Jennifer Aniston is promoting her upcoming comedy “The Switch,” about a single woman who becomes a mother through artificial insemination. In one interview. Aniston commented that “Women are realizing more and more that you don’t have to settle, they don’t have to fiddle with a man to have that child.” This rankled Fox News’ star blowhard Bill O’Reilly, who regarded Aniston’s remark as an endorsement of unwed and under-age motherhood, and told his cable audience that Aniston was “throwing a message out to 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds that, ‘Hey! You don’t need a guy, you don’t need a dad!” His verdict: “That’s destructive to our society!…Aniston can hire a battery of people to help her, but she cannot hire a dad, okay?” Social conservatives immediately lined up behind O’Reilly, eager accept Bill’s invitation replay the two decades-old spat between Candace Bergen and Dan Quayle. That famous debate ensued when Bergen’s TV sitcom character Murphy Brown, a single professional woman, had a “fatherless” baby and Quayle accused her and the show of irresponsibly representing voluntary single-motherhood as a perfectly acceptable alternative to a traditional mother-father-child family. The E! crowd, which has been very protective of Jen since Angelina Jolie snatched away her husband, as well as the many bloggers and journalists who believe O’Reilly is the devil incarnate, immediately ridiculed Blowhard Bill’s shot as the rantings of a antiquated fuddyduddy.
It’s not that simple.
To begin with, Dan Quayle was dead right, and even Candace Bergen, whose liberal and feminist credentials are impeccable, ultimately agreed that he had a valid point. The cavalier manner in which Murphy Brown had her fatherless baby and then farmed the child out to various caregivers while using her substantial financial resources, trivialized the issue of single-parent childbearing and unwed motherhood. It did send an irresponsible message to teenaged girls who might regard having a baby as fun and glamorous rather than a life-altering commitment and a severe disadvantage for the child. Murphy’s baby, once all the pregnancy plot lines had been exhausted, essentially vanished after he was”born,” because the main action in “Murphy Brown” was the workplace. This was also misleading: a baby becomes the center of a single mother’s life, while Murphy appeared to be functioning as if nothing had changed, letting her funny house painter take care of her son all day without any apparent alteration in her routine or stress level.
Hollywood does send a damaging cultural message to girls with the way its stars so often treat marriage as a mere optional accessory to child-bearing. O’Reilly’s general point is a fair and important one. As usual, however, he went too far, suggesting that fathers are essential to successful parenting, and in so doing denigrating the millions of mothers who have to raise children alone through no fault of their own, without a Hollywood salary, and still do a wonderful job of it.
He was also extremely unfair to Aniston, who was making a simple statement of fact: women who want a child but who have not found a man to be a partner and father need not abandon the dream of starting a family. “You don’t have to settle” is an important idea, in fact: “settling” on a poor potential father in a desperate effort to have a child not only often leads to single parenthood anyway, but also divorce, infidelity, or abuse. She was not talking about 14-year-old girls in Gary, and actresses do not have an obligation to ensure that every public utterance they make is 100% immune from misinterpretation by someone without a high school diploma.
Aniston’s choice of words was unfortunate, however. Her use of “fiddle” could give the impression that she believes having a father for one’s is a mere inconvenience of life, like doing the dishes, that has finally been rendered obsolete by the miracles of science. I don’t think that’s what she meant or believes—she did marry Brad Pitt, after all—but public figures are accountable for what they say, and both she and O’Reilly know their comments know that their statements and the words they use to make them will have influence far, far beyond what their wisdom, expertise and authority justify.
Both had legitimate points to make on the issue of single parents, and both should have been more careful with the scope of their comments. O’Reilly, however, unfairly condemned Aniston, whose sentiments he linked to the destruction of society when she did no more than make an accurate statement of fact.
Sorry, Bill. You were unfair and disrespectful to Jennifer Aniston and used her off-the-cuff remark as an excuse to re-enact Quayle vs. Brown. But Jennifer is no Murphy Brown: you’re the ethics loser this time.