Let’s bin the single mother stereotype

Why can't a series as forward-thinking as Black Mirror get past the "worried" single mother?

8th March 2018

 A lot of people miss the point when it comes to Black Mirror. It’s more than just a bleak vision of a dystopian future where digital advancement pushes society to the brink.

The reason why the Netflix original series has resonated with so many is because of the way minute instances of human fallibility are amplified by technology. At the root of every self-contained story, there’s a deadly sin; envy in The Entire History of You, wrath in Crocodile, pride in The National Anthem. It helps these cautionary tales of a computer-run world to – for lack of better word – connect.

It stands to reason, then, that a show which is more human than many would expect would have an honest representation of humanity. In that, showrunners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have done a fantastic job (for the most part) of writing complex, multi-dimensional roles for women, people of colour, LGBT+ and other traditionally marginalised groups.

They were praised, and rightly so, for their decision to have female leads in every episode of season four. Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far into season four before this well-intentioned move starts to go a bit awry, as it does in episode two – the Jodie Foster-directed Arkangel (spoilers ahead, obviously).

The real issue lies with DeWitt’s character, portrayed as self-pitying, needy, vulnerable and hopeless as a mother

Arkangel, for those who haven’t seen it, tells the story of Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a mother raising her daughter Sara in a low-income American town. Sara’s father is not present, his absence unexplained. An incident occurs where Sara goes missing from a playground after Marie is briefly distracted. Haunted by her lapse in concentration, Marie gets Sara recommended for the experimental Arkangel trial, which allows her to monitor Sara with a neural implant, even block her from seeing distressing images by using a tablet. Following that, Marie uses Arkangel obsessively to protect Sara from an increasingly perilous series of teenage mishaps.

The episode is objectively well done, barring a bad research error on emergency contraception which many picked up on. The real issue lies with DeWitt’s character, portrayed as self-pitying, needy, vulnerable and hopeless as a mother. The fact that she is raising Sara alone creates even more problems. At this point, the relatable humanity with which Brooker tries to approach the episode with gives way to a dangerous stereotype.

Single mothers show extraordinary strength, adaptability, determination and sacrifice to ensure that their children live full and free lives

Raised as the only child of a single mother myself, I was disappointed to say the least to see Black Mirror go with this representation when so many other characters have subverted convention. Yes, single mothers worry, they’re vulnerable, and they protect their children fiercely. But they also show extraordinary strength, adaptability, determination and sacrifice to ensure that their children live full and free lives, safe from danger while also being smart to it.

Instead, we see Sara taking her education into her own hands, stabbing herself with a pencil so she can learn what blood is, trying cocaine and running wild. Meanwhile, Marie secretly intervenes in her life using Arkangel to assuage her maternal guilt instead of simply communicating with her child. It may seem a silly plot hole to most, but when you consider it alongside Iain Duncan-Smith attributing rises in juvenile crime to so-called “broken homes” and Rick Santorum blaming solo-parented children for mass shootings, it’s plain to see how harmful such a depiction can be.

Over the years, politicians and the media have tried to claim that single mothers are lazy and incompetent, at best — benefits scroungers, prostitutes and drug addicts at worst — and a whole host of inexcusable things in between. A host of government reforms on child benefits and free school meals, to name just a few, target them more than most.

They also have their children taken into care at a disproportionate rate. And yet, studies have proved time and time again that, without victim-blaming social policy, children of single parents are generally no worse off than two-parent families.

Black Mirror perpetuates a dangerous stereotype 📸 Netflix

Such a pervasive idea has been further reinforced by film and television as far back as the 1950s, both often portraying single-parent families as helpless, mired in crime and in abject poverty. Single mothers are often portrayed as abusive, sexually starved addicts – Kim Basinger in 8 Mile and Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball are prime examples (DeWitt’s character herself jumps into bed with first male character that gives her a modicum of attention).

Undoubtedly many single mothers, both rich and poor, live in difficult circumstances and their stories need to be told. But TV and film writers can’t forget to do so with the utmost respect for the enormous courage and resourcefulness it takes to raise children alone. The blueprint for this does exist; Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith Grey raises three children by herself, Julia Roberts shows remarkable perseverance as the titular mother-of-three in Erin BrockovichSex and the City’s Miranda is a successful career woman and mother, Sarah Connor from The Terminator saga is, of course, a badass.

So there really isn’t any excuse any excuse for Black Mirror or and television series to rely on this tired trope, especially when the same story could just as easily been told with a two-person family. Poor parenting and anxiety over keeping a child safe are not exclusive to single parents. And what we’re definitely not going to do is bring disrespecting single mothers back into style in 2018.

8th March 2018