The Motherhood in Pokémon
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I did not expect my mother to change that way. She sounded worried the first time I talked to her on my Gameboy about going on an adventure and said “Right. All boys leave home someday”, but she’s been facing my new Pokémon journey as a “wonderful experience”. What changed during these years?
The mothers of the Pokémon video games are added in every title of the main series and are, in general, the first character to talk to the protagonist — disregarding the Professors who introduce players to the game before the protagonist actually appears. The first interaction the player has with a video game character when controlling the protagonist, in most RPG and adventure games, is the one that reveals their mentor, such as the fairy Navi in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Delilah in Firewatch, and the narrator in The Stanley Parable. Mentors are the ones who hint the player on what to do or simply give them orders that, if not followed, will prevent progression. These mothers do none.
The first one of them, introduced in 1996 in Pokémon Red/Blue, has no name other than Mom. She is sitting near the table on the ground floor of the house where you start and sounds like she is learning how to cope with her 10-year-old son — there was no option of playing as a girl yet — leaving home to start his Pokémon adventure alone in forests, roads, and cities crowded with adult strangers, including criminals who will try to steal his monsters. Coping with this loss echoes through every game of the franchise.
She has only two speech lines in these games, and one of them is an advice to the protagonist that if he drives his Pokémon too hard, they will dislike him. She then heals the Pokémon party and says “You and your Pokémon are looking great! Take care now!”. The other, when the player first interacts with her, starts with “Right. All boys leave home someday. It said so on TV,” and ends with her telling the player to go meet Professor Oak next door, who will give him his first Pokémon. This is the first and only time she acts as a mentor.
The nurses at Pokémon Centers, the buildings in most cities where you can recover the lost health points of your party after fights, say “Your Pokémon are fighting fit! We hope to see you again!” when they are done with their treatment, which is a similar line to that of Mom. Regardless of the player’s progress throughout the game, even after he becomes the Champion by defeating the Elite Four, the elite of Pokémon trainers in the continent, Mom keeps repeating these same lines and doesn’t change her interaction. She never shows she’s proud, happy, sad, or worried. She’s so shallow that her narrative role is null and her mechanical function is the same of Pokémon Center nurses: healing, but in this case at home. Considering there is a Center in almost every town of the game and that these towns may have more useful information for the progress than going back to the first town to heal with Mom, players just forget about her during their adventure. Any role she could have during the game is stagnant because she never leaves home and never has her own story told to the player.
This same mother is seen again in the second generation games, in 1999, in Pokémon Gold/Silver, but this time as the mother of a secondary character, Red. The plot is that, after the events that took place in the first set of games, he never returned home and instead isolated himself to train in Mt. Silver, a mountain full of strong wild Pokémon. He never phoned his mother again, and when the protagonist of Gold/Silver meets her in Pallet, his hometown, she confirms she’s worried, “They say that no word is proof that he’s doing fine, but I do worry about him,” and finally shows more emotion when she states that “I’m proud that he is doing what he wants to do.” She becomes a human character, a woman as worried as any mother of a 10-year-old who hasn’t heard of her son in a long time could be. Her mechanical role this time is totally null, but her line draws a connection between the two titles that later games never worried to do.
Regardless of her roles in the second generation of game, she is not the protagonist’s Mom. This one still doesn’t have a name and is met the same way as in the past title, on the ground floor of the house. This time she has many speech lines in which she shows her surprise towards news of their adventure, worries about her child, and her excessive willingness to help. Before you first leave home, she says “Here, use this Bag to carry things… This is your Trainer Card… Here you can save a record of your progress… These are also rather helpful… Just try touching the buttons, and you’ll know what to do in no time.” She sounds like a mother reviewing the items of her child’s bag and giving them instructions before they go camping. Don’t forget to wash your hands before lunch!
During the adventure, she will heal your party just like in Red/Blue, but she will also manage the money you earned from battles and buy you berries or special items for when you go visit her. Through the Pokégear, a kind of special cell phone, the player can keep in touch with his mother all the time and ask her to keep saving money or stop. She also has no real role in the game’s story and doesn’t have her own as well, and even though she now has more mechanical meaning than before, what she can do is limited more by she doesn’t do. Mom won’t leave her house and seems to have no friends and no other life rather than taking care of her son. She won’t do anything else if it’s not for her little one, and that’s what happens through the entire game when we think both of narrative and mechanics. No personality, no personal development, no narrative meaningfulness.
These two women and stories are left behind and a new Mom is introduced as the mother of the third protagonist in the series in Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire, in 2002. It is the first time a father shows up along with the mother, and she gets a backstory that circles around him. From her quotes, she seems to love the player’s father a lot, but he doesn’t seem to care much about her because of the Pokémon Gym he runs. She says “What is the charm of Pokémon? Me? I adore Pokémon that help me with my everyday chores,” meaning she finds Pokémon as useful as vacuum cleaners, mixers, and kitchen appliances, but not as something to be loved and respected as trainers like to do. When the player gets their first Pokémon, she says “To think that you have your very own Pokémon now… Your father will be overjoyed”, associating her child with the image of her husband, a person who will abandon her to live their adventure along Pokémon and will leave her aside. She consistently tells the player to “come back home”, which is convenient gameplay-wise since she continues to heal the party, but it also reaffirms she misses a person in her life by her side. Norman, the father, has a name, but she still doesn’t. We never know what are her dreams, her story, who she was before that and who she is now, but she has more personality than ever before. In fact, the player has no reason to visit her at all, and she might be put aside once again.
Maybe due to her distaste for Pokémon, she will not do anything else to help the player in their adventure. There is no phone to call her and she won’t save money or buy food. You are entirely on your own.
Mom finally gets a name in the fourth generation, in 2006, in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl. Johanna is less content to stay at home in comparison to the others and has another role other than being a mother. She travels around the world participating in Pokémon Contests as soon as the player leaves home, and she is friends with a judge of one of these contests. Her speech lines are filled passion for adventure: “I envy you, kiddo. Plus, you’re not alone. You have your Pokémon with you. I wish I could go instead!”, and encourages the player by saying “I’ll be all right by myself, so you go and enjoy your adventure! When you’re exposed to new things, and experience new sensations… It makes your mother happy, too. …But come back sometimes. I would like to see the kinds of Pokémon you’ve caught, dear.” She wants the player to go back home not to check if they are alive and healthy, but to hear stories about their adventure.
Johanna gets a story that is slightly developed throughout the game, mainly when she meets her child at the Contest Hall and tells them, “I got bored, so I came out to Hearthome for a little vacation.” She reveals she participates in contests, gives the player a tuxedo or dress to participate in them as well, and goes away. It was the first time I could see a woman behind the mother role she had in the game, and it was a huge positive change because now had narrative and mechanical relevance other than healing. Unlike the other Moms, what Johanna does — even though it’s a forced event — is unique and lets the player unlock Pokémon Contests, an entirely different game mode. This mechanical relevance was only plausible because her narrative role changed, and Mom could now leave home to go on her own adventures and grow as a meaningful character.
In 2010, the fifth generation made the mother nameless again in Pokémon Black/White. If Johanna took a step towards increasing general importance, this one took a step back. She was a Pokémon trainer in the past but is not anymore. It is unclear if she has any other role than being a mother, but considering she is mostly found at home, it is supposed she stays there most of the time. She meets the player at route 2, a little while after they leave home, to give them their running shoes and say they are never really alone, “You’re with Pokémon, you have friends, and you’re always in my thoughts. That’s all right, then. Enjoy your trip!” Although, she sounds proud of her child when they get their first Pokémon and avoids telling them to go back home. She encourages them to enjoy the trip and the adventure, which makes her sound independent.
The mother from Pokémon Black 2/White 2 is very similar to the former, but it’s funny how she destroys, once for all, the mother image of the first two games by telling her child to take their Pokémon “Straight to the Pokémon Center if they get hurt” instead of asking them to go home. It may be due to her backstory of being a former receptionist at one of these Centers, but it’s a curious speech line to see when contrasted with those of first and second generations.
The sixth gen mother, from Pokémon X/Y, released in 2013, once again has a name. The way Grace is constructed resembles Johanna somehow, not only because she has a name but because she encourages the adventure of her child based on her own. She even has a motto, “”go for broke”, which means “to risk everything and try as hard as possible.” She used to ride Rhyhorns, a rock rhino pokémon, in races before the time of the game, and despite not being developed thoroughly, just having a name makes her different from the rest.
The key point of analysis of these three mothers is that, unlike what happened with Johanna, their backstory didn’t result in any character development of evolution, and this even seems to be the reason why this never happens. They aren’t a receptionist, trainer, or racer, they were. What they are doing at the moment of the game doesn’t really matter, and once again their role shrinks.
All these characteristics tell a lot about the parenthood in Pokémon games. It is important to note, however, that I’m talking about the mother of heroes in a fantasy world, and regardless of the age of the protagonists, which seem to never be very much above 16, the mother-child relationship will inevitably be a mix of real world and fantastic ideas.
It’s unsurprising that these mothers let their child go on what, in real life, would surely be a dangerous and reckless trip, and they do so because they can’t stop their children from being the hero they were conceived to be. Thus, the most they can do is worry about their leaving and show that they have some emotional attachment with them.
When analyzing the mothers of the first games, it’s possible to directly relate it to the established motherhood image in Japan back in that time. A paper written in 1993 by Niwa Akiko, called “The Formation of the Myth of Motherhood in Japan”, states that Japanese women of that time were still “fettered by the ideology of maternal love, which has exhorted women to love their children and dedicate themselves to child rearing”. Her description of how the ideal Japanese mother of that time was perceived is exactly any Mom from the first and second generations of Pokémon, women who “enter a life dedicated to childcare, compelled by their firm belief in their duties as mothers”, and who “raise their children selflessly and alone”.
With the exception of Johanna, this article of 1993 shows how the mothers of Pokémon, 20 years after Niwa published her work, were still created based on the myth of the Japanese mother who quit their job after childbirth “Whether they want it or not.”
She spotted that this motherhood image had “numerous adverse effects” on Japanese society as whole, and that women could not achieve their independence through employment because they were taught to stay at home taking care of their children and leaving their lives behind. Finally, the absence of an active fatherly figure who is meaningful to their child’s raising is justified by this same image that, still according to Niwa, “occluded the paternal, and more important, the societal responsibility toward youth.”
We should care about how mothers are conceived in Pokémon because they are based in an outdated concept of motherhood even in their culture. The same way these Japanese mothers were being hindered by their mother role, these characters are never developed throughout the game because they are fettered by the same old ideology. In a time when there’s a rising discussion towards inclusion and diversity in games, even big productions should care more about leaving expired concepts behind and bringing some fresh air to characters and relationships in games.
Quotes were used from Bulbapedia