Why you should care
Just because TV doesn’t see them anymore doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
They don’t make sitcom theme songs like they used to:
Frank and determined, the song created for Norman Lear’s show “One Day at a Time” which ran on CBS from 1975 to 1984, tells it like it is. (And a gold star to songwriter Jeff Barry for working in the word “muddle.”) Life was hard for Ann Romano, and America loved her for that.
Played by actress Bonnie Franklin, the recently divorced but high-spirited Ann struggled to raise two teenage daughters in a modest Indianapolis apartment, while trying to establish her fledgling career in advertising.
As a young adolescent watching this show from my sheltered suburban living room while mom tidied up in the kitchen and dad kicked back in the recliner, I rooted for a tenacious, redheaded single working mom who was dealing with some thorny, real-world issues: sexual harassment in the workplace, wrangling for child support payments, midlife infertility, her kids’ teenage sexuality.
Channel surfing today offers little inspiration. We mostly see women, who call themselves mothers, catfighting in stretch limos or bonding while getting Botox.
I long for the return of the ’70s and ’80s solo sitcom mom. The mom who is struggling day in, day-out to keep a roof over her family’s head, to make a decent life for herself and her kids. That’s real reality TV.
Take the ’70s version of the nickeled-and-dimed single mom, Alice. Linda Lavin played a young widow named Alice Hyatt, who never climbed the corporate ladder. Unlike The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, who jumps from junior litigator to law partner in a single season, Alice remained a waitress in a run-down diner for the series’ entire nine-year run.
Even the show’s lighthearted comedy spirit didn’t sugarcoat what my young eyes could see were serious economic hardships. At the Phoenix Palms Apartments, Alice slept on the living room pullout while her son slept in their only bedroom. Her take-home pay depended on tips. And her dreams of being a singer took a backseat to turning tables to make rent.
In stark contrast, today’s best-known TV single moms are awash in power and money. They are well-heeled law partners like Alicia, successful Lexus-driving entrepreneurs with heated swimming pools like Jules Cobb (“Cougartown”) and “real-life” McMansion-dwelling divorcees with no clear jobs but endless available hours for spa treatments (The Real Housewives of Pick-Your-Locale). Yes, there’s even a United States vice president, Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, our TV nation’s No. 2 (Veep).
Yes, it’s undoubtedly a sign of progress that television’s single moms haven’t been relegated to perennial hard-luck story lines: As real-life women have broken professional boundaries, on-screen moms have, too.
But the virtual absence of the other side of the economic spectrum is glaring, particularly since the number of real mothers living with financial struggles is staggering. According to this year’s Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink, released by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, 70 million American women and the children who depend on them live in poverty or just on the edge of it.
It’s not just struggling solo women with children who’ve gone missing from TV—it’s the entire working class.
It’s as if sitcom single moms did a 180 in the ’80s, and never looked back. Ann and Alice morphed into Murphy Brown and Angela Bower (remember Who’s the Boss?), with their go-go power suits and big-time jobs (and big hair). Today, it’s characters like Miranda Hobbes of the perpetually syndicated Sex and the City, and Dr. Miranda Bailey, pediatrician on Grey’s Anatomy.
Moreover, it’s not just struggling solo women with children who’ve gone missing from TV—it’s the entire working class.
“You had a lot of working-class stories on television in the ’70s, and the single mom stories fit very much into that theme,” says Jennifer L. Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media & News.
“It’s not just that there are fewer and fewer single moms in scripted television with financial struggles,” Pozner points out. “It’s that there are fewer characters—women and otherwise—with financial struggles in general.”
Instead, over the last nearly 15 years, the onslaught of reality TV has brought with it a backsliding of women’s advancement altogether, posits Pozner in her book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. “You have a genre that pretends to be real, but has erased any traces of the progress women have made in the ’70s until today. If you knew nothing more about American women than what you saw on reality television, you’d believe a women’s or civil rights movement never really happened.
When they got knocked down, they got back up. They were resourceful. Fighters.
As depressing as that sounds, what I miss most about characters like Ann Romano and Alice Hyatt is seeing the basic resilience and strength these single moms demonstrated by making real sacrifices for their family. When they got knocked down, they got back up. They were resourceful. Fighters. True role models for their kids.
Since traditional television programming has little to offer on this front, I’m getting a cold splash of real reality from—where else?—HBO. The new documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, which is available on demand through April 13 and ongoing on HBO Go, features a single mom who raises three small kids on $9.24 an hour with the grit and grace of a true hero.
Alice Hyatt and Ann Romano—may their characters rest in peace—would most certainly approve.