Murphy Brown is returning to television.
Few television shows have incited the kind of culture war that Murphy Brown did in 1992, when the fictional unmarried journalist portrayed by Candice Bergen bore a son. The announcement of the reboot coincides with a new analysis of census data showing the largest increase in fertility over the past decade occurring among never-married women with advanced degrees.
When Murphy Brown gave birth to her son, Avery, in the early 1990s she was portrayed as an aberration. Today, 25 percent of never-married women in their early 40s are mothers — including me.
So does this mean the criticism that greeted the fictional Brown’s choice — including from then-vice president Dan Quayle, who said the show “mock[ed] the importance of fathers” — is a thing of the past? Not quite.
In many respects, Murphy Brown deserves credit for making single-parenting feel less lonely for moms like me than it must have been a generation ago. Today, resource and support groups such as Single Mothers by Choice and Choice Moms proliferate. Women’s magazines regularly publish articles on “do-it-yourself motherhood.” New research demonstrates that, for children raised by well-educated, older mothers, there is no different in educational or economic outcomes between those who grow up in married or unmarried households. Some researchers go so far as to deem single women who have children on their own the “true super moms of the family story.”
But in other ways, society has been slow to adapt. As a single mother of a 3-year-old son, I’m routinely shocked at how frequently institutions still operate as though heterosexual two-parent nuclear families are the norm. For example, when I showed up for the mandatory childbirth education class with one of my girlfriends as my birthing coach, the instructor appeared genuinely flummoxed. Separate “Muffins for Moms” and “Donuts for Dads” days at my son’s preschool leave me scrambling to make alternative plans.
Why, in an era when more than 40 percent of births occur outside of marriage, is my family made to feel like an outlier? Although we are hardly aberrations, many of us in “nontraditional” families are still forced to contort ourselves to outdated customs.
Worse still, two decades after Murphy Brown left the airwaves, Americans are still locked in a tense cultural debate over family structure. Although privileged white single mothers are now largely exempt from moralistic finger-wagging, low-income single mothers of color are routinely disparaged for their “poor choices.” Their poverty is blamed on their failure to follow the “success sequence” — the supposedly magic bullet of completing at least high school, obtaining a full-time job and getting married before having a baby. The idea gets promoted widely in conservative think tanks and policy circles, despite the fact that there is virtually no data to support the marriage part of the equation. It is a high school education and full-time job that account for the differences in poverty rates. And black families experience fewer economic benefits from following the success sequence than do white families, suggesting that broader factors, such as workplace discrimination and a racially biased criminal justice system, play more important roles.
Part of the reason such ideas remain so pervasive is there is little in popular culture to challenge them. A recent study found the news media routinely pathologized black families, overrepresenting them in stories about poverty and welfare. Such depictions reinforce the myth that black fathers are less involved in their children’s lives, despite evidence to the contrary.
For those of us who followed in Murphy Brown’s footsteps, it is a tantalizing prospect to have her back on the air, providing us with a model for single motherhood later in life. How nice would it be to see Avery having grown into a thoughtful and empathic young man, belying the insulting rhetoric that still gets propagated, about single-mother households being damaging for boys? How interesting would it be to learn how Brown’s career fared as she juggled the competing demands of work and solo parenting? And how refreshing would it be to see a positive representation of a powerful and mature woman like Murphy Brown navigating love and companionship — in or outside of marriage?
But for this reboot to be meaningful, Murphy Brown 2018 should go further than it did in did in the 1990s and address issues affecting a broader range of families.
With its overwhelmingly white cast, the original show could not confront stereotypes and misperceptions of single women of color who bear children on their own. A new version that took representation seriously — on- and off-camera — could help normalize how American families have evolved. As Murphy Brown said on the show, addressing Quayle’s criticism directly, “perhaps it’s time . . . to recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes. And, ultimately, what really defines a family is caring and love.”