Iconic Mother Figures in TV

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: May 12, 2019 (Last updated: January 5, 2024)
Iconic Mother Figures in TV

Mother figures in TV and film are usually one of two things – they can be loving, nurturing and kind, willing to do whatever they can for their child, and pretty much everything you would want a mother to be. However, they can also be ruthless, manipulative and cold, the antithesis of what you would expect, though these characteristics aren’t tied to the fact they are a mother, and may, in fact, be nicer to their children than anyone else.

To celebrate Mother’s Day in the U.S., I’ve tried to pick the best and most memorable mothers in television (if you want to see Mothers in Film too, then check it out), and as many of these characters have a strong impact on the story, watch out for spoilers!

That 70’s Show

Created by Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner and Mark Brazill (1998-2006)

All families are embarrassing, and if they’re not embarrassing, then they’re dead.

Most probably one of the funniest characters on the show, Kitty Forman (portrayed with excellent comedic timing by Debra Jo Rupp) is honestly everything you could possibly want in a mother. Not only is she funny, but she’s also quite possibly the most caring person, who just wants nothing better for her children than to be looked after and protected. The thing that puts her into the top tier of mother figures though is how she cares about her son’s friends too. After Hyde’s mother abandons him, she’s the one to convince her family it’s only right that they take him in until he’s alright. Though she can get stressed easily, making sarcastic comments and does her (iconic) high pitched laugh, she’s still a great mother, and the stress can be almost forgiven, given that the cause of the stress is often her own children.

Arrested Development

Created by Mitchell Hurwitz (2003-2006, 2013-)

Here’s some money, go see a Star War. 

The very first person who came to mind when I wrote this list was Jessica Walter’s ‘Lucille Bluth’, the mother of the Bluth family and quite possibly the most morally wrong character on the show. Most, if not all, of her actions are completely selfish and benefit herself first, others second. She is also extremely elitist, looking down on not only those who are below her socially but also those who are the same status as her (such as Lucille Austero), acting as if she’s above even them. A functional alcoholic, Lucille is pretty much the exact opposite of what your typical mother figure is. Despite that, she still shows some affection to her children sometimes and coddles her youngest son Buster (which has done him more harm than good) and grandson George Michael, though she is still extremely critical of both her daughter Lindsay and her granddaughter Maeby. Definitely not the mother you want, but in Arrested Development, I’m so glad to see her because even in the show’s lesser seasons (Season 4 and 5) she is one of the main saving graces.


Created by Scott Silveri (2016-2019)

You have to open yourself up and let things happen

One of my favorite shows at the minute which only recently came to the UK (despite airing in the States from 2016) is Speechless, and a big part of that is Maya Dimeo (Minnie Driver). Genuinely, all she wants is the best for her kids and goes above and beyond to do what she can for JJ, her son who suffers from cerebral palsy. Despite the fact her kids don’t always want her help, in her mind she’s just doing what she can before they grow up and don’t need her anymore, which is a very honest and realistic motivation and I love her all the more for it. (I have just learned ABC has canceled Speechless, which makes this all the sadder. Maya, you were a great mother!)

The Addams Family

Created by David Levy (based on the cartoon family of the same name by Charles Addams), (1964-1966)

Life is not all lovely thorns and singing vultures, you know. 

Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones) is maybe one of the less realistic mothers on this list, though a mother nonetheless! One of the calmer characters on the show, Morticia enjoys the more unconventional things (to us) in life, such as raising carnivorous plants and cutting the rose buds off the stems, arranging the thorny remains in vases. Though she may be far from visibly excitable all the time, having a much more relaxed composure, she is still a good mother, as she just hopes for her children to be unique and individuals, not going along with the crowd, no matter how odd other people may find their interests.

Bates Motel

Developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, Anthony Cipriano (based on the 1966 film by Alfred Hitchcock),  (2013-2017)

This is the part where you say “Mother, this is beautiful. I’m so glad we’re moving here. You are so smart to have thought of this”. 

Anyone who knows film knows Norma Bates, the (deceased) mother of Norman Bates and implied to be the villain of the film until the final act, though fewer people may be aware of the TV prequel to the show, Bates Motel, which provides an insight into what Norma was really like. Norma is not a good mother. She is controlling and extremely overprotective of Norman, ensuring he loves her and only her and keeping him away from the world as much as she can. This doesn’t help Norman, as it results in him developing an alternate persona, known as “Mother”, leading to Norman digging up her corpse once she dies and maintaining the illusion she’s alive. Not exactly a parental figure to look up to.

Santa Clarita Diet

Created by Victor Fresco (2017-2019)

A simple act of kindness can blow more people away than a bomb ever could. 

And we’re back to the great mothers! Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) is your typical mom, except for the fact she’s also a zombie. Though initially, she tries to keep this away from her daughter to stop her getting into any danger, she eventually tells her the truth, and along with her husband and her daughter’s best friend, the four become one hell of a family unit. Without Sheila being written and portrayed the way she is, the show would not have become nearly as successful (though that didn’t stop the show getting canceled, but that’s a discussion for another article), and she is one of the main reasons I keep going back to this show! A great mother with a great sense of humor! She manages to juggle her job, her parenting, her zombification and a stable(ish) family life, and she has all my respect.

The Brady Bunch

Created by Sherwood Schwartz (1969-1974)

If you know what you did wrong, that’s more important than any punishment. 

Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) was maybe one of the first matriarchal figures on TV to be more than just “the mother” and nothing more. She is absolutely anything but a housewife, she’s a political activist, she writes, she sings, organizes events and also looks after her kids pretty damn well too. Probably the kind of mother we all wanted at some point or another, she’s a great person and a great mother.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Created by Joss Whedon (based on his film) (1996-2003)

You belong in a good old fashioned college with keg parties and boys. Not here with Hellmouths and vampires.

Although initially unaccepting of her daughter’s role as a vampire slayer, that’s almost to be expected and it would be weird if Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) was fine with letting her daughter go and fight demons every night, literally risking her own life. However, Joyce eventually became acclimatized to the world Buffy lives in and provided help to her and her friends. I remember when I first started watching this show, it would have almost been a cliche for Joyce to accept Buffy’s life, only to get injured or killed by a demon. That’s what made Joyce’s realistic and natural death all the more hard-hitting when it eventually came in Season 5 and was probably the most I’ve cried at a single episode of TV. Joyce was the mother figure that was so much more, she was a safe space for Buffy and her friends to come home to after fighting demons or dealing with school, and she would do everything she could for them.

Despite her death, Joyce became the force that propelled Buffy through the next two seasons of the show, making guest appearances in flashbacks as well as the face of The First Evil in two episodes of Season 7, showing the lasting effect she had not only on her daughters as a brilliant mom but also on the viewers, as she was brought back into these scenes knowing it would just make us feel for her and wish we had more time to spend with her.

Stranger Things

Created by the Duffer Brothers (2016-)

This thing has had Will long enough. Let’s kill the son of a bitch. 

The second Joyce on this list, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), is a single mom just trying to do her best to provide for her kids and has her world turned upside down when her youngest, Will, is taken from her one night. Eventually learning what it was that took her son, she becomes a badass, demon killing parent who will do whatever she can to get her kids home safe. She becomes much more protective of Will in the second season, much to his struggle (having to deal with being taken out of school because she has to make sure he’s okay and take him to the doctor), it’s almost expected if you’d been through the tragedy of thinking your son had been killed and taken from you suddenly. She’s one of the more grounded characters in the show, thinking things out and trying to take the best course of action with any problem that comes her way.

How I Met Your Mother

Created by Craig Thomas and Carter Bays (2005-2014)

And that kids, is how I met your mother. 

As one of the very few people who genuinely enjoyed the final season and ending of How I Met Your Mother, one of the best things about the season was that we finally got introduced to “The Mother”, eventually revealed to be called Tracy McConnell (Cristin Milioti). A framing device for the plot of the show for the first eight seasons, we eventually got to see her meet everyone through Season 9, before finally meeting Ted. We never got to see much of what she was like as a mother, though given how Ted speaks about her, she was evidently one hell of a woman, and seemed to be a more tolerable version of Ted. And then the show killed her off. It had been theorized and expected for years, but when the show did it, it left a sour taste in people’s mouths. I’ll defend that ending until I die, in fact, I mentioned this to a friend who finished the show shortly after I did, and we had a debate as to why exactly I loved the ending when everyone else hated it. Again, that’s an article for another day, but the fact her ending is such a controversial and divisive one among fans to this day goes to show the expectations the show had built up for us regarding the Mother, and is possibly the most important character in the show.

Doctor Who

Created by Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber and Donald Wilson, written by Russell T Davies (1963-1989, 2005-)

If we end up on Mars, I’m going to kill you. 

Jackie Tyler! Rose Tyler’s mother in the first two series of Doctor Who is one of the best recurring characters the show ever had. From her snarky wit to her genuine love for her daughter, she is one of the main reasons I keep going back to Series 2. A widowed mother, Jackie (Camille Coduri) is initially skeptical of the Doctor, disliking how he influences Rose and has changed her into a more independent person, by the time he becomes the Tenth Doctor, she has come to respect him much more and the two have a friendlier relationship. Though she does have some traits that could make her unlikeable, such as how she sometimes tries to stop her daughter moving forward, she comes more to terms with letting go and letting her daughter do her own thing. Though she is trapped in an alternate universe with Rose and her Alternate Husband, she does return for the Series 4 finale, a much braver and stronger character than she was before, showing how far she’s come to develop even off-screen with this new family dynamic.

Game of Thrones

Developed by D.B Weiss and David Benioff (based on the novels by George R.R. Martin) (2011-2019)

Power is power. 

I was torn between which mother to include on this list, as the show has a good long list of maternal figures, some good, some bad. Why not go with one of the more… corrupt mothers? Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the “true” antagonist of the show, is definitely not a great mother. She may have loved her children, or at the very least said she does, but everything she does is to benefit herself, and with her youngest eventually committing suicide because she destroys the Sept, killing his wife, she ends up crowned Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. Despite that, she still considers Tommen’s suicide a betrayal and remains cold and distant from other characters for a while (perhaps because she knew she could control and manipulate Tommen and use him as a mouthpiece, instead of putting herself front and center). She is one powerful character, though it remains to be seen if her reign will come to an end by the end of Season 8, or if she will continue her reign for longer, despite the tenuous control she has on the throne which could be undone at any point.

Better Things

Created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. (2016-)

You’re my mom, I want you to know if I have sex or if I wanna get high. 

To close this list out, I decided on the show about motherhood I recently finished the first season of (thanks, iPlayer, where’s season 2?) Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon), who is a mother, though a little irresponsible at times. She loves all three of her kids, though she sometimes wishes they would keep their own business to themselves so she doesn’t have to deal with it. On top of that, she has her own mother to deal with, who is sweet and just wants to be included in things, much to Sam’s dismay. Sam may not always be a great parent, but she’s doing her best and though Better Things isn’t entirely a realistic show, its portrayal of Sam as a single mother trying to accept her children’s differences and behavior, learning that they won’t turn out the way she wants because that would be controlling and that things have changed in life since she was a child, is certainly one of the more grounded things in the show. I hope to see more of this in later seasons!

Features, TV