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Moms on TV are white, young and thin

Moms on TV are white, young, and thin. Over three times as many moms are desirable as those who are  unattractive. Only 1.8% are fat, 6.2% are queer, and no moms are disabled. These are results from a study of US-made TV programmes by Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

It shows pictures of moms in a stark contrast to the demographics of the population. It highlights the potential for more diverse depictions of motherhood on screen that reflect moms in reality, the institute says.

Of all TV moms of kids under age 18, 57.5% are white, 23.8% are Black, 9.2% are Latina, and 7.0% are Asian or Pacific Islander. 

“When a TV family has a clear breadwinner, nearly 9 out of 10 times it is a dad. In real life, the myth that moms’ salaries are not necessary to their families’ finances is pervasive, untrue, and limits moms’ earning potentials.” 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, among families with children ages 6–17 in the US 44.4% of mothers earned at least half of the family income, with another 24.8% earning at least a quarter of it. TV does not reflect this reality, the institute stresses in a report.

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Other findings:

  • The realities of childcare are invisible on TV. Only 1 in 5 TV parents with kids under the age of 11 mentioned any form of childcare. The rest of the time, audiences are left to assume that these children are cared for safely and effortlessly. And this glosses over the difficulties of securing, coordinating, and affording childcare. In reality, 85% of primary caregivers in the U.S. reported that their focus at work and commitment to work are negatively affected due to challenges with childcare.
  • TV homes are spotless, but we almost never see the work involved to keep them that way. Less than 1 in 10 TV parents had a messy house, and yet only 15.0% were shown doing domestic tasks like cleaning. In the real world, research shows that even when both partners have jobs, 70% of moms take on more domestic tasks and more of the mental load 
  • Nearly 8 out of 10 moms are slender, as were 6 of every 10 moms with a child under the age of one. The necessary steps to achieving this level of physical beauty are not shown on screen. These unrealistic standards broadcast a message that attractiveness is effortless and affordable and thus should be attainable for the everyday mom.
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The institute advices TV executive and producers some actions to improve the picture of moms in TV shows:

  • Provide flexible work options for writers. Those most qualified to write realistic stories about motherhood are moms themselves. However, given the precarity of jobs in TV writing, it is not easy for writers who are also moms to navigate the industry. Flexible and hybrid work schedules will provide moms with more opportunities to succeed as writers.
  • Invest in childcare and gender-neutral paid family leave for employees. Without affordable childcare, moms cannot work. 
  • Cast mom characters with more diverse backgrounds and appearances. The white, straight, thin TV mom has never been a reflection of reality. However, even as we see more diversity on TV, nearly half of mom characters still fit this description. Challenge this by showing moms of color, queer moms, fat moms, disabled moms, and moms who do not look perfectly styled at all times. Organizations like The Geena Davis Institute can help assess your progress with this goal.

TV writers should show parents grappling with things like the current childcare crisis and the need for paid leave. And they should write and cast more moms of all races and ethnicities who have disabilities, are queer, and have a range of body sizes, the institute’s report says.

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