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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination : Missing, Presumed Dead

Single Fathers and the Entertainment Arena

American television has long been committed to the representation of mothers as traditional domestic figures in a diverse range of popular and long running soap operas, sitcoms and domestic reality texts. That said, there has been a growing trend for shows that position the father as both carer and provider. The widowed father figure was showcased in titles such as My Little Margie (1952-1955), Bonino (1953), My Son Jeep (19531963), Wonderful John Acton (1953), Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show (1953-1964), Bonanza (1959-1973), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), My Three Sons (1960-1972), Gimme a Break (1981-1987), Who's the Boss? (1984-1992) Full House (1987-1995) and My Two Dads (1987-1990). Straight single fathers were seen to (formally or otherwise) foster and adopt in shows such as The Great Gildersleeve (1955), Fury (1955-1960), Bachelor Father (1970-1971) and Punky Brewster (1984-1988). Silver Spoons (1982-1987) and Blossom (1990-1995) offered a slightly different take on the single father story line, in the former the mothers sends her son to boarding school in order to commit to her new marriage, at which point the young boy in question goes to find and later live with his biological father who until that point never knew of his existence, and in the latter the mother leaves the family for a new life in Paris. And more recently, gay fathers have been depicted in Will & Grace (1998-2006), Normal, Ohio (2000), Glee (2009-2015), Modern Family (2009-), Single Dads (2009-), The New Normal (2012-2013) and It's All Relative (2014).

These shows provide some evidence of what has been referred to as ‘a boom in male primary caregivers on TV’ (Shipley 2012). Many of the aforementioned titles are situation comedies, those domestic texts that have long been said to comment on the collective climate of any given period, and as such, it is a little startling to see how many of these titles present the mother as ‘either dead or willing to abandon her child in the pilot episode’ (Bowie 2012). A significant number of these programmes were critical and/or commercial successes and as such there is the sense that the ‘missing mother’ trope resonates with and appeals to television audiences. It has been suggested that the peak in the depiction of the absent mother on television in the late 1970s and early 1980s was due to the systematic introduction of no fault divorce throughout the United States, culminating in more children than ever before being raised by single parents (Bowie 2012). That said, New York State has only recently introduced no-fault divorce laws, and such laws are still unavailable in the UK. And although there is evidence to suggest that the early introduction of no-fault divorce led to a rise in fractured families, ‘in the years since nofault divorce became well-nigh universal, the national divorce rate has actually fallen’ (Coontz 2010).

The suggestion was that parents ‘took comfort’ in watching the single father sitcom because these shows demonstrated that fractured families remain functioning as families even after the departure of a parent. However, this ‘boom’ in the depiction of single fathers is not limited to the domestic medium of television; on the contrary, the popularity of the single father, or rather the popularity of the ‘missing mother’, has been noted and commented upon in children’s literature (Vandenberg-Daves 2004), the Hollywood family film (Feasey 2015), the Disney franchise (Worthington 2009), mainstream animated features (Astrom 2015) and fairytales (Woolf-Hoyle 2011).

In a revealing article Sarah Boxer re-imagines the popular Bechdel test1 and challenges audiences to name an animated children’s film that ‘has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll’ (Boxer 2014). She continues:

In a striking number of animated kids’ movies of the past couple of decades ... the dead mother is replaced not by an evil stepmother but by a good father. He may start out hypercritical (Chicken Little) or reluctant (Ice Age). He may be a tyrant (The Little Mermaid) or a ne’er-do-well (Despicable Me). He may be of the wrong species (Kung Fu Panda). He may even be the killer of the child’s mother (Brother Bear). No matter how bad he starts out, though, he always ends up good. The old fairy-tale, family-romance movies that pitted poor motherless children against horrible vengeful stepmothers are a thing of the past. Now plucky children and their plucky fathers join forces to make their way in a motherless world. The orphan plot of yore seems to have morphed, over the past decade, into the buddy plot of today. Roll over, Freud: in a neat reversal of the Oedipus complex, the mother is killed so that the children can have the father to themselves. Sure, women and girls may come and go, even participate in the adventure, but mothers? Not allowed. And you know what? It looks like fun!

With animation you can suspend the laws of physics and the laws of society and the laws of reason and the laws of biology and the laws of family... and yet, in this medium where the creators have total control, we keep getting the same damned world—a world without mothers (Boxer 2014, emphasis in original).

And one might suggest that while the sitcom created comfortable viewing for a generation of fractured families, so too, the broader family entertainment arena offered a calm reassurance to a new generation of single parents and their children. After all, there are increasing numbers of mothers missing from UK and US families due to divorce (Livingston 2013; ONS 2015), death (Gallagher 2014; Maron 2015), incarceration (Glaze and Maruschak 2010; Vallely and Cassidy 2012), maternal choice (Drexler 2013; Llewellyn Smith 2013), adoption (Tavernisejune 2011; Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research 2013) and in each case the father or fathers of the household deal with the financial, logistical and/or emotional concerns that might arise when the mother is not present in the family home.

That said, mothers are more often than not located in the domestic unit; gay and straight women are more likely to adopt than their male counterparts (Adoption.com 2015; Child Welfare Information Gateway 2013), they are more likely to become single parents (Grall 2011; Gingerbread 2016) and less likely to enter the criminal justice system (Abrahams 2015; Federal Bureau of Prisons 2015). In short, for all of the furore surrounding changes to the traditional family unit, women have historically looked after, and continue to look after the children, but the reality ofsuch maternal care continues to be re-written in much youth entertainment, specifically in those texts made and marketed towards tween, teen and adolescent girls.

Young girls are the core audience for the Disney franchise, and although 57 per cent of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, as opposed to 31 per cent female, girls continue to read more than their male counter-parts. And although there is only one female character to every three males in Hollywood family films and animated features, these texts are also consumed by a majority female audience (Chemaly 2013). With this in mind, it is little wonder that media theorists and feminist commentators alike have spoken of their concerns about the messages that such entertainment media are presenting to a generation of children and teenage girls who are being frequently and comically reminded that mothers do not matter in the life or life stages of girls. And while extant literature in the fields of feminist media scholarship, motherhood studies and girlhood research have demonstrated concern over the ‘value of... mothers and motherhood’ in popular children’s texts in general, and girls’ texts in particular (Worthington 2009), there is a sense that such concerns are restricted to those children who are interested in the sugar-coated Disney canon for example.

As yet, little academic research exists to account for the absent or missing mother in the broader entertainment arena. With this in mind, I want to look at those genres and texts that prove popular with the female teen (13-19 years) and later stage adolescent (18-25 years) audience, with a focus on the American teen drama and the more recent urban fantasy canon. Both teen drama and urban fantasy are considered female productions (Ross and Stein 2008) and both genre categories have a propensity for ignoring the maternal figure or creating dramatic action based on her departure. And irrespective of whether the show is set in a glossy high school, sleepy village or buzzing metropolis (with or without the supernatural inhabitants), they appear committed to inter-generational support and the structure, guidance and authority of the single father (Banks 2004).

Teenagers have been seen on television since the emergence of the medium back in the 1950s, but they remained bit part players in an otherwise adult entertainment schedule, and although they became more prominent in the 1960s in youth inspired popular music programmes, the teen experience was not fully presented, at least not from their point of view, until the emergence of American teen drama in the 1990s. Programmes such as Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) and Charmed (19982006) set the tone and tropes for future popular teen shows such as Everwood (2002-2006) and The 100 (2014-). And although there are a myriad of differences between such productions in terms of setting and mise-en-scene, the core themes of alienation and isolation, the desire to find one’s place in this world, the reliance on a supportive peer group, the maternal as problem and the absent mother remain key to such texts (Pasquier 1996; Sylvester 1999; Feasey 2012).

Although television theorists, audiences and the creative industry tend to work with genre categories such as teen drama, urban fantasy, science fiction or horror programming, it is tempting to borrow a term from literature, wherein the phrase ‘new adult fiction’ is used to describe an emerging genre of writing with teenage and twenty-something protagonists. Such literature is marketed to the lucrative post-adolescent and young adult demographic, or what is elsewhere being termed prolonged adolescence (Wetta 2015). New adult fiction tends to focus on those issues that are ofcrucial importance to teen programming, namely, leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices, and as such, the term is useful here in classifying those teen, urban fantasy and telefantasy texts that share similar themes, plots and narratives.2

Much new adult fiction is first aired on the CW (a successor to The WB which was committed to the emergence and development ofteen drama in the 1990s), America’s fifth broadcast network and the only network targeting 18-34 year-old women (CW Network 2015). The CW is a popular teen-focused broadcaster committed to romance, adventure and the paranormal, with existing shows about vampires, a vampire-werewolf hybrid, superheroes and supernatural hunters. Much CW programming is later shown on the popular youth channel, E4, in the UK. The power and reach of E4 over its youth audience was most clearly evidenced when Dan Brooke, Channel 4’s chief marketing and communications officer noted that ‘less than half of under-25s voted at the last election’ and proceeded to suspend programming from 7 am to 7 pm on a recent polling day in order to encourage that demographic to cast their vote in the 2015 general election (cited in Plunkett 2015).

Clearly then, television plays an important role in both the entertainment of and development stages for the average teen, in part because its plots and characters present audiences with a particular adult agenda, whereby considerate and hard-working young people are seen to thrive while greedy or malicious figures are set to falter. This is not to say that teen characters are not multidimensional, nor that characters cannot grow and develop, but rather, it is clear that beneath the angst, frustrations, wrong turns and misdemeanours, there are those that ‘deserve’ to succeed and those that do not, and in the majority of cases the final narrative arc puts bright or troubled futures in place, with a clear, albeit engaging, message for the young person invested in the characters in question. Teen drama and urban fantasy tend to remind us that physical, emotional (and supernatural) life changes are there to test us, and that the successful outcome for the average teen is to become a hard-working, upstanding and moral citizen.3 Until recently, popular and critical commentators spoke of adolescence and the teenage years interchangeably, with the markers of adult maturity such as career, marriage, home ownership and parenthood (not necessarily in that order) as ideals to aspire to as each generation developed beyond their teenage years, but more recently new guidance from child psychologists have suggested that adolescence runs up until the age of 25 because young people are encouraged to ‘rush through childhood’ and achieve key milestones too quickly (Wallis 2013). And although popular culture is rife with rigorous, quasi-serious and outright humorous markers of adult maturity (ranging from hangovers to life insurance policies), growing numbers of young people are struggling to find a permanent professional role, pay off student debts, save for a wedding and/or a house deposit, without which many are also choosing to delay starting a family. In short, we are both growing up too quickly and prolonging our adolescent experience.

 
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