A working mom is running around a spacious white kitchen getting her three kids ready for the day. She’s packing lunches, fielding nagging comments from her elderly parents, and figuring out the logistics of her tween daughter’s school activities. All the while she worries that she’s turning into her mother and whether she’s still attractive. The mom in question is upper-middle class, works in tech, has a beautiful suburban home, and she’s in a happy marriage. In the television world, these crisis and successes are those typically associated with first-world white mothers.
But, we’re talking about I Feel Bad’s Emet (Sarayu Blue), a first generation South Asian-American with immigrant parents and a white husband.
Emet can count herself among a generation of new television moms who are the focal point of their show. They’re part of a gradual move away from archaic tropes that has seen TV moms evolve to become full-fledged individuals whose identities are not tied solely to the care of their children or as the straight (wo)man to the funny male lead. A wave of new shows like ABC’s The Connors, The Kids Are Alright, Single Parents, NBC’s I Feel Bad, and CBS’ Murphy Brown reboot put the little-seen, complicated journeys of mothers front-and-center.
We owe that growth to the fact women are flooding sitcom writers’ rooms, according to black-ish writer Yamara Taylor.
“It takes a woman to know a woman, to write a woman,” Taylor tells Refinery29. “We’re not flat, we’re fully fleshed out people. Sitcom moms used to be very strict, and she was the one you were going to get in trouble with, and, ‘Oh god my husband’s an idiot.’ Almost like the party pooper of the family — she never got to have fun.”
This is a far cry from what was happening before. For decades, Leave It To Beaver’s June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) was the emblem of motherhood: She was a devoted mother and wife, she gently set her husband straight when needed, and most importantly, she was happy in her role. That formula was copied into the ‘90s, the heyday of the traditional mom, in characters like Home Improvement’s Jill Taylor (Patricia Richardson) and Everybody Loves Raymond’s Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton).
Roseanne and The Cosby Show are two of very few examples where the opposite was true. Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) was Roseanne first and wife and mother second. She had faults, she made mistakes, and she parented with tough love — the only way she knew how. Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) was a Black woman, successful attorney, and mother of five whose career goals never came second to her husband’s. No wonder audiences rewarded the groundbreaking writing by making Roseanne and Clair one of the most popular sitcom moms of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The push for more inclusive, realistic, and sophisticated portrayals of motherhood on TV is reflected in this year’s fall TV lineup, where a litany of shows focus on single moms, working moms, first generation American moms, and even older moms. These new series continue the work of shows like Jane The Virgin, SMILF, and Netflix’s reboot of One Day At A Time, which offer audiences diverse storytelling across racial, class, and gender lines.
As the title of those’ series latest heir, ABC’s Single Parents, suggests, the sitcom follows a group of single parents as they disentangle themselves from their 7-year-olds and realize that there is more to life than parenting. Actress Kimrie Lewis, who plays Poppy, a middle-class, single mom of color and an entrepreneur with her own business, has a personal connection to her role: She was raised by a successful single mother herself.
Lewis tells Refinery29 she lauds the show for “not [showing] single parents, and specifically single moms, in the light they are traditionally shown, which is pathetic, and you feel sorry for them.”
The sitcom actress also teases the show will have a few moments where her character remarks on how her experience as a Black single mother is different than that of her white friends. It’s an issue Lewis says is important to address. “It’s important. [She’s] a single Black mom who just so happens to be a person of color,” Lewis says of her character. “I have all these responsibilities that everybody else has but there’s an extra layer of responsibility that is that I’m a woman of color and I’m raising a black son.”
With more women running things behind the scenes — Single Parents was created by New Girl creator Liz Meriwether, herself a new mom — sitcoms moms are now tackling issues of race, postpartum depression, mom-shaming, mom guilt, and very real cultural stigmas leveled at working moms. Speaking with Refinery29, TV writer Taylor, of Parents' network sibling black-ish, says representation in her writers’ room is what makes the show’s matriarch, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), the fully fleshed out character she is. Nearly half of black-ish writers are women and working moms.
“We’re having conversations that you’re not going to have with all men and one woman,” Taylor says. “Certain conversations are only going to go so far in terms of sharing that part of yourself. You do want that camaraderie and you want someone across the table from you to go, ‘Oh my god, I’ve experienced that too’ the more we get women behind the scenes the more we’ll get to flesh out these characters.”
However, more inclusive casting doesn’t always trickle down to actual inclusive storytelling or nuance in the characters. I Feel Bad’s Emet’s parenting problems and issues are similar to that of The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling): They are women of color (specifically South Asian) dealing with many of the same trials and tribulations white mothers do, with little note made of their race. The same can be said about the very wealthy Gloria Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) of Modern Family, whose accent and background as a Latinx woman is reduced to stereotypical jokes at her expense. Oftentimes outside of the sitcom world, a woman of color is reminded she is one on a daily basis, whether in the jobs she is passed over for or the alarming wage gap between her and her white female peers. Such realities are missing from these narratives.
Getting this delicate balance right is exactly what has made black-ish a critically acclaimed series. Unlike with The Mindy Project, you can’t easily swap out a white actress to play the lead role. When a pregnant Bow loses out on a promotion to a white colleague, a factor research shows plagues women of color in overwhelming numbers, or when she copes with her PPD (a mental health issue that affects 44% of new Black mothers, compared with 31% of white women), her race is deliberately ever-present in the writing. “Because we have such a diverse room, you can’t have a lot of conversations without someone saying, ‘Hold on a minute, if Bow as a mother is going through this or Bow as professional is going through this, is there another filter that we need to put on top of it? Is her race a factor?” Taylor explains. “We unpack so much race stuff that we can’t help, when we’re unpacking things for Dre [Anthony Anderson] that we do it for her, too.
This evolution is possible because of how writers who are mothers are being supported. TruTV’s I’m Sorry, about to premiere its sophomore season, also boasts a small, female-heavy writers’ room and crew — nearly 80% of all department heads are women, and the writers’ room has a 2-1 women-to-men ratio. The show’s star and creator, comedian Andrea Savage, makes an active effort to keep working hours mostly between school drop-off in the morning and pick-up in the afternoon. She also doesn’t write exterior night scenes that might force the cast and crew to film at night. “Making a show is really hard on families. I think it’s some of the reasons why there are less women showrunners and less women who are in TV. Everyone is more rested and everyone is happier when they can go home and see their children. Men, too,” Savage told to Refinery29 on the second season’s final day of shooting. “My friends who have families and are women, that’s the hardest frustration: You want to work, but the job doesn’t have any wiggle room and...you have to make a choice between having a job and seeing your family.”
With a wink and a nudge to the fact that women are always apologizing for one thing or another, I’m Sorry follows Andrea Warren (Savage), an upper-middle-class, white comedy writer as she balances motherhood, marriage, career, and Larry David-esque awkward situations. What makes the show and Savage’s portrayal of Andrea such a breath of fresh air is just how not sorry she actually is. The character, much like Savage herself, is completely unapologetic, she’s self-aware, knows and accepts her flaws, and embodies the “zero fucks to give” spirit.
“I was sick of the straight woman, the hairy mom, or the terrible mom. I’m a mom, I’m still funny, and dirty, and I’m nuanced, and I’m a good mom,” On why it’s imperative women get to write the roles for women, Savage puts it plainly: “You need the people with the voice in the room...I would never presume to write through the lens of [others].”
With all the work put in by women like Savage and the black-ish writers’ room, the future of TV moms is heading in the right, encouraging, direction.
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