This is a guest post from Glosswitch
You are a beautiful single mom. You get on well with your baby's father - indeed, perhaps you are still in love with him – but you’ve decided it’s not to be. You’ve been offered a dream job on the other side of the Atlantic, in a country where they don’t even speak your language, and you’ve decided to go for it.
a. go through a great deal of soul-searching about uprooting your daughter, taking her away from her father and managing on your own, then stoically board the plane clutching both your child and a ton of crap toys which will keep her entertained for about five seconds on a transatlantic flight.
b. go through a great deal of soul-searching because, basically, you still want to rip the clothes off your baby’s daddy, then stoically board the plane looking cool and stylish. Your daughter is off somewhere or other, maybe already in France with your mom or something. Anyhow, that’s all a bit boring. So boring, in fact, that when you have another change of heart you get off the plane and don’t give a second thought to the fact that little Emma might already be waiting, “Mommy” sign held pluckily aloft, at Charles de Gaulle airport.
|Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) from Friends|
Did you answer a? If so, we have established that you are not in fact Rachel from Friends. Well done, you (after all, if you were, you’d be all barren and pining for Brad Pitt by now, with all your other rom-com achievements mere ashes at your feet).
Here is another scenario:
You are a beautiful single mom (again), but this time working in a crime lab. Perhaps you are called Catherine Willows and in another life a woman called Marg Helgenberger will portray you in a biopic of your life. Anyhow, you have a daughter, possibly called Lindsey, and she can, to put it mildly, be a bit of a pain in the ass.
a. use any and every opportunity to remind your colleagues that you’re a mom and therefore understand certain things that only a mom can understand. Stuff like other moms being sad if their kids get murdered, that sort of shit. You know about this because you’re a mom. And also because you finally got rid of that bitch Lindsey by shoving her in some posh private school.
b. tend to shut up about being a mom while you’re in the workplace. It wouldn’t do you any favors come the next round of promotions.
So, what did you pick? Was it b? Me too. That’s why no one’s offered either of us a job in the Las Vegas crime lab to date.
|Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) from CSI|
Now look, I’m not stupid. I know that TV comedies are meant to be funny, and dramas meant to be dramatic. It isn’t real life. That’s why we don’t see characters needing to take a piss in the middle of an important monologue, or stumbling over their words when pronouncing the dic vead, sorry, the vic dead. It’s all made up. I bet everyone working in the real Las Vegas crime lab is ugly as sin and that they all hate each other and are useless at solving crimes. Actually, that’s probably not true either. It’s probably a lot more boring than that. They probably all just plod along, solving some crimes, not solving others, then go home, watch a bit of TV (not CSI – I’m sure they hate that) and then just go to bed. No one would want to watch that. So why does this unrealistic portrayal of mommies end up annoying me so much?
The thing is, I wouldn’t mind if characters like Rachel and Catherine were just like all the other characters – ridiculously gorgeous and ace at their jobs, yet somehow flawed and kooky at the same time – while also being mommies, albeit ones whose lives aren’t that much impinged on by having a child. I wouldn’t mind that. It’s just that Rachel and Catherine seem to have MOMMY tattooed in big letters across their botoxed foreheads. You can almost hear the sound of scriptwriters patting themselves on the back. “Hey guys, relax! We’ve done the “mommy issues” bit! Now let’s send everyone off to Central Perk.” This creates an environment in which it no longer seems legitimate to assert that motherhood still doesn’t really exist as a theme in our TV programmes. But by and large it doesn’t. You wouldn’t have to do much. You don’t literally have to show shitty diapers or a woman crying her eyes out at 3am with engorged breasts and a howling newborn. It’s just the little things. Perhaps you have women who aren’t able to go to the bar with colleagues at the drop of a hat. Women who don’t always have childcare issues magically resolved by a grumpy ex who’s half new man, half self-pitying passive aggressive bully. Women who work part-time. Women who are, most of the time, in the company of children, not for one “doing the issues” childcare episode, but all the time. You can still have humor and drama in that. Let’s face it, children can be total lunatics; there’s loads of humor and drama in that.
|Abby (Maura Tierney) from ER|
In ER (yeah, another oldie) Abby has a full-on dramatic birth, followed by lots of trauma caring for a sick child and then gradually going back to work. See, that’s quite good. They sure milked the drama from that. But then she just goes back to being another TV mom with an invisible child. Said child is useful for hostage situations and for making the Abby character “softer” than all the other female leads, but not for affecting the actual structure of the plot itself. That would just be too messy.
I guess that messiness is a big part of the problem. Motherhood is portrayed as a women’s issue – a thing to be picked up, examined then dropped – rather than as something that structures the flow of life and shapes the plots we all live out. This is as true for real life as it is for fiction. Mothers have to fit in around everyone else’s plots, plots in which no one in paid employment really has children and no one who isn’t paid employment is ever believed to be working.
When did you last see a TV programme that treated having a job or having grandparents or being male as an “issue” to be covered? They’re not; they’re just long-term ways of being, which might sometimes be the cause of issues but without being issues in themselves. Being a mom ought to be like that. Instead, it’s “a thing.” A thing that can be covered in a half-hour show, including ad breaks, before Mommy puts her invisible child back in the closet and heads back out to spread the fake mommy wisdom that, thankfully, doesn’t prevent her heading off to an all-night club with friends at the end of the evening.
|Lois from Family Guy|
In Family Guy we see Lois frequently exploiting the trope of the put-upon Mommy whom no one values. Hey, good issues coverage, guys! The fact that Lois leaves her baby in the care of the family dog whenever it seems appropriate doesn’t even come into it. And yeah, this is a cartoon, and it’s silly and surreal and why should I even bother worrying about that? But the trouble is, we then get the “I am Peter, hear me roar” episode in which Lois ends up taking on hardcore feminist Gloria Ironbox and dramatically asserting her own “choice” to be a mother and homemaker. It’s here that you start to feel the scriptwriters are taking a little too many liberties. How many issues can you squeeze from a portrayal of motherhood that isn’t even remotely realistic? Despite the catfight and the stripping and the sex with Peter at the end, there’s something horribly serious and sanctimonious about Lois’s little outburst. It's like having Cleveland and Loretta solemnly discussing affirmative action, albeit with them only being permitted to be "actively" black 10% of the time.
|Allison from Medium|
Of all the shows I’ve seen in (fairly) recent years, the only one where I find the portrayal of motherhood even vaguely satisfactory is Medium. That is, I’ll admit, a little weird. Motherhood, for me, has not yet involved having crazy psychic dreams and then passing “the gift” on to my sons, and them getting all stressed about it, and me having to comfort them because, hey, it’s okay; it might seem distressing now but later on you could solve crime, just like Mommy! No, my experience of motherhood has not been like that. But what I like about that show is that underneath it, there still seems to be quite a lot of “normal” mess. The scriptwriters have allowed motherhood to invade the plot. Alison puts her children to bed and strokes their heads and it’s just what happens, not the chance for some once-in-a-lifetime monologue. Alison goes into the kitchen in the morning and there they are, making a mess of the kitchen table and demanding more food. In normal TV-land, she’d have the kitchen to herself, at least assuming no one was having a psychic crisis at the sight of the Cheerios. I found Medium difficult to watch while pregnant, not because it gave me funny dreams, but because I’d think “Wow! That parenting thing looks like hard work!” In truth, it’s not as bad as all that. It’s probably worse if your nights are interrupted not just by kids, but by pesky dead people. If it were that bad, I’d probably run away to France, just like Rachel. Or shove my kids in some private school, like Catherine. But hey, if I did that, you shouldn’t judge me too harshly. I’d just be following the plot.
Disclaimer: Most of the shows referred to here are from over four years ago. I'm sorry. I had a couple of those "real" babies in the interim. If only I'd had a plot device child, all this would be way more up to date.
Glosswitch is a mother of two living in the UK, hence the unfortunate mixture of US and UK spellings in this piece. She blogs at http://glosswatch.com about feminism, motherhood and anything that annoys her (i.e. anything).