Daddy Issues: Murphy Brown and the Persistent Pestilence of Single Moms

Diane Shipley, a white woman with short, black hair, takes a selfie
Diane Shipley
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Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom who writes about pop culture for publications on both sides of the pond. Her bylines include the Guardian, Lit Hub, and the Washington Post. She loves podcasts and photos of miniature dachshunds. She tweets @dianeshipley.

A pajamad Murphy Brown holds her baby and appears to be letting out a cry of anguish to the heavens.

While men who unexpectedly become single parents are often presented as inspirational, women in the same position tend to be vilified. Take Murphy Brown.

The show’s eponymous lead character, a television journalist, became pregnant in her early forties and soon discovered her baby daddy didn’t want to be a father. So this wealthy, talented, intelligent woman set about raising a baby on her own. Responsible, you might think. At the very least, making the best of things. Not according to then-Vice President Dan Quayle, who considered Murphy to be a scourge of humanity.

Back in 1992, Quayle used the occasion of the L.A. Riots as an opportunity for a little moralizing about family values. While he did at least acknowledge men’s role in creating single-parent families (saying, “Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong,”) he focused his criticism on Candace Bergen’s fictional character, ranting: “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice’.”

But Brown wasn’t mocking the importance of fathers, just making a pragmatic decision. So the show hit back with a subplot in which characters discussed Quayle’s speech, which included Brown’s response that, “Perhaps it’s time for the Vice President to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes.” An admirable message, but one that still doesn’t seem to have seeped into the popular conscience. Last year, a poll of almost 3,000 Americans by Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of respondents considered single mothers bad for society. (The center didn’t ask the same question about single fathers, because, according to the senior editor, it never occurred to them to do so.) As NPR’s report on the survey concludes, “Research shows that Americans are increasingly tolerant of all kinds of families, with one exception — single women raising children alone.”

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at think tank the Brookings Institution, wrote a piece for the Washington Post earlier this year revisiting Dan Quayle’s statements about single moms and concluding he was correct. She writes, “Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be irreversible.” I’m not sure where she’s been over the last 20 years, but the media hardly celebrates single motherhood. When it comes to TV, for every Lorelai Gilmore, there’s a Christine Campbell, Jules Cobb, Susan Delfino, and Sarah Linden: respectively irresponsible, self-medicating, ditzy, and unreliable. (Not to mention the seriously negligent messed-up moms usually played by Kathleen Wilhoite.) Plus, politicians haven’t stopped blaming single mothers for society’s problems. Most recently, Mitt Romney held them responsible for gun violence, in remarks that were clearly aimed not just at single moms, but at working class women of color.

While the link between households led by single mothers and violent crime might be cut and dried to Romney, it’s likely he’s studying the wrong metric: the problem isn’t parenting, and it certainly isn’t race; it’s poverty. Women make up the majority of single parent households and at least half of the women who now become mothers are likely to spend some time as a single mom, yet women are routinely paid less than men. And intersecting oppressions only make advancement harder. Yet it’s white, upper middle class single fathers who are lionized, and the women making every effort to get by who are demonized.

In popular culture (and in life) men who become primary caregivers are often portrayed as heroes doing something especially impressive, whereas women are seen to be merely doing their job, or just fulfilling a biological urge. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy even articulated this, with the once-awesome Dr. Bailey telling new mom Dr. Grey that as a (single) mom herself, she couldn’t concentrate with a baby crying in the background: “You know why men think they can run the world and women can’t? Because of crying babies… We can all hear it, I can hear it, Dr. Ross out there can hear it, only difference is the crying doesn’t affect him, but you and I are genetically predisposed to respond to crying babies.”

So, women’s inability to run the world, a troubling rise in gun crime, and the morals of a generation all fall on the shoulders of mothers? Add that to the care and feeding of their kids, often under difficult financial circumstances, and it’s possible they might just be under a little too much pressure.

Previously: How Surprise Single Fatherhood Makes Men’s Lives Worth Living; Blossom and the Trouble with “Cool” Dads.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

not a new phenomenon

The thing that astonishes me is that all these politicians and pundits seem to have drunk the 'Leave it to Beaver' kool-aid and are convinced that single motherhood is something that only started with the past couple of generations. Admittedly, women (and men) were more likely in the past to end up raising their families alone because of widow(er)hood than now, but single parent families are not something that was invented by the baby boomers.

Yes, it would be interesting

Yes, it would be interesting to know which spin doctor first decided that pushing the blame for all society's problems onto single parents (esp mothers) was a good tactic, but it's become a favorite refrain of conservative politicans in the last 20-30 years, and a strategy that's far too rarely critiqued.

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