‘The Edge of Seventeen’ and the return of the vain, selfish single mom

An otherwise subversive film whiffs an opportunity to challenge sexist tropes about single mothers.

Kyra Sedgwick as Mona. CREDIT: YouTube
Kyra Sedgwick as Mona. CREDIT: YouTube

This story discusses the plot of The Edge of Seventeen in its entirety.

The Edge of Seventeen is, as the title suggests, a coming-of-age movie. But it isn’t just any movie about a sullen teenage girl. It subverts some tropes about the popular high school athlete, the misunderstood nerd, and the typical heroine of these movies. However, there is one stereotype it doesn’t subvert: the vain single mother who is too busy running after potential suitors to take care of her kids.

The film begins when Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is bullied on the playground, meets her best only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), in elementary school. Nadine loses her father in middle school and struggles to socialize as the years go on. Meanwhile, her handsome and popular brother flourishes in high school. Soon, her brother and Krista fall in love. Nadine befriends an adorably awkward classmate and becomes obsessed with a “simple but complicated” senior who works in a pet store.

Most of these characters don’t fit into neat boxes. Nadine’s brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is crushed under the weight of everyone’s expectations and the responsibility of watching over his mother. Krista isn’t desperate to be popular, and Erwin — the quirky underdog— belongs to an incredibly wealthy family. He’s also an Asian-American romantic lead, which is still a rarity in Hollywood films. The film also pushes Nadine to take some responsibility for her dismal social life and strained relationship with her brother.

But Nadine’s mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), is portrayed just as single mothers — especially those with an anxious daughter — have always been depicted in movies like this. She’s insensitive, selfish, and consumed by her relationships with men. At the beginning of the film, Nadine’s narration suggests her mother is almost like another child for her father to take care of, but she never explains this further. When Nadine refuses to go to school, her mother attempts to drag her daughter out of the car, but her father sweetly coaxes her. From the beginning, Mona is an evil stepmother without actually being a stepmother.

The first time we see Mona after her husband’s death, she’s making a last-minute decision to take a long weekend with a dentist she has been dating. Nadine is not surprised, so this seems like a pretty regular occurrence. This is the weekend of a meltdown between Nadine, Darian, and Krista. Nadine is passed out on the bathroom floor and her best friend and brother are sleeping together in his room. This doesn’t really inspire confidence in Mona’s parenting, especially because it is her absence that sets these events in motion.

Nadine struggles to accept the relationship between her brother and best friend, and begins sharing her feelings with Mona. But Mona talks over her to discuss her relationship with the dentist, which has ended because she discovered he is married. In another scene, Mona tries to cheer her daughter up by telling her everyone’s lives are empty, revealing how miserable and self-centered her character is.

These could have been moments to explore Mona’s character in more depth, but instead we’re encouraged to laugh at her. I’m left with many questions about her character. How does Mona have the courage to continue dating when she keeps meeting men like the dentist? Why does Mona cling to the idea that her self-worth is tied to how she looks? How difficult has it been for Mona to keep it together when the only person who kept her grounded and managed to reach their moody, insecure daughter is gone? Does she have any friends?

It would have been helpful for the movie to nod to the difficulties of being a single mother, or to illustrate why Mona goes through rituals like putting on all her makeup and then removing it before bed in order to cheer herself up. Instead, the film just leaves it as this odd detail to reinforce her vanity and help us better understand her daughter’s exasperation.

Films usually portray widowed or divorced fathers, at least those who are the primary caretakers, in a more sympathetic manner. They are sometimes portrayed as martyrs — or, at worst, buffoons — but being a single parent isn’t a character flaw for men. It almost makes them appear more noble, because we don’t expect men to parent by themselves.

Although representations of single fathers do suggest the presence of a woman is necessary in a child’s life, single mothers are often objects of pity. The worst portrayals — which are disproportionately of single mothers of color — show them abusing substances in addition to being promiscuous and neglectful of their children. The last two characteristics are often bound together, as if a single mother can never be sexual and take care of her children at the same time.

Freedomland (2005) is one of the best examples of this message, since it features a single mother, played by Julianne Moore, lying about her child’s death to cover up for the fact that her son drank a whole bottle of cough syrup when she left him alone to go visit a man. Similarly, in Anywhere But Here (1999) features an ambitious stage mother, Adele (Susan Sarandon), who tells her daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman), that they’re moving to Beverly Hills so Ann can become an actress.

Filmmakers are still deeply uncomfortable with portraying single mothers’ romantic lives.

Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club (2014) did pave the way for alternative representations of single mothers by suggesting that single mothers can help each other parent. Perry undercuts that message, however, when he later suggests the single mothers need to find a partner to be truly happy, Elizabeth Bruno wrote in The Atlantic. A black single mom, Lytia, who speaks most frankly about sex, wears bright colors, and has “too many” children is the subject of derision throughout the movie. She is sexually assaulted, but the assault is presented as a humorous incident, suggesting that she is too strong to be hurt and that she doesn’t understand tenderness, Olivia Cole wrote in The Huffington Post.

These representations show us that filmmakers are still deeply uncomfortable with portraying single mothers’ romantic lives. Instead, they depict single mothers are either sexless and doting or sexually desperate and callous toward their children. At worst, they’re neglectful of their children and are incapable of being in healthy relationships. Mona is definitely not the worst of these representations, but she does carry too many of these stereotypes for a film that is so successful at helping us sympathize with other characters.

Alternative examples show single mothers who only live for their children. Sarah Connor of the Terminator movies and Beatrix Kiddo of Kill Bill are “lioness mothers,” Megan Kearns wrote for BitchFlicks. They are empowering female characters in many ways, but they are still sacrificing everything for their children. The choice is clear: Either motherhood consumes you or you become reckless, self-absorbed, and vain. And ultimately your children suffer.

Mona has moments of redemption but it’s never quite enough. Her character arc is unclear. As her two children argue, she surprises them by saying she knows Krista and Darian are an item now. She is more involved in their lives than they think. And at the end of the film, she makes a small effort to change her behavior. She shows her daughter that she can trust her, but this scene doesn’t really get to the root of the mother and daughter’s problems, such as her inability to sincerely listen to her daughter. It also doesn’t give us any idea that Mona is going to be a healthier, happier version of herself, like the rest of the characters in the film.

It’s a shame that a movie with memorable characters that subverted teen movie stereotypes didn’t challenge tropes associated with single mothers. In an industry that often fails to portray single mothers with any depth, it’s a missed opportunity.