I think I speak for a lot of us when I say DuckTales was one of the best things to ever happen on Disney television, and no show since has ever quite managed to replicate its special charm. Beautiful animation for the time. Better music. Humor both blatant and sly. Characters who basically all fell into two catagories: those you loved, and those you loved to hate.
And then there was Ma Beagle.
Now I'll throw her a few bones: She was spunky. She had some brains (using a steamroller for an iron in The Bride Wore Stripes). She got a few great lines ("If you don't like how I drive, get out of the hallway!") and had a phenomenal voice actor in June Foray.
But I could never quite bring myself to like her - because she was, first and foremost, an abusive parent.
DISCLAIMER: This post is going to take DuckTales and its characters very, very seriously. Don't say I didn't warn you. ;)
Now, ol' Ma doesn't look the part. With gray hair worn in a grandmotherly bun and the soft, open features she gave to to Babyface, her youngest, she appears angelic at first glance. When I first saw her in Robot Robbers, I mistook her for a sweet, feisty old lady who would fit right in with the rest of the family - rough-edged but loyal to the core. All that shatters that illusion in this episode is her abandonment of the sons when the police appear.
She repeats this act in Hero for Hire. This episode also introduces us to the fact that sweet-faced Ma has a temper like a Tazmanian Devil - watch her extreme overreaction to Babyface attempting to sneak a bite of her cooking. Armed with a cook spoon, she fends her sons off with far more force than the situation calls for.
Any semblance of a benevolent mother has disappeared by the time she becomes a more prominent character in Season Two. The woman is cruel, abrasive, vicious, and grade-A manipulative. When Baggy gives her a birthday present, proudly stating they they swipepd her some of her favorite perfume, she proclaims that "it stinks" and tosses it away without ever unwrapping it. Burger's shame-slink from the kitchen after a scolding is apparently not fast enough, because Ma follows it up with a swift kick to the behind. After yet another scheme goes sour, Bigtime throws himself on her mercy, saying, "I don't understand. Somethin' musta gone wrong." Her reply is, "Well, you three 'wrongs' better go out and make this right!"; a quick cut to outside shows Burger and Bouncer already lying on the ground just before Bigtime, too, goes sailing out the door.
There is something deeply uncomfortable about this dynamic. Bigtime, the gang's usual leader, is sharp-tongued and quick with a swat, but he has always come through for his brothers when the chips are down. I always got the impression that he loved the rest of the Beagles despite their incompentence. Ma Beagle doesn't even manage to give off that vibe, much less any sort of maternal instinct. There's also the fact that Bigtime simply doesn't have the physicality to compete with the the larger Beagles (sorry, Bigtime), whereas we have seen Ma Beagle pick Bouncer himself up by the scruff of the neck.
The B-Boys, for their part, adore her. When her failure to win a Mother of the Year contest leaves Ma Beagle in tears, the boys rub her back and comfort her with the knowledge that "to us, you're still the best." The entire convoluted plot of Super DuckTales is set into play because of their desire to give her a good birthday present. Even in DuckTales Remastered, Baggy gloats over his capture of Huey, imagining how proud Ma will be of him, and Bouncer declares, "When I get the gold, I'm gonna buy Ma a new hat."
Turns out, in addition to her other shortcomings, Ma Beagle is incapable of accepting love or a compliment. In Super DuckTales, Baggy thanks her for serving them dinner with, "You're the best!" to which she responds, "Yes, I am. And I deserve the best, too. So why haven't you gotten me a birthday present?"
All of this comes to a head in the episode Beaglemania. Bigtime, Burger, Bouncer, and Baggy are caught onstage at a singing contest attempting to steal the cash prize. Thinking quickly, Bigtime declares them to be a rock group, and Ma Beagle whips up a very catchy song for them to sing. Miracle of miracles, the crowd loves them, and the Beagle Boys become Duckburg's newest musical sensation. They're making money. . . honestly.
Ma Beagle becomes their manager. She forces the boys to do strenuous workouts (because that's really going to effect their singing?), mocking Burger for his weight in the process and ignoring Baggy's pleas for, "Water. I need water." She dresses the boys in ridiculous outfits and dictates their every move. When Bigtime dares to question her, she says, "I think my boys have forgotten some things."
Unfolding her fingers one at a time, she recites, "This little piggy went to the slammer. This little piggy stayed in his cell. And this little piggy" - At this last one, she curls her hand back into a fist and places it beneath Bigtime's nose.
Cocky little Bigtime Beagle cringes and covers his face. "Yeah, I remember what those little piggies do!" he cries.
Finally, the Beagles snap and fire Ma Beagle as their manager. Heartbroken over their legitimacy (and its threat on her status as the world's greatest criminal mother), she frames them for a robbery to get them sent back to prison. Scrooge bails them out because they're still making him money.
Eventually, the Beagles' new manager wants them to write a new song, and they can't do it on such short notice, realizing their mother was the brains behind their first song, they are wracked with guilt over firing her. Ma Beagle appears with a new song and says she will only give it to them if they promise to swear loyalty to her and never disobey her again. Down on their knees, they agree.
It turns out that Ma Beagle has written a venomous song detailing the Beagle Boys' criminal activity and supposed hatred for their fans. The fans respond pretty much the way you would expect them to, pelting the Beagles with pies. Bigtime accuses Ma of "giving [them] a bum song." She picks him up by the ear and says, "Perfect - for a bunch of bums!"
Ma hustles them out to the getaway car, where she informs the boys, "From now - we're gonna do things my way, got it?" Consent is given, Bouncer and Baggy actually addressing their mother as "Mommy" in the process.
After seeing this episode, one questions not why the Beagle Boys are criminals, but how they turned out as well as they did. (It's worth noting I recently discovered that Beaglemania was apparently banned at some point in the show's run. With a lack of any other objectional content, I can't help but wonder if it was for the warped relationship and allusions to physical abuse.)
And I don't care how old they are - if she's hitting Baggy, it's child abuse.
While the Beagle Boys may legally be adults (with the likely exception of Babyface), their dependence on their mother for appreciation and affection is childlike. Their entire world is limited to hideouts and prison cells, and all of it, including their own self-esteem, is viewed through her filter.
In a few instances, we've gotten glimpses at just how dark that filter is. Burger hesitates to obey instructions, and Ma Beagle's response is to shoot into the air (The Bride Wore Stripes). On My Mother, the Pyschic, the Beagle Boys create a fake advertisement for a mother-son counseling center. The irate mother in the commercial is represented by Burger, who screams at errant son Baggy, "Get back here, ya little brat!" and fires a gun at him. No prizes for guessing who he's mimicking.
Worst of all is the moment in Once Upon a Dime, DuckTales' version of Scrooge's origin story. Ma Beagle is identified by name and already depicted as a gray-haired matriarch in Scrooge's young adult years.
I know. Let's set the chronology issues aside for now. Scrooge is thrown into jail for wearing a "skirt," he encounters the Beagle Boys for the first time. They begin to mock him for his "skirt," one of them saying, "Ma would kill for a purty skirt like that. . . and she has."
Ma Beagle is a murderer.
Now, maybe this all seems like an awful lot of fuss being made over some cartoon baddies and their relationship with their mother. But the Beagle Boys were made so darn likeable that it was hard not to care about what happened to them. Much, much more importantly, this is a children's show, and no child should ever internalize the message that abuse is somehow deserved or okay if the victim is "bad" enough.
I don't believe DuckTales ever tried to present Ma Beagle's behavior as kosher (though it was played for laughs a few times). But the matter-of-fact treatment of it - everyone, even the kindliest characters, seem to accept that this is just the way it works in the Beagles' world - is disturbing if thought about too hard.
(And why are any of us even on Wiki if we don't think about cartoons too hard?)
So how, exactly, do I want them to address Ma Beagle's abusive behavior in the reboot? What would probably be best and easiest is to avoid the subject by scaling her role back and toning her down somewhat so that she flies with Disney's more modern standards.
Strangely enough, I'm not sure that's what I want, though. I wouldn't know what to do with a non-abusive Ma Beagle. (This is the point where I begin to sympathize with the DC fans. I would never be able to keep track of which incarnations of the Joker to pity and which ones to have nightmares about.)
Cartoons have grown up quite a bit lately, even the ones not aimed at mature audiences. We now have shows such as Steven Universe, which commented on abusive relationships via clever use of metaphor.
My insane pipe dream is that the DuckTales reboot will take this opportunity to show Ma Beagle's behavior for what it is. That they will challenge the notion that this is how things are for this family - how things always have been and how they always will be.
Is this too much to expect? Maybe. Probably. So I won't expect it.
But I will hope.