JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Girls participate in a meeting of the West Branch, Michigan, babysitter union in 1947 (photograph appeared in Women’s Home Companion, March 1947)

Male undergraduates at Princeton University participate in a meeting of the Tiger Tot Tending Agency in 1947 (photograph appeared in Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 13, 2002)

This 1958 ad suggested that getting a sitter would be “a cinch” with a Motorola TV in the house.

 

 

Nobody’s baby

review by Kirsten Pike

Babysitter: An American History by Miriam Forman-Brunell (New York & London: New York University Press, 2009). 328 pages. $30.

Think back to junior high. (Try not to cringe.) Remember what it was like to miss out on a get-together with friends so that you could babysit the neighbor’s kids? For many of us, especially girls, babysitting was a tradeoff. Some of us didn’t really like to “sit,” but it was one of the few ways to earn a little extra spending money. Thinking back, I suspect that my experience as a babysitter—especially my dissatisfaction with being poorly compensated and my seeming powerlessness to do anything about it—was one of the stepping-stones in my future path towards feminism. And after reading Miriam Forman-Brunell’s excellent book, Babysitter: An American History, I am certain that I’m not unique in this regard. Indeed, one of the author’s many significant accomplishments in her social and cultural history of babysitting over the past century is the way she brings girls’ voices—along with their frustrations and ambivalent feelings about babysitting—to the fore. Girls’ perspectives on “minding the children,” combined with Forman-Brunell’s astute analysis of how babysitters have been represented and debated across a number of cultural forms, make for absorbing reading—notably highlighting the ongoing tension between girls’ desires for equality and independence and “adults’ profound uncertainties about the unprecedented possibilities of teenage girls” (3).

Because girls’ voices are so often diminished (or worse, silenced) in popular accounts of their lives and cultural practices, Forman-Brunell’s painstaking work to uncover the thoughts and experiences of youthful female babysitters is incredibly important, not to mention fascinating. Early in the book, for example, we learn about fourteen-year-old Sylvia Plath’s unpleasant encounter babysitting two boys in Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1946, which she detailed in a paper for English class (years before her career as a published writer). After being goaded to read until her “throat ached” and jumped on during a game of “Kill the Bear,” Plath surmised that

“little children are bothersome beings that have to be waited on hand and foot, who are generally around when not wanted, and who are, all in all, a nuisance” (56).

Although Plath is clearly one of the more famous youthful voices in Babysitter, the book also introduces us to countless other girls whose opinions and practices were discussed in popular newspapers and magazines as well as in personal correspondence with the author. Forman-Brunell guides us, quite seamlessly, through an expansive body of historical artifacts, including teen magazines such as Calling All Girls and Seventeen, adult-oriented periodicals such as Parents Magazine and the Journal of Home Economics, and a diverse array of archival materials, such as letters, surveys, babysitting guides, songs, advertisements, and urban legends. Along the way, we learn remarkable stories about girls who resisted unfair treatment by forming sitter unions; girls who offered helpful advice to other sitters on handling inconsiderate employers and unruly children; girls who acted heroically on the job; and girls who countered problematic practices—from low wages to prank phone calls—with clever tactics of their own (e.g., developing slang to express dissent and blasting loud music into the ears of would-be harassers).

In addition to shedding new light on girls’ subjectivities and customs, Forman-Brunell successfully demonstrates how the figure of the babysitter has functioned as a lightning rod for adults’ anxieties about gender and generational changes. In the opening chapters, for instance, the author shows how bobby-soxer sitters of the 1940s and 1950s were critiqued in the popular press for raiding the refrigerator, running up the phone bill, and canoodling with boys on the job—a pattern that underscored adults’ (especially men’s) worries about the increasing social, economic, and sexual freedoms of girls after World War II.

The cover of Albert L. Quandt’s Baby Sitter (1952) suggested that babysitters were interested in much more than babysitting. Cultural anxieties about feminism gave rise to sexy sitters such as Charna, the sexpot protagonist in Vin Fields’ The Baby-Sitter (1964).

Later, we learn how cultural anxieties about girls who were influenced by second-wave feminism played out on the big screen in sexploitation films such as The Babysitter (1969) and horror films such as Halloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979). In The Babysitter, a youthful temptress named Candy (of course!) seduces the middle-aged man for whom she babysits. Although the film imagined “new erotic possibilities for American men excited by the sexual freedom of teenage girls,” it also offered dire warnings (139). As Forman-Brunell explains,

“Babysitters like Candy were cock teases and catalysts able to destroy men’s marriages and diminish male authority” (139).

In her exploration of horror films, Forman-Brunell draws on the work of Carol Clover and Linda Williams to reveal how a “gallery of maniacs” used “aggressive containment strategies” to victimize, terrorize, and punish independent sitters who transgressed normative gender boundaries (140). Especially insightful is her analysis of how the telephone—long associated with the autonomy of teenage girls—became an instrument of intimidation and torture in the hands of male psychopaths who felt threatened by liberated girls. In When a Stranger Calls, the male maniac torments the babysitter with chilling phone calls, and in Halloween, the murderous Michael Myers strangles one of his young female victims with a telephone cord. Indeed, the author seems quite right in her assessment that

“as growing numbers of pleasure-seeking, anti-authoritarian girls continued to mount challenges to traditional standards of girlhood, more maniacs attempted to contain girls by silencing them” (155).

The male maniac in When a Stranger Calls (1979) torments the terrified sitter with phone calls asking, “Have you checked the children?” Responsible sitters, Marcia and Greg, call the police on The Brady Bunch (1970).

Babysitter: An American History includes nine chapters as well as the introduction, notes, and bibliography. Chapter 1, “The Beginnings of Babysitting,” traces the rise and form of babysitter discourses that circulated in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, this chapter establishes how, since the early twentieth century, critics have envisioned female adolescents as a “social problem” in need of reform. As Forman-Brunell explains,

“The fear that teenage girls threatened the future of American family life led experts to establish a blueprint followed by succeeding generations: to provide girls with advice that appealed to their desire for autonomy and yet affirmed their femininity” (22).

The chapter also imparts how popular discourses about boy “child tenders” differed considerably from those about girls. Whereas experts aimed to socially rehabilitate selfish, pleasure-seeking girls, boys were lauded as babysitters par excellence—a pattern that consistently reemerged throughout the twentieth century, despite the fact that boys have been much more likely than girls to hurt children on the job.

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Wonder Woman appeared as an Amazon babysitter in this 1957 Wonder Woman comic strip. (DC comic book #90, May 1957)

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