In 1992 Vice President Dan Quayle addressed American “family values” in a speech that vilified sitcom character Murphy Brown for being a strong single mother. Twenty years later we’re still having this conversation as Rick Santorum both victimizes and attacks single mothers in a recent interview, ignorantly emphasizing the “need” for what he calls “two parent families” (by which he means married, heterosexual, nuclear couples). While this rhetoric is not at all surprising considering the revival of Social Conservatism in this country(and the fact that the nuclear family is central to its politics) , it is beyond problematic. Simultaneously, as Quayle so destructively pointed out twenty years ago, we see how the cycle of narrow representation of families in the media drives the discrimination against these same families in American society.
Americans have long been challenged to attain this unrealistic image of the nuclear family. Contrarily, much of our history is characterized by familial structures that aren’t nuclear and by people marginalized because of their inability to “live up to” this framework. The nuclear family is driven by racist, classist and heterosexist stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, of paternity and maternity that are even oppressive to the individuals and families that embody it. These stereotypes are enacted in the media daily.
It’s been thirty years since The Second Shift was first published and women are still working it. Almost thirty percent of all families with children in this country are single-parent households: 24% of households are single women. While it’s true that many single mothers struggle intensely, a tiny portion of this struggle could be eased if they weren’t constantly being told by the media and beyond that their families are inadequate. On television we almost exclusively see women as the primary nurturers and parenting magazines and websites are consistently “mommy-fied”, almost entirely excluding men from the parenting conversation. So while single-mothers must be given agency in this country, the larger problem of gender discrimination is one that essentializes women into primary caregiving in the first place.
While the issue of the absent father is a very real one (and painful one for many), whether he’s physically uninvolved with the family or emotionally unavailable to his children, the media isn’t doing much to encourage a healthy fatherhood. Media images of fatherhood consistently deem men inadequate and unreliable caregivers. Isn’t it a problem that Will Arnett is the only stay-at-home-dad I’ve seen on television who isn’t actively emasculated and defined by a failed career or a wife who’s worried he’ll feed the kid Kool-Aid for breakfast? Or that Modern Family’s Cam and Mitchell are some of the only gay fathers on network television? Even though they’re the upper-middle-class white characters that are totally over-represented on television, the fathering models they enact reinforce men as active, nurturing parents.
The cycle is clear, as caregiving is still seen as “women’s work”, men are overwhelmingly taught to be validated by their identity in the public sphere (by their paid work), and cycles of sexism, classism, racism, and heterosexism (among others) ensue accordingly. To his credit, at least Santorum is straightforward. He vocalizes his desire for the nuclear family while both parties have consistently privileged it and enforced it through legislation since the beginning of our history. So many American families struggle to be taken seriously and since there are so few spaces in mainstream media fully challenging the stereotypes perpetuated by this model, it looks as though Santorum’s nuclear agenda is seen by far too many as relevant.
What Santorum doesn’t realize, though, is that his mission has and will always backfire. By encouraging people to attain this failed model of a family, Santorum actively works against the needs of families in this society. Telling families what to look like, whether through politics or through media implication, creates a cycle of marginalization that oppresses families who deserve to be commended, represented, and uplifted. This is a battle constantly being fought in both the political arena and in our social spaces, and when voices like Santorum’s are privileged to run for President it proves just how dire this situation really is. Thankfully, if Santorum’s legacy ends up anything like Quayle’s, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him much after 2012. Sadly, it’ll take much longer than that to overturn these stereotypes.
Note: This post was updated at 2.03pm EST 11/10/2011 from its original version posted at 9:56am on 11/10/2011.