I’ve been noodling over “What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?” for a couple days now, and I think I’ve finally settled on what’s been bothering me about it. Because as great as the Dean/Cas reunion scene was, the rest of 8x02 itself was… well, kinda not.
My biggest beef comes back to Mama Tran, who was written with no additional color or complexity beyond the (fairly offensive) stereotype of “tiger mother”. I could understand the writers’ reliance on stereotype if this were her first episode in the series – Bobby, Ellen and Jo were all very much stereotypes in their first episodes too. But this isn’t our first introduction to Mama Tran. We’ve already met her back in Season 7, not to mention overheard conversations between her and Kevin. What’s more, we know her a little already, through the influence she’s had on her son. So 8x02 presented an ideal opportunity to flesh out her character a bit – an opportunity that I feel Andrew Dabb & Daniel Loflin wasted.
What did we learn about Mama Tran this episode?
First of all, these character traits were all conveniently crucial to the episode’s plot developments. There’s an axiom in fiction that character should drive plot, and not the other way around, but the things we learned about Kevin Tran’s mother in 8x02 were only revealed due to plot necessity.
What’s more, none of these character traits were anything we couldn’t have deduced from what little information we had about her before the episode aired. After all, the Tiger Mother stereotype is all about fearlessness and browbeating her children to meet her unreasonably high standards of academic (read: mathematical) excellence. (And of course the Tiger Mother has a hidden sexy wild streak. Because in Western stereotypes, all “exotic” women are secret hellcats.)
Hell, after an episode that’s ostensibly all about her, we still don’t even know what her first name is. We only know her as “Kevin’s mom” and “Mrs. Tran” – both of which are identities defined by other people, namely her son and husband.**
And maybe that’s fine for the very minor role she played in Season 7, but for this episode, it’s just not good enough. Her role is too large, too crucial to the plot. If you, the writer, plan to give a side character as substantial a role in the A plot as Mama Tran has, then you need to give us, the audience, a reason to care about her. You need to make her matter to us – and I mean apart from the fact that she matters to Kevin – so that when she sells her soul to save her son, it doesn’t just hurt Kevin, it hurts us too.
We have to love her before we can feel her loss. But there’s nothing to love about a stereotype.
Frankly, this is exactly what I was afraid might happen when Sera Gamble left. Whether you liked her writing/showrunning or not is not the debate here; Sera was always, always careful to make sure that her female characters, no matter how minor their role, showed some personality and agency independent of the Winchesters. Her two seasons, particularly Season 7, are flush with female side characters not defined by the protagonists’ existence, and who have their own lives and motivations and goals apart from whatever conflict has brought them into Sam and Dean’s path. Layla Rourke, Madison, Lisa Braeden, the human Meg Masters — these might’ve all been bit characters, and thus painted with broad brush strokes, but you still got the sense that they were also real people, struggling with their own problems outside the main A plot conflict. Madison and Layla are particularly interesting in how they subvert the usual damsel-in-distress tropes.
Sera Gamble brought to the table a certain consciousness of the female perspective that it’s hard for an otherwise all-male executive writing team to innately grasp. For example, it was her who lobbied hard in the Writer’s Room that Ruby needed to take a dead woman’s body in Season 4, so there that were no issues of rape or consent. Would the same conversation still happen now, now that she’s gone? It’s tough to say.
I know we’ve only had two episodes of the season so far, and so it’s hard to make sweeping judgments about what kinds of female characters we have in store for us. But between the bizarre erasure of Channing’s character in 8x01 (and her obnoxious roommate), and the wasted potential of Mama Tran in 8x02, I’m not getting my hopes up that we’ll see another Ruby or Layla any time soon.
** ETA: Several of you have written asks/replied to this post to tell me that we do, in fact, know Mama Tran’s name is Linda, because Eunice drops it in conversation. Still, I think my point still stands, especially since the Winchesters — adult men in their thirties — never call her by her first name; she’s never even introduced by first name to them.
** Another ETA: If you’re not familiar with the American stereotype of the “Tiger Mother”, I wrote up another post that should clarify what it’s all about, and why it’s harmful.