A little over a year ago, ABC newswoman Elizabeth Vargas was sitting - literally - at the pinnacle of her profession, having been named a co-anchor of the ABC "World News Tonight." After her colleague Bob Woodruff was gravely injured while covering Iraq, she was left to staff the anchor desk solo, the only female anchor at the helm of the prestigious 6:30 p.m. news program at the time.
Now, a year later, Vargas is no longer a poster child for women in the media. Instead, she's a poster child for the choices women make when forced to negotiate between work and family. In the spring of 2006, Vargas announced that she was pregnant with her second child. Soon thereafter, sheannounced that following her maternity leave, she'd be back on the air, but not on "World News Tonight." Instead, she accepted a co-anchor spot for the weekly news magazine, "20/20."
A flurry of media attention followed. Women's groups protested a pregnant woman being given the boot. Vargas herself kept fairly mum. And she didn't really explain much about the controversy in her widely publicized "20/20" return from maternity leave. (Her comeback was promoted in a national ad campaign which quoted her saying, "I grew up thinking I could have it all. I was wrong.") We didn't hear the full story until a Vargas interview was published in the December issue of Marie Claire, when Vargas said ABC made the certain terms of her working at "World News Tonight" non-negotiable. So Vargas explained that she decided to gamble. "I think it's a good bet that I'm gonna have another shot at job like this," she said.
But the interview was overshadowed by the hub-bub over the full-page image which accompanied it: A photo of Vargas' head atop an image of a different woman breastfeeding a baby from behind an anchor desk. While wearing a shiny yellow blouse nonetheless. And the whole point that Vargas was trying to make - that she had to pick a mommy track because the network was being inflexible - was overshadowed by the sensational Photoshopped image.
Why should we care so much about how Vargas' family and work choices were handled by the media? The same reason we care about whether Dr. Miranda Bailey on "Grey's Anatomy" is portrayed as a full, flesh and blood working mom and not a one-dimensional, heartless workaholic. The same reason we care about watching high-powered ad executive Lynette Scavo struggle with her husband over child care issues on "Desperate Housewives." And the same reason we bother watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus' portrayal of a divorced, single mom, gym owner battling Stepford-esque Super Moms at her son's private school.
All these women -- fictional or not -- help us figure out how society views the multitude of incarnations of working motherhood. By observing how Hollywood entertainment gurus perceive modern mothers, we get a sense of how far the struggle of all moms - for respect, for equality -- has progressed . . . or how much more needs to be done to try to even the playing field between moms and dads. Or how much societal pressure working mothers are really under to achieve parenting and career perfection, even when there are no similar expectations for dads.
This column, "Working Moms in Pop Culture & Politics," will focus each week on working moms in the media, how the likes of "Good Morning America," NBC "Nightly News," the New York Times and People Magazine handle stories about motherhood and what their portrayals say about the status of motherhood, circa NOW. It will also look at maternal popular culture on TV, from how Allison Dubois on "Medium" splits her time between the DA's office and her home, and how popular movies, like "Little Children" project working moms on the silver screen. Additional stories about mothers, from the halls of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and writers' rooms in Hollywood, to in between the pages of fiction and non-fiction literary offerings, will find their way into this space.
And I hope you'll come along for the ride.