indulgence

by rantywoman

I have ambivalent feelings about people who become single mothers on purpose and couldn’t do it myself, but then I have no support system for it. I admire women taking the reins into their own hands, but I am wary of the “baby at all costs” mentality.

Two recent posters here are on opposite sides of the fence on this issue. Due to that debate, I found this interesting (and I for one would feel like my lifestyle had become “ghetto” if I had to fund a child on my own, but then I am especially prudent financially):

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/roiphe/2013/07/bias_against_single_mothers_the_response_to_an_hbo_documentary_shows_this.html

I was initially drawn to Nina Davenport’s documentary First Comes Love (premiering July 29 at 9 p.m. on HBO) because of a tersely disapproving, suspiciously snide notice in the New York Times. The review seemed to contain just the blend of tight-lipped moral disapprobrium, of simmering resentment toward the artist that usually signals something intriguing or alive. The reviewer said that the filmmaker, whom I had known very distantly in college, was on “her favorite subject—herself.” The review implied that in this vivid documentary account of having a child on her own, with a sperm donor friend, Davenport came across as somehow shallow or vain.

The documentary has attracted admiring notices, as well, but other reviewers were equally condemning or vehement. Slant writes, “Davenport doesn’t seem interested in taming her unwieldy vanity, and thus her documentary reads as a match.com profile recontextualized as cinema narcissismo.” Time Out writes that Davenport “approaches a hot button issue from the most suffocatingly narcissistic perspective imaginable.” And Variety calls First Comes Love “irritatingly self indulgent.” Doesn’t this intrigue you, so far? Aren’t you curious about what this terrible, narcissistic, self-indulgent person has done?

Part of what Davenport has done is make a difficult, rich film about her own experience. (How dare she? What vanity! What narcissism!) And part of it, I am quite sure, is that she has gone ahead and had a child on her own. The logic here is revealing: There is something about single motherhood that people see as selfish, or self-indulgent, or narcissistic, in a way that they don’t see the urge for a child in a married woman. It is as if a single woman were somehow going against nature, daring to ask of the world some fulfillment not due to her because she does not have a man behind a newspaper at a kitchen table. This manifests in precisely the sort of slightly uncontrolled moralism on display in the reviews.

This suspicion of the single mother’s motives, the sense that she has some untoward reason for acting as she does, and is not thinking generously of the child in the way mothers are supposed to, takes very weird forms. The New York Times reviewer, for instance, said that she “rather liked” Davenport’s father in the film. The reason she “rather likes” him is that “he’s the kind of parent who thinks caring for children means more than just cheerleading.” Of course, he also calls his daughter a “dilettante” for pursuing an unlucrative career in the arts, without a husband to take care of her. He also comments, when she says she wants to have a child, “You are a single mother having a fatherless child. Sounds like the ghetto.” Definitely not a “cheerleading” parent, in other words. His own wife observes that he is enjoying hurting Davenport’s feelings. But what the New York Times reviewer is telling us is that this man seems more sensible, more likeable to her, than Davenport, who is romantically, bravely, unsensibly, pursuing what she wants.

What we see, barely cloaked, is the distaste for the hubris, the “narcissism” of thinking that you can raise a happy child on your own.
Many people in the film tell Davenport that she shouldn’t have a child because of her financial insecurity, and yet many reviews chastise her for apparent “privilege,” for her “casually affluent family.” (Though they don’t seem casually affluent to me. They seem very deliberately self-consciously affluent.) So, in fact, the single mother is, as usual, attacked for being poor and for being rich, for not supporting a child and for being able to support the child. Is there any position a single mother could make a movie from that would be acceptable to the critics, both in her life, and in the world? The answer is probably no.

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