A Cultural History of Sexy Single-Moms-Turned-Criminals

Jennifer Love Hewitt's character on Lifetime's "The Client List" is just the latest example of "momsploitation."
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"The Lord never intended for women to be on their own," says Lynette Montgomery (Cybill Shepherd) to her daughter Riley (Jennifer Love Hewitt) in the first episode of the Lifetime drama The Client List. It's meant lightheartedly—but lighthearted irony and all, it manages to sum up the central premise of the show. Riley's husband, Kyle, has just left her and their children. As a result, Riley has to start giving hand-jobs to clients at the Rub, the massage parlor where she works. As Lynette says, women aren't meant to be on their own. And when they are alone, things go awry—sliding, in this case, towards immorality and deviancy and all those things the Lord never intended.

The Client List doesn't villainize Riley for her turn to sex work, of course. On the contrary, Riley—played by Hewitt with alternating perky smile and brave frowny face—is entirely sympathetic. The fact that single women are not part of God's plan is not so much an indictment as it is an excuse. It's no accident that Breaking Bad, about a married father who becomes a meth dealer to help support his family, is a much darker show than The Client List. Being a single mom gives Riley an indulgent/condescending get-out-of-moralism-free card to do whatever racy thing the plot contrivance calls for. The result is a kind of single-momsploitation, where viewers get to vicariously enjoy both melodrama and prurience under cover of clucking over the awful twists of no-good-men and/or economic downturns which have brought her to this pass.

The Client List isn't the only example of single-momsploitation out there. In fact, several recent shows have mined this territory. Julia Stiles' web series (which I reviewed here recently) is a low-fi, skuzzier, racier variation, with single mom Blue engaging in actual prostitution, rather than just happy-ending massages. And then there's the long-running, recently-completed Weeds, in which widowed mother Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) turns to selling marijuana—and also, not all that incidentally, to a great deal of extra-curricular sex.

There are also some earlier precedents—such as Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Tenant is usually thought of as a feminist novel, illustrating the plight of Victorian women in abusive relationships. It certainly is that...but looking back at it from the perspective of The Client List and its kin, you can also make out, somewhat incongruously, the outlines of single-momsploitation.

The heroine of Tenant is Helen Graham, a woman who, we eventually learn, has fled from her abusive husband, and is now posing as a widow, so that he cannot find her and force her and her son to return to him (divorce wasn't legal for women at the time). We first see Helen through the eyes of the narrator Gilbert Markham, a young gentlemen farmer in the neighborhood to which she has moved. Gilbert finds Helen's son, Arthur, climbing over the wall of her property and catches him before he falls. Then:

[Arthur] was just putting his little hand on the dog's neck and beginning to smile through his tears, when I heard, behind me, a click of the iron gate and a rustle of female garments, and lo! Mrs. Graham darted upon me—her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.

The "rustle of female garments", the neck "uncovered," the "black locks streaming": That is pretty clearly an eroticized portrait. Indeed, if you just stopped there, without reading further, you could almost think that Mrs. Graham was going to throw herself upon this stranger for amorous reasons, rather than (as we find out) to demand that he hand over her son. Nor would the initial impression be entirely incorrect—Helen does not make love to Gilbert here, but theirs is in fact the central love story of the novel, and so the meeting, with its intimations of intimacy, foreshadows the relationship to come.

Moreover, as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that a significant part of Gilbert's attraction to Helen has to do with her depth, her gravitas, and her accomplishment (she is supporting herself and her son by painting.) These traits are all wrapped up in her suffering and her independence—in her singleness, in other words—and all contrast sharply with the callow flightiness of Eliza, the vicar's daughter, with whom Gilbert had developed a flirtation. Eliza, stung by jealousy, begins to put about rumors that Helen is behaving immorally. These rumors are all disproved, and Helen is revealed as a paragon—but that doesn't quite dispel the link the novel makes between single women and stimulating deviance. Helen's appeal is that she is world-wise, and the novel toys pleasurably with the less decent implications of that worldly wisdom, before moralistically, and just as pleasurably, rejecting them.

Contemporary momsploitation, then, can let us see the exploitation in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. By the same token, The Tenant can help put back, or better situate, the mom in momsploitation. Dramas like The Client List or Weeds or Blue appear to draw their drama primarily from illegality. In other words, the exciting, racy elements in these shows are the hand jobs, or the prostitution, or the drug selling. Divesting the women of male support and saddling them with kids is, then, simply a convenient way to enable the illicit actions.

But Tenant of Wildfell Hall suggests that single-motherhood does not simply enable excitement. Rather, it is exciting in itself. Helen doesn't engage in any illegal activities—but everyone thinks she does, because that is the sort of thing single mothers are thought to do. Single motherhood doesn't merely excuse immorality—it points to immorality, or symbolizes immorality. Single motherhood does give The Client a narrative hook on which to hang any number of Jennifer Love-Hewitt's bosom-highlighting outfits. But single motherhood is also, like those bosoms, an excitement in itself. The stigma has certainly lessened since Victorian times, but all these momsploitation shows suggest strongly that the frisson of wrongness is still here.

For Anne Bronte, though, the wrongness wasn't just exciting. It was also an impassioned call to action. In the first part of the book we see Helen through Gilbert's male and fetishizing gaze. In the second Helen herself narrates, presenting herself not as a deviant and exciting figure, but as a woman under the control of a cruel, drunken husband—and of a system of laws that gives her no power to escape. It isn't fate or nature or the Lord who has made her an object of exploitation; it's her country and her neighbors, who see her suffering as a chance to indulge in stimulating, lascivious gossip, rather than as a reason to help her.

Watching the current run of momsploitation, you can end up feeling a little like those Victorian gossips, whose eagerness to hear about single moms was not, necessarily a sign of sympathy. The improbable hunkiness of virtually all of Hewitt's clients is obviously meant to titillate a potential female audience, just as Hewitt's improbable wardrobe is meant to titillate a potential male one. The Season 2 promo is a good illustration of the show's intentions. Hewitt starts out in a male business-suit, but quickly strips down so she can slither and thrust her way across the screen while boasting about her housecleaning abilities. "I'm a W.O.M.A.N.," she declaims, and the tease and the rush seems in part that she is and she isn't—that she's a gender-bending single mom who is all the more uninhibited and accessible because she's one of the boys. Single mom's enter men's world of work, and the gendered crossing spawns drama, crime, and sex—whether it's Blue making money in her lingerie or Nancy on Weeds sleeping with everyone and their accomplice as the apparently natural consequence of becoming a drug dealer.

Not that being perceived as sexy is necessarily bad. And, of course, momsploitation—beginning with Anne Bronte herself—is a genre focused on the struggles of women, and to that extent alone is more feminist than a lot of the mainstream media competition. But there is something disturbing in realizing that, even at this late date, single moms are still perceived and thought of, to some significant degree, as deviants worth exploiting.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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