You don’t need me to tell you how much more television there is than there used to be, or how many more places you can find it. You don’t need me to tell you that its population of creatively ambitious and idiosyncratic shows has grown enormously, as has its population of cheaply made UCSs – Undiscovered Channel Shows, where you learn that a show is entering its third season and only then do you realize that (1) it exists and (2) your byzantine cable menu actually does get that channel (although perhaps not in HD).
The TV boom has been great for certain populations, as far as having their stories told: young urbanites having unsatisfying sex that they talk about a lot; middle-aged men who do evil things but are just really sad on the inside; kings (real and fictional); extremely violent people involved in politics, government, or espionage; people being chased by evil conspirators; and people who had adventures during historical periods when everyone was especially stylishly dressed. But the bounty has not been equally distributed. Many ensemble “prestigious” dramas prominently feature women, but fewer have women at their true centers. Few have revolved around people of color. The comedy side has been, and continues to be, considerably more varied, with Veep and Broad City and Atlanta and Insecure and more all holding down the fort for a wider collection of people.
But it’s Mother’s Day, so let’s take a moment and consider the current state of the TV mom.
For a lot of people the most traditional idea of the “TV mom” conjures up a couple of images – and this is true even for people too young to have seen these TV moms when their shows originally aired. Perhaps it makes you think of June Cleaver going about her household chores all dressed up. Perhaps it makes you think of Carol Brady, standing with her hands on her hips while giving life advice to her six kids, or of Marion Cunningham, fondly mothering her son’s friend Fonzie. Perhaps, more recently, it makes you think of the Exasperated Patricias of the ’90s: Patricia Richardson of Home Improvement and Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond. Certainly, there were more moms than these: Florida Evans on Good Times and Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls (and, in fact, all of The Golden Girls) and Ann Romano on One Day At A Time. And dramas like Family and The Waltons and Little House On The Prairie had their own ideas of the ways that moms fit into families.
Let’s look at a few of the ways TV moms have changed in the Age Of All This TV.
When family shows on the whole diversify, so do moms.
When ABC premiered Modern Family in 2009, it was meant – as its title implies – to show a different kind of family than was prominent on most of television. It featured a gay couple with a daughter, an interracial couple with a large age difference, and grown siblings who still meddled in each other’s business. But now, Modern Family is an aging comedy that feels much more conventional than it did then, and what does feel new is, in particular, three comedies that sprung from the “single-camera family comedy” brand that it and The Middle helped the network develop.
Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, and Speechless all address populations that have been woefully underrepresented in the family-sitcom world: black families, Asian-American families, and families with special-needs kids, respectively. And one of the things that ties those shows together is that on all of them, the mom is not only a fully formed character with her own stories, but a key contributor to the comedy in ways that are not purely relational – not purely about tut-tutting the husband and the kids about their antics. Roseanne was the same way, and that show’s realistic orientation around working-class economics is one that we could use a lot more of. (The Middle, to its credit, carries that tradition forward as well.) The new version of One Day At A Time that premiered on Netflix a few months ago presented a vibrant, multigenerational matriarchal Cuban-American family. There’s still lots of room for progress, but the more outlets there are, the more families there are, and the more families there are, the more ways we get to see mothers.
It extends to family structure: TV has at least some single moms who aren’t widowed like early single moms often were – Diahann Carroll’s character on Julia, for example. The Fosters is a show about a family with two moms, and Transparent is about a transgender mom. Again, the more different kinds of families you have, the more different kinds of moms you have. Although it stands to reason that this would be the case, it’s still encouraging.
Moms can be in lots of kinds of stories.
Prestige drama moms are often quite different from other golden-age moms. After all, Livia and Carmela Soprano were both moms. Skyler White on Breaking Bad was a mom who did much of what she did because of her complex feelings about motherhood and family. Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans is a mom, and she’s one who fits few of television’s comfortable ideas about selfless moms to whom prioritizing kids’ feelings and bandaging cuts come naturally. Some of the women on Orange Is The New Black are mothers. The character played by Winona Ryder on Stranger Things is partly an exploration of how difficult it can be for mothers who believe that something is terribly wrong with their children to be believed.
Changes to our portrayals of motherhood do not only come in traditionally structured family shows, whether dramas or comedies. They can come in any show, because nearly any show can have women in it, and many different kinds of women are mothers. Whether they’re cops, detectives, students, or spies, they may also be mothers, and the fact that they’re mothers may or may not significantly affect the way they do other things. So even when a female character in her capacity as a mother is not what’s unusual or conceptually complicated about a show, it may push on the edges of how we see mothers.
One of the last frontiers is still ambivalence.
One of the fascinating things about the series finale of Girls – and you’re welcome to skip this paragraph if you’re still waiting – was that it allowed Hannah to be ambivalent about motherhood at some level, even though she loved her son. Her difficulties with breastfeeding were valuable as literal storytelling, but they also stood for her broader fear of failure, and for the physical toll that pregnancy and childbirth had taken on her and the toll that having an infant was continuing to take.
Television still very rarely allows pregnant characters or characters with children to express very much in the way of true ambivalence: moments in which they’re not certain they’ve done the right thing by becoming parents, or in which they admit with more than a good-natured head-shake that they do not always enjoy parenthood – or their own kids. Sure, as a joke – a very early Cosby Show found Clair asking Cliff, “Why did we have four children?” and him answering, “Because we didn’t want five.” (This was before the show decided they had five – hello, Sondra! – but the point holds.) But while it’s not unheard of, it’s still uncommon for TV moms not to always want to be moms, or express the kind of uncertainty about retaining their identities and friendships that is common in real life.
And it’s a shame, because when a work of fiction can admit that parenting is not only difficult, but often lonely and unsatisfying for significant periods of time – that there is not always a giggle from a baby at the end of the day that makes everything okay – it can dig more deeply into what bonds in parenthood really mean to people. Good parents give up a lot. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of them get cards.