On 18th May 1992, celebrated journalist, badass independent woman, voluntary single mum — and yes, fictional character — Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) gave birth to a baby boy on television. At the sight of a woman on TV happily bringing a baby to term without the presence of a man, Vice President Dan Quayle sounded the alarm for the fall of civilisation. To Quayle, Murphy Brown’s single mum storyline signalled the end of “family values.” In response, Murphy Brown addressed Quayle’s comments on her fictional TV show, saying that “Whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes, and ultimately what really defines a family is commitment, caring and love.” What Murphy Brown was correctly signalling, really, was the changing definition of the American family — not the crumbling of values. Since the show aired, the number of children in single-parent homes has risen steadily.
Since that iconic episode of Murphy Brown, the representation of single mothers in pop culture has become more raw, more realistic, and more ubiquitous. In 2001, three of the five women nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress were playing single mothers. Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich, a character whose tenacity and strength in fighting the system have made her a role model for women everywhere.
Granted, there had been single mothers represented in TV and film before — but Murphy Brown and Erin Brokovich were of a different sort. “Hollywood has portrayed single mothers as prominent characters since the era of silent film," Lisa Barry, a gender and film scholar at Albion College in Michigan, told The Guardian in 2001. "But for almost as long as they have been portrayed, they have been characterised as socially deviant or at least responsible for their kids' troubles.” Barry saw the 2001 Oscars films as a deviation from the precedent. “In these recent films, the women who portray the characters are strong, courageous and willing to take risks,” she said.
We've come even farther since 2001 and the year of the prestige single mum. As the years go on, representations of single mums on TV are less easy to define. Rather than being "heroic" or "noble" or "brave," they're just true to life. Let's look at the most memorable representations of single mums in TV and film.