You can't really blame Gwyneth Paltrow for thinking that office jobs are easier on working moms than the kind of job she has. "I think to have a regular job and be a mom is not as, of course there are challenges, but it's not like being on set," she said. She is a TV and movie star, and as such, she probably believes everything she sees on TV and the movies. And the fact is I have yet to find one -- yes one -- TV show that I watch (forget the movies) that doesn't make being a working mother look like a piece of cake. That is, if there even is a working mom character in the show.
Take Modern Family, America's favorite show. Until very recently, there was not one working mom on that show, even though 40 percent of all U.S. households have a working mom who is the primary financial provider! Even in the case of gay couple Mitchell and Cameron, Cameron stays home to care for Lily. Yes,in this season Claire has gone back to work, but she is working for her father in the family business, and doesn't seem to have a lot of work demands. How can a show that bills itself to be about a Modern Family not have a real life working mom character?
Parenthood gets a little closer. In that show, about four siblings and their families, Julia used to work -- but her husband Joel stayed home with the kids. When Julia quit, Joel went back to work. There was no time when they were both working and caring for the kids. Sara is a single mom and working... now that her two kids are college age and out of the house. Jasmine seems to work -- but it's hard to figure out what she does and it doesn't seem to be very demanding.
The Americans, ironically enough, comes the closest. In that show, the central characters are Russian spies whose cover is that they are married, co-own a travel agency and have two school age kids. As the mom, Elizabeth is often trying to juggle getting breakfast ready while making sure lunch is packed, and she and Phillip actually talk to each other about who is doing what (as in "it's your turn to take the kids to school.") But the problem with Elizabeth as a prototype of a working mom is that she seems almost beyond human. Given her "night" job of being a spy, she is out on "missions" at all hours and rarely seems to get any sleep. She is extremely fit -- but it is unclear when or how she has the time to work out. Her life may be more real than the lives of working moms in other shows, but she herself is less human -- and she's a Russian spy -- so it's hard to relate to her on a personal level.
This gaping hole in the roles that women play on TV is not filled by the movies. The Geena Davis Institute for Women in Media has analyzed the roles that women and men have in 100 of the most popular PG and PG-13 rated films theatrically released between September 5th, 2006 and September 5th, 2011 (as well as family films shown on TV and in other media). That report, issued last year, found that female characters made up only 20 percent of characters with jobs, while male characters made up the other 80 percent. In fact, the report found that: "Not one woman is present at the top of the business/financial sector (e.g., financiers, senior economic officials), the legal arena (e.g., attorney generals, chief justices), or the field of journalism (e.g., editor in chief)." Not one.
Instead, what kind of job are female characters most likely to have? An office job, of course! The report states that "administration is the only major group where females make up a larger proportion of the workforce [in these family films] than do males, which is presumably due to the low status and gendered nature of secretarial or clerical work."
No wonder Paltrow thinks that most women have office jobs.
To be fair, men are also stereotyped by the movies, and this same report found that "Males are more likely than females to be shown working in two careers: the armed forces and crime." But for some reason, it is easier to find a male character on TV who is juggling work and family than to find a female character.
I think Paltrow's comment should be a call to working parents around the country to demand TV shows and movies that show us in real life, that celebrate the joy of parenting while having a career -- and that show the hard truth about how hard it is to do both in today's society -- because of workplace policies and public policy that have yet to catch up to the lives of both working moms and dads, and because of our the expectations we have all internalized that this should all be a piece of cake, like in the movies and on TV.
And don't forget to share the TV shows and movies that you think do a good job portraying a real modern family. I want to start watching them!