Narratives of the Single Mother: An Exercise in Discursive Hybridity
This video project uses hybridity as a method to expose and disturb the information circulated in the United States about the causes and solutions to domestic poverty. As a poet, I have been interested in video poems as a way to transform potential audiences for poetry. Video poems—along with Instagram poets—are upending what it means to create poems and what it means to consume them. In addition, as an academic, I have become interested in understanding the ways social scientific knowledge gets circulated and transformed, especially in this era of moving images and digital technologies. This project is an attempt to bridge those parts of my identity/interests and hybridize their distinct languages to see what is gained when we remove these discourses from their silos and imagine them in conversation.
Since “out-of-wedlock birth” is identified as the main driver of poverty in our current welfare legislation, my video project works to juxtapose news footage documenting the welfare debates leading up to and following the 1996 welfare “reform” legislation (The Vanderbilt Television News Archive was an essential resource), clips from the television show Gilmore Girls, and YouTube video footage of (and about) single motherhood with my own poetry. The poem excerpts I read in the video are from my book All Throats Sound Animal (Cider Press Review, 2018). My life as a child of a single mother who received public assistance is often a subject of my poems. I’ve juxtaposed these clips as a means to explore how the complexities and affective dimensions of those narratives that get told to us (and that we tell) about poverty both maintain and disrupt social scientific “truth.”
As I constructed the video project, I was conscious of my desire to create a project that was both self-reflexive and power-reflexive. That is why, as I composed my video project, I made an effort to let the seams show. For example, instead of editing out moments where the audience might see my cursor clicking on a video, I allowed my presence in the composition to stay visible. I chose video that was marked so it was clear where (and, if possible, when) it came from. Also, I attempted to make my own position and presence in relation to my research topic clear. I chose a YouTube video of a man using Google Maps to talk about how the neighborhood I grew up in in Buffalo, NY is getting safer and how the property values are increasing there, and I even included a ghostly moment where a little girl appears in front of a laundromat as he is passing by with his cursor. When making that choice, I thought a lot about how the surreal allows for ruptures in the “real.” The little girl image is a way to suggest my own presence in this research project, not just as composer, but as a person who is impacted by the narratives this project seeks to explore. I repeat that image whenever I cut from my personal voice to the news and television footage.
Gilmore Girls, a show that was on television during my teenage years, depicts a white single mother succeeding “on her own, without help from anybody” whilst paradoxically being from an extremely wealthy family that gives her financial assistance in the first episode so she can send her daughter to a private school. This is a narrative of meritocracy that doesn’t seem to see the inconsistencies within itself, and I hoped the juxtaposition of this narrative of single motherhood with others from the “real” world might help illuminate the inconsistencies and flaws in that narrative.
For “real” world narratives, I looked to news broadcasts about welfare reform. I wanted the newscasters’ representations of these women and video footage of the women themselves speaking—although it became increasingly clear that the interviews were included in ways that often fit into the newscasters’ narratives. Also, I didn’t want to ignore the complex ways that race is dealt with by these narratives. Gilmore Girls seems to try to pass “whiteness” off as universally American. In my research, I found that white women seemed to be more regularly interviewed to voice that their poverty is because they are a “victim of circumstance,” whereas images of black women seemed to be used to reinforce pejorative stereotypes of the generational welfare recipient whose own laziness, bad choices, and bad mothering are to blame for poverty. For example, in one scene the newscaster can be heard saying, “she figured that she might as well get a job after nine years on the public dole,” or “she is a third-generation single mother” while depicting a black woman on the screen screaming at her children. I hope that my video works to expose and push back against the racist dimensions of the welfare debates rather than perpetuate them further. I felt especially aware of this danger when the preponderance of footage of home health care aides available on YouTube was negative portrayals aimed at ‘catching’ home health care aides who were abusive or lazy. Because of these limitations, the care work footage that I chose to include was from a video depicting a white home health care aide in the UK.
Ultimately, I was interested in hinting at the fractures and problems in the narrative that the “solutions” to the problem of poverty are marriage and work. To show this “solution” to be a product of a paternalistic perspective that hides itself, affectively, behind a veneer of rationality and data graphs, I repeated images of a man beside a bar graph from his YouTube video, “The Truth About Single Mothers” and scenes of Lorelei Gilmore interacting with her fictional father, as well as NBC footage of Social Scientist Charles Murray speaking about the “problem of blacks.” The clips share an aesthetic style that I would characterize as condescending and hyperrational-seeming. I wanted this project to challenge the supposedly objective and social scientific rational discourse that doesn’t recognize itself as an aesthetic style.1 I’m hoping that surrounding their voices and demeanors by other aesthetic styles might emphasize the way their affects repeat one another and reinforce one another. Also, I attempted to get at the complexity of how, even though “work” is put forth as the solution throughout these narratives, the disdain for feminized and racialized jobs, such as being a maid or home health care aide, leads to that labor being undervalued and underpaid. It makes Lorelei Gilmore’s assertion that she “worked her way up” from being a maid “to running the place now” almost absurd, and it exposes the power that is often rendered invisible by our public acceptance2 and reiteration of that bootstrap narrative.
This process of creating this video was both intellectual and intuitive. I hope that, in generating and disrupting meanings and feelings, this video does its small part in getting us to think more critically about how knowledge moves within and between public, artistic, and social scientific discourses.
- Both Dorothea Smith’s (1987) critique of the ways social scientific discourses hide their upper-class, male-centric, and “ruling” biases beneath a veneer of knowledge production that is supposedly universal and rational and Lauren Berlant’s assertion that “the seeming detachment of rationality […] is not detachment at all but an emotional style” informed my thinking here.
- Wahneema Lubiano’s “Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means” informed my thinking here. She writes that “Photographs and other salient narratives are the means by which those who have power (or influence the maintenance of power) make or attempt to make sense of the world for others. Such narratives are so naturalized, so pushed by the momentum of their ubiquity, that they seem to be reality. That dynamic is the work of ideology.” Ultimately, she argues that narratives do the work of “masking” power. This led me to consider, as I made this video project, whose power is being masked by these narratives?