Single Moms Portrayed in Media: Welfare Bound or Hard Working Women?

Pop culture in America has become so diverse that finding a reflection of who you are in the media has become much easier. Whether it be through the news, television, radio, film, advertisements or social media, there is always going to be a wide variety of people who reflect the radically different lifestyles in this country. Generally, these media portrayals are fairly accurate, but there are times when these reflections of who different types of Americans are can be nothing more than stereotypes and incorrect adaptations of who advertising companies and producers think we are. I have seen myself mirrored in media and television many times, and I have also seen the stereotypes of who I am. The most important thing in my life is being a mom. I have had little or no help raising my daughter for the last ten years, which makes me a single mom. Single mothers have a very wide variety of stories and living situations, but they do have a stigma attached to them, and I live with that every day. This stigma has been created by media and pop culture. The stereotype is that single moms are welfare bound, lazy, have too many children and these children all have behavior problems. The image these media outlets create are often wrong and can be hurtful. Groups like single moms are often misrepresented or inaccurately portrayed, and with pop culture and media having a massive impact on the lives of their audiences, these flawed depictions can do harm to individuals and families.

Single moms in media are almost always shown as poor struggling women on welfare who have children that misbehave and are at high risk for a number of very unwanted characteristics. Although there are a lot of struggling single mothers out there, the welfare abuser single mom is not always true or accurate. I was recently given an article to read about a single mom. This woman, Jennifer Stepp, is a classic example of everything I don’t want to be and everything pop culture shows as a stereotype of who I see myself as. Stepp has three children by three different men, two of which are in prison, and is receiving nearly every form of public assistance available. In the article it says, “it bothers her that single mothers sometimes get a bad name, that people think they just have babies and collect welfare” (Fessler, 2012). While I find it admirable that she doesn’t like single moms getting a bad wrap, she is exactly who she says she doesn’t want to be seen as. She receives: free meals, half her rent paid, free health care, free education and free daycare. What bothers me about this story is the news source, in this case NPR, choosing a single mom receiving every known form of public assistance, with three kids by three men as the poster child of single moms needing a safety net of support. From what I have learned throughout this course, it is not a random error in judgement. She was chosen to obtain more readers, even if those readers are only viewing the story because they are mad and was to cast judgment. Media does this a lot, they play on people’s emotions to gain viewership which leads to more revenue for their company.

The tactics different companies use to gain revenue was an eye open for my in this pop culture course. News stations are the most guilty of this. During week five of this class the class was asked to use a piece called  “News: Balance Bias with Critical Questions” to examine an article about a kidnapping in the middle east, which the news article was trying to insinuate was terrorism related (Hynds, n.d.). The article was totally lacking credibility, sources and an actual reported event, it was simply meant to scare (Barghi, 2012). While reading the article and examining it with a check list focused on details and accuracy it hit me- I read articles like this all the time and I assume they are correct. I believe this is what most people do. We read and hear about so many news stories on a daily basis and we take them at face value, but when a person digs deep and think about who wrote them, why and what the details are, the articles have a tendency to crumble. The same techniques can be applied to television and film. In my case, these techniques will be used to think about media, film and television and the representation of single mothers like Jennifer Stepp.

There are 9.9 million single moms in this country right now and many of these women are hard working and not on public assistance, but these women aren’t the examples you generally see (“Mothers by the Numbers,” 2015). I had to dig deep to come up with a media source I had seen where a single mom isn’t like Jennifer Stepp. What I came up with was Miranda on Sex and the City (Parker, 2000). Miranda is a lawyer living in New York City with little or no family. She becomes a parent during the series and is raising her son alone. Although she has a very good career and is well off financially she struggles with having to choose between work and her son. Because high income single moms are rarely the focus of television and film, their struggles are rarely identified. However, there was a study done about the resilience of higher income single moms called, “Yes She Can: An Examination of Resiliency Factors in Middle- and Upper-Income Single Mothers” (Kjellstrand & Harper, 2012). This study found women who are at the highest income levels often have lower resiliency because of the huge demands of their high paying jobs. Miranda had this problem as well. Although she was a strong woman she was constantly being shown as the struggling mom because she couldn’t manage to pull herself away from her work. At one point she was having issues feeling like her nanny was raising her son more than she was. I find it refreshing to see a well off single mom on a very popular television show, but it saddens me that even the smartest, most well off mom is still shown to be struggling and having a hard time raising a child alone.

During week four in this course our class talked about how we are influenced by the advertising we see around us. There was a lot of discussion about ads which are meant to empower people. These ads aim to make people feel strong and capable with the hope that people will run out and buy a product. Keeping that in mind and thinking about single moms in media and how people can see themselves in this type of cultural mirror, it makes me wonder if these media outlets sharing stories of welfare moms can have an unspoken impact of women viewers. If these women are seeing mothers like Jennifer Stepp and Miranda, they may find themselves mimicking them without realizing it. This can be a positive thing if they are led to feel empowered but the opposite is almost more possible. There could come a time when a woman reads an article or sees a show about struggling moms and things “why bother?” and gives up hope.

Being a single mother is one of the hardest jobs out there and having hope and strength is essential. I saw these qualities in a woman named Katrina Gilbert. She was the focus of an HBO documentary called “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert” (Cookson, 2014) She’s not the stereotypical single mom on welfare with three kids by three fathers who had her children out of wedlock. She did things “the right way,” she got married, had three children and was happy until her husband became dependent on drugs and she left him. She works full time but is still only making $9 an hour. She is not on welfare, but is very low income and struggles every month. However, despite her struggles, she is able to successfully raise her children. She is thrifty, responsible and a good mom. This documentary is a very accurate an honest portrayal of the life of a single mom and I found myself relating to her on many levels.

Out of all the single mothers I have seen and thought about, I saw myself in Katrina Gilbert the most. I saw her try to do right for her children and being responsible by pay bills she couldn’t afford, and while doing this she never gave up hope and never once thought she should give up stand in line at the welfare office. Her story was a good one, which makes me wish more people like her were the characters in television shows, news articles and films. Single moms need to see someone like her as an example they should be following. These women may come in many different colors, are from all over the country, and we all raise our children differently, but what we have in common is being there for our children. We have taken on a job that not everyone could or would take. Some may do a better job than others, but at least they try and for that they deserve regard and understanding.

With media and pop culture having such a huge influence on the lives of Americans there should be care involved when showing characters from specific groups. This could be anything from race, economic status, sexuality, or people like single mothers. What producers and advertisers do to gain more revenue has a large affect on viewers and they need to take care to make sure their actions are biasing people against one another. If I have learned anything throughout this course, it’s that you are who you are, not who you see on television and films. It’s important to remember is to keep who you are in mind while watching the constant flow of media that streams through our lives and be that person, not the person media wants you to think you are.

 

 

Citations

Barghi, S. (2012, October 13). Afghanistan Kidnappings: Two Foreigners Missing From Aid Team. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/13/afghanistan-kidnappings_n_1963205.html?utm_hp_ref=afghanistan-war-blog

Cookson, S. (Director). (2014). Paycheck to paycheck: The life and times of Katrina Gilbert [Motion picture]. HBO.

Fessler, P. (2012, July 11). To Beat Odds, Poor Single Moms Need Wide Safety Net. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2012/07/11/155103593/to-beat-odds-poor-single-moms-need-wide-safety-net

Hynds, P. (n.d.). News: Balance Bias with Critical Questions. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/news-balance-bias-critical-questions

Kjellstrand, E., & Harper, M. (2012). Yes, She Can: An Examination of Resiliency Factors in Middle- and Upper-Income Single Mothers. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 311-327.

Mothers by the Numbers. (2015). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/momcensus1.html

Parker, S. (Director). (2000). Sex and the city [Motion picture on DVD]. HBO Home Video.

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2 thoughts on “Single Moms Portrayed in Media: Welfare Bound or Hard Working Women?

  1. Kristashep, I feel really connected to your post. I am not a mother, but I grew up without a father for a few years of my life. My mom always worked hard to take care of me and did everything she could to make my childhood rich with adventure. I also feel that you did a great job smoothly integrating your learning moments into the post! Your blog flows really well because of that. However, it would have been nice to see more pop culture artifacts portraying your identity of a single mother.

  2. Hi Kristashep,
    You brought up some really good points and I’m really glad you brought awareness to this topic. It is sad that the media sees some single moms this way. Same for all other things, there are people that “ruins it for the rest” but not everyone should be seen and punished for other’s mistakes. Thank you for sharing your findings and thoughts, it was a very interesting blog!

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