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.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.