To many people on the internet, the actress Toni Collette is simply known as “Mom.”
Ms. Collette has played more than her fair share of mothers throughout her career: a matriarch with dissociative identity disorder on the TV show “United States of Tara”; a miniature artist whose family is haunted after the death of her own mother in the movie “Hereditary”; and, more recently, an American mother accused of taking over her Italian family’s mafia business in the movie “Mafia Mamma.”
But Mrs. Collette isn’t necessarily called Mother because she’s fictional, or even just because she’s a mother in real life. Instead, fans have awarded the title as a way of showing their appreciation.
When fans mention her mother, which they often do, “it feels like a well-intentioned, collective, familial, warm hug,” Ms Collette said in an email. She’s just one of many female celebrities who, if they don’t quite understand the new usage of the word, might wonder why they suddenly have so many kids.
Mother is everywhere. The slang term – without an article before it – is used by fans, brands, and sometimes even moms themselves. It derives from the black and Latino LGBTQ ballroom scene, a strange subculture in which members are organized into so-called houses often headed by a “mother.” However, the current usage of the word is becoming more campier and is mostly used as a term of endearment for famous women with enthusiastic devotees. Its popularity has precedent in the late 2010s, when seemingly every male celebrity was referred to as “daddy,” a term used to describe handsome older men.
But in 2023 daddy is dead: long live mother. Mother’s ballads raised you; mother’s widespread performances gave you life; and mother’s motherhood mothered so hard that you have to show her the respect she deserves. Call her mother for this.
Mother is Mariah Carey, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Adele, the K-pop group Blackpink and Diana, Princess of Wales, according to the internet. She is too Jennifer Lopez, who stars in the movie “The Mother” and was definitely a mother in the 2019 movie “Hustlers”; she is the character Shiv Roy played by Sarah Snook on the prestigious hit “Succession”; she is even the Water bottle filling station Elkaywhich can help you avoid spending $5 on an overpriced bottle of water at the airport.
Who is and who is not a mother is, of course, subjective. Juan Camilo Velásquez, 30, a writer living in New York City, considers Lana Del Rey a mother. “I think she’s a great singer and songwriter,” he said, adding that her music struck him as “timeless but very contemporary.”
But for Cameron Columbia, Ms. Del Rey not mother. “I would never hate anyone, but like, I never really got into Lana Del Rey,” said 23-year-old Mr. Columbia, a Long Island college student. “My all-time mom would be Ariana Grande.”
Brandon Walker, 23, who works in insurance and lives in Louisville, Ky. lives, said he called people mom because of “the way they influenced pop culture or how they had an effect on me.” As a black gay boy growing up in the South, he felt that mothers like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj helped him express himself.
“Mother is essentially a female figure that you raised during a certain period of your life,” said Mr Walker, who also counts Ms Collette among his mothers. Calling a woman a mother is also a way of “honoring them for the work they have done in their respective industries,” he said.
Mother dates back to the 1970s New York ballroom scene, which was founded in response to racism in the drag and pageant community. These spaces often created surrogate family structures for marginalized LGBTQ people of color.
According to Sydney Baloue, a member of the House of Xtravaganza who is writing a book on the history of the ballroom and fashion, Crystal LaBeija was “the first mother of the ballroom”. Many in the ballroom community say the scene’s current iteration began in 1972, he said, when Ms. LaBeija helped found the first house, the House of LaBeija.
Ms. LaBeija, a black drag performer and transgender woman, was the catalyst for our current cultural moment, according to Mr. Baloue, who was the co-executive producer of the ballroom competition show “Legendary.” If you’re a mom, “you’re the one who’s won the most trophies, you’re the one who’s the most prominent member,” he said. “You also take care of the children a lot.”
Motherhood, which can be of any gender, “has emerged from these communities that have had to recreate or rethink what true motherhood and family are” after being banished from their biological families, said Marlon M. Bailey, a professor of African and African- American. attended Washington University in St. Louis, who wrote a book about Detroit ballroom culture.
Ms. Collette suspects a lack of maternal affection may be why her fans, many of whom are LGBTQ, refer to her as a mother. “I don’t want to go too deep into such a sweet gesture, but it could also indicate a great need for parental acceptance and love,” she wrote. “Not everyone had or has the healthiest relationship with their mother. Having played so many different women with children, I may have come to represent or fill a social media gap of what is missing for so many people.
Still, she added, “It could also just be because of the ‘I’m your mother’ speech in ‘Hereditary.’ It’s a ripper.”
At “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said Mr. Baloue, contestants “suck everything out of the ballroom,” repeat it, and in turn popularize a word that “doesn’t always get passed around right.” RuPaul has embraced the term, releasing the song “Call Me Mother” in 2017. Viewers often hear the word and pick it up, whether they use the right context or not.
Mr. Baloue thinks the term “mother” makes sense to some figures outside the ballroom community. “If there are those black diva figures that we admire, like Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle or Chaka Khan,” he said, “there’s also a way we refer to them as mothers, because they not only fed us with their music and their cultural contribution, but they fed us in a way.”
“Mother” moved further into the wider culture thanks to the show “Pose,” which debuted in 2018 and was set in the 1980s New York ballroom scene. It features the actress Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, who plays the mother of the fictional House of Evangelista plays.
Ms. Rodriquez said it was an honor, joy and serious responsibility to be able to play a ballroom mom, adding that she liked the newfound popularity of the term “beautiful”.
“I think everyone should be able to use a term that is trending,” she said, emphasizing “it’s important to know where that term comes from, which is the ballroom culture in Philadelphia and New York City.”
Ms Rodriguez warned there were “limits” to adopting a new term with deep historical ties to a marginalized community: “The limits are knowing where it comes from, always letting the world know where the culture comes from.”
Those boundaries blur when a term, once popular online, finds its way into brand text. Mr. Baloue sees Mother’s business-like embrace as almost inevitable. “Black culture is American culture and ultimately it informs everything,” he said.
After seeing Variety tweet that “Jennifer Lopez is Mother” and Buzzfeed UK say the “Yellowjackets” star was Melanie Lynskey “so MOTHER,” Professor Bailey said he was concerned. “It’s about marketing identities and practices, and appropriating cultural formations like the ballroom community,” he said, “without regard to the conditions from which ballroom arose in the first place.”
Enter Meghan Trainor, who has embraced the term mom to the core.
Ms Trainor, who is pregnant with her second child, released her song “Mother” in March, singing, “I am your mother. You listen to me.” The song’s music video — which came out shortly before Ms. Trainor published “Dear Future Mama,” a guide to new motherhood — even stars Kris Jenner, “momager” extraordinaire, and opens with a voice declaring that Ms. Trainor is “literally mom.” ..” (Through a publicist, Ms. Trainor declined to be interviewed for this article.)
The song and accompanying video were “a show of how the term had lost all meaning,” Mr. Velásquez said. “We’ve reached the point where if you become the best at being bad, you become the mother of the opposite of being a mother,” he said.
Ms. Rodriguez, who knows Ms. Trainor and loves the song “Mother,” said she liked how the singer played on the duality of the term. “I think how she uses the term, it’s good for her, and she can use it any way she wants.”
She added, “How the world perceives it is how the world perceives it.”