‘Nasty little breeders’ no more?
Channel 4's Pram-face showed that single mums are now viewed as victims rather than villains. Is that really any better?
Channel 4’s Cutting Edge series last night examined a perennial modern-day folk devil: young working-class single mothers.
In Pram-face, documentary maker James Cohen followed the day-to-day lives of two 20-year-old single mums, Ala and Abby, over a six-month period. Ostensibly, the programme attempted to counter the relentlessly negative portrayal of single mums in contemporary culture. The documentary’s title, ‘Pram-face’, is itself a reference to the derogatory slang coined by gossip webzine Popbitch to denote single-mum ‘chavs’. It’s doubtful, however, whether this frankly dull documentary will do much to change perceptions.
Ala and Abby came across as self-assured and photogenic enough to dispel the stereotype of gormless Vicky Pollards put forward in Little Britain. And as they rather self-consciously and laboriously demonstrated, they don’t have horns and they do know how to change nappies. No doubt Cohen and the participants believed this would be a riposte to the anti-single mother lobby, but it only showed how far they themselves have come to be influenced by the negativity about these women.
At the outset of the programme, the pair wanted ‘to tell their story’ in order ‘to prove’ that they are good mothers. It quickly became apparent how such gnawing self-doubt only creates clients for the therapeutic state. The two women, for instance, seemed well-rehearsed in counselling-speak, with Abby talking of her ‘recovering alcoholic’ mother, her ‘traumatic childhood’ and her ‘self-esteem’ issues. Yet off-guard they also revealed their disdain for snooping social services and their desire to be autonomous adults. It seems that today’s therapeutic sensibility often requires people to go against their better instincts (by appearing on programmes like this, for a start).
Nevertheless, the young women were not set up to look ridiculous or to be ridiculed. But they were portrayed as something equally dubious: victims. And as has been pointed out previously on spiked, the status of victim and villain are often interchangeable. So while listening to Ala discuss the difficulties of single motherhood might generate concern among viewers, it can just as easily flip over into contempt of the ‘well, don’t have kids then’ variety. Substituting sympathy for seriousness, though, was only one of this programme’s glaring flaws.
The main weakness was that it took media rants against single mothers at Pram-face value. To attempt to ‘put the record straight’ only gives credence to such saloon-bar prejudices. At different times over the past two decades, the bile projected against working-class single mothers has said more about the accusers than the accused. So in the Eighties and early Nineties, the social fragmentation fostered by the then Conservative government in the UK was routinely blamed on single mums’ ‘anti-family values’. For today’s New Labour politicians and liberal commentators, working-class single mothers constitute a ‘health problem’ because, we are told, they raise kids whose mental and physical health is apparently at risk.
Whichever way it’s addressed, the discussion around single mothers is actually more important than the reality of being one. By concentrating solely on the latter, Pram-face was unable to tackle the former head-on. Most viewers probably didn’t need to see endless footage of dingy bedsits to realise that working-class single mothers live in poverty. It would be far more useful to ask why the government is more concerned with poor parenting than it is, say, with paltry benefits and services. If our leaders are so concerned with children’s welfare, why aren’t they introducing 24-hour free crèche facilities for working mums?
Thus, a Cathy Come Home-style balance sheet on ‘the facts’ is ineffective here, because today’s views on motherhood are not based in ‘reality’ anyway. For instance, it has been claimed this week that women having children in their thirties and forties create as many ‘health risks’ as do teenage single mums – and that claim was based more on a subjective low-opinion of people than on concrete evidence. When you consider that Pram-face was featured on Channel 4’s health webpage, you wonder exactly what message is being sent here.
Cutting Edge’s loose premise – that, hey, working-class single mothers are ‘all right’ really – would only be revelatory to peddlers of the real ‘Pram-face’ jibes. And even then, the programme’s plea for pity is as likely to elicit sneers as induce sympathy. Either way, beleaguered single mums need a better redress than this.
Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.