If the rumors are true, Barbara Streisand is about to headline a film version of the great musical “Gypsy.” That news throws yet another log on the pop culture fire that is “Tiger Motherhood,” a gold mine of public debate and fascination. Tales of Tiger Motherhood generally track ambitious/ domineering/ psychotic parents and their absurd quest to assert power over their children. “Gypsy” is but one of three recent, blockbuster, Hitler-mother stories. Let’s examine:
1. “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”
Amy Chua’s certifiably insane parenting thriller charts her own militaristic path to matriarchal glory. No doubt you’ve read excerpts of this meant-to-shock primer in Chinese family values, but I can’t resist adding to the chorus of outrage. By stamping out play dates, fun, happiness, or any other generally recognized marker of childhood, Chua manages to manufacture accomplished musicians out of her innocent daughters. Never mind that Lulu and Sophie don’t really care about the piano or violin, classical music is hard and prestigious, so it’s their destiny. End of story.
Chua’s own law career is similarly heartless. She writes, “I went to law school mainly because I didn’t want to go to medical school” and “ I chose corporate practice because I didn’t like litigation” and “I didn’t care about the rights of criminals the way others did… I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it.”
Chua shows her cards in this breezy book when she admits, “The truth is I’m not good at enjoying life. It’s not one of my strengths.” Now there’s a shocker.
2. “Black Swan”
Natalie Portman won the Oscar for her performance in this psycho-sexual-backstage- blood-fantasia. As a New York City Ballet dancer, “Nina’s” own Tiger Motherhood comes from her actual mother (a steely Barbara Hershey) and her dance teacher (Vincent Cassel). As Nina dances her way through emotional deficiencies and unleashes her latent sexuality, mother and teacher try to attack, seduce, and exorcise her into submission. She goes crazy.
The tamest of these three portraits, “Gypsy” is nevertheless an eerie and unsettling joyride through misplaced maternal ambition. “Mama Rose” foists fame on her plain, untalented daughter. That daughter becomes a stripper. (Amy Chua, take note!)
Each of these Tiger Mothers has a teeth baring, blood sucking aria. For Amy Chua, it’s Lulu’s failed path to Juilliard (“All those hours we put in were now big black stains on our memory”); for Mrs. Swan it’s a violent, elbow jabbing joust with Nina (“Whatever happened to my sweet girl?” “SHE’S GONE!”) And of course, Mama Rose gets her 11 o’clock meltdown in the classic song “Rose’s Turn.”
Each performance has a severe, almost psychotic subtext of paranoia—over “generational decline,” over sinful children, over worthlessness.
But “Black Swan” (SPOILER) has a lesson for Tiger Mothers everywhere: After Nina’s perfect performance, she collapses to the ground, blood spreading along here demonic, black tutu. A smile (the movie’s first) crosses her face as she whispers, “I was perfect.”
She sure was.
She’s also dead!