In the series premiere of ABC’s American Housewife, which aired last October, eponymous heroine Katie Otto is enraged by the throng of workout gear–clad mothers she spies socializing on the steps of her kids’ school. “Westport mommies. Flat stomachs; tight, high asses; thighs that don’t touch. And those stupid green drinks,” she hisses, her voice dripping with contempt. “When did it become OK for women our age to do nothing but diet and work out?”
In recent years, the stay-at-home mom has become the figure the women of America’s sitcoms love to hate. On American Housewife (the season finale of which airs Tuesday) and Bravo’s Odd Mom Out, as well as the now-canceled Surburgatory (ABC), modern motherhood is a battleground, and perfectly groomed, totally together mombots are the enemy.
American Housewife and Odd Mom Out are fish-out-of-water comedies in which the lead characters’ alienation has a geographic component. The Ottos aren’t really rich enough to live in Westport, Connecticut, but they rent there so their youngest daughter, who has a “touch of the anxieties,” can take advantage of the great school system. Odd Mom Out’s Jill Weber (Jill Kargman) is a downtown soul living in exile on the Upper East Side, the homeland of her snooty in-laws, whose delusions of grandeur are so intense they have restyled themselves the Von-Webers. On the surface, these shows are about women who don’t fit in. Katie Otto (Katy Mixon) is big and plain-spoken in a world of skinny, “polite” moms, while Weber is a tattooed, Jewish brunette in a sea of pristine blond WASPs.
Every week, American Housewife pays tribute to Katie’s brutal honesty. She is a rare purveyor of straight talk in a town full of insincere fakes—or, at least, that’s how she sees it. When one of the perfect mothers condescendingly tells her, “I love you, Katie, you’re so real,” Otto translates for the viewers at home: “ ‘You’re so real’ is Westport Mommy doublespeak for ‘You shouldn’t be eating that or driving that, and I saw you unbutton your pants at that stoplight,’ ” she explains. In real life, the rage Katie keeps on a constant simmer would quickly become tiresome, but in half-hour increments, thanks in large part to Mixon’s warmth and charm, it feels like refreshing truth-telling.
As its title suggests, Odd Mom Out also celebrates jagged individualism. It shouldn’t be surprising that free-spiritedness is the show’s animating conceit, because the TV series was inspired by Momzillas, Kargman’s autobiographical novel chronicling her culture shock when she joined the Upper East Side elite. Elisa Zuritsky, who along with Julie Rottenberg served as showrunner for Odd Mom Out’s first two seasons, told me, “If you spend any time with Jill, you get a sense that she is pretty distinctive. She has strong opinions about everything; she isn’t someone who just likes to follow the leader or fall in lockstep behind someone else.”
Both shows are animated by what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”—Katie may be more zaftig than the typical Westport mom, and her friends Angela (Carly Hughes) and Doris (Ali Wong, who lashed out at housewives “just walking around all day, getting massages in their Lululemon pants” in her 2016 Netflix comedy special) may be more acerbic, interesting, and of color than the bland mom gang they tangle with on the school steps, but they’re all engaged parents who never miss morning drop-off. Jill may be more punk rock than her easy-listening parental peer group, but she’s still a mega-rich mother who has chosen to send her kids to an exclusive private school with a relatively homogenous student body. For all their loud disdain for stay-at-home moms, both women gave up successful careers to focus on parenting, and so that disdain is tinged with despair at what they’re becoming. Katie and Jill are desperate to point out the ways they’re different from the other women in the school pick-up line because, deep down, they know they have a lot in common.
The truth is, stay-at-home moms aren’t really the supervillains of these shows. The true foe is convention. The stay-at-home moms’ yoga pants are the gray flannel suit of our age. Our heroines don’t hate actual moms; they hate how those moms are so much better at the business of performative parenting than they are—Cleaverbots who find time to work out and make green juice drinks before they get their kids to school on time, perfectly constructed dioramas in hand.
The shows’ creators are counting on women in the audience to recognize how annoying those supermoms are but also to realize how much work is involved in modern parenting. As former Odd Mom Out co-showrunner Rottenberg told me, “There’s such a clear message from the other moms about the right way to raise your kid, and that your whole life should be devoted to your children and furthering their happiness and success in life.” Or as American Housewife creator Sarah Dunn put it when we spoke in January, “With Instagram and all that stuff, the bar for motherhood keeps getting raised. It’s so high right now, who can get over it?”
As the American Housewife season progressed, Katie began to accept that she might be swimming in the right pond after all. Early in “The Polo Match,” which aired in April, she claimed: “I’m not part of the community. I just happen to live in the community.” But by the time the final credits rolled, she had admitted: “These are my people … ish.” Her epiphany (… ish) came when a rude, crude friend from her college years came to visit, and she realized how much of her professed distaste for the mombots was driven by her reluctance to accept that while she might still identify as a bad girl, she is in fact a responsible parent with a bunch of hoity-toity friends. She might never be the kind of woman who claims to be stuffed after eating a salad, but her days of getting high and drinking beer with breakfast are a thing of the past.
I couldn’t help noticing, in these shows that make overt the usually hidden tension between “good moms” and “bad moms,” that one group of people is never demonized: the dads. On American Housewife and Odd Mom Out, guys are exempt from vilification. Katie Otto and Jill Weber both have endlessly patient, loving husbands who are in their sexual thrall. Otherwise, adult men are largely absent from these TV matriarchies. In the real world, women spend twice as much time as men taking care of children, and men spend more time at work than women do. Katie and Jill’s husbands are household saints, but most of their skinny cohort are parenting for two while their other halves are at the office or on the golf course. Mombots become mombots in part because they must be ruthlessly efficient when dads don’t participate. They’re starving themselves for their dickhead lawyer husbands! Fictional women of Westport and the Upper East Side, it’s time to topple the patriarchy!