Over Mother’s Day weekend, moviegoers had a chance to sample the latest from the growing Christian film industry with the release of Moms’ Night Out. Following the box office success of Heaven Is for Real and God’s Not Dead, Moms’ Night Out hoped for similar success—this time through comedy—by focusing on the trials of young stay-at-home mom and aspiring blogger Allyson (played by Sarah Drew). With her husband (Sean Astin) routinely away on business, Allyson finds herself near burnout and so plans a night out with two other moms, her best friend Izzy (Logan White) and their pastor’s wife Sondra (Patricia Heaton). The kids are left with the loving, if not entirely capable, husbands, and almost immediately, chaos ensues. Far from being the respite they’d anticipated, the night includes a search for a missing baby, a car chase, and multiple visits to a tattoo parlor, the hospital, and police station. All without sex, booze, or swearing. The Hangover this is not.
If motherhood is reduced to cleaning the house, moving children from one location to another, and ensuring their physical safety, it’s no wonder so many moms are unhappy.While negative reviews berate the film as “sexist,” “bland,” and “predictably silly,” audiences have been more receptive: over 85% of viewers recommend it at Rotten Tomatoes, a far cry from the fewer-than-20% of critics who do. Accounting for this disparity is the film’s niche audience, young moms. The fact that Allyson is an aspiring blogger is not simply a plot function; it is a nod to this target audience. The characters critics have regarded as “regressive” are not throwbacks to the 1950s; they are the embodiment of a thriving online community that coincides with the rise of The New Domesticity, a trend among educated women to forgo corporate careers, recover the domestic arts, and combine them with home-based businesses. Moms’ Night Out was born out of (no pun intended) this “mommy blogosphere.”
But this is not your mama’s domesticity. The mommy blogging world covers the inspirational to fashionistas to foodies and has propelled writing careers, conferences, TV shows, and book deals. Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, has been named among Forbes Top 25 Online Celebrities, has a NY Times #1 bestseller, and hosts a show on Food Network. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, which spent 60 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list with over 1 million copies sold, grew out of her inspirational blog A Holy Experience. And after Jen Hatmaker’s post “Worst End of School Year Mom Ever” went viral and landed her an interview on the Today Show, HGTV offered her a DIY reality series.
Still, being a product of the blogosphere has limited Moms’ Night Out significantly. A prominent question for young moms is why motherhood is so hard, and the gap between expectations and reality fuels a great deal of this angst. Allyson says as much while sitting with her successful architect husband in the middle of their obviously upper-class suburban house. She confesses that “this” is all she’d ever wanted: a wonderful husband, a beautiful home, three amazing kids. Yet she is unhappy, stressed out, and overwhelmed by her mundane responsibilities.
In the blogosphere, the answer to this ennui is generally empathy and support. One of the most common writing conventions of mommy bloggers is “The Confession,” a recording of domestic and parenting failures to encourage readers they are not alone. Stop being so hard on yourself. Learn to love mess. This is also the message of Moms’ Night Out. The slapstick comedy and inexplicable plot twists are meant to reflect the chaos of everyday motherhood. And Allyson’s helplessness in response is intended to build a bridge with the core audience.
But this attempt to empathize inadvertently sells young moms short. Divorced from the context of the mommy blog community, Allyson comes across as one-dimensional—frazzled, uncertain, and timid. To be fair, the hapless housewife convention has a long comedic history—from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Lucille Ball, but for a movie intent on elevating motherhood, this reads as slightly patronizing. Moms’ Night Out does not concern itself with parsing the reasons for Allyson’s discontent (beyond the superficial need to take time for herself) so much as simply comforting her. As critic Inkoo Kang writes, “This ostensible femme-powerment film is strangely unsympathetic, even demeaning, to its target audience.”
In response to critics, co-director Jon Erwin has said, “What you see is a group of underserved people who have not felt appreciated who now have an outlet and a voice and an ability to celebrate themselves. . . . Hollywood and the mainstream press don’t understand these people.” Erwin may be right that society doesn’t value domesticity or motherhood, but Moms’ Night Out doesn’t show them why they should. Instead being a mom is reduced to running a household, and children serve as plot devices. In the end, the thing most lacking from Moms’ Night Out is actual mothering. Allyson doesn’t teach her children; she doesn’t correct them; she doesn’t share personal moments with them. Instead she shuttles them; she cleans up their messes; she hides from them. The few glimpses of mothering happen between Heaton’s character and her (seemingly) rebellious daughter.
If motherhood is reduced to cleaning the house, moving children from one location to another, and ensuring their physical safety, it’s no wonder so many moms are unhappy. Instead, motherhood is primarily about the relationship forged between a woman and the children she is nurturing into fully-formed human beings. Yes, this includes a whole lot of messes and chaos, but it also means showing moms as multi-dimensional people capable of meeting day-to-day challenges with grace and grit.
In the end, Moms’ Night Out assures us that motherhood is important without showing us why. For those already convinced of this and simply in need of a shot in the arm, Moms’ Night Out will be a welcome escape and a reminder not to let perfectionism rob them of their joy. But for those struggling to understand the significance of motherhood and home in the first place, Moms’ Night Out offers few answers and might just raise more questions.