In today's complex television landscape, it's easy to argue that traditional conceptions of "parenthood" are changing as we see fewer heteronormative nuclear families, which reflects demographic and social changes in the real world. Yet a closer look at parenthood in contemporary scripted television reveals that when it comes to family life, the perspective of the cisgendered male is still privileged above all others.
Let's examine some of the the trends. (Note to readers: I'm stepping into somewhat uncharted territory here—material I found about the breakdown of parenthood on TV is either dated or incomplete—so I'd really appreciate leads and/or ideas in the comments!)
Although 84% of custodial single parents are single moms, single moms and single dads are represented about equally on television. Raising Hope, Castle, Two and a Half Men, Suburgatory, Louie, and Dexter all feature single dads as main characters, while Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Parenthood, The Good Wife, and Once Upon a Time feature single moms.
So the TV demographics don't match reality. No surprise here; the demographics of TVLand, as we know, are rather specific (read: white, rich, cisgender, etc.). But the overrepresentation of fatherhood is a deeper problem that extends beyond portrayals of single parents. Series that include both mom and dad as cast members tend to foreground the perspective of the father, regardless of the specific family situation. Whether the parents are together/divorced/separated/never a couple, the tale of parenthood as told on TV is too frequently a dad's tale, which I think is a direct result of the preponderance of male writers and producers for these television series.
In the great tradition of series like Everybody Loves Raymond and Home Improvement, many of today's shows include both parents, but the perspective is a cisgender male's, even though the female is represented as performing most of the parenting duties. Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, American Dad, Bob's Burgers, and Last Man Standing are all current examples. Meanwhile, there are a plethora of series in which the parents are not together, and the mom is the "other parent" seen through the dad's eyes. This happens/happened on almost every FX series (Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sons of Anarchy —I'm sure there's more), and in Hung and Californication.
Currently, two series on network TV include homosexual male characters as parents: Modern Family and the new animated series Allen Gregory. I'm unaware of any lesbian parents currently on network (or even non-network?) TV.
There are a couple of current shows that portray motherhood and fatherhood from both the male and female perspective, thereby creating more egalitarian, supportive relationships (Up All Night, Parenthood), and a couple that foreground the female's perspective (The Middle, Desperate Housewives).
Historically, of course, stories on TV tended to be told with the male as protagonist, so the story of parenthood was the dad's. The single dad on TV goes all the way back to The Andy Griffith Show, and even on The Cosby Show—hailed for its representation of Clair Huxtable, a woman of color and a successful career mom—parenthood is clearly experienced through Cliff, not Clair. So series like Nurse Jackie and The Middle represent a significant change, but we must be aware that even today, series with parents often foreground a cisgendered, male perspective.
The Childless Career Woman
Perhaps more significant—and more unsettling—is the structural division of television series according to "working women" versus "stay-at-home mom" roles. On crime shows, sci-fi, and office-based dramas, title role female characters often don't have kids, while title role male characters have wives and children somewhere off-set who occasionally enter the storyline as periphery characters. (Or, often on these shows, the male lead is avenging the murder of his wife and/or daughter.) I believe that this trend also reveals the perspective of the predominantly male writers and producers of these series, who aren't thinking as deeply about the out-of-office lives of their female characters. The easy default is to skirt the issue and create mini-realities in which female career women don't have kids—or, as on Bones, eventually have kids with a colleague.
I'm not overly familiar with these types of dramas, but from what I've seen, the women tend to be childfree. Can somebody help me out here? What about the female characters on all those Law and Orders, CSIs, or NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, Prime Suspect, Harry's Law, The Closer, Fringe, Prime Suspect, Unforgettable, Harry's Law, etc. etc.—how many women on these series have children? And on the office-based series—30 Rock, Parks and Recreation—how many of the women have children? The most recent statistics show that one in five American women never have children. I wonder how those numbers compare to female characters on crime/office dramas? (Prediction: The number of childree career women on TV is much higher than one in five.)
On the one hand, these series depict women without children as refreshingly unapologetic (although some, like Liz Lemon, are rather obsessed with changing their childless status). The appearance of women without children on crime and medical dramas is important. But in TVLand, why must all women without children be cops, scientists, lawyers or doctors—and, in turn, why are cops, scientists, lawyers, and doctors so rarely allowed to be moms?
To quote the recent documentary about women in the media, Miss Representation, "You can't be what you can't see." In other words, if parents are portrayed a specific way in the media, it's difficult to imagine other models. And I'm not seeing many television series that tell the tale of motherhood through the eyes of women who aren't pigeon-holed into specific roles. It's notable that series created by women tend to include female characters that are moms and career women, or moms who also work outside the home, and their experience is foregrounded, not that of their baby daddy. Shows like Nurse Jackie, Reba, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, Judging Amy, Murphy Brown, Weeds, Grace Under Fire, The New Adventures of Old Christine, My So-Called Life, and Once and Again were all created or co-created by women.
Parenthood is extremely diverse, and while TV has been quick to grasp the diversity of fatherhood (imagine a show about a single mom in 1960, the year The Andy Griffith Show premiered), representations of motherhood are still influenced by a (still!) largely male television industry. When there are different types of parents portrayed, they are almost exclusively white and (usually) straight as well. That being said, TV tends to be more open to a diversity of perspectives than the news media or the film industry, and I hope more diverse perspectives on parenting will pop up soon, especially where they're really needed, such as on workplace and crime shows.
If anyone is aware of a comprehensive list/analysis breaking down parenting roles on TV, please let me know! And stay tuned later this week for an exploration of race, socioeconomics, and motherhood on TV.
Previously, on Bringing Up Baby: AskMen.com on Pregnancy and Sex, Stay Away From That Tuna! (Or I'll Take Your Baby)