Why Can't Pop Culture Get Single Moms Right?

Tyler Perry's The Single Moms Club is a radical and compassionate portrait, but the film, like others before it, still follows certain formulas about how single women are expected to succeed.

Historically, pop culture’s portrayals of single motherhood have been laughably bad.

All too often, they suggest that single mothers are difficult career women becoming more “human” (like Miranda in Sex and the City), love-starved damsels becoming brave (like Dorothy in Jerry McGuire), or former delinquents becoming productive citizens (like Anna Faris’s Christy in Mom). They are stifled or wounded women looking to unlock their own strength; in 2009 The Rebound, for example, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Sandy, a repressed white divorcee who becomes liberated, dates her male nanny, and launches a (remarkably) successful career. Even when they’re central characters, these single mothers are depicted as disadvantaged women journeying to find themselves and/or become economically successful—suggesting that single mothers are unfinished people who need to boot-strap their way to wholeness.

In light of this history, it should come as no surprise that Tyler Perry’s newest film, The Single Moms Club, also struggles to present a complete, informed picture of single motherhood. The movie follows five single moms who meet when their children are nearly expelled from the private school they attend. As these mothers are forced to spend time together organizing a school fundraiser to atone for their children's actions, they discover mutual struggles of loneliness, isolation, and the need for help. The film is rife with some of the classic single mom shortcuts and stereotypes, racial and otherwise. Reviewers said the film “oversimplifies [single motherhood] struggles,” features characters that are “serviceable types,” and is filled with “clichés, one-dimensional characters and laughably unrealistic plot turns.”

But in fact, Perry's Single Moms Club offers a more compassionate, informed portrait of single mothers than most films: While many mainstream portrayals show single mothers progressing toward independent empowerment or trying to “make it on their own,” The Single Moms Club suggests single mothers could create a “sisterhood,” rather than simply accepting self-sufficiency as the only option for “good” single moms. Perry points to the possibility of single mothers co-parenting, which can facilitate (and normalize) care across nuclear-family lines. His film nods to alternative parenting communities, groups that are often hidden (such as the black lesbian mothers in Mignon Moore’s Invisible Families). These communities are not just mothers forced into dependency, but women outside the mainstream who are creating alternative ways of mothering with (as Andrea O’Reilly says of “mother outlaws”) agency, authority, and authenticity.

For scholars as well as filmmakers, single-mother identity has been notoriously difficult to discuss. “There is no typical single mom,” Jane Juffer writes in Single Mother: The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual. “Yet at the same time, single mothers in the United States at the turn of the century all live with the imperative to demonstrate self-sufficiency.” In other words, Juffer argues that while single moms may share nothing else, they all partake in the social obligation to prove themselves totally self-reliant. The five women of the titular “single moms club,” however, turn to one another to address this imperative.

Each of the five women in this film are introduced in a situation of powerlessness: We witness Hillary (Amy Smart) in divorce proceedings where her soon-to-be-ex-husband is a powerful lawyer taking advantage of her. We see successful book editor Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey) sitting in a boardroom with wrinkled white men preparing to deny her partnership after 17 years of service. We watch journalist and author May (Nia Long) as Jan rejects her manuscript for being “too black.” We see Esperanza (Zulay Henao) panic about an unexpected visit from her ex-husband (Eddie Cibrian) who undermines her parenting and threatens to take away child support. Finally, we meet Lytia (Cocoa Brown) the stubbornly single, outspoken black diner waitress with five children—including two grown sons in prison.

But, crucially, their powerlessness isn’t magically cured by gumption or pluck. They don’t become single-mom superheroes or assume lethal power as Uma Thurman does in Kill Bill and Geena Davis does in The Long Kiss Good Night. Rather, these mothers improve their situations through collaboration. In the most important scene of the movie, all five single mothers end up in one car, looking for May’s missing son. Perry (who has been continually suggesting these women are in the same boat) shows them openly bickering. Jan and Lytia become critical of each other, using each other’s children as ammunition: Jan suggests Lytia is too hard on her son—that when he comes to her house all he does is homework, and that a little basketball wouldn’t kill him. Lytia fires back that Jan’s daughter has confided she feels “unloved” by her mother. This exchange may seem catty, but it is shown to drive both Jan and Lytia toward becoming better parents. Lytia takes her son outside to play basketball one-on-one; Jan makes progress in communicating her affection to her daughter, apologizing and taking her out for tacos and cupcakes, prompting her daughter to respond: “I love you too, Mom.”

These days, many parents are too shy about giving other feedback to other parents, staying silent based on the notion that it’s “none of their business” how their friends raise their own kids. But that silence isn't helping things at a time when the nuclear family seems to be in crisis: Even partnered moms and dads face burn-out, writers are constantly trying to expose the “taboos of parenthood,” and it's an open question of whether or not parents have to be miserable. Instead arguing for one, "correct" way to run an individual household (whether it be the tiger mom method or attachment parenting), Perry is open to the possibility that mothers can raise their children outside of the traditional family unit.

When he recently appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Fallon asked him if clubs of single moms really exist. Perry said he didn’t know—but that he hoped they do, and he suggested that it takes a village to raise a child. Here, Perry’s ideas resonate with some of Melissa Harris-Perry’s: Harris-Perry has publicly challenged the notion of children as “private property,” suggesting communities (and not just parents) should be responsible for children. When Tyler Perry shows these women covering each other’s blind spots, he’s pointing to the possibility of a racially reconciled “village” that cares for children. The various experiences of these women—different races, different classes, different histories—help these mothers learn to see their own children more accurately. Here, motherhood can be thought of as a social responsibility and not just a private task.

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.