The first major argument about single moms on TV was made by then-Vice President Dan Quayle who complained in a speech about the morality of “Murphy Brown” having a baby out of wedlock and raising it without a father. “In a speech delivered in May, 1992, he said that “it doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.'” Quayle wound up having to watch an episode of Murphy Brown with a group of single mothers to mollify an outraged America. At the time, a top aide to Bush – that’s Bush, père – commented wearily that “the world is a lot more complex than Dan would like to believe” (Tunnacliffe 2). Conservatives applauded Mr. Quayle’s statements, but, as a result, “Murphy Brown”, which had been losing ratings, was able to stay on the air for at least one more season.
What made this situation so unique is that, for the first time on television, women were more or less in control of their own bodies and destinies. Before, “single moms” were widows who somehow managed to bring upo children (think of all the old Joan Crawford movies rerun on Turner Classic Movies). Or, there would be the stupid single-mom syndrome: “The Partridge Family” is a good example.
For far too long, “single moms” have been equated on TV news with inner city welfare mothers. The recent news coverage of Hurricane Katrina certainly proved that so much focus was on single moms either with, or missing one or more of their children.
We have almost forgotten the stigma once associated with being a single parent. Now, there are some who really want to make hay with the fact. “She has a newborn baby, and she was dumped for Britney Spears. All she is missing is her own reality TV show, right? Not if her producers have anything to do with it. Shar Jackson, formerly of Moesha, formerly girlfriend of Kevin Federline, is trying to turn her infamy into gold. She’s pitching her own single-mom version of Nick and Jessica She certainly is the poster girl for single moms. Not many can match the story: dumped-while-pregnant-for-Britney” (Gilbert 1).
One can point to the 1980s as the emergence of the “single mom” on TV series: “The 1980s also ushered in a wave of shows featuring women-headed single-parent households. In Kate and Allie (1984-1988), Susan St. James and Jane Curtin moved in together, with their children, after their divorces…. Brett Butler’s Grace Under Fire appeared in 1993. Divorced from her “white trash” husband, Grace pulled herself off welfare and landed a job at an oil plant. The show was one of the first-and remains one of the only-to paint an accurate picture of the financial, physical, and emotional struggles of a single mother” (Rowen 3).
Rowen also comments on a drama that, until this season, has had a successful run: Judging Amy: “More recent shows, while not entirely successful in mirroring society as a whole, have captured a number of growing trends and attitudes. Judging Amy (1999-2004) focuses on a recently divorced attorney (Amy Brenneman) who, with her young daughter, leaves New York City for a judgeship in her Connecticut hometown. She moves back in with her mother and struggles with her complex role as mother, daughter, and professional. The show does well in presenting the everyday stresses parents face, such as finding alternative care for a sick child, as well as the guilt of working outside the home” (Rowen 4).
Not only are single moms portrayed on TV, but TV performers now are quite open about their own single motherhood. And, the public seems to eat it up. “If Hollywood is any indication, 2001 was the year of the single mom. Actors including Camryn Manheim, Calista Flockhart, and Jodie Foster, by adoption or by birth, placed single motherhood in the national spotlight, gracing the covers of Us and People magazine. And the character Rachel from the hit television series Friends, upon finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, decided to have her baby alone; it’s the child she wants, not necessarily the husband. Given the public acceptance of these notable single mothers by choice, it would seem that this version of the new millennium family has found a suitable home in the United States” (Silbergleid 1).
Famous country music star, Reba McEntire, also stars in a self-titled sitcom as a single mom, divorced, raising three children, a son-in-law and a granddaughter. Obviously, with her audience appeal to a mostly conservative “country” audience, the acceptance of a single mom- even as a comedy series- takes on more meaning. Single moms, in other words, are no longer anathema, or struggling frustrated widows, sacrificing all for their families. They are real-life, next-door neighbors and are therefore accepted as “belonging” to mainstream America., Quite a change from just a generation or two ago, when the norm for a “family” was “Ozzie and Harriet and “Leave it to Beaver”, or the mix-n-match family of “The Brady Bunch.”
Silbergleid (2005) coins a term we might become more familiar with “Single Mother By Choice (SMC). “While images of mature single mothers have flooded television screens and magazine covers, complicating stereotypes of single mothers as young, immature, and lower-class, the stories that we tell about SMCs and the stories put out by Single Mothers by Choice demonstrate continued cultural anxiety about the changing nature of the American family. Rather than depict the realistic struggles of single moms in a variety of race and class contexts, these sanitized representations of SMCs turn to traditional narrative structures and ideologies. In contrast to father-headed families and blended families, SMChood makes clear the real challenge to heterosexual romance and traditional gender roles. In a culture without the gendered separation of public and private spheres, in which women do not need to rely on men for their financial well-being” (Silbergleid 12).
So, what this tends to indicate is that, for the most part, the public has come a long way from merely comedy for the sake of “single-hood” and that there is now a purposeful search for identity and financial and emotional security WITHOUT requiring a man.
Despite more portrayals (both serious, comic and lascivious – see “Sex and the Single Mom” starring Gail O’Grady) the genders are still relatively defined as they historically have been in the media. “Though not as strongly as in earlier years, the portrayal of both men and women on TV is largely traditional and stereotypical. This serves to promote a polarization of gender roles. [With femininity are associated traits such as emotionality, prudence, co-operation, a communal sense, and compliance. Masculinity tends to be associated with such traits as rationality, efficiency, competition, individualism and ruthlessness” (Chandler 16).
There is also a rather simple answer to why single moms appear more and more in the various media, including TV movies and series: “According to the Census Bureau, 40 percent of never-married women in their 30s have a child. And single motherhood for both divorced and never-married women continues to rise. In 1970 there were 3.4 million single mothers in the United States; now there are nearly 10 million” (Eckel 4). In other words, there is a ready-made audience of single mothers who see themselves either fairly, comically, or unfairly depicted. They watcxh and react,. Sometimes favorably and sometimes in frustration. But, they watch. So, more and more single mothers will be apopearing on a TV screen in your home.
Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the depiction of single moms in news stories. As mentioned erlier, the coverage of hurricane Kastrina survivors focused in a large exstent on poor, black (or other minority) single mothers. This was covered by a well-known Conservative critic: “George Will, for instance, in his Sept. 13 syndicated column, saw Katrina as an opportunity to write disapprovingly about the number of black women “with children but not husbands” affected by the disaster. Yet these women – whose single motherhood he blamed for crimes committed by black males – were keeping families together under excruciating circumstances” (Gibbons 6).
Many of the single moms on TV series and movies today are not minority women or “welfare mothers” but professionals. “‘The professional, single mother is no longer the pariah,’ said Sheri Annis, a media and political consultant in L.A. who thinks the dialogue about single-mother households has changed radically since Quayle used Murphy Brown as an antithesis of his family-values platform. Partly, Annis said, it is due to the sheer numbers of single mothers compared with 10 or 20 years ago. But it is also because many of the women on TV choosing to raise kids are well-educated, wealthy and eager to assume the responsibilities of parenthood” (Calvo F-1).
Nevertheless, TV and movies still tend to provide certain “categories” when it comes to single moms. “There is the “good mom,” who became single as a result of death or abandonment. Her reward is remarriage or economic stability. The “bad mom” became single as a result of divorce. Her punishment is diminished socioeconomic standing, long-lasting singlehood, sexual frustration, or promiscuity. These films blame feminism in general and divorce in particular for the problems of single-parent” (Valdivia 272). As feminism increases and empowers women single mom characters on TV will undoubtedly be more and more positive.
Of course, it goes without saying that single moms, in real life, may not be as persevering or as well situated and comfortable with their chosen “single-hood”. But, the media tends to draw attention to those single-mom characters who, even as they may have to struggle professionally and emotionally, still maintain a life style that more and more Americans realize is here to stay.
Calvo, Dana “Few Now Quail at TV’s Unwed Moms Unlike Murphy Brown, such characters are not targets of conservatives.” Los Angeles TIMES, Oct. 26, 2001
Chandler, David: “Television and Gender Roles”
Eckel, Sara: “Single Mothers Many Faces” American Demographics, May, 1999
Gibbons, Sheila: “Hurricane Coverage Blew Open Image of Women” Women’sE News
Gilbert, Sara: “Single mom and celebrity: is that reality TV? BloggingBaby July 29, 2004 www.bloggingbaby.com/entry/8785793035846669
Rowen, Beth: “Today’s TV Moms :June Cleaver, move over: modern TV moms juggle career, family, and a clean house” InfoPlease www.infoplease.com/spot/tvmoms1.html
Silbergleid, Robin:: “”Oh Baby!”: Representations of Single Mothers in American Popular Culture” Americana, The Journal of American Culture
Tunnacliffe, Catherine: “And baby makes…..Two?” Box Populi
Validivia, Angharad N. “CLUELESS IN HOLLYWOOD SINGLE MOMS IN CONTEMPORARY FAMILY MOVIES” Journal of Communication Inquiry 1998 22(3): 272-292.