Screen Depictions of Parents Who Use Drugs Still Fuel Stigma and Punishment

    Let’s play a game. I’m going to describe a scene, and you guess which movie it’s from.

    A thin, Black woman with short hair and a low-cut red dress stands in a hallway. She is young, in her late 20s, or maybe early 30s. Her face is contorted with rage. She bends down, to better reach the target of her fury. The scene is silent. There is no sound, but her flailing arms and wild eyes and gnashing teeth tell you everything you need to know about how she sounds. The camera swivels to show her son, a skinny, dark-skinned young boy with wide, frightened eyes; the picture of perfect innocence, in need of protection from his raging, trashed mama.

    I’m thinking of the 2016 drama Moonlight. But if you guessed something else, you’re probably right too. Because we’ve all seen the poor, drug-addicted mom, often Black or Latina, who takes out her rage on her child. She’s a Hollywood staple. She’s everywhere. 

    And then there’s her counterpart, the negligent alcohol-fueled dad who throws a few punches at mom before walking out forever, also often Black or Latino (though we see the white version every so often, coupled with a saintly ingénue White Victim Mom). 

    Although film and television have slowly started to move away from stereotyped depictions of drug users, especially those with substance use disorders, in favor of compassionate biopics and fully developed characters, parents who use drugs remain, with few exceptions, as villainized as ever.

    “Crack-Whore Mom” or “Raging Alcoholic Dad” have become the bogeymen of the family drama. Never the hero, and often without enough screen time to even be the true villain, these characters get scapegoated as building blocks and back-story for the more important people—those who choose better lives than their parents. If that doesn’t mean actual sobriety, then it at least means drug use without children at home, as we saw in Moonlight. 

    And in Moonlight we see an example of something else. Here, the crack-addicted mother who slurs her words and wears clothes lascivious enough to border ridiculous doesn’t just exist in a boundary-pushing comedy or a grainy Lifetime film. This is a box office hit that won three academy awards, including best picture. Moonlight was a major Hollywood accomplishment when it came out, applauded and admired for its unguarded, sensitive depiction of a young, gay Black boy growing into a man surrounded by drugs and thugs in a Miami ghetto. 

    But why is it that he—and also, mind you, his drug dealing mentor—can get such a compassionate treatment on screen, while his mother is flattened into a manipulative, selfish “crackhead” whose most memorable trait is that she yells a lot and then forgets she did it?

    “There’s this anger and hatred surrounding mothers who use drugs, or those just seen as not being a ‘good mother,’ however that’s defined socially.”

    “There’s this anger and hatred surrounding mothers who use drugs, or those just seen as not being a ‘good mother,’ however that’s defined socially,” said Brooke Feldman, a Filter contributor and social worker who often works with parents coping with addiction. “They just have long received the wrath of the public.”

    That wrath gets translated on the screen into these stereotyped vignettes that serve almost as revenge against real-life parents for the sin of having a substance use disorder, or even for just occasionally using a drug. 

    But, as Feldman notes, “What’s interesting is the mother in recovery is getting some sympathy and compassion, which is in line with the idea that someone who is no longer using drugs has redeemed themselves and is reformed and is deserving of compassion and social acceptance.”

    Sesame Street recently made waves by taking on the theme of parental drug use and addiction. It was a move that garnered lots of praise, and a little concern from some members of the harm reduction community. Karli, the muppet whose mother goes to rehab, speaks lovingly about her mother. Real parents in recovery, who are introduced in an online webisode, also appear as caring and likeable people. 

    But there’s another narrative subtly embedded into these otherwise compassionate depictions of parents with substance use disorders: Parents cannot use drugs or go through early recovery while being around their children. Karli, for example, had to be in foster care while her mom went to rehab. To be fair, Sesame Street is speaking to a young audience, so it doesn’t have the space to go through the entire complex spectrum of drug use, addiction and recovery. It is also a show created with the intention of being a source of comfort for children dealing with tough realities. 

    Foster care placement due to parental substance use is, sadly, one of those tough realities for thousands of children across the United Statesparticularly children of color. And entertainment media has long fed into the idea of implicit righteousness that the uninformed public often applies to child protective services. By latching onto the notion that parents with substance use disorders cannot parent properly, entertainment media perpetuates a fable that harms real families.

    “The images in pop culture become the stereotypes that judges, caseworkers and lawyers retreat to to understand the world, especially when the world is not like theirs.”

    Erin Miles-Cloud, a parent attorney and co-founder of the advocacy organization Movement For Family Power, says these misinformed abstinence and addiction tropes can and do have a real impact in the courtroom.

    “The images that we see and take in in pop culture become the stereotypes that judges, caseworkers and lawyers retreat to to understand the world, especially when the world is not like theirs, which is oftentimes the case,” she explained to Filter. “If you’re fed these images of incapacitated people who use drugs and that’s your belief of the way people who use drugs parent, then yes, it would be difficult to parent if you’re always incapacitated. It would be difficult to believe in someone’s ability to parent if you see parents selling kids for drugs, which is another common stereotype.”

    When you think of parents who use drugs as capable, as a general population, of atrocities like selling their kids for drugs, you begin to think it’s okay to split parents and children for something as simple as a positive tox screen, or a history of prescribed opioid medication. 

    Take my own life, for example. My ability to parent my then two- and four-year-old daughters was brought into question after an accusation of drug use and abandonment. After I submitted the requested hair and urine tests and they came back negative, and after it surfaced that the “abandonment” was really me going away for a weekend while my daughters stayed with their grandparents, my judge still ruled against me, deeming me an imminent risk of harm to my daughters. 

    Her words at my disposition, verbatim, were: “The court is in agreement that the mother is an extraordinarily educated and gifted individual. You have a gift for language, both oral and written. Unfortunately, the Court finds that you could probably sell ice to an Eskimo.”

    It seemed simply that the label “heroin addict,” which was affixed to me with the initial accusation, and my admission of having used medication-based and harm reduction approaches to recovery, rather than an abstinence-only approach, were enough to deem me unsafe. 

    The stigma of my addiction and the stereotypes associated with it also marred accomplishments that should have helped my case, like my master’s degree, painting them as something sinister and illustrative of my devious character. This ruling has subjected me to the trauma of forced separation from my two young daughters for over a yearand also to humiliating practices like witnessed urine screens and dubious psychological assessments.

    Parents who use drugs are often only socially redeemed through total abstinence. But that’s not a reality based in science, it’s not a reality that most parents can meet.

    Here is one way entertainment media mirrors, and probably also encourages, reality. If a drug-using parent can be redeemed onscreen, it is only through abstinence-based recovery. 

    Although medical science tells us abstinence is less effective than other methods of addressing problematic drug use, like medication-based treatment or other harm reduction practices, it is still common for courtrooms and other punitive systems to prefer it. 

    So in that sense, the media got it right: Parents who use drugs are often only socially redeemed through total abstinence. But that’s not a reality based in science, it’s not a reality that most parents can meet, and it’s not a reality entertainment media should be actively upholding. In fact, this notion fuels extreme degradation of drug-using parents. 

    In You, the Netflix series about a psychopathic stalker, an entire segment of the show is devoted to our handsome psychopath and his friend literally caging an opioid-addicted mother in order to detox her. When he locks his pretty, childless girlfriend into the same cage later in the season, it is clearly an act of abuse. But the detox scenes are delivered with an almost tender complacency; it’s okay, and even for the best, because…drugs, and motherhood.

    In response to the story I wrote for Filter about witnessed urine tests, one New York harm reduction organization tweeted: “Our society’s treatment of people who use drugs has been punitive and adversarial for so long that it can begin to seem normal. Don’t let it.”

    Unfortunately, punitive and adversarial is exactly the approach that entertainment media continues to encourage when it comes to parents who use drugs—and it’s working.


    Photo adapted from Robin Higgins on Pixabay

    • Elizabeth is a journalist from the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in publications including Vox, Tonic/Vice, TalkPoverty, HealthyPlace and The Establishment. She has an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. She also writes about trauma, addiction and recovery on her blog, Betty’s Battleground.

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