4-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.mother.4-2.2 |  Feasey PDF

Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood dom­i­nate the tele­vi­sion land­scape in a vari­ety of pop­u­lar genre texts, and as such it is impor­tant that we con­sid­er the ways in which these women are being con­struct­ed and cir­cu­lat­ed on the small screen. Indeed, although much work has been done to inves­ti­gate the depic­tion of women on tele­vi­sion, lit­tle research exists to account for the por­tray­al of moth­er­ing, moth­er­hood, and the mater­nal role. With this in mind, this arti­cle intro­duces extant lit­er­a­ture con­cern­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of moth­er­hood in the media and then exam­ines ways in which this research might be under­stood in rela­tion to the depic­tion of moth­ers in soap opera, sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy, teen dra­ma, dram­e­dy and real­i­ty tele­vi­sion. It con­sid­ers the ways in which pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion texts form a con­sen­sus as they nego­ti­ate the ide­al­ized image of the ‘good’ moth­er in favour of a more attain­able depic­tion of ‘good enough’ moth­er­ing which stands apart from the roman­ti­cized image of the ide­al moth­er that dom­i­nates the broad­er enter­tain­ment arena.

Les représen­ta­tions de la mater­nité pul­lu­lent sous dif­férentes formes génériques dans le paysage télévi­suel; il est impor­tant d’examiner leur con­struc­tion et leur cir­cu­la­tion sur leur petit écran. En dépit d’une lit­téra­ture fort chargée s’intéressant à la représen­ta­tion des femmes à la télévi­sion, il existe peu de travaux sur la mise en scène corol­laire de la mater­nité. Cet arti­cle retrace dans un pre­mier temps les travaux exis­tants, puis explore les appli­ca­tions pos­si­bles de ces recherch­es quant à la représen­ta­tion des mères dans les soap-opera, les comédies de sit­u­a­tion, les séries pour ado­les­cents, les comédies dra­ma­tiques, et la télé-réal­ité. On y voit émerg­er les façons dont un con­sen­sus se forme dans le paysage télévi­suel alors que chaque représen­ta­tion cherche à négoci­er la dif­férence entre une mater­nité idéale, et une « mater­nité accept­able » qui pour sa part se dis­tancierait de la per­fec­tion inat­teignable prônée dans le domaine plus vaste du spec­ta­cle en général.

Rebec­ca Feasey | Bath Spa University

From Soap Opera to Reality Programming:
Examining Motherhood, Motherwork and the Maternal Role on Popular Television


Women make up 52 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, and yet men con­tin­ue to out­num­ber women on the domes­tic medi­um of tele­vi­sion by two-to-one. More­over, when women are seen on screen they are sel­dom seen in posi­tions of pow­er, author­i­ty, expe­ri­ence, or matu­ri­ty (Thor­pe). It is no sur­prise then that extant lit­er­a­ture from such fields as fem­i­nist tele­vi­sion crit­i­cism, media com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and gen­der stud­ies deem it cru­cial to explore those rep­re­sen­ta­tions of fem­i­nism and fem­i­nin­i­ty that exist in con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar pro­gram­ming. How­ev­er, although much of the work to date seeks to inves­ti­gate the depic­tion of women on tele­vi­sion, lit­tle exists to account for the por­tray­al of moth­er­ing, moth­er­hood, and the mater­nal role. Even though moth­er­hood has devel­oped as a cen­tral issue in fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship, as evi­denced in the wealth of texts com­mit­ted to explor­ing moth­er­ing practices—in rela­tion to sex­u­al­i­ty (Fer­gu­son), peace (Rud­dick 2007), dis­abil­i­ty (Thomas), glob­al­i­sa­tion (Cheng), work (Gatrell), and health (Clark)—these texts do lit­tle to account for the por­tray­als of moth­er­work pre­sent­ed on tele­vi­sion. Yet the mater­nal fig­ure is por­trayed in a wide range of tele­vi­sion texts; these cut across gen­res and are sched­uled at dif­fer­ent points for a vari­ety of audi­ences. Clos­er exam­i­na­tion of these rep­re­sen­ta­tions in a broad­er con­sid­er­a­tion of the mater­nal role remains a valid pur­suit, jus­ti­fy­ing fur­ther atten­tion with­in the grow­ing field of moth­er­hood studies.

Although this arti­cle seeks to intro­duce and exam­ine a num­ber of pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion gen­res in order to con­sid­er the ways in which they adhere to or debunk the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing, read­ers will no doubt ques­tion the inclu­sion of some tele­vi­sion cat­e­gories and the exclu­sion of oth­ers. I look to jus­ti­fy my choice of case stud­ies by stat­ing that the gen­res intro­duced here depict women as moth­ers and appeal to this same demo­graph­ic. More­over, this arti­cle choos­es to work across the tele­vi­su­al genre spec­trum since this is akin to what view­ers do and how audi­ences engage with the small screen. This work does not and can­not offer an exhaus­tive overview of the his­to­ry of each genre or the minu­tia of each rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but rather, it stands as a broad intro­duc­tion to exist­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood as they exist on the small screen. It is my hope that the gen­res pre­sent­ed here will act as the first point of entry for a read­er who will then look to unmask ways in which those themes, the­o­ries, and rep­re­sen­ta­tions are also evi­dent in a broad­er range of texts, be they in the UK or the US, day­time or prime­time, long run­ning or pilot pro­grammes. I argue that con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar pro­gram­ming presents a myr­i­ad of strained and strug­gling mater­nal fig­ures, which appear in stark con­trast to the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing, but which con­sti­tutes a relief con­sid­er­ing the demands inher­ent in wider entertainment

Extant lit­er­a­ture argues that a serene and self­less image of ‘good’ moth­er­hood dom­i­nates the cul­tur­al land­scape, and women today are strug­gling to live up to this. Giv­en that tele­vi­sion is so per­va­sive, its role in cir­cu­lat­ing this image can be rea­son­ably assumed. It is there­fore impor­tant to look at the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood on con­tem­po­rary tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming and con­sid­er the ways in which pop­u­lar texts either adhere to the image of the inten­sive moth­er or nego­ti­ate such moth­er­hood prac­tices in favour of a more attain­able depic­tion of ‘good enough’ moth­er­ing. This arti­cle will intro­duce extant lit­er­a­ture con­cern­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of moth­er­hood in the media before look­ing at the ways in which this research might be under­stood in rela­tion to the depic­tion of moth­ers in a wide range of pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion gen­res such as soap opera, sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy, teen dra­ma, dram­e­dy, and real­i­ty tele­vi­sion. It is my point that these tele­vi­sion gen­res can be seen to form a con­sen­sus in the ways in which they present moth­ers strug­gling to con­struct and main­tain appro­pri­ate moth­er­ing behav­iors. Although one might choose to cri­tique such texts for derid­ing those moth­ers that dom­i­nate the small screen, I sug­gest that the sheer vol­ume, scope, and reach of such strug­gling mater­nal fig­ures goes some way towards expos­ing the expec­ta­tions of a ‘good’ moth­er as a roman­ti­cised myth that women are pur­port­ed­ly striv­ing to emu­late. This analy­sis is cru­cial, not because such rep­re­sen­ta­tions are an accu­rate reflec­tion of real­i­ty, but because they have the pow­er and scope to fore­ground cul­tur­al­ly accept­ed famil­ial rela­tions and define mater­nal norms and mores for the con­tem­po­rary audience.

The ‘good’ mother myth

A myr­i­ad of research from with­in the fields of moth­er­hood stud­ies and fem­i­nist media crit­i­cism informs us that the ‘good’ moth­er is a woman who, even dur­ing preg­nan­cy, observes appro­pri­ate codes of style, appear­ance, attrac­tive­ness, self­less­ness, and seren­i­ty (Pitt). The ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing sug­gests that after the baby is deliv­ered, this woman takes sole respon­si­bil­i­ty for the care of her chil­dren; she is ful­ly respon­si­ble for their emo­tion­al devel­op­ment and intel­lec­tu­al growth (Green 33). Most impor­tant­ly how­ev­er, she is a full time moth­er who is always present in the lives of her chil­dren (young and old), she remains home to cook for them after school, and if she works out­side of the home she organ­is­es such respon­si­bil­i­ties around their needs (Chase and Rogers 30). Deb­o­rah Borisoff makes the point that in order for moth­ers to adhere to this mater­nal image, moth­ers, and only moth­ers, must super­vise each child­hood activ­i­ty. They must lov­ing­ly pre­pare nutri­tious meals, review and reward every school assign­ment, seek out edu­ca­tion­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate enter­tain­ment whilst main­tain­ing a beau­ti­ful home and a suc­cess­ful mar­riage (7). This ‘good’ moth­er finds this inten­sive mater­nal role to be nat­ur­al, sat­is­fy­ing, ful­fill­ing, and mean­ing­ful; she feels no sense of loss or sac­ri­fice at her own lack of free­dom, friend­ships, finan­cial inde­pen­dence, or intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion (Green 33). The con­cern here is nei­ther that a new moth­er might want to sac­ri­fice her own wish­es for her newborn’s wel­fare nor that she seeks to pro­vide an exhaus­tive range of edu­ca­tion­al play dates and activ­i­ties. Rather, if a woman does not emu­late this image then “she risks the accu­sa­tion of being a bad moth­er” (qtd. in Wolf 50).

If one con­sid­ers that myths func­tion to reg­u­late soci­ety, then it is worth not­ing that the ‘good’ moth­er myth emerged in response to women’s grow­ing “social and eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence: increased labour par­tic­i­pa­tion, entry into tra­di­tion­al­ly male areas of work, rise in female-ini­ti­at­ed divorces, growth in female-head­ed house­holds, and improved edu­ca­tion” (O’Reilly, Moth­er Out­laws 10). While women were mak­ing social, sex­u­al, finan­cial, and polit­i­cal progress, this mater­nal back­lash devel­oped to ensure that “women would for­ev­er feel inad­e­quate as moth­ers [and to make cer­tain that] work and moth­er­hood would be for­ev­er seen as in con­flict and incom­pat­i­ble” (O’Reilly, Moth­er Out­laws 10). In short, the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing serves as a dis­course that attempts to return women to their ear­li­er domes­tic place on the back of the sec­ond wave and post­fem­i­nist agen­da. Since the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing presents moth­ers as effec­tive con­sumers whilst giv­ing them the sole respon­si­bil­i­ty of child­care with­out finan­cial rec­om­pense for their labour, patri­ar­chal soci­ety remains the chief ben­e­fi­cia­ry of tra­di­tion­al gen­der role assign­ments and the ‘good’ moth­er myth. One might extend this argu­ment by sug­gest­ing that the whole of soci­ety stands to lose if women’s feel­ings of mater­nal inad­e­qua­cy con­tin­ue to be per­pet­u­at­ed. After all, the bur­den of wel­fare states are increased with ris­ing num­bers of stay-at-home moth­ers who have inter­nal­ized the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing demand­ed of the ‘good’ mother.

The con­tem­po­rary media envi­ron­ment is sat­u­rat­ed by ide­alised and con­ser­v­a­tive images of self­less and sat­is­fied ‘good’ moth­ers who con­form to the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing. Susan Dou­glas informs us that the land­scape “is crammed with impos­si­ble expec­ta­tions … dom­i­nat­ed by images of upper-mid­dle-class moms, both real and fic­tion­al, who “have it all” with lit­tle sac­ri­fice, coun­ter­posed by upper-mid­dle-class women who have fled the fast track for the com­forts of domes­tic­i­ty” (285). More recent­ly, the sem­i­nal work of Dou­glas and Michaels informs us that films, radio and adver­tis­ing, print, broad­cast news, and the mag­a­zine sec­tor raise “the bar, year by year, of the stan­dards of good moth­er­hood while sin­gling out and con­demn­ing those we were sup­posed to see as dread­ful moth­ers” (14). These authors describe the ‘good’ moth­er, who sat­u­rates the pop­u­lar media envi­ron­ment, as being self­less, serene, slim, and spon­ta­neous and above all else, sat­is­fied by her mater­nal role (Dou­glas and Michaels 110-39). So too, Kitzinger makes the point that enter­tain­ment texts “bom­bard” women with advice about how to con­struct and main­tain social­ly appro­pri­ate moth­er­hood prac­tices, be it tips on health, rela­tion­ships, sur­face appear­ances, or mater­nal prac­tices (qtd. in Maushart 464). Advice lit­er­a­ture and child-rear­ing man­u­als are also said to play a part in con­struct­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing the ‘good’ moth­er myth due to the fact that the women in these texts are asked to “serve as a con­stant com­fort­ing pres­ence, to con­sid­er the child’s every need, to cre­ate a stim­u­lat­ing envi­ron­ment exact­ly suit­ed to each devel­op­ment stage, and to tol­er­ate any regres­sion and deflect all con­flict” (Thur­er 336). More­over, con­struc­tions of accept­able moth­er­ing demand that these women con­form to tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles, with cook­ing, clean­ing, and domes­tic chores being “embraced” by the “good” moth­er (Kin­nick 12). Kather­ine Kin­nick goes on to say that:

[T]he media ide­al­ize and glam­or­ize moth­er­hood as the one path to ful­fill­ment for women, paint­ing a rosy, Hall­mark-card pic­ture that ignores or min­i­mizes the very real chal­lenges that come along with par­ent­hood. Sec­ond, media nar­ra­tives often cast moth­er­hood in moral terms, jux­ta­pos­ing the “good moth­er” with the “bad moth­er,” who fre­quent­ly is a work­ing mom, a low­er-income mom, or some­one who does not con­form to tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles of behav­ior, ambi­tion, or sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. (3)

When the enter­tain­ment and news media present moth­er­hood in moral terms by con­trast­ing what they deem to be the social­ly accept­able ‘good’ moth­er with what they believe to be the rep­re­hen­si­ble ‘bad’ moth­er, they are “both pre­scrib­ing and pro­scrib­ing norms for mater­nal behav­ior” (Kin­nick 9). Dou­glas and Michaels make the impor­tant point that the mass media has been and con­tin­ues to be “the major dis­penser of the ideals and norms sur­round­ing moth­er­hood” with the pop­u­lar cul­tur­al land­scape col­lab­o­rat­ed in con­struct­ing, mag­ni­fy­ing, and rein­forc­ing the new ‘momism’ or what I refer to here as the ‘good’ moth­er myth (11).

The mass media has a long his­to­ry of pre­sent­ing the ‘good’ moth­er arche­type, and this medi­at­ed image is depict­ed as the ide­al fig­ure of mater­nal care which women in the audi­ence are asked to embody. As I have already not­ed, this fig­ure of wom­an­hood is exhaust­ing, phys­i­cal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, social­ly, and finan­cial­ly. There­fore one might expect moth­ers to speak out against this unre­al­iz­able myth or ral­ly against what must be seen as a rather lim­it­ed and lim­it­ing ver­sion of mater­nal care. How­ev­er, this is not the case.

Mum­snet, Britain’s most pop­u­lar web­site for par­ents receives 570,000 site vis­its and over 30 mil­lion page views each month, with over 25,000 posts each day (Google). Although this site gives par­ents space for peer-to-peer sup­port, there is a sense that these forums sup­port a nar­row and priv­i­leged notion of the ‘good’ moth­er. The web­site set up by two media pro­fes­sion­als turned stay-at-home moth­ers encour­ages inten­sive moth­er­ing prac­tices as part of a desir­able iden­ti­ty. Even a cur­so­ry glance at the site gives the impres­sion of an upper-mid­dle-class mater­nal envi­ron­ment, and the con­tent con­firms this even through the pat­tern of con­sump­tion that is empha­sized. Under a ban­ner enti­tled “Mon­ey Mat­ters” there is lit­tle about tax cred­its, child ben­e­fits, and school meal enti­tle­ments. Rather, a help­ful list informs moth­ers on the fol­low­ing: “Why you should save, Eth­i­cal sav­ings, How to give to char­i­ty, and Mort­gage cal­cu­la­tors.” More­over, the style and beau­ty pages dis­pense advice on “Hair care, Skin prob­lems, Botox and filler, Home pedi­cures, and Fake tans.” Under the title “Lunch­box Tips and Ideas” we are remind­ed that “what you pack is open to scrutiny—not just by oth­er kids but by oth­er mums. So if your child’s going to a friend’s house after school, make sure that’s not the day you give in to Fruit Shoots and Greg­gs sausage rolls. Stick a few stray adu­ki beans/arugula leaves/seaweed sachets in the lunch­box” (“Packed lunch ideas”). When the top­ic is edu­ca­tion, the forums are pep­pered with con­ver­sa­tions about the dif­fer­ences between pri­vate and state school­ing (mum­snet). Sav­ings, char­i­ta­ble dona­tions, home pedi­cures, sea­weed sachets, and pri­vate edu­ca­tion speak for and about a priv­i­leged notion of con­tem­po­rary fam­i­ly life that appears in keep­ing with a social­ly accept­able, cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate, and roman­ti­cised image of moth­er­hood. The blog­gers on Mum­snet can be said to uphold the notion of the serene, self­less, and sat­is­fied moth­er. Indeed, rather than cri­tique its hec­tic nature, it is these moth­ers who con­tribute to and help to cir­cu­late this ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive mothering.

The media are keen to remind us that “women remain the best pri­ma­ry care­tak­ers of chil­dren, and that to be a remote­ly decent moth­er, a woman has to devote her entire phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and intel­lec­tu­al being, 24/7, to her chil­dren” (Dou­glas and Michaels 4). And yet, even though this image of moth­er­hood is far removed from the lived expe­ri­ence of many women in soci­ety, this fig­ure con­tin­ues to be pre­sent­ed in the pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment envi­ron­ment as the epit­o­me of per­fect moth­er­ing that women in the audi­ence should all aspire to and strive for. Indeed, view­ers are told that the ‘good’ moth­er is “the ‘legit­i­mate’ stan­dard to which moth­ers are com­pared […] she becomes an ide­al to believe in, and one that peo­ple both expect and inter­nal­ize” (Green 33). Shari Thur­er echoes this point when she states that “[m]edia images of hap­py, ful­filled moth­ers, and the onslaught of advice from experts, have only added to moth­ers’ feel­ings of inad­e­qua­cy, guilt, and anx­i­ety. We are told that moth­ers today cling to an ide­al that can nev­er be reached but some­how can­not be dis­card­ed” (340). Thur­er con­tin­ues by com­ment­ing that:

[T]he cur­rent stan­dards for good moth­er­ing are so for­mi­da­ble, self-deny­ing, elu­sive, change­able, and con­tra­dic­to­ry that they are unat­tain­able […] the cur­rent West­ern ver­sion is so per­va­sive that, like air, it is unno­tice­able. Yet it influ­ences our domes­tic arrange­ments, what we think is best for our chil­dren, how we want them to be raised, and whom we hold account­able. (334)

One might look to ques­tion why it is that moth­ers who them­selves might be strug­gling to live up to this ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing put on a mask of ‘good’ moth­er­hood or speak with an appro­pri­ate yet inau­then­tic mater­nal voice. Dou­glas and Michaels seek to address this point when they sug­gest that as moth­ers we “learn to put on the mas­quer­ade of the dot­ing, self-sac­ri­fic­ing moth­er and wear it at all times” to save mater­nal shame or humil­i­a­tion (6), and their argu­ment is com­pelling here.

Susan Maushart makes the point that the “gap between image and real­i­ty, between what we show and what we feel, has result­ed in a pecu­liar cul­tur­al schiz­o­phre­nia about moth­er­hood” (Mask of Moth­er­hood 7). After all, even though moth­ers know that the ‘good’ moth­er is an exhaust­ing ide­al, “the ide­al of moth­er­hood we car­ry in our heads is so com­pelling that even though we can’t ful­fil it and know that we prob­a­bly shouldn’t even try, we berate our­selves for falling short of suc­ceed­ing” (Warn­er 721). It has been sug­gest­ed that the “ide­ol­o­gy of nat­ur­al-inten­sive moth­er­ing […] has become the offi­cial and only mean­ing of moth­er­hood, mar­gin­al­iz­ing and ren­der­ing ille­git­i­mate alter­na­tive prac­tices of moth­er­ing. In so doing, this nor­ma­tive dis­course of moth­er­ing polices all women’s moth­er­ing and results in the pathol­o­giz­ing of those women who do not or can not prac­tice inten­sive moth­er­ing” (O’Reilly, Moth­er­hood to Moth­er­ing 7; ital­ics in original).

The prob­lem here of course is that few moth­ers are capa­ble of uphold­ing this ide­al­ized image of mater­nal care. Indeed, work­ing moth­ers are auto­mat­i­cal­ly deemed “poor” or “bad” care­givers due to the time that they spend apart from their chil­dren (Borisoff 8). Yet, stay-at-home moth­ers also strug­gle to attain the ide­al due to the intense­ly exhaust­ing phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al demands of such mater­nal prac­tices (Held 11). The fact that many moth­ers are unable to moth­er with­in the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­hood does not seem to lessen the pow­er of this mater­nal mod­el, rather, it means that many expect­ing, new, and exist­ing moth­ers present what Susan Maushart refers to as a “mask” of appro­pri­ate moth­er­work which fur­ther rein­forces the dom­i­nance of the ‘good’ moth­er myth (Mask of Moth­er­hood). This, in turn, has an impact on gen­der stereo­types and mater­nal mores in the wider society.

With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of its texts, tele­vi­sion can be under­stood as a bat­tle­ground for con­test­ed mater­nal ide­olo­gies. As such, it is impor­tant to look at the ways in which pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion texts present moth­er­hood and moth­er­work. We should pay atten­tion to the ways in which a diverse range of fic­tion­al and fac­tu­al gen­res either adhere to or chal­lenge the roman­ti­cised myth. In the fol­low­ing sec­tion I pro­vide a brief overview of the ways in which moth­er­hood and moth­er­work are cur­rent­ly being pre­sent­ed on some of television’s most pop­u­lar texts. What is pre­sent­ed here is by no means an exhaus­tive list of mater­nal depic­tions; rather, it attempts to demon­strate how the medi­um of tele­vi­sion helps to chal­lenge the ‘good’ moth­er myth that is in evi­dence in the wider media envi­ron­ment. Read­ers are invit­ed to con­sid­er how such depic­tions might speak to audi­ences, adver­tis­ers, or the wider enter­tain­ment envi­ron­ment. In short, this arti­cle seeks to encour­age future research on the mater­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion by expos­ing exist­ing representations.

Soap opera: challenging the ‘good’ mother stereotype

Soap opera is rou­tine­ly under­stood as a woman’s genre. Per­haps it is more fit­ting to refer to it as a mater­nal genre, due to the impor­tance of moth­er­hood, the sig­nif­i­cance of the mater­nal role, and the acknowl­edge­ment of moth­er­work in the week­ly nar­ra­tives. The soap opera appears com­mit­ted to pre­sent­ing a num­ber of poor, sin­gle, teenage, home­less, bipo­lar, abu­sive, and drug addict­ed moth­ers, not to men­tion a diverse range of sex­u­al­ly, social­ly, and finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent moth­ers and ‘oth­er’ moth­ers who each in turn con­front and con­found the ‘good’ moth­er arche­type because they desta­bilise “patri­ar­chal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood and fam­i­ly struc­tures” (Reyes). Based on the for­mal demands of the genre, Soap opera can nev­er depict a ‘good’ moth­er in line with the mater­nal ide­al. Rather the genre is dom­i­nat­ed by those women whose mater­nal iden­ti­ties and moth­er­work prac­tices nego­ti­ate the cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate and social­ly accept­able image of the stay-at-home moth­er. The char­ac­ter­is­tics and expec­ta­tions asso­ci­at­ed with the ‘good’ moth­er set women up to fail, and this pat­tern of fail­ure is played out in minute detail in the soap opera. How­ev­er, rather than cri­tique the genre for its depic­tions of ‘bad’ moth­ers, one might con­sid­er the ways in which these women are mere­ly pre­sent­ing a more can­did ver­sion of moth­er­hood that expos­es the role as “wear­ing, bor­ing, and, at times, infu­ri­at­ing” (Dou­glas 284).

Ear­ly British radio soap operas such as Mrs Dale’s Diary (1948-69) were pre­sent­ed as “nar­ra­tives of mater­nal sac­ri­fice and redemp­tion” (Plant 42) and when new tele­vi­sion soaps were intro­duced, they were based around a myr­i­ad of moth­er­ing roles. While Coro­na­tion Street (1960- ) presents Elsie Tanner/Patricia Phoenix as the arche­typ­al strug­gling work­ing-class sin­gle moth­er, Cross­roads (1964-88) gave us the epit­o­me of mid­dle-class work­ing moth­er­hood in the char­ac­ter of Meg Mortimer/Noele Gor­don. How­ev­er, although the matri­arch has always been inte­gral to the soap opera nar­ra­tive, the fig­ure of the house­wife has become less preva­lent and more trou­bled in recent exam­ples of the genre (Bruns­don 81). Peter Buck­man states that “the prob­lems of moth­er­hood” (67) are cru­cial to soap opera, Chris­tine Ger­aghty argues that the moth­er fig­ure is the undis­put­ed “hero­ine” of the domes­tic text (81), and Dorothy Hob­son notes that “child-rear­ing” is one of the genre’s prin­ci­pal sto­ry-lines (9). The soap opera does not mere­ly rep­re­sent moth­er­hood, but rather, it rep­re­sents the “pow­er of moth­er­hood” with­in the fam­i­ly unit and such mater­nal pow­er is most evi­dent in the ways in which the genre fore­grounds “the needs of chil­dren for their moth­ers” in the week­ly nar­ra­tives (Hob­son 93). Tania Modleski’s work on the soap opera sug­gests that two of the most fun­da­men­tal and oft repeat­ed nar­ra­tive devices revolve around unwed moth­ers and the dif­fi­cul­ties of bal­anc­ing a career and moth­er­hood in these domes­tic dra­mas (31).

It is impor­tant to remem­ber that soap opera presents female char­ac­ters as more than mere stereo­types due in part to the sheer vol­ume of time spent fol­low­ing their sto­ries, and per­haps this is why the audi­ence can see the women strug­gling to adhere to the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing. Suc­cess­ful inten­sive moth­er­ing is only avail­able to a small num­ber of priv­i­leged women, and even then, these women can find such mater­nal care exhaust­ing over the peri­od of time that we spend with the women of soap opera. From this per­spec­tive then, female view­ers in gen­er­al and mater­nal audi­ences in par­tic­u­lar are empow­ered to doubt the attain­ment of the moth­er­ing ide­al. Per­haps they can take solace in wit­ness­ing the strug­gles of oth­ers whose expe­ri­ences com­pare with theirs.

Situation comedy: maternal fulfillment and motherwork frustrations

While the soap opera has, since the out­set, pre­sent­ed a vari­ety of mater­nal images and moth­er­work prac­tices, the sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy has wit­nessed a dra­mat­ic shift in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the fam­i­ly in recent decades. While pro­grammes such as Leave it to Beaver (1957-63) and The Don­na Reed Show (1958-66) made it clear that women were entire­ly sat­is­fied with their role as full time wife and moth­er, and I Love Lucy (1951-6) offered a par­tial chal­lenge to tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles (Feasey 32-36), the impact of the sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist move­ment encour­aged titles such as Maude (1972-8), Mur­phy Brown (1988-98), and Roseanne (1988-97) to depict more con­tro­ver­sial images of divorce, sin­gle par­ent­ing, and the work­ing moth­er. Indeed, the sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy has pre­sent­ed such a myr­i­ad of fam­i­ly units since its emer­gence on com­mer­cial radio in the 1930s that the most dar­ing and unique rep­re­sen­ta­tion in recent years seems to be that of the tra­di­tion­al, nuclear, mid­dle-class fam­i­ly, with shows such as My Fam­i­ly (2000-2011) and Out­num­bered (2007- ) being pre­sent­ed as “plau­si­bly nov­el” in their depic­tion of the patri­ar­chal unit (Hart­ley 66). After sev­er­al decades of divorced, wid­owed, work­ing-class, qua­si, and queer rep­re­sen­ta­tions, the mid­dle-class nuclear fam­i­ly has returned to our screens, and what is inter­est­ing here is the ways in which rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood in this seem­ing­ly tra­di­tion­al for­mat chal­lenge the ‘hap­py house­wife’ stereo­type by reflect­ing both the plea­sures and comedic frus­tra­tions that come with mod­ern day mothering.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Although car­ing for chil­dren might at times be plea­sur­able, ful­fill­ing, and emo­tion­al­ly reward­ing, the con­tem­po­rary sit­com makes it clear that “the bur­den of car­ing for chil­dren can become rou­tine drudgery or emo­tion­al tor­ment when it is done con­stant­ly, repeat­ed­ly, because of one’s oblig­a­tions, and when it con­sumes near­ly all of one’s ener­gies and time” (Held 11). Even though today’s sit­com moth­er feels demor­alised in the home and despon­dent at the lack of care or atten­tion giv­en to the domes­tic space by the rest of the fam­i­ly, she clear­ly defines her­self as a moth­er and home­mak­er. Indeed, these moth­ers rou­tine­ly want to remove them­selves from the domes­tic role and yet can­not help but con­tin­ue to define them­selves in it. They are often frus­trat­ed with the day-to-day work­ings of fam­i­ly life yet strug­gle to let oth­ers take over these respon­si­bil­i­ties. This desire for domes­tic con­trol reminds us of the ways in which ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions of the ‘hap­py house­wife’ were grant­ed pow­er, albeit in lim­it­ed form, based on their posi­tion in the fam­i­ly home. It is as if these women under­stand that any respect or grat­i­tude that they earn from their fam­i­ly is based on their posi­tion in the home, thus they con­tin­ue in this role, even though moth­er­work frus­trates rather than ful­fils them.

The con­tem­po­rary sit­com makes it clear that we should sym­pa­thise and poten­tial­ly iden­ti­fy with the har­ried and hard work­ing moth­er fig­ure, even when they are not nec­es­sar­i­ly depict­ed as the most effi­cient or organ­ised fig­ure of mater­nal author­i­ty. Rather than judge these women in line with the ‘good’ moth­er myth we are asked to acknowl­edge, as Diane Speier does, that moth­ers “are human and flawed, and are learn­ing on the job,” and since “moth­er­ing is a tri­al and error expe­ri­ence, we need to respect that at best it will be ‘imper­fect”’ (149). Indeed, these shows are not pre­sent­ing the unhap­py moth­er and house­wife in order to cri­tique the insti­tu­tion of fam­i­ly or tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly val­ues, rather, they are sim­ply try­ing to cri­tique those unre­al­is­tic and unre­al­is­able ideals of mid­dle-class sub­ur­ban domes­tic­i­ty that have his­tor­i­cal­ly dom­i­nat­ed the genre. There­fore, it is not the fam­i­ly unit that is of con­cern. On the con­trary, it is the fem­i­nine mys­tique of the con­tent­ed home­mak­er that is being chal­lenged. In this way the com­e­dy con­tin­ues to fore­ground the impor­tance of moth­er­hood and moth­er­work to the fam­i­ly, sug­gest­ing that this role might be frus­trat­ing rather than ful­fill­ing for the woman in ques­tion. It is this final point that sep­a­rates the ear­ly fam­i­ly sit­com from its more recent counterpart.

Teen television: toxic and intoxicated mothers

Teenagers and the teen expe­ri­ence have been a sta­ple ele­ment with­in both soap opera and the sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy since the 1950s. How­ev­er, the ado­les­cent lifestyle tends to be pre­sent­ed from the point of view of the adults, par­tic­u­lar­ly that of the mater­nal fig­ures in the afore­men­tioned tele­vi­sion gen­res. It was not until the mid ’90s that audi­ences were asked to view the teen expe­ri­ence from their point of view in a range of qual­i­ty small screen pro­duc­tions. Although rou­tine­ly absent or over­looked in “must-see” teen dra­mas such as Bev­er­ley Hills 90210 (1990-2000), Par­ty of Five (1994-2000), and Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), par­ents and guardians have tak­en on a high­ly prob­lem­at­ic role in con­tem­po­rary teen dra­ma. The genre shows par­ents as weak and irre­spon­si­ble, be it social­ly, sex­u­al­ly, or finan­cial­ly, and in many cas­es it is the moth­er who is delin­quent. Even a cur­so­ry glance at con­tem­po­rary teen pro­gram­ming makes it clear that par­ents are either prob­lem­at­ic forces in the life of the teenag­er or entire­ly absent in their lived real­i­ty. Sher­ri Sylvester makes the point that “fic­tion­al ado­les­cents with­out par­ents are a trend [and] par­ent­hood is out of the pic­ture” in teen tele­vi­sion. Like­wise, Joyce Mill­man tells us that “par­ents are most­ly dead, absent or back­ground sta­t­ic” in the genre in question.

Con­trary to the squeaky clean image sug­gest­ed in the ‘good’ moth­er myth, teen pro­grammes often fea­ture moth­ers as trou­bled alco­holics and drug addicts first and mater­nal care­givers sec­ond. Future research would be wel­come to gar­ner just how fre­quent these images are in the genre, but in the first instance it is worth not­ing that Bev­er­ly Hills 90210 intro­duced us to an alco­holic and drug addict­ed for­mer fash­ion mod­el who rou­tine­ly ignored, berat­ed, and abused her daugh­ters. Pop­u­lar (1999-2001) pre­sent­ed view­ers with two alco­holic, abu­sive, and emo­tion­al­ly unavail­able moth­ers. In the O.C. a teenage boy had the painful expe­ri­ence of liv­ing with an alco­holic moth­er and was even­tu­al­ly kicked out of his fam­i­ly home. Though adopt­ed into anoth­er home, his night­mare was reliv­ed as he watched his adop­tive moth­er take to alco­hol as well. Like­wise, Degras­si: The Next Gen­er­a­tion (2001- ) depicts a young woman hav­ing to cre­ate a life with her alco­holic moth­er while her father is fight­ing in Iraq. Veron­i­ca Mars (2004-7) pre­sent­ed a teen inves­ti­ga­tor self­less­ly sac­ri­fic­ing her col­lege tuition to put her moth­er into an alco­hol reha­bil­i­ta­tion clin­ic, only to dis­cov­er that the woman is clan­des­tine­ly drink­ing and steal­ing from her own fam­i­ly. In Beyond the Break (2006-09) a young girl is seen run­ning away from home to escape from her alco­holic moth­er, while Hell­cats (2010) focused much of its dra­ma on the tur­bu­lent rela­tion­ship between a young pre-law stu­dent and her unre­li­able alco­holic moth­er. Like­wise, 90210 (2008- ) presents a broad range of tox­ic and intox­i­cat­ed moth­er fig­ures includ­ing a glam­orous “yum­my mum­my” who is more inter­est­ed in her appear­ance than her daughter’s well-being, a hip­py who believes in free love and legalised drugs and who sleeps with her daughter’s teacher, class­mate, and boyfriend, a secret drug abuser-in-denial and emo­tion­al­ly unavail­able Hol­ly­wood moth­er, a bipo­lar drug addict and abu­sive alco­holic, and a young heiress who refus­es to com­pro­mise her life for her new baby.

One might sug­gest that these rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood belong firm­ly with­in the tra­di­tion of teen tele­vi­sion as one way in which we can enjoy the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of the youth expe­ri­ence with­out the teen char­ac­ters or ado­les­cent audi­ence being imped­ed by a con­trol­ling voice of author­i­ty or a civil­is­ing fig­ure of matu­ri­ty. How­ev­er, this is less about a lack of parental fig­ures or guardians of author­i­ty and has more to do with an absence of mothers—potentially prob­lem­at­ic for a teen audi­ence dur­ing their for­ma­tive years as these nar­ra­tives of mater­nal aban­don­ment and indif­fer­ence might be seen to sig­nal accept­ed and expect­ed norms of moth­er­ing. Sev­er­al of the afore­men­tioned pro­grammes make it clear that fathers and male guardians are to be respect­ed because they alone “pro­vide struc­ture, guid­ance and author­i­ty” for those teens under their care (Banks 19). Teen dra­ma goes to great lengths to debunk the ‘good’ moth­er myth, demon­strat­ing instead that mater­nal feel­ings and moth­er­ly instincts are not nat­ur­al, fixed, or innate for all women. As such, one might sug­gest that the genre is pick­ing up on ear­ly sec­ond wave fem­i­nist writ­ing which attempt­ed to denat­u­ral­ize moth­er­hood and the­o­rise the mater­nal with­out recourse to those “nat­ur­al or bio­log­i­cal expla­na­tions” that inform the ‘good’ moth­er myth (Miller 56). That said, the fact that we expe­ri­ence the teen dra­ma from the ado­les­cent rather than the adult view­point means that the moth­ers in ques­tion tend to be demo­nized as tox­ic fig­ures of failed mater­nal care rather than fem­i­nist icons chal­leng­ing ide­al­ized images of inten­sive motherwork.

Dramedy: single, sexual and sisterly motherhood

The dram­e­dy, like the teen dra­ma, is a rel­a­tive­ly new tele­vi­sion genre that has received much crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess since its emer­gence in the late 1980s. Although the clas­si­fi­ca­tion is rel­a­tive­ly broad, recent exam­ples of the genre tend to focus on a num­ber of alter­na­tive fam­i­ly codes, con­ven­tions, and com­pli­ca­tions. Indeed, although one might sug­gest that the moth­er fig­ure is not her­self the focus of the genre in ques­tion, many of these pro­grammes seem com­mit­ted to the pre­sen­ta­tion of the fam­i­ly unit in gen­er­al and the alter­na­tive, non-nuclear, and non-patri­ar­chal fam­i­ly unit in par­tic­u­lar, be it step­fam­i­lies, sin­gle par­ent­ing, sur­ro­gate par­ent­ing, or homo­sex­u­al part­ner­ships. Moon­light­ing (1985-9) pre­sent­ed preg­nan­cy and mis­car­riage, North­ern Expo­sure (1990-5) depict­ed a phan­tom preg­nan­cy, and the under­ly­ing nar­ra­tive of Ally McBeal (1997-2002) seemed to grow out of the cen­tral pro­tag­o­nists con­cern over her bio­log­i­cal clock and the sub­se­quent dis­cov­ery of her 10-year-old daugh­ter. Six Feet Under (2001-05) depict­ed acci­den­tal preg­nan­cy, abor­tion, and the death of a young moth­er, Weeds (2005- ) focus­es on a sub­ur­ban wid­ow resort­ing to des­per­ate means to sup­port her chil­dren, while the Gilmore Girls (2000-07) was ded­i­cat­ed to the rela­tion­ship between a teenage moth­er and her daugh­ter. Par­ent­hood (2010- ) revolves around the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of one extend­ed fam­i­ly, focus­ing on the pain of divorce and the finan­cial, social, and edu­ca­tion­al strug­gles sur­round­ing sin­gle moth­er­hood while Des­per­ate House­wives (2004-2012) pre­sent­ed a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of ‘bad’ moth­er­hood and ‘poor’ mater­nal care, through a myr­i­ad of med­icat­ed, mur­der­ous, “step­ford,” and sin­gle moth­ers. In short, the dram­e­dy appears keen to debunk both the tra­di­tion­al nuclear fam­i­ly and the roman­ti­cized ‘good’ mother.

We are told that there are still very few rep­re­sen­ta­tions of sin­gle moth­ers on the small screen, be it due to a right wing polit­i­cal agen­da (Skip­per 82) or the lack of nec­es­sary escapism for the audi­ence (Ben­fer), and yet the dram­e­dy rou­tine­ly depicts this par­tic­u­lar mater­nal fig­ure, in part because of the genre’s inter­est in con­tem­po­rary social issues. Ang­harad Val­divia informs us that on the rare occa­sion when a sin­gle moth­er is pre­sent­ed in con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture, she tends to con­form to neg­a­tive dis­cours­es that sug­gest that she is fail­ing her chil­dren and falling short of par­ent­ing ideals (272). Much of this neg­a­tive dis­course is asso­ci­at­ed with the woman’s desir­abil­i­ty and sex­u­al avail­abil­i­ty. It is com­mon­ly under­stood that those rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood that are the most sex­u­al and allur­ing are also the same rep­re­sen­ta­tions that are the most dys­func­tion­al (Ken­ner 56). Abby Arnold makes this point some­what blunt­ly when she tells us that “con­ven­tion­al wis­dom dic­tates that a moth­er who is tru­ly sexy must be […] a slut and […] a bad moth­er” (3).

Although char­ac­ters such as Susan Mayer/Teri Hatch­er from Des­per­ate House­wives are svelte, fash­ion­able and fun, the fact that they are both incred­i­bly glam­orous and incon­ceiv­ably clum­sy goes some way towards tam­ing the poten­tial pow­er of the sex­u­al sin­gle moth­er. The fact that Susan “can bare­ly walk across the street with­out falling over” (Knowles) may appear endear­ing to some, but it speaks to the infan­til­i­sa­tion or more gen­er­al incom­pe­tence of the sex­u­al fig­ure. In short, this comedic device is mere­ly a “trait thrown in to tone down the sex­u­al­i­ty of a tele­vi­sion mom” (Ken­ner 54). Like­wise, cul­tur­al com­men­ta­tors seek to ques­tion the appro­pri­ate­ness of a moth­er who can­not pay her own bills, arrange cus­tody con­flicts, or orches­trate roman­tic unions with­out the help of her teenage daugh­ter. Alice Hart-Davis makes this point when she tells us that the “blur­ring of gen­er­a­tions can be the social equiv­a­lent of a car crash” because, although these moth­ers may suit their daugh­ters’ youth­ful attire and want to be seen as young, fash­ion­able, and on trend, they are fail­ing to “respect [the] healthy bound­aries” that par­ent­ing demands. Hart-Davis con­cludes by telling us that “[1]f your child likes you at the end of the par­ent­ing process, great. But that’s best if it comes about by being a good role mod­el for them to look up to, rather than being too pal­ly.” From this per­spec­tive then, Susan may be a desir­able and desir­ing sin­gle woman, but she can­not be a desir­ing, desir­able, and appro­pri­ate sin­gle moth­er, because being pre­sent­ed in such a way detracts from the self­less nature of the ‘good’ moth­er who is said to sac­ri­fice her own desires for those of her children.

Parenting documentaries and reality television: maternal shame, scandal and humiliation

While the dram­e­dy presents fic­tion­al women as self­ish, sex­u­al, and scarce moth­ers, a grow­ing num­ber of doc­u­men­taries, docu-dra­mas, real­i­ty shows, and celebri­ty for­mats seek to expose a range of sala­cious and scan­dalous images of real, lived moth­er­hood prac­tices. Such pro­gram­ming offers some of the most con­ser­v­a­tive dis­tinc­tions between the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­hood and real exam­ples of inef­fec­tu­al moth­ers. By pur­port­ing to high­light the aber­rant, the genre invites its view­ers, and asks moth­ers, daugh­ters, and grand­moth­ers in the audi­ence, to judge these women and find their mater­nal prac­tices wanting.

Celebri­ty real­i­ty shows that fea­ture the new breed of acces­si­ble, avail­able, and can­did celebri­ty such as Ker­ry Katona’s The Next Chap­ter (2010- ), Katie Price’s Katie (for­mer­ly known as What Katie Did Next) (2009- ), and Ali­cia Douvall’s Glam­our Mod­els, Mum and Me (2010) present moth­ers who strug­gle to main­tain the mask of per­fect moth­er­hood, or rather, who are unwill­ing to adhere to the rules of inten­sive moth­er­ing. Katona, Price, and Dou­vall are exam­ples of recog­nis­able women who are cur­rent­ly chal­leng­ing these mater­nal myths by let­ting audi­ences view their day-to-day mun­dane, and oth­er­wise, moth­er­work prac­tices on the small screen. These pro­grammes do not shy away from show­ing these women as sex­u­al, self­ish, and unful­filled by their mater­nal role, and as such, we are asked to view these texts as a more believ­able, albeit still priv­i­leged, exam­ple of con­tem­po­rary moth­er­hood. The fact that these women appear hap­py to demon­strate their moth­er­work on cam­era makes us ques­tion whether they are either unable to uphold the mask of per­fect moth­er­hood, or unin­ter­est­ed. Either way, celebri­ty real­i­ty tele­vi­sion can be seen to pro­vide one more chal­lenge to the ‘good’ moth­er myth that dom­i­nates the wider media environment.

In the broad­er tele­vi­su­al land­scape, real­i­ty pro­gram­ming con­tin­ues to exploit the image of the strug­gling moth­er. Help Me Love my Baby (2007) focused on the trau­mat­ic jour­ney of a mater­nal moth­er who only bond­ed with one of her twin girls, while Cot­ton Wool Kids (2008) allowed us to con­demn one par­tic­u­lar­ly anx­ious moth­er for want­i­ng to have a chip implant­ed in her daugh­ter for the pur­pos­es of safe­ty, secu­ri­ty, and sur­veil­lance. The World’s Old­est Mums (2009) focused on a num­ber of women who had cho­sen to use fer­til­i­ty tech­nolo­gies in order to have babies long after the menopause, Octo­mom: Me and My 14 Kids (2009) detailed the dai­ly moth­er­work of Nadya Sule­man, the woman who gave birth to the world’s only sur­viv­ing octu­plets, leav­ing audi­ences to ques­tion the appro­pri­ate­ness of an unem­ployed sin­gle moth­er who uses arti­fi­cial insem­i­na­tion to pro­duce her chil­dren and uses media con­tracts to pro­vide for them. The pro­gramme thus called atten­tion to those who used moth­er­hood as an excuse for ‘scroung­ing,’ liv­ing off char­i­ty, or the largesse of the state. Such prac­tices are gen­er­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with moth­ers from low-income groups. This genre tends to deal with real social issues, like the case of gen­der pref­er­ences. 8 Boys and Want­i­ng a Girl (2010), exam­ined the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion of “gen­der dis­ap­point­ment,” where­by a moth­er who has a num­ber of sons is des­per­ate to have a daugh­ter. View­ers are left to ques­tion the appro­pri­ate­ness of those women who are unhap­py with or unful­filled by their exist­ing chil­dren. These pref­er­ences have seri­ous cul­tur­al under­tones, there­fore the pro­grammes help view­ers con­front and chal­lenge the cul­tur­al prac­tices which val­ue one par­tic­u­lar gen­der over the oth­er. Four Sons ver­sus Four Daugh­ters (2010) ques­tioned the gen­dered moth­er­ing tak­ing place in two fam­i­ly homes, whilst also con­demn­ing what they set up as hypo­thet­i­cal mater­nal prac­tices. Even from their titles, the reg­u­la­to­ry mis­sion of these pro­grammes is evi­dent. Mis­be­hav­ing Mums to Be (2011) focused on a num­ber of moth­ers whose preg­nan­cy prac­tices do not adhere to the ‘good’ moth­er myth, while Fast Food Baby (2011) was com­mit­ted to show­ing the ways in which ‘bad’ moth­ers failed to pro­vide the cor­rect nutri­tion­al food for their chil­dren, and wit­nessed their efforts to shift their inap­pro­pri­ate eat­ing habits and mater­nal practices.

Doc­u­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood are at best con­ser­v­a­tive and at worst crit­i­cal of real moth­ers and the lived mater­nal role. And while par­ent­ing doc­u­men­taries depict bio­log­i­cal and oth­er moth­ers as prob­lem­at­ic and patho­log­i­cal, their real­i­ty tele­vi­su­al cousins rou­tine­ly depict moth­ers strug­gling with the mater­nal role, emphat­ic on the attain­abil­i­ty of the ide­al. Pro­grammes such as Super­nan­ny (2004- ) Nan­ny 911 (2004- ) and Extreme Parental Guid­ance (2010- ) rou­tine­ly empha­sise the moth­er as the pri­ma­ry care­giv­er in the nuclear fam­i­ly, even if she works out­side of the domes­tic space. Moth­ers are por­trayed as the domes­tic man­ag­er, in charge of meal times, bath rou­tines, bed-time sto­ries, school runs, gro­cery shop­ping, house­hold chores, and gen­er­al children’s enter­tain­ment plan­ning and activ­i­ties. In short, moth­ers are por­trayed as the pri­ma­ry par­ent even when the con­tri­bu­tion of fathers is acknowl­edged. As such, moth­ers are also depict­ed as being respon­si­ble for exist­ing behav­ioral prob­lems. Indeed, sev­er­al of the infants, tod­dlers, and old­er chil­dren who swear at, kick, punch, and spit at their moth­ers tend to act very dif­fer­ent­ly when their fathers are present in the home. Indeed, it is often clear that the “men in the fam­i­lies are periph­er­al to these titan­ic strug­gles, as the moth­ers are ulti­mate­ly left with the bur­den of rais­ing the chil­dren” (Tal­ly 21).

Par­ent­ing doc­u­men­taries and real­i­ty pro­gram­ming hold up the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing as the only mod­el of moth­er­hood to aspire to. That said, rather than cri­tique or con­demn these pro­grammes for expos­ing shock­ing mater­nal prac­tices or for exploit­ing frag­ile moth­ers, these shows might be under­stood as a pow­er­ful, nec­es­sary, and real voice for nego­ti­at­ing the con­straints involved in con­tem­po­rary moth­er­hood prac­tices. Indeed, if one con­sid­ers that con­tem­po­rary moth­ers are said to bring inac­cu­rate or ill-informed, dis­abling, and delu­sion­al expec­ta­tions to moth­er­hood and the mater­nal role (Maushart, Mask of Moth­er­hood xvi­ii), one might sug­gest that real­i­ty tele­vi­sion shows on par­ent­ing which fea­ture strained and strug­gling moth­ers serve to bridge the gap between expec­ta­tions and lived experiences.


Although tele­vi­sion is an enter­tain­ment dri­ven medi­um that lends itself to extreme rep­re­sen­ta­tions for the sake of audi­ence escapism, the sheer scope of strug­gling mater­nal fig­ures on the small screen can­not, and indeed should not, be dis­missed in the name of amuse­ment or dis­trac­tion. I would argue that the fact that the domes­tic medi­um is under­stood as mere enter­tain­ment and the fact that the gen­res out­lined here address in the main to the woman in the audi­ence means that these depic­tions must be tak­en all the more seri­ous­ly for the ways in which they speak to, inform, or frus­trate the view­ing pub­lic. In short, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood have the pow­er and scope to fore­ground cul­tur­al­ly accept­ed famil­ial rela­tions, and as such, it is cru­cial that we exam­ine those rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood and moth­er­work that dom­i­nate the con­tem­po­rary media land­scape. Although lit­tle research exists to account for the myr­i­ad rep­re­sen­ta­tions of moth­er­hood, moth­er­work, and mater­nal roles seen in con­tem­po­rary tele­vi­sion, this arti­cle has begun to explore the ways in which moth­er­hood is being con­struct­ed, cir­cu­lat­ed, and inter­ro­gat­ed in both fic­tion­al and fac­tu­al pro­gram­ming, con­sid­er­ing the ways in which such rep­re­sen­ta­tions can be under­stood in rela­tion to the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­ing and the ‘good’ moth­er myth that dom­i­nates the con­tem­po­rary period.

The soap opera presents a self-serv­ing rather than serene image of moth­er­hood; the sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy high­lights the plea­sures and frus­tra­tions of moth­er­work; the teen dra­ma intro­duces a num­ber of tox­ic and intox­i­cat­ed mater­nal fig­ures; the dram­e­dy text por­trays the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of the sin­gle moth­er, while real­i­ty tele­vi­sion posi­tions moth­ers as frag­ile, fail­ing, and inef­fec­tu­al. Although each genre has its own reper­toire of ele­ments, the­mat­ic codes, and nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions, they appear to form a tele­vi­su­al con­sen­sus in their rep­re­sen­ta­tions of ‘inap­pro­pri­ate’ or ‘unac­cept­able’ mothering.

Many of these tele­vi­su­al moth­ers are devot­ed to their chil­dren. They con­sid­er their mater­nal role to be a priv­i­lege and want to cre­ate hap­py and har­mo­nious fam­i­lies. This aspi­ra­tion echoes the desire to be ‘good,’ evi­dence that the ‘good’ moth­er myth con­tin­ues to per­sist. How­ev­er, the fact remains that many of the women are sin­gle, sex­u­al, and scared, and even those with­in oth­er­wise sta­ble famil­ial rela­tions still strug­gle to main­tain author­i­ty in the home, find­ing lit­tle sat­is­fac­tion in the rou­tines of domes­tic life. This demon­strates their removal from the ide­ol­o­gy of inten­sive moth­er­hood. How­ev­er, rather than con­demn or cri­tique such seem­ing­ly prob­lem­at­ic fig­ures for their inabil­i­ty to adhere to ide­alised mater­nal ideals, these expec­tant, new, and exist­ing moth­ers should be applaud­ed for debunk­ing the improb­a­ble and unob­tain­able ‘good’ moth­er myth in favour of ‘good enough’ and achiev­able mater­nal practices.

Image Notes

Figs 1 and 2 Images from the TV show Out­num­bered. In: Drew-Hon­ey, Tyger. “What I love about being in Out­num­bered.” bbc​.co​.uk TV Blog. 8 April 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. http://​www​.bbc​.co​.uk/​b​l​o​g​s​/​t​v​/​p​o​s​t​s​/​w​h​a​t​-​i​-​l​o​v​e​-​a​b​o​u​t​-​b​e​i​n​g​-​i​n​-​o​u​t​n​u​m​b​e​red

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This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.