since money isn’t an issue in their universe, Claudia is able to begin therapy, which allows her to repair her relationship with her daughter. “One of my goals right now in therapy is to try to be more present with the people I love,” Claudia says. When Claudia mentions her therapist several times, Darby responds, “I think therapy’s, like, working Mom.” Claudia laughs, saying, “God, I hope so, because Shana charges $190 a session. She won’t take insurance.” It’s a price that’s worth it to Claudia to preserve her relationship with Darby, but it’s not a luxury all mothers can afford. There are, of course, other reasons that mothers and daughters are reluctant to see therapists about improving their relationships. Sometimes, stigma prevents people from going to therapy, especially when it comes to things that are supposed to be “easy,” like maintaining a healthy mother-daughter relationship.

We see this in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever in which Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) struggles with her relationship with mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), following the death of her father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy). Their relationship had been tense before his death, but it became increasingly strained once he passed because Devi was much closer to her father. “I wish you were the one that died that night,” she even tells her mother. Therapist Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) helps hold Devi accountable and helps her see her struggles through a fresh lens, even when it comes to her relationship with her mother. For Devi, everything that frustrates her blurs together: her grief over the loss of her father, her obsession with sex and boys, and the resentment toward her mother. She’s a teenager, and, as with Lady Bird, her mangled emotions are justified given her youth. Her decision-making is also compromised by her age.

When her mom says she’s taking her back to India, Devi runs away to live with a friend, finding it to be a perfectly logical solution. “I’m not sure she wants me back,” Devi says. At a loss, Nalini goes to see Ryan. “I didn’t think you were someone who believed in therapy,” Ryan says. “I don’t. It’s for white people,” Nalini says. The women agree that they’re both concerned about Devi, and while Nalini doesn’t believe in therapy, she finds herself talking things through with Ryan. “She said she didn’t think I liked her,” Nalini says. “It’s only because I am scared. All the time.” The moment feels similar to the one where Lady Bird asks Marion if she likes her and when Darby asks Claudia why she can’t connect with her. These are all scenes in which daughters are begging to be seen by their mothers and their mothers, in turn, are forced to reckon with their daughters as full human beings who exist beyond them. When she leaves the session with Ryan, Nalini goes to see her daughter. “I don’t want us to fight anymore,” she says. The therapy session doesn’t mean that their relationship is fixed, but by the end of the episode, they’re in sync, and they’re able to see each other and their grief more clearly. For Devi and Nalini, and for Claudia and Darby, it takes a third party for that clarity to be achieved. And for women like Lady Bird and Marion, that clarity is out of reach because therapy—and the lessons and help it provides—isn’t accessible to those without the resources necessary to simply figure out how to get along.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.