NEW YORK – In the 1992 United States presidential election, George H. W. Bush’s campaign made a political splash by going after the television show Murphy Brown – one of the first times, but far from the last, that a fictitious character was introduced to score political points in America. Murphy Brown, played by actress Candice Bergen, was a TV anomaly at that time: a sympathetically portrayed single mother. So Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, attacked the show for normalizing rather than stigmatizing single motherhood.
Much hand-wringing followed, with single mothers (never, at that time, single fathers) cast as harbingers of doom for core American values. The implication was that selfish me-first feminists (if they were affluent white women) or feckless social parasites (if they were low-income women of color) were putting their own interests above their children’s. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s widely reprinted study The Negro Family: The Case for National Action painted a picture of single motherhood as the primary instigator of inner-city and especially African-American criminality, illiteracy, and drug use.
How times have changed. Just as single mothers were irrationally castigated then, so today an equally irrational hagiography has risen around them. (Europe has more single mothers than the US, but, characteristically, has less need to moralize about them one way or the other). In US pop culture, the single mother has evolved from selfish yuppie or drug-dazed slut into a woman who is more fun, slightly more heroic, and certainly less frumpy than her married counterpart.
Indeed, single mothers are the new maternal ideal – women whose maternal drive is so selfless and intense that they choose to raise children even under the burden of their solitary status.
Angelina Jolie’s photo spread with her toddler son, adopted from Cambodia, in Vanity Fair heralded this shift: the sexy young woman and her son in a luxurious hotel bedroom made single motherhood look fun and glamorous.
Suddenly Hollywood stars and starlets who were otherwise unattached began to sprout little offspring: Calista Flockhart, who played TV’s ultimate desperate childless single woman, adopted a son – and, like a fairy tale, later met and married Harrison Ford. Kourtney Kardashian of the reality show The Kardashians had a baby as an “unwed mother” – a stigmatizing term that has gone out of fashion – and is depicted as bravely holding down the fort and staying up all night with feedings as the child’s irresponsible father parties.
The tale of Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol, has also been spun as a tale of an admirable single mother and a loser father. When they split up, the story line cast the heroic young mother against what was often depicted as the beer-drinking, immature dad.
Even Jennifer Aniston, whom Brad Pitt left because she did not want kids, now sighs in interviews, as she nears 42, that she has stopped waiting for Prince Charming, and that she, too, could be ready to adopt and go it alone.
Likewise, advertisements for convenience food and insurance – which used to feature only intact nuclear families – have begun to showcase single mothers lovingly spooning out meatballs, or protectively buying a life-insurance policy.
The glorification of single mothers represents a collective exasperation on the part of women in America – and women who make decisions in the mainstream media. The 1990’s produced a demeaning narrative of women waiting in frustration as their “biological clocks” ticked, cursing themselves for putting career first at the expense of finding Mr. Right and having children. In a post-sexual revolution world of marriage-shy men, women would supposedly do anything to secure the blessings of a wedded father for their children.
The message from the media was one of constant nagging and blame, such as the famous Newsweek cover that asserted (wrongly) that an older single woman had more likelihood of being in a terrorist attack than of finding a husband. The whole narrative, as the writer Susan Faludi correctly perceived, was not about marriage at all; it reflected a backlash against feminism.
At some point, women became powerful enough that they collectively rejected the high social value this narrative placed on a male offer of a ring and flipped the stereotype on its head. It started to occur to women that they could be employed and have a family – and that it could even be pretty nice. Glamorizing single motherhood is not realistic, but it allows female pop culture to express a revenge fantasy at all the potential husbands and fathers who walked away, or who were not the dream husband and father after all, or who wanted the sex but not the kids and the tuition bills.
When Bill O’Reilly of Fox News recently accused Aniston of making a movie about single motherhood – The Switch – that seems to say “to a twelve or thirteen year old girl, ‘You don’t need a man,’” he is right. These images do appeal to overworked, exasperated, baby-hungry women who may have spent years waiting for “the offer,” telling them that, in fact, you don’t need a man.
This trend hardly signifies the end of civilization as we know it; all things being equal, most women would still prefer the simple fantasy of a supportive partner in childrearing. But the new image of single mothers – and of single motherhood – does show that it is getting harder – if not almost impossible – to coerce women by trying to fix upon them the scarlet letter.