Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dear Tyler Perry,

I saw your latest movie, The Single Moms Club, advertised on TV a couple of weeks ago. As a single mom myself, I was naturally intrigued yet doubtful that my kind of single mom -- a single mother by choice -- would be represented.

As single moms go, we are still very much in the minority, though our numbers are increasing. My guess was that you -- the creator and performer of the outrageous Madea -- might not know about SMCs or, if you had heard of them, would choose to ignore them when assembling a group of single mothers. Please don't take offense. It would hardly be the first time someone in the entertainment field overlooked the SMC!

So let me first apologize for my ignorance about you. Indeed, I was happily surprised to look up at the big screen and see the talented Wendy McLendon-Covey (Beverly on The Goldbergs) proudly state in an early scene of your movie that she (Jan) was a single mother by choice.

Fantastic! Of five single mothers prominently featured, one of them was an SMC. Kudos to you, Mr. Perry.

Let me take another moment to make a second admission. I have never watched any of your other films. I've seen Madea in commercials and trailers, of course, and not found that over-the-top brand of humor my cup of tea, so to speak. Thus, I have not taken the time to go to any of your movies until now. Suffice it to say, my expectations for The Single Moms Club were low.

Again you happily surprised me. I enjoyed it. I liked the premise: five stressed-out single moms whose children are getting in trouble in school are told to work together on a school project. Though they are very different, they learn to take comfort in the sisterhood they create together. I liked the cast. I liked the dilemmas the women and children faced. (In other words, I found them believable.) And I liked the poignant resolution to the lost-boy story.

Some aspects of the film bothered me a little, but I'll forgive you because I understand this is Hollywood. You needed a crowd-pleasing ending for your feel-good film. You needed to make things more simplistic than they would be in real life as you only had so many minutes of screen time with which to work. I get it. You weren't making Inception after all.

For example, how convenient that a gorgeous, available carpenter just happens to move next door to one of the moms! During her acrimonious divorce proceedings, she could use a thoughtful boyfriend as well as someone to build an enchanted-forest set for the moms' fundraiser project. Or how about the very first man the SMC considers in a romantic capacity in ten years being an equally gorgeous co-worker of another single mom?! (In case you're wondering, being celibate for a decade like Jan is not unusual for SMCs, as surprising as that may seem to the general population.) Your predictable devices were not inspired, but I'll give you a pass on them.

However, what I do want to take issue with is your portrayal of the SMC character. Honestly, could you have made Jan any more unlikable?! Wow. She has got to be one of the nastiest female lead characters I've seen on film in recent memory. She is full of herself, uptight, rude, bossy, and a know-it-all. Completely insufferable, in other words. She is determined to make partner at her large publishing company but is held back by her daughter whom she finds annoying and "a brat." Not surprisingly, Jan's daughter Katie doesn't feel loved by her mother. Katie spitefully tells Jan that she wants to get married when she grows up so she won't be a single mother via anonymous sperm donor like her mom. Ouch!

Here's the problem, Mr. Perry. You've got SMCs all wrong. I have been one for a decade and have been talking to them for even longer. SMCs are not self-centered, as you make Jan out to be. They are the complete opposite: self-sacrificing. Every day they are focused on making money to financially support their child or children and meet his, her, or their basic needs by putting food on the table, washing their clothes, creating a comfortable home, etc. Assisted by no tag-teaming with a husband or ex, SMCs take their children to every sports practice and game (unless they arrange a ride with another parent); pay all the monthly rent on their kids' trombones or clarinets; and singlehandedly juggle luggage, a baby carrier, a stroller, and the young ones contained in both through airports and rental-car agencies so that everyone can once in a blue moon have a much-needed vacation.

SMCs willingly and happily do all of this solo because they wanted their children so much. They arrived at their decision to have a child or children in various ways. In some cases, marrying a man as a means to having a family is not a choice they would make because they are gay. In other cases, they have thrown themselves into their careers to such an extent that their social lives and romantic lives have suffered. They simply didn't have time to pursue a relationship that might have led to marital union. Still others tried hard to find Mr. Right but didn't have him when they needed him, i.e. when their biological clocks were ticking loudly.

While some women finding themselves in this predicament might have settled for partners who didn't seem exactly right, others held the institution of marriage in such high regard that they opted not to chance a likely divorce scenario. Still, they had love to give, so they elected to undertake the radical and life-changing process of giving birth to or adopting a child or children on their own.

It remains a very difficult decision to make, for obvious reasons: bringing a child into the world or into one's life is a huge responsibility that cannot be understated. But just because a male partner may not be there doesn't mean the desire to have a child is also not there!

Going from being a childless woman to an SMC is no easy transition, let me tell you. It is very costly. It can take a lot of time. It can cause a lot of frustration. It often involves many fertility treatments; years of failed pregnancy attempts or adoption snafus; and, needless to say, heartache from both. I won't bore you with any more specifics. I shouldn't have to because after enduring all of this don't you think the woman who finally succeeds in becoming a mother is going to be eternally grateful? Of course, she is! She has worked long and hard to achieve her dream. She is ecstatic.

Very soon she will discover that single motherhood is no cake walk, especially if she has a weak or nonexistent support network, sketchy finances, or a challenging child. She may learn that her workplace is not SMC-friendly and eventually change jobs, as Jan did. She may feel some aggravation that she can't reach her work goals due to her family obligations. Who could blame her after all her years of higher education and career experience climbing the ladder of success? Yet one thing is very certain: she would never call her child a brat or make her child feel unloved! Her child or children are most important to her in life. That's what it is to be an SMC, Mr. Perry. It's to put your child first. It's also to want to put your child first.

I have a couple of suggestions for you. If you were set on creating a character who loves her job more than her child, then you might have chosen to make her divorced or going through a divorce. Men and women in countless numbers end their marriages for all sorts of reasons including one spouse (or both) being a workaholic. You certainly wouldn't hurt the legions of divorced women as a whole one iota if you had changed Jan's marital status. However, by making her the rare SMC instead of the garden-variety divorcee, you are making a statement that is both incorrect and insulting. You are feeding into a "selfish" negative stereotype that has no basis in reality and only serves to offend.

Unfortunately (and, personally, I really resent this), many of us who are SMCs have suffered through being labeled "selfish" when we announced to our families and even some of our friends that we planned to pursue single motherhood or having a second child. (For the record, some SMCs are raising more than two children.) The breaking-the-news conversation can be quite unpleasant -- with additional name-calling, blaming, and belittling. I have received this treatment from members of my own family, and I know plenty of other women who have as well. Not surprisingly, the would-be single mother is left feeling isolated and demoralized by the very people who should be supporting her.

If you were determined to include an SMC -- and, by no means, am I opposed to you and others doing so! -- you could have chosen a different problem than her horrible personality for her to overcome. Maybe she couldn't invite friends over because she was stretched too thin by her job and child-rearing to have the time and energy to put her home in order. Now that's a credible predicament. Perhaps The Single Moms Club could have converged on her home and all worked together to clean it up. Or suppose the SMC lacks balance in her life and can't find time to visit the gym regularly. The ladies in The Single Moms Club could take turns picking her up at work and taking her to the gym to make sure she gets there. The workouts help her improve her mood and shed the Ben & Jerry's muffin top she is trying to conceal. The other moms, meanwhile, could coordinate the care of daughter Katie during that time -- making her dinner and being available for questions about her homework. Instead, you gave Jan a boyfriend (or what looked like an almost-boyfriend), which is far from an SMC's greatest need and the easiest trick in the book, frankly.

I realize that my ideas wouldn't produce glamorous resolutions for Jan, i.e. they're not Hollywood enough. But they are real. They are authentic. And they are an immensely satisfying ending for a single mother by choice -- both the one onscreen and the one in the audience.

In short, please be more careful with your future characterizations, Mr. Perry. They have repercussions on real people. As such, they should be accurate and handled with sensitivity. Otherwise, thank you for an entertaining movie.

Sincerely yours,

Shelby

P.S. If you need a consultant to help you better understand the life of an SMC, I am available.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. Misrepresenting groups of women is par for the course for Tyler Perry.

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  2. Thank you, LorMarie. One poor characterization can cause a lot of misunderstanding and pain. It needs to be called out.

    ReplyDelete