Reconsidering Ruth: Reflecting on Motherhood in ‘Six Feet Under’

Ruth: If my experience is anything to go by, motherhood is the loneliest thing in the world.

Ruth: Oh Claire I pray you’ll be filled with hope for as long as you possibly can.

Claire: Thank you for everything and thank you for giving me life.

Ruth: You gave me life.

— (S5:12 “Everyone’s Waiting”)

The Fisher family matriarch Ruth has been variously examined in much critical analysis, most commonly with reference to her characterization as an “unfulfilled housewife” and to the surprising (often comical) emotional outbursts that she is prone to throughout the five seasons of Six Feet Under. However, there hasn’t been much discussion focusing distinctly on Ruth’s central identity as a mother and on the rich and moving relationships she fosters with each of her children. The two quotations above, from the acclaimed final episode, aptly illustrate how Ruth wrestles with her core positioning as a housewife and mother – her assertion of motherhood being “the loneliest thing” as well as her gratitude to daughter Claire for giving her “life” attests to her ambivalence towards the domestic role. In most feminist readings, Ruth is typically described as being trapped within her domestic and family responsibilities and most critics have read her character as struggling to find a voice, a subjectivity, apart from that of wife/mother. Though the show does perceptibly depict Ruth attempting to find herself outside of her domestic role, I would suggest that Ruth ultimately finds her fulfillment and passion through her role as mother and her relationships with her children, and that her experiences within the domestic realm are not necessarily as stifling and restricting as most critics have suggested.

This alternative reading of Ruth would seem to be in line with Six Feet Under’s intentions of challenging surface appearances and constructions, traditional values and time honored beliefs. Although marketed as a show concerned with death, at its core the show was actually a meditation about living, of confronting difficult truths and finding hope and vitality amidst the decay and finality of death. On the surface, Ruth would indeed appear to be a character representing decay, disintegration – her prim and conservative exterior, along with her shrill and uptight persona would seem to be a very much outdated, even obsolete caricature of the domestic wife/mother. In a show apparently celebrating a postpatriarchal society, where old certainties concerning the family, religion and sexuality have been stripped away, Ruth is arguably the character occupying the most untenable positioning in the narrative, as the housewife who has always conformed to traditional expectations regarding her socially prescribed role. Indeed, a feminist perspective would argue that there is no longer room for the image of the housewife who is primarily defined by her domestic duties and care for her family. But it is possible that the show is inviting a different interpretation – instead of the unfulfilled and resentful woman that Ruth is often dismissed as, Six Feet Under could be suggesting that there is potential for inspiration and promise in the “outmoded” realm of domesticity.

As early as the pilot episode, we are made aware that Ruth is no typical happy housewife – from the primal scream upon learning of Nathaniel Sr’s death to her straightforward delivery of the news to David (“Your father is dead and my pot roast is ruined”), it is clear that Ruth defies easy categorization. This outburst hints at the many passions that lie underneath the prudish exterior – passions that are unraveled over the course of the five seasons. In the same episode, we learn that Ruth was already rebelling against any expectations concerning the faithful and submissive wife, with her confession that she was having an affair with her hairdresser Hiram before her husband’s death (“I’m a whore! I was unfaithful to your father for years! And now he knows! He knows!”) These passions extend into her subsequent relationships – with the florist Nikolai, the much younger apprentice embalmer Arthur (whom she actively pursues) to her mentally troubled second husband George — all instances in which Ruth seeks to find herself sexually and romantically outside of her domestic and maternal identity. Though she does achieve significant personal satisfaction through these romantic attachments, as well as through the close friendship she fosters with the unconstrained Bettina, I believe that her greatest source of gratification is eventually derived through her evolving and often touching relationships with her three children and from her maternal identity itself.

Claire: Jesus Christ, Mom, will you stop cleaning and talk to me?

Ruth: No. This isn’t the time, and there’s nothing to say.

Claire: Don’t you think that it’s significant that whenever I make a decision for myself, you hate me?

Ruth: I don’t hate you, I hate your choices.

Claire: Look at me! I am an adult, and my choices are none of your business! You had no right to call that lawyer! Dad loved me. He wanted me to be happy. That’s why he left me the money.

Ruth: He did not intend to finance you while you play house with a crazy person!

Claire: Look who’s talking!

Ruth: He wanted you to be educated, to learn, to go to college!

Claire: I am learning from life! You don’t even know what college is. You never went and that was your choice and now you hate yourself for it, so you’re gonna take it out on me!

Ruth: That is not true!

— (“Hold My Hand”, S5:3)

The relationship with only daughter Claire is initially depicted as the typical combative mother/daughter relationship reminiscent of much popular culture – apart from the generation gap issues, there is the familiar mother/daughter antagonism, with Claire rejecting her mother’s domesticity and attempts at instruction and mutual understanding at every turn. As a defiant and angsty young woman, Claire might seem to represent the opposite to the traditional womanhood that she believes her mother embodies, and throughout the series she searches for a female role model anywhere apart from Ruth, most notably in her bohemian Aunt Sarah and the recalcitrant Brenda.

Claire’s own complicated trajectory through the show is portrayed in keeping with her mother’s staunch opposition to her life choices (including an abortion, experimentation with sexuality and narcotics and the development of her art and photography). The mother/daughter tension finally comes to a head in the episode above with Claire openly accusing her mother for her lack of experience outside of her domestic role. Their definitive differences are seemingly resolved by the end of the season, with Claire’s recognition of her mother’s sacrifices and difficulties in her offer to refuse the photography assistant position she is offered in New York, and to stay and help her mother in the Fisher household. Ruth herself insists that her daughter must go, resulting in the final departure scene, where both mother and daughter acknowledge the other for giving her “life.”

Ruth: David, are you bringing a special friend to dinner?

David: Why are my friends always special?

Ruth: Okay, then. If you’re having sex with anyone, is he coming to dinner?

— (“In The Game” S2:1)

Ruth’s relationship with David is perhaps the least nuanced of her relationships with her three children – the course of their relationship tends to be based on Ruth’s struggle to come to terms with her second son’s homosexuality. David’s character development is largely defined by his journey to overcoming his deeply closeted identity as he seeks to find acceptance from himself, as well as those he is closest to, as in this outburst towards fellow embalmer and business partner Rico Diaz: “I have a fucking husband, Rico, and I have two children! When are you going to realize that I’m a human being just like you? When? When?!” (“Static” S5:11) This also exemplifies his relationship with his straight laced mother, who initially has great difficulty in relating to her son’s “special friends,” before wholeheartedly accepting Keith Charles as part of the Fisher household. However, in spite of this, it is remarkable that David is the only child who mirrors Ruth’s repressed and proper exterior, as well as her domestic affinities (“You are such a Mom!” quips Keith, “Hold My Hand,” S5::3). And of the Fisher siblings, it is David who ultimately inherits Ruth’s domestic role, in his final positioning as “wife” to Keith and “mother” to their adopted children, Anthony and Durrell.

Ruth: You’re not supposed to protect me. I’m supposed to protect you. That’s what a mother does. She tries. Most of the time she fails, but how are you ever going to feel loved if you don’t ever let me try?

Nate: I do. I do feel loved.

Ruth: [crying] There’s just so many months I could have loved you better.

Nate: You loved me fine.

Ruth: You’re everything … you’re everything to me, and you don’t even know it.

— (“The Last Time” S2:13)

Although Ruth clearly feels intensely and devotedly for all of her offspring, I believe Nate, her firstborn, is her main source of joy and fulfillment. Her assertion that Nate is “everything” to her is felt throughout the series – from the comfort she takes in his return to the Fisher home after the death of Nathaniel Sr. (“the last five years have been a gift to me”); her resentment the women in his life, Brenda and Lisa; her joy in being grandmother to his daughter Maya; to her sorrow over his diagnosis of AVM and subsequent illness. Much has been written of Ruth’s unrealized longings and desires but her greatest yearning is that of closeness and communion with her eldest son. Though she finds satisfaction in her relationships with her husband(s) and lovers, she comes to realize that they cannot complete her, as evidenced on the occasion during her last camping trip with Hiram, where she imagines gleefully shooting the various men in her life (“Ecotone” S5:9). This moment of elation and self actualization she encounters on this trip is brutally undercut upon her return home, where she is greeted by the news of Nate’s death, reinforcing the notion that Nate is the only man who could possibly “complete” her and give her meaning. Indeed, in the final montage of the series (in which we see each major character at the moment of his/her death), though both her deceased husband and son come to “meet” Ruth at her deathbed, it is Nate whom her gaze is fixed upon before she closes her eyes for the last time.

The passion and inspiration that she finds in each of her children suggests that the meaning and subjectivity that many have claimed Ruth is searching for is ultimately found within her maternal/domestic role, instead of outside of it. In contrast to the image of the repressed and unsatisfied housewife that she is often ascribed with, Ruth arguably represents a different way of viewing images and constructions that are typically considered irrelevant and antiquated, and that she is more than the unfulfilled woman who is seemingly trapped in her domestic role. In the various contradictions and intricacies within the characterization of Ruth, Six Feet Under offers a reevaluation of a maternal and domestic role that might be considered defunct to some – thereby exhibiting that it is possible to find something new, hopeful and beautiful amidst decay, loss and expiration, much as the series itself sought to do.