My running list of single moms in pop culture. Who is your favorite? Who do you loathe? Share in the comments!
Everyone loves a single mom character because she makes an easy heroine. Historically, in movies she’s also made an easy victim — a one-dimensional victim to be saved from her ability to function in a two-parent society. As a divorced dad who was raised by a single mother myself, I’ve developed a shoulder chip from watching so many single moms portrayed pathetically on film. When one appears on screen, I find myself transforming into Lloyd Bentson calling out Dan Quayle for comparing himself to JFK: “Hollywood, I was raised by a single mom. I know single moms. Single moms are friends of mine. Hollywood, you don’t know single moms!”
How do I evaluate a single mother? She has to be a fallible human, one who at times is hanging on by a thread. After all, that’s the reality of single parenthood. However, in those times of need, the best single mothers of the world (mine being at the top of the list) may lean on others, but she never acquiesces to the White Knight. She’s smart, having already been burned and learned from that show.
Here’s a breakdown of quintessential single mom movies:
Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) from “As Good As It Gets”
Carol Connelly is the 1990s version of a 1950s single mom Hollywood stereotype: down and out, harried and hanging on by the skin of her teeth — every day. Even Hunt’s wardrobe even looks like it was stolen from a cobwebbed RKO building. A New York City waitress who lives with her mom and chronically ill son, it’s only by the assistance of the gay artist and the socially abrasive OCD writer/love interest (Jack Nicholson) that she figures her shit out. The only ray of hope for a jolt of modern reality is Carol’s own single mother, Beverly (played by Shirley Knight) who finally tells Carol in a moment of delirious exasperation at the lack of normal people to date that, “Everyone wants that, dear. It doesn’t exist.” Hollywood fail.
Lucille LaRusso (Randee Heller) from “The Karate Kid”
She moved her kid from Newark, N.J., to Reseda, Calif., for a job with management potential. She’s ballsy and knows how to delegate responsibility. She’s positive, upbeat, fearless and never even mentions wanting or needing a man to take care of her. She does luck out when the apartment maintenance man turns out to willingly in the blanks of her hands-off parenting and her kid’s absentee father. Of course, she’s real;y nothing more than a plot device to provide backstory of the main character, but when you really think about it, isn’t that what parenting is?
Mary (Dee Wallace) from “E.T.”
E.T. is an autobiographical story Steven Spielberg wrote about being a kid while his parents split. Mary (Dee Wallace) is a recently divorced single mother with three kids. She’s wounded and afraid but she’s not petrified into inaction. She makes it up as she goes along and isn’t afraid to be alone. That kind of empowerment in a single mother was rarely, if ever, seen in film. The fact that she’s oblivious to an alien living in her house speaks volumes about her post-divorce state of mind. I give this a thumbs up for realism and relate-ability.
Watch on Amazon:
Dede Tate (Jodie Foster) from “Little Man Tate”
This 90s drama charges Dede Tate (Jodie Foster, who also directed), a wannabe dancer turned waitress, with raising a child prodigy. She is torn between her wanting to give her kid a normal childhood but simultaneously worries about falling short of providing an environment suitable for a kid who writes operas and takes apart telephones to improve their efficiency. Dede is tough, even militant, about being a good single mother. In fact, there is never any mention of a father at all. Ultimately, she reluctantly concedes some control of her son’s education to a child psychologist who promises to — again– fill in the parenting gaps in Foster’s struggling single-mom character. This move is depicted as an empowering win for all involved. After all, kids do need more than one adult in their lives, and the single mom who recognizes this is the single mom who wins … some alone time.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
Sarah Connor is the best kind of single mother to have if humanity is threatened by a race of intelligent cyborgs. Relentlessly protective and tenacious about preparing her son for the future, she transforms herself from a stalked library mouse into a ripped gun-wielding bad ass who takes on the baddest ass of the 80s: Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this context, Sarah Connor is the single mom of her time. In today’s post-arms race reality, she looks like a gun-loving, doomsday zealot of a parent. Sarah Palin, anyone?
Watch on Amazon:
Miranda Hillard (Sally Field) from Mrs. Doubtfire
In 1993, Mrs. Doubtfire nailed the successful single mother. Maybe literally, too. I don’t know, you can’t really tell at the end. Miranda Hillard is at the tail end of a marriage in which she was the primary breadwinner. The divorce is bitter but she’s not a battered woman. She embraces divorce as opportunity and keeps ahead of the game at all times. She wants to hire a nanny, not because she can’t deal with all the work, but because she doesn’t have to. She dates a successful and handsome British expat, not because she needs a man to get by, but because she’s attracted to him. This single mom is one all single women should try to emulate. Well, except the part about her being completely blind to the fact that she accidentally hired her cross-dressing ex-husband to clean her house. So there’s that.
Watch on Amazon:
Melanie Parker (Michelle Pfeiffer) from One Fine Day
If Miranda Hillard is the one to emulate, then Melanie Parker is the one to avoid. On the one hand, she’s a successful New York City architect trying to make partner at the firm. She’s convinced herself she doesn’t need anyone’s help. Period. But she realizes can’t be everything to everyone. This is an accuracy in single motherhood that frustrates the type A single mom. She’s got all these balls in the air and she juggles them herself. That’s where Melanie is real and respectable. But then George Clooney comes around and suddenly she’s juggling his balls, too. At the movie’s critical climax, she has to choose between her career and her son. She chooses her son only after he whores his cuteness out to her through the window of her uber-important client meeting. It’s just dumb luck that the clients actually like her more for prioritizing the kid while her boss is ready to toss her to the curb. The morale? Oh yeah…grab onto George Clooney’s balls and everything will be ok.
Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) from Mommie Dearest
No list about single mothers in the movies would be complete without Mommie Dearest. Faye Dunaway’s hauntingly hysterical portrayal of Joan Crawford is that which lurks beneath the skin of every single mother. For some, it is deep down and barely recognizable; others, unfortunately, let it all hang out. A single mother might feel herself channelling Joan when the guy she’s seeing stopped calling her and another late notice arrived from her electric company and her ex just posted a picture with his new girlfriend and their new puppy and her mom left another voice mail about how she never sees her and THEN her 6-year-old son comes crying to her after he and his friend unwound wire hangers to sword fight with. I’ve seen the Mommie Dearest eyes in my own beloved mother once or twice and believe me … it’s horrifying.
Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard) from Scrooged
Charles Dickens’ Bob Cratchit was reimagined in 1988’s Scrooged by Alfre Woodard. She plays Grace Cooley, an executive assistant to Bill Murray’s Xavier Cross, the maniacally frugal network CEO. She has like 5 kids, including her youngest who hasn’t spoken since seeing his father murdered. There is none of the weakness in Grace that exists in so many other movie single moms. Her kids seem happy, and of course the immortal words “God bless us every one” are spoken by her own kid….which must mean something.
Flor Moreno (Paz Vega) from Spanglish
She’s the most realistic single mother in movie history…so far. Director James Brooks gets it right with Flor, the illegal alien single mother who is torn between instilling the conservative Catholic values that govern her, and allowing her daughter the freedom to grow into an independent American woman. When climax begins to settle, Flor makes a decision that she knows will destroy her daughter. The best thing about Flor is her resolve in the face of the desperate objections of her heartbroken daughter. She’s able to see beyond her own insecurity to do right by her daughter, something all parents, single or otherwise, should aspire to.
I hated this movie. Nevermind that the writing was as flat as my tits. Forget that the jokes were sparse and barely elicited my few, forced chuckles. We’ll skip the fact the characters were flimsy and the plot weak as a Happy Hour cosmo.
The big disappointment that snowballed into actual insult was that there was barely a hint of the real struggles or triumphs of real-life single mothers. Quick “plot” summary:
Five single moms, brought together by their derelict kids who attend the same elite middle school, become unlikely friends. Of these five, just one — Lytia, the stereotypical overweight, bawdy, black, low-income teenage parent with an ex and two older sons in jail — struggled financially: juggling her waitress job with mothering five kids, few child care options in her crappy neighborhood and just no break.
The others include Jan, a single-mom-by-choice, career-obsessed celibate hard-ass publishing exec, and two stay-at-home moms suffering under the control of their exs’ alimony. The only one I could relate to was May, the newspaper reporter struggling to get her book published and raise a tween son whose heart was consistently broken by his absentee father. Aside from Lytia, all the moms had beautiful homes, plenty of time to sip wine in the middle of the day with their newfound BFFs and no pressing need for male company (though each developed a tepid romance by the film’s end).
In short, this movie did little to address the most pressing issue faced by single moms: Money and a lack of a dude.
We don’t see any of that in The Single Moms Club. OK, Jan gives an unsolicited book deal to May, who also lands Tyler Perry’s sweet and handsome character in an awkward and mostly invisible courtship. But the kept SAHM who worries about telling her remarried ex about her new (super-hot and adorable) boyfriend for fear he’ll cut her off? Her great triumph was to threaten said ex with court for more alimony (message to the ladies: your greatest asset is your round ass in a tight red dress and litigious inclinations). The overwhelmed SAHM, at her wits’ end caring for three kids in her gorgeous Arts and Crafts bungalow, bemoaning having to fire her fulltime housekeeper? Her ah-ha moment was finding ways to spend even more time with her pubescent daughter and curbing her infanticide fantasies. No mention of financial independence for that one! And Lytia? As far as we know, she’s still slinging hash at the local diner and hustling to find child care to keep her kids on the straight-and-narrow and out of the can. Why can’t her successful new friends help her find a better way?
Oprah helped her friend Perry promote the movie on her Lifeclass show, in which he said the takeaway is that single moms should support each other and form community. That’s cute. You know how men support each other? They give one another jobs, do business and encourage one another to have fun, meaningless sex.
Which is exactly what happens in real life with single moms.
Bad Moms (my take on why it is a feminist revelation)
I saw Bad Moms on its promise of cheap laughs. On that, it delivered. Proud to say, I cackled so hard at all the dick/drinking/SAHM jokes that two moms (wearing wedding rings, gotta point out) gave me dirty looks and left the theater.
What I didn’t expect was the shocking, envelope-pushing array of pro-women messages that this Hollywood comedy delivered by the heaping sandbox-shovel-full:
From the first scene, stay-at-home moms are mocked as privileged, sanctimonious, and/or dependent and powerless. When the harried protagonist, Amy Mitchell (Kunis), drops her kids at middle school, and bumps into the coiffed PTA mafia trio (Bad Moms’ antagonists), who admonish: “I so admire you for working all day! Don’t you miss your kids? You are so strong!” To which Amy replies: “Um, yeah. I work because … I … need the money.” Which, of course, the hugely vast majority of moms get, because the hugely vast majority of moms work, because nearly all of them need the money (and large portions of moms who don’t work, want to work. Because they need the money, surveys find.) The evil trio, we see, fill their over-supply of SAH time with PTA power-mongering.
One of the protagonists, Kiki (Kristen Bell), is a frazzled SAHM of four, with a domineering husband who demands she iron his underwear and admonishes her for taking time for herself, treating her like a child, and she deferring to him as a daddy. Bad Moms wants moms to have power. When, late in the film, Kiki screams over the phone to her husband, home with the kids and whining about being overwhelmed: “Just fucking DEAL WITH IT! STOP BEING SUCH A FUCKING PUSSY!” the audience in the New York City theater where I was viewing Bad Moms, burst into applause.
Full bush is hot. Worried your husband is jerking off to bald, pre-teen pussy porn while you’re putting the kids to bed? In Bad Moms, Amy finds her husband having a digital affair with a beautiful blonde, with a big, bushy bush. An adult woman’s bush. Full, grown-ass-woman bush is hot in Bad Moms.
Moms are horny. Every single mom in Bad Moms is an unapologetic horn dog. Carla (Kathryn Hahn) veers firmly into cliche territory as the sex-craved (“I used to walk down the street, and it was raining dicks. Dick, dick, dick, dick. Cock everywhere.”), boozy single mom who refuses to attend her kid’s boring baseball games (“The last game I went to was six hours long! And the score was 1-0!”), while prim Kiki complains about the weekly scheduled coitus with her husband’s semi-hard erection that she is forced to fold and “stuff it in my vagina.” Even the PTA Nazis unabashedly lust after Jesse, a.k.a. “hot widow,” one admitting she’d let him “go to town” on her backdoor, and later announcing her new lease on life after her husband “50-shaded me.”
In fact, as Amy emerges from her sexless, longtime marriage, her friends admonish her Mrs. Doubtfire wardrobe and utilitarian bra. The chaste mom is the weirdo in Bad Moms.
I’m not sure I’ve seen such guiltless sex drive in moms in media like this. Collectively, society is warming up to the idea that the Lena Dunams and her 20-something peers are entitled to casual sex all in its frisky varieties, but the same freedoms are never extended to mothers — much less unmarried ones. In Bad Moms, we do see Carla as an actual bad mother who also happens to be super-slutty, but we also see Amy character settle into her new single-motherhood, and enjoy the heck of of sex (with cunnilingus-loving Jesse, of course).
Kids aren’t that interesting to moms. There aren’t many kids in Bad Moms. Sure, we see them in the background at the morning school dropoff, and Amy’s tweens play minor roles in the plot. But in Bad Moms, mothers are not all-encompassed with their off-spring, as moms, often, really aren’t — despite pressure to spend copious amounts of quality time nurturing parental bonds, and celebrating the blossoming lives that have been bestowed into our responsibilities. Kids are boring, and sex lives, school politics, and interesting careers often occupy our minds and adult conversations far, far more than our children. Bad mom frees women from the pressure to orbit around our children, sacrificing ourselves.
Kids thrive when moms are happy. Once Amy ditches her unhappy marriage, stands up for herself and gets a big raise and promotion at work, gets laid, rebels against the alpha-mom status quo, her kids start thriving: Her previously spoiled son does his own homework and makes his own breakfast, her angry children turn forgiving, and she connects in a new and better way with her daughter. Again: Bad mom frees women from the pressure to orbit around our children, sacrificing ourselves.
Women are real, dynamic, nuanced human beings. Pat as it may be, the big theme in Bad Moms is: We are all trying so freaking hard to be perfect, convince everyone else we are perfect, and instead making ourselves, our kids and our families insane — alienating ourselves from everyone. This is actually a very powerful and relevant message, as Gena Davis and her feminist cohorts take on sexism in Hollywood, and it’s simpleton cliched, one-note female characters.
This message begs to be screamed to moms everywhere, as we stalk each other’s Pinterest and Instagram feeds, denigrating ourselves and each other for less-than perfectly stylized Tuesday morning breakfasts, casual-yet-hip getup for running Saturday errands, and family vacays to St. Martin with the perfectly behaved children, and fit, successful husband who, we presume is-not-having-semi-hard-erection-stuff-it-in-once-weekly-scheduled-sex.
No. Bad Moms wins for its celebration of imperfect motherhood. That is: Amy’s character literally wins the PTA presidency on the platform of being an imperfect mother, one often full of doubt, disinterest, mistakes made and priorities unclear. In her humility and vulnerability, she connects with the mothers in her community, and moms and women in the audience. Bad Moms tells women: You are a person. A failable, strong and messy human.
Am I the only one who notices that the whole show is essentially about single moms? Because it is. It is about women and money, and nearly all of the women are moms — SINGLE MOMS.
Here’s a recap of Downton Abbey’s single moms and what these characters say about the institution of single motherhood — then and now:
Lady Edith. Now, this ugly duckling middle child seems to have been raised in direct competition with her prettier, wittier older sister Mary — both titled young women vying for the same wealthy men to secure their futures. Remember that in the early episodes Edith’s genuine love for the (possibly?) deceased heir Patrick was severely threatened by Mary’s tepid interest in the young man.
Then we watch Edith take a secret lover– the married but otherwise honorable Michael, who owns a successful publishing company. When she gets pregnant, Edith is whisked in secrecy by an aunt off to Switzerland to have the baby, who goes on to live with a local farmer and his wife as a way for Edith to be close to the girl without compromising her family’s name.
It is only in later episodes when Michael is is killed and leaves the publishing company to Edith that the young and desperate mother takes the girl back to live an independent life as a single mother. It’s looking like a contemporary best-case-scenerio — a smart, progressive mother in full control of her family and financial destiny. But Edith’s emotional pull to her family has her returning to a life of shame and conflict in an effort to raise her beloved child close to her loved ones.
Takeaway: Money gives women choices, including to be independent mothers. But the need for family, belonging and community can be stronger than the need for autonomy, though these lines are rarely clear.
Takeaway 2: By way of a survey of the moms at my bustop, it is agreed that one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of this entire series is when Edith, full of determination as well as gratitude, literally rips her young daughter from the farmwife who raised the girl, but is unaware that Edith is the mother, or the circumstances in which she came to be raised by the woman. The lesson here is that when there are secrets — and the shame that forces those secrets to be made and kept — hearts break. Edith felt she had no choice but to rely on another woman to mother her child. Then she felt she had no choice but to rip the child from her caring adoptive family. It is heartbreaking, and I am grateful I live in a time when I have the financial independence and do not face the social shame of times past.
Lady Mary. Oh, Mary. You are so lovable – yet such a pain in the ass! This alpha female appears to hold all the cards. By virtue of being the widowed mother of the heir apparent of Downton, she is set financially and struggles with none of the social scorn Edith faces as being an unmarried mom. Aside from a few passing scenes with her young son George — in which she appears to be an adoring mom — this English princess doesn’t exhibit much in the way of maternal concern.
Her romantic life is another story. Mary has choices, and she exercises them. Even before she met the beloved Matthew, she succumbed the the passionate advances of the gorgeous Mr. Pamuk who literally died in her (naked) arms. With her modern bobbed hair cut she flirts openly with eligible bachelors, including the sweet and handsome Tony, with whom she spent a hotel weekend of lovemaking for the sole purpose of determining if they were sexually compatible, before giving her answer to his marriage proposal.
Takeaway: Mary is horny, and she owns it. She seems to have zero shame about being a sexual woman and a mother, and while she has a habit of keeping men hanging on in a bit of an ego play, she does seem to enjoy the chase much more than she laments being single.
In other words — she is an evolved woman, enjoying her new freedom (no matter how tragically she arrived there) and before risking commitment and heartbreak, is happily exploring her options. Go on with your bad self. If only she’d be a bit sweeter to Edith, I’d be totally enamored with her.
Ethel Parks This young and ambitious housemaid sees opportunity in one of the majors being treated at Downton, which served as a hospital during the war. Despite being caught in the sack by the senior Mrs. Hughes, she continues her affair until she finds herself pregnant. Oldest story in the world, including that the young man dismissed any notion of responsibility to the woman or child. Through only the help of Mrs. Hughes, Ethel manages for a time to get by on her own, but ultimately single motherhood proves impossible, Ethel turns to prostitution and eventually relinquishes her young son to the boy’s paternal grandparents, who are people of some means, and agree only to care for him under the condition she give up her contact with the boy entirely.
Takeaway: You can’t trick a man into marrying you or being responsible for his kids (especially in a pre-paternity test era!). Also: Money makes all the difference in the world.
The Dowager and Isobel Crawley. Now, I’m not sureI consider these women — both likely in their 60s and 70s — to be single moms. Both are widowed grandmothers with adult children. But they are single, and they are hot. Both have suitors — the earthy middle-class Isobel has two gentlemen sword-fighting over her smart self! — and both consider their options with both a tempered thrill in unlikely romance in their late age, and English pragmatism that ultimately renders both still single (at least at the end of season 5).
Takeaway: It’s never too late. And, considering Isobel has no real money of her own, money doesn’t matter. Sometimes.
Single motherhood is the oldest story in the world Mentions of unmarried mothers pepper the episodes, and usually the message is: Without money, single motherhood is rife with destitution and forced, unpleasant decisions. To wit:
Mrs. Hughes reveals in secret to Mr. Carson (so loving this new romance!!!) that her widowed mother cared for her mentally disabled sister, who has for years been Mrs. Hughes’ charge — leaving her penniless in her old age.
Anna reveals in secret to Mr. Bates that her widowed mother remarried a man who sexually molested her, and despite learning of the abuse failed to leave him because she had no other financial options.
When our glorious and token single father Branson discloses to Edith that he knows about her secret child, the working-class Irishman comforts her by saying that children born to unwed mothers and cared for by others is common in his home country. I so love him for sharing that truth. Because it as it does Edith, his acknowledgement that single motherhood is as old as time, and that it can be embraced without shame, is exactly the message that that young single mom needed to hear 100 years ago — and one we can all stand to hear once again today.
What’s your favorite single mom movie? Single mom on TV? What is the worst? Share in the comments!
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.