Margaret Chenowith: “Six Feet Under’s” Resident Existentialist

“Man’s unhappiness is from having first been a child.”

— Rene Descartes

This quote from the father of French philosophy and influential precursor to French atheistic existentialism summarizes the existentialist worldview. When we are children, we live in a world where parents know best, we are loved by a benevolent God, and we are destined to be great. When we become adults, the existentialists posit, we understand that we have been fooled: our parents are fallible, there is no God, and we must create ourselves by engaging with the world using our freedom. This realization — that we are free to choose our own paths in life — causes great anxiety, angst, and abandonment characterized by the oft used phrase “existential crisis”. The bitter taste that the existentialist worldview may leave in some people’s mouths can be compared to the sting we feel when we meet Margaret Chenowith, the eternally cackling, gleefully hedonistic, complexly troubled mother of Brenda.

“We’re all human.”

— Brenda

“No we’re not, Brenda. That’s what you are going to learn.”

— Margaret

Margaret Chenowith reveals a self-awareness of our absolute freedom: there is no human nature because there is no God to have conceived of it. She demonstrates the resultant contingency of social rules and expectations from polyamoury to intergenerational dating, to the breaking of countless social taboos. Margaret is regularly described as a “crazy bitch” or “dysfunctional” online, but I think there is a way to understand a lot of her behavior in a more generous and constructive way, as an existentialist.

Famous French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre believed that existentialism, rather than being a philosophy of despair, nihilism, and crises, is actually the only philosophy of hope that is possible. They believed that it is the only philosophy that acknowledges the dignity of human beings because it does not degrade them into being pawns in God’s game of fate, or merely subject to the thrusts of social forces. The optimism of existentialism is that we are never stuck on a predetermined path, we are free to create our lives and to engage with the freedom of others.

As many existentialist philosophers have realized, one problem with their worldview is that it doesn’t promote the idea that the world is a safe and secure place to live — something essential for raising children. Feminist philosophers have pointed out that the freedom assumed by the existentialists has to be nurtured in certain ways, it must be developed in relationships by caregivers, and thus we cannot start our childhoods as existentialists. Margaret seems to have missed this point: “You think I didn’t want to abort you and Billy?” she says to Brenda. We can only imagine what she said to them when they were children and we already know that she and husband Bernard exposed them, at a young age, to adult sexual situations. Telling Brenda that she was almost aborted reveals the radical contingency of her existence, something that should elicit joy from the adult existentialist. Margaret flouts the norms of “good motherhood” because she does not believe that there are such requirements on her. However, being thrust into the radical world of existentialism as a child, Brenda is not able to see the freeing aspect in her mother’s off-hand remark. Brenda is not in a position to appreciate her mother’s radical freedom because, well, existentialists don’t make good parents.

Another example of Margaret’s existentialist worldview is when she calls on Brenda to wait outside Tranquility Spa to spy on Bernard’s lover. Aping the psychological language she picked up from her parents, Brenda calls Margaret a narcissist. Margaret responds by reminding Brenda that “This is life,” and that, “People have crises.” Brenda’s anger at her mother regularly took the form of trying to bring her down with psychological jargon, calling her things like a “classic narcissist” and accusing her of making a spectacle of herself. Brenda’s attitude is that of the moralist, the person who thinks that all behavior ought to conform to specific standards of “healthy subjectivity,” virtue, or any other external pre-conceived standard. Margaret is not convinced. She asks Brenda to face the fact that she uses jargon and defensiveness to keep people away and to hide from her own feelings. Perhaps Margaret is making a spectacle of herself, but that is what real life is and Brenda is constantly trying to sanitize the truth to fit her purposes — staying emotionally detached.

One of the main concepts that comes as a result of existentialism is bad faith. Bad faith is the flight from our freedom. When we realize that we are truly free at any moment to choose ourselves, we become immediately aware of the responsibility that realization entails. Bad faith is following pre-written plans, scripts, and agendas without fully realizing that we are freely adopting them, we are not compelled to act a certain way because of God or tradition. To Ruth Margaret says: “Ruth, it isn’t the 50s anymore, no matter how you dress.” How liberating to feel that the 1950s are no longer determining fashion choices, that we can choose otherwise! Via her choice of dress, Ruth cannot hold onto who she was in the past. Margaret is asking Ruth to exercise her freedom to create a new self, rather than relying on the past to determine her choices. Too bad that, when Ruth takes The Plan seminar and draws a new blueprint for her life, it doesn’t include different fashion choices.

While Margaret has a very uneasy relationship with her motherhood, she does seem comfortable with herself as a sexual and desirous woman. Perhaps her own bad faith is that she uses male attention to make herself feel good, which is freedom-denying, making her dependant on the regard of men for happiness. This also flies in the face of her stark individualism. She doesn’t recognize her own interconnectedness, especially when she gets Billy out of the hospital so she doesn’t have to be alone at Christmas.

Before Brenda’s wedding, Margaret tells her not to worry about her “happily ever after” because “that ship has sailed”. While Brenda got caught up in societal expectations planning her “dream wedding” Margaret remains grounded in the fact that these are more delusions from childhood that only hurt us as adults if we continue to believe in them. Simone de Beauvoir wrote “Death, while making life taste like cinders and dust, also makes it light easy to bear because it removes all objective value from it.” Instead of begrudging her mother, Brenda should welcome the idea that there is no happily ever after because it means that her life is hers to build, not according to a fairy tale, but with her freedom each step of the way.

Given the overlapping characteristics between Margaret and the existentialists it is unfortunate that such a rich character didn’t get a death in the final montage of the final episode of the series. I wonder how she would die, or what might be a fitting death for Margaret. I imagine her doing something radical like jumping off a cliff with stage 4 cancer. But mostly I hope she lived a long life as a respected intellectual waving people away from the oceans of societal illusions back to the shores of their freedom.