Murphy Brown’s Daughters

Pregnant Kim and Vanessa (trakt.tv).

Pregnant Kim and Vanessa (trakt.tv).

Has Dan Quayle ever watched Drop Dead Diva? I doubt it, but recent episodes might horrify him.

In 1992, our then-Vice President warned Americans about “Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice”. This season, Drop Dead Diva built on that Murphy Brown script.

Drop Dead Diva was a fairly vanilla Lifetime network show. The stars are overwhelmingly female, and the lead character, Jane, is a warm woman you’d befriend. An accomplished lawyer, Jane is inhabited by the spirit of a deceased, perky model and leans left politically. But this season, Jane, the show’s most vocal liberal, appeared conservative by contrast.

Jane hasn’t changed – she’s still eyeing marriage – but the show’s storylines have. Last season closed with Kim, a partner at Jane’s firm, telling her boyfriend Jay that she was pregnant. This season opened with Jay’s disappearing to Toronto, following an old flame and the son he had recently discovered, while Kim prepares to parent solo.

Some of this was clearly driven by external events. The actress who plays Kim is pregnant and due in August, so the writers wrote her pregnancy into the show. Meanwhile the actor who played Jay was axed for budgetary reasons. But couldn’t the writers have found another way to write him out? Must Jay have abandoned Kim and their baby?

A second major storyline involves Jane’s best friend, Stacy. Stacy, an actress-turned-entrepreneur, recently sold her bakery. Flush with cash and time, Stacy decided seemingly out of nowhere that her real ambition is motherhood. Single Stacy started investigating anonymous, and then not-so-anonymous, sperm donors.

Stacy and Jane clashed after Stacy revealed that her ideal “genetic material” donor was Owen, the man Jane nearly married last season. Jane didn’t want her best friend raising Owen’s child, since she still hoped to reconcile with him. But neither of them noticed how odd it was to speak about a flesh and blood man they both know – and whom Jane loved – as a sperm donor, rather than a real person and father-to-be.

The actress who plays Stacy doesn’t appear to be pregnant, so what inspired this subplot? And why portray characters speaking so reductively about men? Women justifiably complain when men reduce us to sex objects. Why not also object when (fictional) women speak about (fictional) men as nothing more than sperm donors? That denies men a role in parenting beyond procreation and helps neither women nor children.

Finally, Kim represented a woman who had to establish a legal basis for inheriting her deceased boyfriend’s fortune. In court, the woman revealed that she and her boyfriend had been undergoing IVF treatments, trying for a baby. Post-trial, the client decided her next step should be (single) motherhood, since “it’s what [her deceased boyfriend] would have wanted.” On another show, this might seem coincidental; here it looks like a pattern.

Single motherhood is undoubtedly increasingly common. In its recent “Breadwinner Moms” study, Pew Research found that 63% of those breadwinners, or 8.6 million women, are single moms. That group is “younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree.”

Kim was apparently raised by her mother after her father left, but she better resembles the women who out-earn their husbands: “Married mothers who out-earn their husbands are slightly older, disproportionally white and college educated.” Kim is only in her mid-thirties, but she is both white and a senior partner at her law firm. According to a report by The National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, Kim’s flying solo puts her in a cohort of only 6% ; single motherhood remains the road far less taken among college educated women.

And why isn’t Stacy looking for a lasting relationship, rather than using Owen as a sperm donor? She likes that Owen is a “good guy,” but “good guys” also tend to be involved fathers. California, where the show is set, offers fathers paid leave, and 76% of new fathers use it. Are the show’s writers simply making a cultural statement, a la Murphy Brown?

When Dan Quayle argued that fathers are valuable, it was controversial, though his sentiments are now conventional wisdom. Ironically, even actress Candice Bergen, the self-identified liberal who played “Murphy Brown,” later remarked, “’His speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.’” Amen to that. Fathers are part of strong families and deserve not to be written out of our televised, or personal, stories.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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