HOLLYWOOD - In the new film Spanglish, Tea Leoni plays a monster: a blond, powerfully aerobicized, utterly fat-free mommy named Deborah Clasky. She shames her overweight daughter, betrays her husband and is so self-involved that her own mother tells her that "your low self-esteem is just good common sense."
And then there's Flor, perhaps the loveliest, most soulful nurturer ever to grace Bel-Air. In the film, the beauteous Spaniard Paz Vega plays an illegal Mexican immigrant - putatively the Claskys' housekeeper, although she's hardly shown laundering the Pratesi sheets or cleaning out the Sub-Zero refrigerator. Instead, she binds the wounds the mother inflicts on the family.
The same week that Spanglish opened, the smash TV show Desperate Housewives introduced the character of a beautiful and sweet nanny named Claire (played by Marla Sokoloff) whose mission is to restore sanity to the home of the frazzled, Ritalin-popping Lynette (Felicity Huffman), under siege from a brood of unruly boys.
According to the show's creator, Marc Cherry, a story line "reveals the very sad truth that Claire is a better mother than Lynette is."
Clearly, there are wonderful nannies as well as selfish, narcissistic mothers out there. But in a world in which it's considered politically incorrect to mock almost any group, there is one exception: the middle- to upper-class mother who dares to hire child care. In her latest on-screen incarnations, she is not just ridiculed, she is punished in an almost Dantesque fashion: by being shown in extremely unflattering contrast to her nanny, who is depicted as a more loving, far more functional human being.
The mom-with-help has become a caricature that reflects women's anxiety about relying on other women for child-care help and society's profound ambivalence about the whole arrangement. Not only is there fear that these professional-class mothers are abdicating their family responsibility - whether they work or not - the suggestion is that they are actually incompetent parents.
It's now the nanny, efficient yet loving - and often gorgeous - who appears to be the culture's latest Superwoman.
Consider also the dueling Fox and ABC shows Nanny 911 and Supernanny, respectively, in which starchy child-care professionals arrive to knock some good common sense into befuddled and over-permissive American families.
"The nanny, particularly the British nanny, has universal appeal," said Nanny 911 executive producer Paul Jackson. "In a sense, she's a mythical figure." The nannies "give certainty and parameters and rules in the modern world, which has become unruly and troublesome."
Oddly, perhaps, there is one group claiming to be on the side of these new terror-moms: their creators, who profess affection and compassion for their characters. Spanglish writer-director James L. Brooks, who has a long track record of bringing to the screen flawed but appealing female characters, defended his latest film's high-strung Deborah, who's adrift after losing her job. "I do have compassion for the character," he said. "I hope it's in the film, even given her problems. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body. ... She's everywoman, reduced to raw nerves."
Nicola Kraus, co-author of the best-selling 2002 novel The Nanny Diaries, also defended her unsympathetic matron, a character called Mrs. X, a selfish, prissy, Upper East Side mom who dodges her child's embrace and goes to a spa while he's suffering from a high fever. ("Where is the woman in this mother?" wonders the book's unselfish nanny.)
Kraus said she believes such characters - nonworking mothers who opt out of their roles as parents - are very much a product of upper-crust Manhattan society. "To me, Mrs. X is the tragic figure of the novel. She wants to be loved and wants to please and is deeply lost at how to build love in her life," she said.
But Allison Pearson, author of another best-selling novel that deals with a high-end mother on the verge of breakdown, I Don't Know How She Does It, said she was dismayed when she read The Nanny Diaries.
"I thought the mother was such a vicious caricature," she said.
Pearson's book offers a more sympathetic portrayal of a working mother who struggles - not always successfully - to balance career and care-giving.
To Pearson, the relationship between nannies and mothers is "a very fraught business."
Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks SKG and the mother of young twins, agrees that many women are deeply concerned about maintaining a good work environment for their children's caregivers. "That's the big joke," Press said. "If my nanny and my husband go overboard, which one do I save? ... Bully her? If I could, I'd like to make her tea and toast."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.