“Oh my god. So is your life, like, exactly like Gilmore Girls?” Some random girl asked me during my freshman year of college when I told her I was raised by my single mom and (also single) grandma.
For approximately two seconds, I mulled over Lorelai’s charming recklessness and her daughter Rory’s subdued nature. Rory, for the most part, was the responsible one, the child tasked with mothering her own mother.
“Literally not at all,” I said, embarrassed and offended.
In my heart, I knew the question was innocent—but as my brain narrowed in on the episode in which Lorelai sports denim booty shorts, a pink baby tree and cowboy boots after oversleeping for Rory’s first day of private school, my capacity for polite response dissipated.
I know that television's single mom is more than a fumbling woman in booty shorts, but sometimes, it really doesn't feel that way. Infantilized and sexualized, she is founded on a trope—a shaky foundation for any strong character.
My mother worked her way up from nothing—one of the lucky few to live the American dream—and while childhood me was sometimes embarrassed that we couldn't always relate with the established, “East Egg” families of my private school peers, my mom was always up early, with laundry done, while working 80 hours a week. She’s the most competent person I know. Why did the exemplar of televised single motherhood have to be, well, kind of a mess?
I hated the implication that my mother was anything less than a mother, that her development was somehow stifled by her marital status, leaving her goofing around in some kind of metaphorical colorful ball pit as I was forced to pack my own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or whatever. I recognize this is reality for some people (duh, it’s hard to do the job of two parents), but time and time again, I’ve been confronted—through pop culture and social interactions—by the notion that my single mom can’t be competent at motherhood.
“I’m sorry,” other kids would say whenever I revealed the fact that my parents are divorced. I felt a pang of shame, but didn’t know why. Why were they sorry? My mom did a great job.
Suffice to say, then, that I have little patience for the trope of the reckless, “slutty” single mom. With the creation of Jane the Virgin, I was excited by the possibility that the dynamics within Jane’s family might mimic my own in a way that the Gilmore’s dynamic never did.
My heart sunk when the first episode portrayed Xiomara, Jane’s mother, as immature—more childish than her own daughter. I watched with annoyance as Xo sat crisscross applesauce on her bed, painting her nails and rolling her eyes at her own mother. I almost stopped watching, but I stuck with it.
Jane the Virgin has quickly become one of my favorite shows, and I’m happy to report that Xiomara (like Lorelai) is more nuanced than initially depicted. There are moments I deeply relate to, like when Xiomara tells Jane she never brought men home because she didn’t want to bring any instability into her daughter’s life. Or when the father of Jane’s baby offers to take care of the child financially and Xiomara immediately attacks him on the basis that their family “doesn’t take handouts.”
To be clear, Xiomara and Lorelai are realistic, human characters, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a young mother struggling to maintain her youth while raising a child—but it’s a disservice to these women, to these characters, to write them by starting with a stereotype and adding on from there. While it’s nice to see character development, it doesn’t change the fact that single mothers are overwhelmingly characterized by their sexual escapades and ineptitude—Xiomara’s storyline mostly revolves around her sex life, dreams of being a sequined pop star, and love for Jane (the saving grace).
The narrator describes Jane and Xiomara’s relationship as one of a typical mother-daughter pair, “with the role of the mother played by Jane.” When Xiomara gets dressed to go out, child Jane assumes the role of mother, warning Xo to not “drink too much,” “kiss too much,” and “call if you’re going to be late." Written as overly reliant on their daughters, single mothers are simultaneously infantilized and sexualized. Furthermore, the extreme binaries between television’s single mother and her daughter are unnecessary: if Jane is the Virgin, then Xiomara has to be the Whore.
With this, a character that I assume was written to come across as progressive and inclusive (wow! A single mom!) ends up feeling stereotypical and trite, reduced to a sexist, classist trope.
It goes without saying that my mother isn’t the only person who doesn’t get to see herself on television—but it’s worth noting that she’s on the list.