Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Sent from Down Below"? Rhetorical Constructions of Mother and Daughter-In-Law Relationships

Not too long after I was married, I ran into a colleague in the copy room who asked me point black: "Do you get along with your mother in law?" I replied that I did, to which she shot back, "I don't", and proceeded to catalog several woes bestowed upon her by her husband's mother in the twenty plus years they had been married. The narrative ended with her telling me that she and her mother in law had not spoken in five years. Unsure of what to do with this information, I tucked it away in my memory bank with the rest of the mother-in-law-hell stories I've heard--some fictional, some real.

In popular culture, the connotation of the word "mother-in-law" is overwhelmingly negative. Google the phrase and instantly, before you've even finished typing it, the search engine will let you know you can find information from the following categories: "mother-in-law hell", "mother-in-law problems", and "mother-in-law quotes (none of which, I can assure you, are flattering)". There are forums endearingly titled, for example, "I Hate My Mother-in-Law," which has the chuckle worthy description: "Join 1611 friendly (my italics) people sharing 1519 true stories in the I Hate My Mother In Law group."
One of the most damning rhetorical constructions of the mother-in-law is, of course, Ernie K. Doe's song, simply titled "Mother-In-Law," in which an anguished son-in-law, sounding on the verge of tears, chronicles the overbearing tactics his mother-in-law uses to demean him:

Satan should be her name
To me they're bout the same
Every time I open my mouth
She steps in, tries to put me out
How could she stoop so low

Daughters-in-law, however, are less overtly the target of public animosity on the web and in the world of popular music: I found no actual forums designed to give mothers-in-law a place to vent their venom against their sons'/daughters' wives. Still, there are many pages of the "Dear Abby" sort where mothers-in-law contribute questions and get advice for "dealing with" difficult daughters-in-law.When you think about it, even basic home architecture seems to poke fun at the mother-in-law with the classic "mother-in-law" house: such "houses" are basically puny little detached huts that house guests or visiting family, and the cultural implication, I suppose, is that mothers-in-law should at all costs be kept at arm's length should they dare to breach the daughter in law's territory.Regardless, the simmering conflicts, presented though pop culture and online, centering on the mother-in-law as a trope do not seem in danger of relenting any time soon.For that to happen, there would need to be some kind of stasis possible, and for now, the cultural portrayal of mothers-in-law seems perpetually stuck in adhominem territory, which is always a bad thing for argumentation, no matter how entertaining the results may be.