As we’ve already noted here on Harpyness, Mother’s Day is upon us. Naturally, this is giving people license to speculate on who best represents motherhood — and one TV critic believes that pop culture is positing Kate Gosselin in that role. Gosselin is the titular Kate in Jon & Kate Plus 8, and while I will admit that I have never watched that show, I find myself confused about why Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik has declared she may be TV’s new model of motherhood. Actually, I’m more confused about why there needs to be a model of motherhood, let alone why we would look to a television show to provide one.
Zurawik’s piece is very short, and asks:
But if June Cleaver represented the passive, repressed, housebound, 1950’s mom, what does Kate represent with her large brood, constant kvetching, passive-aggressive husband and control issues? And if Kate is the paragon of motherhood today, and what does that say about us?
Uh, maybe nothing? Just because a TV show is popular (and is currently receiving tabloid coverage) doesn’t at all mean that it holds some greater truth about what motherhood is. Not to mention, I don’t remember anyone — other than Zurawik — saying that Gosselin is “the paragon of motherhood today.”
Looking to pop culture to provide a model representation of any segment of the human experience is an experiment that will almost always fail, but Zurawik is hardly alone in searching for a paragon of motherhood as he channel surfs. There is a reason that the aforementioned June Cleaver became such an icon, as did Donna Reed. They were followed by Carol Brady in the seventies and Clare Huxtable in the eighties; but then the situation changed when the most popular sitcoms ceased to revolve solely around familial situations.
There were no models of motherhood to be found on Seinfeld or Friends or Cheers, and the most recognizable mother on TV became Marge Simpson. It’s worth noting that the most discussed TV mom in the nineties was Murphy Brown, whose decision to be a single mother generated a firestorm of controversy. In other words, it seemed that we had come a long way since the days of June Cleaver. But was that true? Those fun patriarchal standards of what constitutes a good mother were not about to be eradicated by one television show. The simple fact that the question of who the best TV mom is goes to show that there is still a cultural need to harness that unwieldy being of motherhood into a neat and tidy representation.
The biggest difference between the days of June Cleaver and the days of Kate Gosselin is that TV shows no longer pretend that every mother is content to stay in the kitchen wearing an apron over her perfectly ironed dress. But it’s preposterous to treat Gosselin as if she embodies some larger truth about maternity. To do so would be equivalent to supposing that American Idol is an accurate representation of the music business. The images of all reality TV stars are as carefully managed as those of the actors who star in sitcoms. It’s a safe assumption to say that Jon & Kate Plus 8 strategically edits footage so that the Gosselins’ actions can be projected from whatever angle best serves the producers’ purposes, in which case there is no way that Kate Gosselin can be an unfiltered representation of motherhood.
Is Zurawik alone in thinking that the star of a reality TV show is truly being held up as a paragon of motherhood? I hope so. Not because I have anything against Kate Gosselin — as I said, I’ve never seen her show — but because the need to look to anyone, let alone a woman who’s famous for a reality TV show, to embody modern motherhood is a fallacy. Motherhood is not some monolithic entity that can be represented by any one woman, fictional or not. So Happy Mother’s Day to all, and here’s hoping that, whatever your style of mothering may be, you don’t feel the need to measure yourself against any mom you see on TV.