Portrayals of Women in Media, Part 1: Working Mothers


It is safe to say that the life of a working mother is complex. A working mother essentially has two full time jobs. Film and television portrayals of this complex life have not always been nuanced. Some films have played the scenario for comedy (Diane Keaton in Baby Boom), hinting at the inherent difficulties but without necessarily addressing them in a very realistic manner.

World of Digital MediaRecently, however, the complex life of the working mother is being examined in general media with increased frequency, especially in popular television. Moreover, it is being examined with greater detail. Where once we had the admirable Claire Huxtable of The Cosby Show—excellent mother and consummate professional in the field of law—we now have Julia Braverman of Parenthood, a high-powered lawyer who constantly encounters conflicts between her home life and her work life.

Phylicia Rashad’s Claire Huxtable is an almost idyllic portrayal to which any working mom would aspire. Julia Braverman’s situation is depicted as involving more struggle and difficulty. Sometimes the character’s attempts to balance between her job, her husband’s job, and their two children work out well. Sometimes they do not. There is something to be said for a television show choosing to examine the realistic opportunity costs involved with choices between work and family. It is a relief that there exists a wider portrayal of working mothers; if all a working mother sees in media is the perfect woman who manages everything easily on the backstroke, they may feel as though their struggles are an anomaly.

So what are the relevant trends in these media portrayals of working mothers? Well, one common problem that arises for these fictional mothers is the clash between the mother’s career ambitions and the father’s career ambitions. A good example of this is found in larger-than-life sit-com “How I Met Your Mother” in which working mother and art dealer Lily, and working father and lawyer Marshall both are offered outstanding career opportunities which are not remotely compatible.

A similar situation is depicted in the drama show Parenthood, when both parents are working so hard that serious conflict arises. In that story thread, the question that comes to the fore regards who “deserves” to have their career supported—the one making more money, or the one who has a new and exciting chance to contribute to the family and the future? Not an easy question to answer.

On a separate note, there do not appear to be many prominent depictions of single working moms—it is a notable and problematic absence—but here is an excellent one: Erin Brockovich. Even more excellent, of course, because the film is the true story of Brockovich’s life.

Interestingly, with the exception of Erin Brockovich—the only real live person in the bunch—these depictions of working moms focus on women in fast-paced, high power careers. Even Brockovich works for a lawyer, though she isn’t one. This trend has both a positive and a negative side.

The good half is this: it shows women in competitive, challenging careers and—by and large—it shows them excelling there. The bad half is as follows: it seems to imply that the value of being a working mom is present only if you are in a high-paying, high-power career. This begs the question: what about working the mothers—and single mothers—excelling in less high-profile or less glamorous arenas?


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