TV's Single Mothers and the Dudes Who Think They Know What's Best For Them
In prime-time TV and in real life, America's working-class mothers find it tough to keep their heads above water while juggling their professional and personal lives.
Two current shows—Switched at Birth and The New Normal—show the paternalistic attitudes working mothers often face.
For Switched at Birth's working class single mom Regina Vasquez (Constance Marie), money is a particularly fraught issue. As the show's title suggests, her daughter was switched at birth with another. So though she has been raising teenage Daphne (who is deaf), her biological daughter Bay is being raised by the much wealthier Kathryn and John Kennish. Regina and Daphne had been scraping by for years, but once they accept help from the upper middle class Kennishes (including their guest home and a job opportunity for Daphne), they both start to bristle. In season two, Daphne gets a food truck as a gift from a family friend. When a couple of neighborhood thieves target Daphne because she's deaf and steal the cashbox from the truck, John Kennish reacts by selling the food truck from under the Vasquez's noses. Regina fumes that he didn't consult with her at all.
When John Kennish makes decisions for Regina, he implies that he knows how to raise her daughter better than she does and that his own method of parenting is flawless. This is worsened by the fact that John is a privileged white male (one who's running for political office, at that) whereas Regina is a working class woman of color.
This mirrors real life attitudes that male politicians have toward single mothers and single mothers of color in particular. Bitch blogger Diane Shipley pointed out that "politicians haven’t stopped blaming single mothers for society’s problems." MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry added these thoughts last month:
We need to be wary when policy makers evoke familial explanations [such as single motherhood] for structural inequalities....Policy tends to be blind to the pathologies of the privileged. It's only families that are economically disadvantaged or from communities of color that become spectacles of concern for us.
Switched at Birth, then, is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of how privileged men act paternalistically toward single mothers, overriding their decisions and blaming them for conflicts. In this case, Daphne's attackers, not Regina, are to blame. Steamrolling Regina only serves to make her feel more marginalized than she already is.
Single motherhood is tough on Goldie (Georgia King) of The New Normal, too. Originally a waitress from Ohio, it's been difficult for her to support her young daughter Shania. So she decides to carry Bryan and David's child in exchange for $35,000, which will give Shania a chance at the kind of stable life that Goldie herself never had. Turns out, Bryan and David decide to house her and her daughter in their posh Los Angeles home.
So Goldie, too, is a working class mom (though not a woman of color) who gets saved by a wealthy family. And, as in Regina's case, the more privileged family assumes a role of power. Bryan and David assume that Goldie will serve as their surrogate for the two other children that they want. They treat her as if they own her body in perpetuity because, for these nine months, they do.
This is not to say that this show doesn't have its highlights. With a gay couple at its center, The New Normal is a still-rare glimpse of the LGBT community—albeit a fairly stereotypical one. However, when one looks not at issues of sexual orientation but issues of class and gender, the show paints a different picture. For a seemingly progressive gay couple, Bryan and David have a fairly sexist and classist notion of who has control over a woman's uterus. However, she makes clear that she doesn't want to be a career babymaker. Though Goldie initially wanted to go to law school, she thinks she might want to create a line of kids' clothes instead, and she wants to make room in her life not for a triad of baby Bryan and Davids but rather for her own ambitions.
We know that, in real life, the economy, the job market, working conditions, and public policies have been rough on working class single moms. Television shows The New Normal and Switched at Birth explore whether generous patrons can "save" these women, but Switched at Birth reveals that this kind of short-term windfall is as hurtful as it is helpful.
At a time when certain resources have the potential to provide long-term lift to long-suffering working class moms (including an increased minimum wage and low-cost colleges) we should ask ourselves what more we can do to help single mothers—without reinforcing a patriarchal framework or blaming the victim for our system's shortfalls.
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