Why Can't Pop Culture Get Single Moms Right?

Of course, this radical idea doesn’t fit into a rom-com very neatly. The sudden materialization of remarkably decent men for each woman to date is not only silly, but sends mixed messages. May meets T.K. after he fixes her car in a parking lot and picks up her lost purse. Hillary’s new neighbor is conveniently handsome and eligible—and, even more conveniently, instantly in love with her. Career-driven Jan, chronically single, is apparently happy to date someone just because May sets her up with him. And Lytia, poor Lytia, ends up finally accepting the advances of Branson (Terry Crews) despite not seeming to like him at all. Why, in a story attesting to the value of alternative community, do these men pop up? Is it because there's an assumption that “good” women have partners? Or that love interests create the image of a nuclear family—and are therefore an “appropriate” source of help? Perry’s fault here is acknowledging the possibility of alternative communities for support while simultaneously holding to the rom-com formula. Despite acknowledging that mothers can co-parent outside of nuclear lines, he doesn’t acknowledge the possibility that single mothers can find happiness as parents without a partner.

But perhaps what doesn’t work in The Single Moms Club has more to do with the incompatibility of single motherhood and our cultural values than it does with Perry. Single motherhood, in real life, challenges what American culture often preaches about being a “good” self-sufficient consumer, or worker, or adult. As Stephen Marche wrote last summer in The Atlantic, “The last myth to die in America will be the myth of pluck.”

But the pressure to be self-sufficient is ironic where single motherhood is concerned, as single moms are among the least likely to be able to do so in our society. In 2012, Legal Momentum showed that single motherhood in America involves triple the poverty rate of the rest of the population, the highest rate of low-wage employment, the worst wage gap, the lowest net worth, and the highest risk of bankruptcy. Mariko Chang and Nicole Mason’s 2010 report At Rope’s End shows that 48 percent of African American single mothers, 42 percent of Latina single mothers, and 26 percent of white single mothers consistently have trouble paying bills on time and 75 percent have debt. For many single mothers, the pressure to be self-sufficient is not just unrealistic, but an additional burden to carry.

When Rick Santorum suggested that single mothers were destroying the “fabric of the country,” he was, in a backwards way, right: The realities of single motherhood challenge some of our bedrock notions about being able to do it all on our own. What makes Perry’s portrayal radical is that its characters push back against the idea that they can “do it all,” but could, instead, turn to one another for help.

The topic of single motherhood is difficult enough to navigate that Perry would likely face criticism no matter how he chose to address the subject. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Dan Quayle argued the choice of being a single mother (on Murphy Brown) “mock[ed] the importance of fathers.” Quayle is not alone in presenting single motherhood as a challenge to “moral values.” And yet, the notion that we may have moral responsibilities to people outside nuclear family lines remains troubling absent in our society. As a single mother myself, I am profoundly thankful that Perry is addressing single motherhood. Even if he is simplifying things, he provides a model that frames single mothers positively—he allows them to be ethical agents caring for each other without first demanding total self-sufficiency.

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Elizabeth Bruno is a doctoral student in English at the University of Oregon. Her essay “Her Cape Is at the Cleaners: Searching for Single Motherhood in a Culture of Self-Sufficiency” is forthcoming in the collection Mothers, Mothering and Motherhood Across Cultural Differences. She writes regularly at kidSideration.

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