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Film: Single mother saves the (celluloid) world

She may not be favoured by New Labour, but she's the new heroine of Hollywood, says Jane Eastoe
The political demonisation of single parents has become a regular feature of the news. On the big screen, however, the usually reactionary Hollywood is spawning a series of reverse rescue fantasy films featuring single mothers as heroines. Think Jerry Maguire, think One Fine Day and now think As Good as it Gets.

Single mothers are the modern day damsel in distress. The perfect Hollywood heroine: brave, strong and noble, struggling and toiling for the well- being of their offspring. They offer the acceptable face of vulnerable femininity.

It is a novel concept - speaking as a single parent I am inured to the daily headlines. I have accepted my unwished-for membership of a group that carries the burden of responsibility for all society's ills. I am used to being represented as a scrounging loafer, an individual of low moral fibre and a parent of children who will, I am reliably and regularly assured, perform less well and behave worse than their two-parent contemporaries. It is a profoundly depressing representation.

Hollywood, however, looks set to redress the balance with a born-again view of the single parent - possibly equally ludicrous in its extremes, but refreshing for all that. The Oscar-winning film Jerry Maguire first introduced the revolutionary concept of single parent as heroine. As Good as it Gets, starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, looks set to repeat the success, having already scooped a Golden Globe Award, usually an early indicator of Oscar winners.

In As Good as it Gets, Hunt (single parent with sick child for value- added heartstring tugging) plays the romantic lead. It is the story of two misfits - one, played by Jack Nicholson, is handicapped by an obsessive personality disorder; the other is attractive and hardworking, her only apparent disability her lone parent status. The two wrongs together make a right. Sort of.

Then there was Jerry Maguire. An uncharacteristic moment of professional morality brings about the loss of job, friends, and fiancee. The only person to stand by him is the vulnerable single mother. He falls for her, falls for her kid, marries her for her loyalty and then is so patently miserable that she engineers a break-up.

Maguire, of course, eventually comes to his senses. The single-mother heroine gives him the opportunity finally to emerge as the good guy. She allows him to rescue her and he redeems himself both personally and professionally.

In a nutshell, the lone-parent heroine offers her male lead the chance to be a better man, and he does not have to swim ravines or wrestle with crocodiles to be her hero. He just has to be good to her, to love her and to love her kid. Strong, single, sexy, women just cannot compete. How can they play fragile, vulnerable and dependent without looking dopey and unappealing? There are no complications, no difficulties to overcome, no imperfections to overlook.

The have-it-all, super, single heroine, is altogether too straightforward for a convincing screenplay. That is why the story of the guy who can have any girl but elects to choose from the reject pile is such a great story. It is a modern-day, cinematic fairytale. It is heart-rending, nail- biting stuff because it is so unlikely.

One Fine Day starred two single parents - although it if all single parents looked like Michelle Pfeiffer or George Clooney they would not have to worry about battling alone for too long. But I am missing the issue here.

Pfeiffer is the struggling lone parent, Clooney the part-time parent. His survival does not rest on his ability to keep, as Pfeiffer puts it: "all the balls in the air". While Clooney has the pick of the female gene pool, Pfeiffer has the handicap of lone parenthood. For her, for all single parents, just keeping up with work is a struggle, without the complication of dating.

Clooney redeems himself by choosing Pfeiffer, a woman he clearly cannot afford to mess about. In Hollywood you can muck a woman about, but you do not hurt a kid. If you date a single parent, hurt one and you hurt others. As Jerry Maguire's "show me the money" footballer, Rod Tidwell, proclaims: "A single mother man, that's a sacred thing."

It is, of course, different for men. Single fathers, as seen in Jack and Sarah and Sleepless in Seattle, are hugely desirable, As devoted lone parents they are perceived by women as emotionally attractive.

In Hollywood terms, lone mothers have to conform to a type to make heroine status. First, they should have just the one child. Second, they work. Third, they do not talk about their past and never, ever bitch about the ex. Fourth, they have a support network - mother in As Good as it Gets and sister in Jerry Maguire - an essential if romance is ever to get off the ground. In Hollywood terms, all she needs is the love of a good man to make her life complete.

Reality is somewhat different, but that is Hollywood for you and it is OK. In fact, it makes a refreshing change; it is about time the balance was redressed. Sigourney Weaver once commented: "It's harder to be a single parent than to fight an alien." That may be something of an exaggeration, but Single Mother Saves the Universe (and gets her man) is a bit of Hollywood fluff and nonsense. And that is fine by me.