Improving Depictions of Single Mothers in Movies and Television

By guest contributor Kate Harveston

In a world where we’re becoming increasingly conditioned to question cliches, challenge stereotypes, and come up with more open-minded narratives, there are still quite a few things we still struggle to get right in our media representations. One of these is TV and movie depictions of single mothers.

It’s not a new concept to the cinematic world—or the real world, for that matter. From black and white films to Oscar-nominated blockbusters, single mother characters have been prevalent in movies and television over time. As Jeff Sharp, co-producer of the 2000 film You Can Count On Me said when the movie was released, “This isn’t a fad, it’s a trend that reflects reality.”

According to the CDC, 39.8 percent of annual births are to single, unmarried women, and one in four children under age 18 will grow up with only a mother. Single motherhood is a norm and a reality in our society—and while the strong presence of these badass women in film is encouraging, many movies and TV series have trouble portraying these characters without imposing stereotypes or unrealistic personas.

What can we do to change the perception and portrayal of single mothers cinematically? Here’s what you need to know about the evolution of single mothers in film and how it can continue to improve.

Early Movie Moms: The Victim

One of the earliest iconic film portrayals of single motherhood is the 1945 black and white film Mildred Pierce, which follows its namesake through Mildred’s struggles as the single mother of two daughters after her husband leaves her for another woman. While being a single mother in this time was less common than it is now, Mildred Pierce’s character set the stage for a cinematic movement with a poor depiction. Although Mildred is hardworking and loves her children—the staple of any single mother—the movie casts her as a victim.

Left in a potentially powerless position by her husband, she feels crippled by the inadequacy of her situation and the guilt of her status. Even though she manages to find work and rise in a successful business of her own, all Mildred can see is her perceived limitations. She feels like she can never give her daughter what she deserves, and she struggles with sadness and self-sacrifice where she should see success.

Released just years earlier in 1937, the movie Stella Dallas portrays another single mother in a similar light. Separated from her wealthy husband because of their class differences, Stella attempts to give her daughter a better life. Unfortunately, she cannot overcome the embarrassment of her own social position and eventually sacrifices her happiness—and her relationship with her daughter—because she believes she’ll be better without her.

In both movies, the portrayal of the single mother as a victim—unable to adequately provide for her child without a partner—does nothing to encourage the perception of strength in single motherhood. Indeed, single mothers are often put in vulnerable positions in our society, and as a whole, are victims of a myriad of attacks to their quality of life by our government.

Recognizing and calling out these injustices if reasonable. However, these women aren’t sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. Many of them are actively fighting for their rights. Many of them simply forge onward with the bravery and grace of a tigress! Television, though, often simply paints the role as something to be pitied and feared, even sometimes suggesting that single mothers are responsible for their children’s problems.

The Rise of Single Mom Self-Sufficiency: The Heroine

In 1992, the TV show Murphy Brown broke social barriers. As an independent woman, succesful journalist and happy, healthy single mom—by choice—the strong character of Murphy began to change both the definition of the modern family and the portrayal of single moms in film. From the time Murphy Brown’s character gave birth in 1992 onward, the pop culture representation of single mothers started to change, becoming more realistic, relatable and raw. Single moms in movies and television were no longer always victims or deviants—often, they were strong, independent, and courageous women determined to be self-sufficient and successful while raising a family.

In 2001, three of the five big-name actresses nominated for the Oscars played single mothers with pluck, persistence, and power. In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts’ character uses her determination and resourcefulness to uncover a business scandal and becomes famous. In Chocolat, a single woman with a young daughter opens her own patisserie business in France. Through movies like these, strong single mothers began to emerge as heroines—independent, career-driven and able to succeed all on their own. In fact, these movies even allowed the single mother to become a spirited role model figure of sorts. Still, with all these improvements, there are still some inherent issues to work on.

The Problem: How Can We Improve the Role?

As we move forward in film and television and continue to modernize the single mother role, it’s important that movies try to steer clear of extremes in either direction. While the early portrayal of unmarried moms as victims was inaccurate and detrimental, placing them at the opposite end of the spectrum—as entirely problem-free and un-needing of any assistance—will be equally as unrealistic.

While women who raise children on their own are undeniably strong and self-driven, being a single mom isn’t easy—or inexpensive. Giving birth to a baby alone can cost as much as $12,400 without insurance, and raising a child can put a lot of financial pressure on a single parent. In fact, one study showed that two-fifths of single-mother families fall below the poverty line—triple the poverty rate for the remainder of the population. Single mothers also have the highest rate of low-rate employment and the highest bankruptcy risk, which heroine-driven single-mom movies have sometimes failed to address.

At the same time, movies and television series still struggle with escaping other common plot traps—such as pushing romantic interests or nuclear family endings as the only possible resolution to single motherhood (Bechdel Test time, anyone?) Instead, we should present characters that are strong on their own — even when they struggle. If we’re going to portray single mothers in a realistic light while respecting their roles, we should portray them honestly. Because the honest truth is that these women rock, and real depictions of them will carry a movie far.


About Kate: Kate Harveston is a young writer from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She enjoys topics related to culture, feminism, and women’s health, and how those elements intersect and act upon each other. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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