So in recent months, the Marvel television shows have presented us with not one but two absolutely terrible mother-daughter relationships: Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett) and her mom Wilma (Samaire Armstrong, with a ridiculous Southern accent) and Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) her mom Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay). But in what we’re fairly sure is another accidental case of parallel construction, both relationships start in a similar place and diverge drastically, resulting in Whitney being the villain of the story and Trish being a hero (even if not the one she wants to be yet).
Back in the olden days, we’re introduced (also in parallel to a baby Peggy) to baby Agnes Cully growing up in a well-lit but not particularly nice house in Oklahoma. She is interested in Science!!! and she is apparently very good at things (we hear, prior to the flashback but later in the timeline, that she has many patented inventions) but does not get respect for these things because she is a woman. (This is, of course, the running theme of Agent Carter, or one of them, and a theme that is to a certain degree run through the entire MCU – somewhat ironically – but Whitney’s reaction to it is at the extremely negative end.) Her mother, meanwhile, is a woman of… vague means in a vague relationship with a gross man, and repeatedly yells at Agnes that her brain doesn’t matter, only her face matters. Then we see Agnes in Los Angeles a few years later, where a talent agent man “discovers” her, tells her she has a pretty face and should smile, and offers to hire her for something but she should probably change her name. Thus is Whitney Frost born. (And I’m so glad they established that as a pseudonym because hot damn it’s a pseudonym-y name.)
Baby Trish, by contrast, we don’t see until after she’s been established as Patsy of the apparently highly successful children’s show It’s Patsy!. Her overbearing stage mother pushed her into acting, which Trish was reluctant to do, even more so when she found herself pushed into a box she didn’t fit in (most obviously with her childhood nickname, which she hated). In the flashback scenes with young Jessica and Trish, we see how Dorothy would verbally and physically abuse Trish when Trish refused to do what she said, including throwing a People’s Choice Award at her daughter (which left a bruise that Jessica comments on) and forcing her to throw up after eating “too much” at a party. Dorothy berates Trish for being ungrateful, saying that before Trish got the show, they were living in a shitty one-bedroom apartment and they had nothing. At some point, Trish became hooked on drugs – it’s implied that Dorothy had something to do with that as well. Because the story is about Jessica and not Trish, we only see these scenes from Jessica’s point of view, but they give a pretty clear picture of what kind of person Trish’s mother is. (This is actually very possibly wise, as Jessica is able to view the situations more objectively and can act as a lens for the audience.)
So fast-forward, to where Whitney Frost is a successful movie star. She’s followed her mother’s advice and focused on beauty, but it’s clearly a veneer. Her closest relationship is with her husband, who she doesn’t seem to love in the strictest sense but whose power she appreciates (he’s an aspiring politician and in charge of a science company that can quietly utilize her knowledge). She’s apparently a good actress, although the studio seems eager to throw her under the bus merely because she’s not as young as she once was, but she may or may not actually enjoy it, it’s not entirely clear. She enjoys the power and the attention, though. So while absorbing the zero matter is at first frightening – it’s damaged her face, her livelihood! – she soon realizes it’s imbued her with power beyond her wildest dreams. Naturally, her impulse is to learn more about it and then to either destroy or overpower everyone.
In the present day, meanwhile, Trish is a successful radio talk show host. She has a nice apartment, she’s good at genuinely interacting with people, she’s learning how to defend herself and take care of herself, she wants nothing more than to be able to be a hero for people. She also has genuine relationships, mostly with Jessica (Krysten Ritter). She’s previously encouraged heroism in Jessica and continues to do so, although she doesn’t see herself that way exactly. While Whitney’s mother is no longer relevant but with little exposition, Trish’s mother is peripherally involved in the story and established as being consciously cut out of Trish’s life; while Whitney seems successful but dissatisfied, Trish is both successful and at least somewhat satisfied.
Whitney, while playing dumb and pretending to only be a movie star in the public eye, is secretly working for her own nefarious purposes. She is willing to manipulate, steal, maim, and even murder in order to achieve her own ends. She has learned that she’s going to have to manipulate her way into getting what she wants, and that’s what she will do. Trish, meanwhile, is far from perfect, but she actively tries to be a better person than her mother taught her to be. Trish wants to be a superhero: she wants to help people and she wants to make a difference in the world. She actively works to move past her initial impressions, even when this works to her disadvantage, such as her short-lived relationship with Will Simpson (Wil Traval). Even when she makes terrible choices – badmouthing Kilgrave, talking to Will – she does it out of the best intentions. When they come up with a plan to catch Kilgrave, she eagerly volunteers even though it will be dangerous. Trish wants to do whatever is necessary to keep people safe, even if she must make sacrifices to do so.
(It’s also extremely interesting to note that both characters have changed their names at some point; Whitney, born Agnes, adopted a more glamorous pseudonym to become a star and became that person fully, while Trish, called Patsy as a child, settled into a name she chose and preferred in order to be fully herself as she truly was, not as she was painted.)
I really don’t think they were setting Whitney and Trish up as foils across time and subcanons, but looking at them that way proves quite fascinating. Whitney is an interesting villain, and is a villain for many of the reasons that male villains are villains but also a very specifically female reason, but all of those reasons are the ones that make Trish such a heroic character. Be it circumstance or neurochemistry, something made Whitney go one way and Trish go radically the other. And while canon presented Whitney’s backstory as an explanation but not an excuse, canon presents Trish’s backstory as an explanation because she doesn’t need any excuses because she’s wonderful. While it’s not the first time that’s happened in the MCU by far, it’s also something that… some people tend not to acknowledge, but it’s terribly important even still and perhaps even because of that lack of acknowledgement by some.
–your fangirl heroine.