Watching television, when you're a woman, is infuriating. While I truly believe we live in a "golden age" of TV, the vast majority of shows are still, to put it charitably, predictable. The characters are more tropes than actual characters, particularly if those characters are female. Indeed, with a long history of women underrepresented not only on-screen but in writers' rooms, this can hardly come as a surprise. One particular area that leaves me rolling my eyes (with varying degrees of anger and bitterness) is media depictions of stay-at-home moms.
The nuclear family is often at the heart of storytelling. From The Sopranos to Modern Family, from The Godfather to The Incredibles, from The Brothers Karamazov to Game of Thrones, families are central to the stories we tell regardless of the medium. Mothers have often if not usually taken on more of an archetypal role than their male counterparts (who generally have the luxury of being more visible and well-rounded and complex). On television, mothers usually lose the archetypal gravitas that would convey they play some sort of larger, symbolic role, and morph into a sloppily written short-hand caricature, even when the show is not a comedy and caricature is not called for.
This isn't to say all SAHMs in media are obnoxiously portrayed or that only stay-at-home-moms are poorly drawn. Media fails all types of women in all types of ways, to be sure. Still, there are numerous, familiar aspects of how film and television, in particular, depict this one particular group that can draw a chuckle (or rage-filled growl) from moms everywhere.
This one is starting to ease up a little bit, but for a long time the sit-com mom came in one basic variety: stay-at-home, put-together, sweet, and accommodating, whose personality didn't run much deeper than one of her delicious home-made pies. This, ladies and gents, is, I am convinced, one of the sources of many of the PR problems SAHMs face. June Cleaver and her ilk simultaneously gave SAHMs picture perfect standards of home, dress, and comportment at all times without ever really reflecting anything all that relatable. Those who weren't SAHMs looked at June and thought "Well, she gardens in heels and pearls. How come you couldn't dust today?"
Mrs. Cleaver, we know it's not your fault. We know you're just a character written by men, but goddamn I sorta hate you.
They Inexplicably Have Untold Amounts Of Time
SAHMs on television and in movies sometimes have all the time in the world to keep an immaculate home, cook, look perfectly put together, and go on all these adventures, misadventures, and random outings. Like, I’m sorry, but how? How is this at all possible? Did you steal Hermione Granger’s time turner or something?
Getting my kid ready to go in the car takes about half an hour in and of itself. That outing, which would take a normal human person five minutes, will take me a minimum 20, if I'm being generous and all goes according to plan. It’s irritating to see SAHMs in media able to do absolutely everything, a superhuman ability, without the slightest mention of it being miraculous or even exhausting. In real life, any SAHM able to manage half the things a TV SAHM does on the regular would breathlessly brag about how she can’t believe how efficient she was that day.
They Never Have Their Kids With Them. Like, Ever.
Even though Rachel was a working mom (represent, lady) and Ross a working dad, I am including what I call the Emma Geller-Green Phenomenon on this list because it's pervasive. We rarely saw Rachel or Ross at work, so it would stand to reason that we would mostly see them with Emma. Yeah, not so much. Seriously, who is ever watching your child, guys? When a SAHM is never seen with her child in the media, it’s off-putting and completely unrealistic. When my children aren’t in school there are about thirty collective seconds of my day where I am not draped in a two- and/or five-year-old.
They're Able To Do Anything At The Drop Of A Hat
Two characters on TV, one or both are stay-at-home moms, are having a discussion.
Character 1: Blah blah blah blah crazy accusation.
Character 2: Blah blah blah what are you even talking about? That's crazy!
Character 1: Blah blah blah no it's not and I'll prove it to you!
Character 2: Blah blah blah blah you're on!
The rest of the episode is spent in some hours-long wacky hijinks, outside of the home, with hilarious results.
Except anyone who has ever tried to make plans with a SAHM knows full-well that all schemes must be planned days, weeks, or months in advance. Nothing is spur of the moment when you’re a parent, much less, I would contend, a SAHM, since childcare responsibilities are usually completely on you so you can’t even call out of work to go do something wacky. I’m going out with friends this Friday: it was planned in May. May.
I shall preface this by saying that an exception shall be made for Peg Bundy, who is a hilarious national treasure, fashion icon, and overall spirit guide. However, aside from dear Peg, anything showing SAHMs as a gaggle of thoughtless, carefree freeloaders who sit around eating bon bons, going to the nail salon, and prodigally spending “their husband’s money,” is really irritating and, again, not especially realistic.
Even when SAHMs are bored (and it happens), we’re forced to be engaged in making sure the house doesn’t fall apart with the children in it (usually via making sure the children don’t destroy themselves and the house). It’s kind of like being a lifeguard, but you never get to sit and work on your tan, and more often than not you’re swimming out to save someone.
They're Constantly Frazzled, But Still Capable Of Enjoying Untold Amounts Of Time
Fiction writers are often given the piece of advice, “Show, Don’t Tell.” Film and TV writers could take a lesson from this little gem of wisdom when it comes to some SAHM characters. The only indication you have that they’re busy is an arm full of groceries in one scene and a frazzled declaration about how busy they are, yet the rest of the episode is centered around their crazy journeys that last from 9 in the morning to 9 at night and it’s like, “OK, you obviously aren’t that busy.”
It’s a kind of lip-service to what it is to be a SAHM in real life, while not really changing anything about the TV tropes that ring false. Hey, I’ll admit that it’s a step in the right direction and I’ll also admit that a realistic show or film about being a SAHM would probably be boring as hell (just as a truly realistic show about being an office worker would also be boring). Still, I can’t help but laugh, like, "OK, you go on about how chaotic your life is with your home and children, yet you were able to go to a chocolate factory with your best friend and hilariously screw everything up. Weird.”
They're A Killjoy
SAHMs in media are often portrayed as the somewhat neurotic, reactionary, and overly-strict buzzkill trying to keep her family in order. Personally I think this just goes to show how most male writers see women stressed, and even make the connection that it probably has to do with all that unpaid labor, in regard to home and children, they're doing. Right?
They're Ridiculously Well-Dressed
You are fooling no one. If you have children, even if you are dressed beautifully, there is spit-up, yogurt, dirt, snot, or something similarly unseemly lurking on even your most fashionable of threads, rendering them an unkempt nightmare. The minute I see a SAHM on screen chasing her child around in 4 inch stilettos? Yeah, GTFO of here with that nonsense.
They're Clique-ish And Mean
There’s this weird perception of the overly-smiley, saccharine, backstabbing SAHM. They usually travel in packs and lurk around playgrounds and PTA meetings. They compete through their children and live to undermine their fellow mothers. They disdain working moms, but seem most interested in trying to metaphorically tear out one another’s throats. It’s like Mean Girls for the mom-set.
In my five years of motherhood, I must confess to having seen very little of this. Oh, it exists, and I would be willfully naive to assume otherwise. But it’s absolutely over-represented in media and I personally think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women are told that these kinds of SAHMs exist, so everyone is paranoid that everyone else is secretly a phony jerk just waiting to pull the carpet from underneath them. As a result, they are put on the defensive, overcompensating for their own insecurity, and thereby inadvertently becoming the thing they’ve been trying to avoid. Whenever I pose this idea, I feel like an insane, jittery conspiracy theorist with an entire wall filled with tacked-up newspaper clippings and lines of yarn connecting them with a big picture of a question mark up top, yet I believe deep down that it’s true and no one believes me! But you believe me right?!
Honestly? Most SAHMs really just don't care. We've got our own thing going on. Personally speaking, my hair is in a top knot and my kids are screaming far too often for me to even pretend to be in a position to judge anyone else. I don't know what you've got going on; you do you, let me do me, and we can be hot messes together, happy in the knowledge that we're not being judged. Still, the media is pretty happy showing moms sitting around, giving one another side-eye. Not to whip out my tin foil hat again, but I think that's another case of self-fulfilling prophecy, born from insecurity and fear.
They're Cookie Cutter
We're not all interchangeable. Media SAHMs, more often than not, are just described as "the mom." Barring a couple of cosmetic details you could often plunk one into another's storyline without all that much changing. This does a disservice to women in general and SAHMs in particular. Like anyone else, we have our own thoughts, feelings, quirks, and personalities. I long for the day when well-rounded SAHM characters are the norm on TV instead of the thrilling exception.