During this past season of The Mindy Project, Mindy had a baby. When baby Leo arrived, it became clear that the opposing lifestyles that made Mindy and Danny’s will-they-won’t-they so cute were, in the context of raising a child, a total disaster. It’s a testament to the writing of TMP that after three seasons of wanting it, I was left with the decisive feeling that Mindy and Danny should not be together by the end of the first half of its current fourth outing.
Since returning from its mid-season break, TMP has hit the reset button. We have returned to the date-of-the-week format that Mindy popularised in season one. What’s changed however, is Leo. At the beginning of the show, a lot of Mindy’s determination to find her perfect guy came from the desire for marriage and family. She thought she found that with Danny, got engaged, had Leo, and then everything fell apart. Now she wants to reverse engineer the thing, while caring for Leo and starting her own business.
I actually really like the way that The Mindy Project has dealt with Mindy’s unexpected single parenthood. Is it realistic? Not especially. But it is a representation that we haven’t seen before: it’s mostly a positive one. Yes, Mindy feels guilt and sadness that her relationship with Danny didn’t work out, and worries what the implications for Leo could be, but she isn’t feeling shame. We aren’t presented with the fact of her single parenthood as a reason behind her mistakes and disasters. Nobody is judging her. The people in her life are mostly either supportive or pretty indifferent about the situation.
Even the attempted shaming of Mindy doesn’t really land. In Danny’s absence, the conservative viewpoint is supplied by Mindy’s latest sexy-but-disapproving love interest, Jody. His strict views are only ever used as a punchline – he calls himself an old fashioned gentleman while sleeping with 18-year-old college students and sometimes, his brother’s wife.
In Bernardo and Anita, a high point in the season and the series as a whole, during a dinner party when Mindy makes a joke about being an Indian unmarried mother, Jody responds: ‘to be fair I think parents of any race find that shameful’. Silence falls. Nobody at the dinner party is into Jody’s opinion. It’s deliberately awkward and said with the intention of making Jody, not Mindy, look bad. To prove the point, the moment is contrasted with another at the end of the episode: Mindy’s parents make a rare appearance to tell her how proud of her they are. Any remaining barbs from Jody’s remarks are neutralised.
This stands in pretty stark contrast to the single parents of TV history. I loved the show and I am awaiting the Netflix revival as eagerly as anybody, but throughout the seasons of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai Gilmore was consistently shamed for the circumstances of Rory’s birth. She had Rory as a teenager, and despite considerable pressure from her parents, made the decision not to marry the guy who knocked her up. That her parents disagreed with this decision defined their relationship throughout the show. No matter what she did – work her way up to a manager in the hotel she used to clean, get her business diploma, eventually buy and run her own inn, not to mention raising a successful, ivy-league-college attending kid – she was still a failure in their eyes.
As much as I loved the show, this drove me nuts.
This is the pervading representation of single parents of TV. They are the perpetual screw ups. They had a kid and then they broke up with its dad, and this apparent ‘failure’ is used as a reason and a magnifier for all the subsequent mistakes they make. Just ask Emily Gilmore.
I’m not saying that all of the drama is unjustified. Single parenthood is hard, and not most people’s first choice, but what frustrates me is its inextricable connection to the idea of failure – if you’re a woman, anyway.
The trend is apparent in Lauren Graham’s other seminal role as a single parent, Sarah Braverman in Parenthood. Sarah Braverman, at the start of the series, is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Braverman brood. After her relationship with her drug addict partner ends, she and her children return home to live with the grandparents. At the beginning of Parenthood, Sarah is characterised by her failings. She can’t afford a home, and can’t get a job, her children are out of control. She has none of the pieces of A Successful Life that the other Braverman siblings do and serves as a foil to her sister, Julia the successful married lawyer. Once again, single parent equals screw up.
I think a lot of it has to do with ingrained notions of what women ‘should do’. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the nuclear family – husband, wife and 2.5 children – is what we are taught to strive for. So when we’re presented with a woman who couldn’t keep that ideal together, who perhaps chose to leave it or never even wanted it in the first place, we assume there must be something wrong with her. We are stuck in a never-ending discussion of whether, as women, it’s better to stay in miserable relationships ‘for the kids’ or make the ‘selfish’ decision to leave, as the miserable relationship somehow doesn’t touch the lives of the children such parents are supposedly serving. The dialogue of shame is constantly fed.
Seeing The Mindy Project shrug all this off has been so refreshing. In her interactions with her friends and colleagues there is no sense of doom about Mindy’s life as a single parent or Leo’s future. It’s simply the next incarnation of her life. Yeah, it can be difficult, but whatever comes up, she and Leo figure out and thrive. It is my hope that in future television we see single mothers depicted as strong, resourceful and caring women without the need to shame them.