Single parents remain stigmatized by society and in politics, but unmarried parents are portrayed better on TV—
How are single parents portrayed in television? In my past two posts, we’ve looked at the single stigma in society and in politics. TV’s unpartnered parents seem to fare far better.
This fall season, Single Parents, debuted on ABC. The ensemble comedy follows a group of single mothers and fathers in a second grade class. These parents meet Will (Taran Killam), a dad in their children’s classroom. Will is raising his daughter on his own. The group decides to save the distraught dad from his dateless life of princesses and a living room of toys.
In the first episode, there’s a recurring joke about “it takes a village.” Although this has become a cliche, the need for a support system is true on TV and in real life.
Unmarried parents have been part of TV since the sixties. In most cases, these moms and dads have been shown in a positive, and often real, light.
Let’s take a look at common themes in popular TV portrayals of single parents.
TV parent/child relationships often blur the lines between parent/child and best friends. In Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), single mother Lorelei (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) have a cozy relationship punctuated by coffee and snappy repartee.
As a divorced mother of two daughters, our experience is similar to the Gilmores. I’ve witnessed similar relationships among other single parent friends.
As with all parental relationships, the success of Lorelei and Rory depends on talking and listening. Single parenting doesn’t come without risks. It’s easy to overshare or cross boundaries. But these things happen with married parents. See Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop).
The working single mother has appeared on TV since the sixties. When her husband died in Vietnam, Julia (Diahann Carroll) balanced her job as a nurse with parenting her son. (1968-1971).
Four years later, in Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time (1975-1984), Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) joined the job market after divorce. She tried to make ends meet as she raised two teen-aged daughters.
Another seventies sitcom, Alice (1976-1985) featured a divorced mother (Linda Lavin) with a son. Setting aside her own dreams, she waited on tables in an Arizona diner. Her co-workers became family.
When Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen, 1988-1998) decided to have a baby, she was at the center of political debate. Vice President Dan Quayle chastised her in a 1992 speech. He pointed a finger at TV for “today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman…bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”
More recently, TV single mothers have balanced medicine (Dr. Miranda Bailey, Grey’s Anatomy, 2005-present), or law (Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife, 2009-2016) with the demands of motherhood. Florrick (Julianna Marguilies) returned to her career as a litigator when her husband was sentenced to prison).
For many single parents, a support system is key. This is true on TV, as well. Sometimes, that support comes in an individual like Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden, The Partridge Family, 1970-1974). Typically, we see a group of friends (Sex and the City, 1998-2004), (Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, 2014-2018).
Single moms haven’t been the only characters featured on TV. The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) showed the relationship between a widowed father and his son Opie (Ron Howard), From 1968-1972, Bill Bixby also played a widower raising his son in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.).
The eighties sitcom Full House showed yet another widowed dad. Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) raised three daughters with the help of his two buddies, Uncle Jesse (John Stamos) and Joey (Dave Coulier).
While dads were usually widowers, an eighties sitcom took a different turn. My Two Dads (1987-1990) told the story of two men (Paul Reiser, Greg Evigan) sharing custody of a daughter. They weren’t sure of her paternity.
As Seen on TV
Single parents, both mothers and fathers, have long been part of TV culture. Whether divorced, widowed, or never married, the single characters are not typically subject to the same stigmas found in society or politics, Dan Quayle’s criticisms aside.
Beth Cone Kramer is the author of the upcoming book “Digital Dating Detox.”