TV Eye

Mommy Matters

Can I write at the same time about "The Power of Madonna" episode of Glee (Fox) and Sunshine – Austin filmmaker Karen Skloss' meditation on how the "unwed mother" has morphed into the more acceptable "single mother" in her lifetime? I'm going to give it a shot, because "The Power of Madonna" episode and Sunshine travel over similar territory. Each project's mission is distinctly different, but there is something curiously familiar in both.

Glee is about high school kids who sing in glee club. Their biggest nemesis isn't rival glee clubs at other high schools; it's their own school's ferocious gym teacher/cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). She's the one who decides the school should have a Madonna Day to celebrate her personal hero. Inspired, glee club director Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) decides his students should work up Madonna numbers in order for the girls to feel empowered and the boys to understand and appreciate the girls. He does this after overhearing Rachel (Lea Michele) ask the girls how to say "no" to a boy without making him mad. Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera, aka the "bad" girl) says: "That's easy. I never say no."

"What's the worst that can happen?" Brittany (Heather Morris) chimes in. "Oh, sorry, Quinn."

Quinn (Dianna Agron) is the girl who turned up pregnant last season.

Austin filmmaker Karen Skloss (l) examines single motherhood in <i>Sunshine</i>, which airs May 4 on PBS.
Austin filmmaker Karen Skloss (l) examines single motherhood in Sunshine, which airs May 4 on PBS.

In the documentary Sunshine, Skloss turns the camera on herself when she, like her birth mother, finds herself pregnant and single. She revisits the time when unwed pregnant teens (particularly from families of means, like her birth mother) were spirited away to special homes to wait for the birth of their babies while sheltered from the heat of social stigma. Because Skloss' film is so intensely personal, she can be forgiven for ignoring the larger issues of class privilege or the lack of control over one's personal reproduction. I don't mean "lack of control" as in a personal failing. I mean control as in knowledge of and access to contraception. Skloss' birth mother admits (as does Skloss) that they didn't think "it" (getting pregnant) could happen to them. It's a typical response from any young adult with no fear of consequences and the concomitant sense of entitlement.

While I understand Skloss' film is her personal narrative, because it skates so very close to the edge of self-indulgence, I couldn't help but be distracted from her story by the daily sight of mostly brown, teenage girls holding their pastel-wrapped babies and with backpacks slung over their shoulders as they wait for a Capital Metro bus to attend the high school near my house. The unwed mother story is not any more unique to Skloss than it is to those nameless girls on my street corner. And while Skloss is ultimately interested in interrogating the idea of family, I can't shake the sense that her happily ever after story is still missing something vital.

There are many hilarious moments in "The Power of Madonna" (as in the re-creation of Madonna's "Vogue" video staring Sue Sylvester). There are many touching moments in Sunshine (as when Skloss is "introduced" to the elder members of her birth family by her birth mother's father, in the family's burial plot). But what seems desperately out of bounds from both projects is a direct discussion of female desire. In Glee, sex is something that happens to girls and is of greater interest to boys. In Sunshine, it is something that happens when you get swept off your feet (as Skloss' birth mother says). And while Skloss is ultimately more interested in the idea of family, I can't help but be disappointed in her happily ever after story. Not approaching female sexuality as something inclusive of but beyond child bearing, or beyond what "bad girls" do, seems a lost opportunity. Or maybe that's simply another person's film.

Local PBS affiliate KLRU will host a community screening of Sunshine Tuesday, May 4, at 8pm in the Austin City Limits studio, at the corner of Dean Keeton and Guadalupe. The event is free and open to the public. Filmmaker Skloss will be in attendance for a prescreening panel discussion. For those unable to attend the screening, Sunshine airs May 4 at 9pm on PBS. It is also now available on DVD. For an interview with Skloss, see "An Expanding Definition of Family," March 13, 2009.

Glee airs Tuesdays at 8pm on Fox.

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Glee, Sunshine, Karen Skloss, The Power of Madonna, teenage pregnancy, female desire

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