Photo by Michele K. Short/STX Productions

It doesn’t give away anything if I tell you that the women who become “Bad Moms” in the movie Bad Moms aren’t, actually … Bad.

You know and understand — and maybe live —  the conceit: women who parent are accosted by all sorts of unreasonable expectations to look, act and be perfect.  Moms are judged at every turn, and our kids’ accomplishments become extensions of, or proxies for, our own. We have a sense that our children must score perfectly on every test, turn in awesome history day and science fair projects, make it onto every team (and not just be benchwarmers), and earn first chair with their tuba, trombone, clarinet or marimbas. And we must perform perfectly, too: at parent-teacher conferences, at play dates and at the dreaded PTA bake sale, or its equivalent.

Watching Bad Moms, I was struck by a memory.  I was transported to one bleak Saturday in October, several years ago, when I stood in an aisle at Costco reading a bewildering list.

“No nuts. No soy. No dairy. Nothing homemade. All must be individually wrapped.”

My go-to choices — apples, cheese sticks, peanut butter crackers — all disallowed by the allergies in the room, or the requirements that food be shrink-wrapped before being eaten. I pulled box after box of industrial-grade snack food down, read the ingredients, put them back. A husband and wife stood beside me for a while, consulting their own list, until the husband looked at me and said, “Your week for snacks, huh?”

I eventually relaxed my standards about food dyes and chemical flavorings, and went home feeling victorious but frustrated and worried. If I could almost fail so spectacularly at being “snack mom” for a kindergartner, what else was I so spectacularly unprepared for? I also decided, almost at that very moment, that it was physically and emotionally impossible for me to be a “perfect mom,” (whatever that is!) and that I would be a good-enough-for-my-particular-kid kind of mom.

So, I went to Bad Moms hoping I would have a good laugh and feel a bit vindicated in my parenting choices.

I also went to the movie as a bit of a stereotypical viewer: I left my child and husband home on a Friday night and met my friend at a movie theater where we — two professional women in their StitchFix outfits — could drink half a glass of hard cider and watch an R-rated movie.

But I’m also not the stereotype: I’m a feminist professor who studies and writes about how cultural and legal expectations of “good parenting” are disseminated to women in particular. I know that motherhood has been viewed as the way that women “achieve respectability,” and that public performances of motherhood have cultural resonances that implicate our position in society in terms of race and economic status. And, I had a pretty good sense that the movie wouldn’t disappoint those sensibilities: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn all play characters who find joy in bucking unreasonable expectations.

In the movie, the moms who decide to be “bad” are really just simply refusing to pretend that they are perfect. It’s a relief to watch them do the things that somehow all moms in America know they should feel guilty for, and the list is long. “Bad” moms are moms that: drink too much and stay out too late; wear clothes that are either stained, or wrinkled, or too sexy, or not sexy enough; fail to clean up their messes; swear in public; and laugh too loudly. Bad moms enjoy juvenile humor and have too much sexual desire.

In fact, if you only saw the trailer, you might think that the way to be a bad mom is to drink your way through a grocery store, making a hilarious mess; host an all-out, cheap-liquor-fueled bash and make out with lots of women; drive cool cars way too fast — with your children in the backseat!; and play hooky from work when your boss is unreasonable. In other words, the trailer makes it seem like bad moms act like our cultural stereotype of an out-of-control 20-something dad.

But that’s not it, really. One of the movie’s main messages is that by rejecting the helicopter and tiger parenting of the stereotypical and impossible-to-achieve “good mom,” we can actually raise better boys; boys who will grow into the partners that successful co-parenting often requires.

Early in the movie, we’ve seen Kunis lugging a paper mache bust of Nixon’s head, her son’s history project, done by her hands. As she descends into bad momness — into benign neglect — she not only fails to make him breakfast, but she also she doesn’t do his science project for him, and he complains bitterly.

Kunis kneels down to meet his eyes. She tells him that she knows he is disappointed that she’s stopped doing his work for him, but that he has to learn to do things on his own, and for himself.  He wants to know why, and her answer is simple:

“Because if you don’t, you’ll grow up to be an entitled a—— who treats women poorly.”

None of the women in the movie are partnering with dads who are engaged and involved; in fact, all of them are either single parents or partnered with “entitled a——s who treat women poorly.”  Even Christina Applegate’s character — the very definition of cool perfection — has major husband trouble.  None of these women would have to work nearly as hard as they do if they had actual partners sharing the load by picking up the kids, taking the vertiginous dog to the vet, sharing a bottle of wine while doing the dishes and talking about their days. It’s poignant that one of Kunis’s best bad-mom moments is a quiet brunch at an outside cafe, eating an omelet while reading the New York Times in peace. The other is when she tells her 20-something boss, also a bit of a jerk who treats his female employee poorly, that he needs to pay her better and respect her time. As she negotiates with him for those things, we realize that “bad moms” Lean In.

In other words, bad moms demand respect, and the only people who can offer it to them are boys, and girls, who have been parented in ways that enable them to achieve resiliency, grit and self-respect.

Bad moms can only partner with people who have had … bad moms.

Renée Ann Cramer is a professor and Chair of Law, Politics and Society at Drake University. @Smilla1972.

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