The Single Mother Makeover

Just as single mothers were irrationally castigated a generation ago, so today an equally irrational hagiography has risen around them. Indeed, in US pop culture, 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.

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.

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