Babysitting was dubbed “the newest profession” on the cover of Life magazine in July 1957.
In case this 1964 Barbie forgets her proper role, her helpful apron will remind her. (Mattel’s Barbie the Babysitter book, 1964)
While babysitting, Lizzie comforts her younger brother, Matt, when they think an intruder is trying to break into their house (Lizzie McGuire, 2001).
Members of the short-lived series, The Baby-Sitters Club (Disney Channel, 1990), smile through the pain of cancellation.
Not unlike their teen horror film counterparts, a mysterious caller haunted preteen girls in this 1986 installment of Ann M. Martin's The Baby-Sitters Club book series. (Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls, 1986)
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 address discourses surrounding babysitters in the 1940s and 1950s. Chapter 2, “Suburban Parents and Sitter Unions,” examines teenage girls’ efforts to eliminate labor abuses through organizational alliances and adults’ responses to their efforts. Interestingly, we learn that while female writers for women’s periodicals generally supported sitters’ unions, male writers for mainstream periodicals often castigated girls who attempted to implement babysitting rules or contracts. Chapter 3, “The Bobby-Soxer Babysitter,” explores how the figure of the bobby-soxer sitter—who, according to one critic, “raided the icebox and jitterbugged with the crowd”—was shaped by conservative postwar ideologies and popular perceptions of teen girls as pesky and irresponsible (69). It also examines the ways that girls used slang to express their dissatisfaction with bratty kids and tight-wad employers. Chapter 4, “Making Better Babysitters” investigates how politicians attempted to curtail babysitters’ rights as workers as well as how experts tried to “purge the bobbysoxer out of the babysitter” through babysitting training courses and literature (94). Together, these chapters powerfully illustrate that despite the efforts of cultural authorities to make babysitters “more dependable and less independent,” girls countered unfair business practices and questioned rehabilitative strategies that sought to restrict them (119).
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 explore representations of babysitters in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Chapter 5, “Boisterous Babysitters,” surveys the mixed messages about sitters that circulated in the 1960s. Drawing impressively on archival materials from such collections as the Girl Scouts Archive in New York and the Folklore Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, Forman-Brunell demonstrates how cultural artifacts—from toys and TV shows to social guidance films and urban legends—encouraged girls to assert their agency, but also cautioned them “to watch their step and limit their horizons. Or else” (121). Chapter 6, “Vixens and Victims: Porn and Horror,” examines attempts to control transgressive girls in media of the late 1960s and 1970s. The analysis reveals how soft porn’s sexy sitters served to titillate men while maniacs in horror movies sought to menace girls “[in] retaliation for the purposeful redefinition of girlhood and womanhood and the attenuation of manhood” occurring in society at the time (157-158). While Chapter 7, “Sisterhoods of Sitters,” notes that representations of out-of-control babysitters circulated widely in media during the 1980s and 1990s, it focuses primarily on the era’s preteen “Super Sitter,” who appeared in magazines and fiction, such as the Baby-sitter’s Club book series. Building on the work of scholars such as Ilana Nash and Nancy Tillman Romalov, Forman-Brunell argues convincingly that
Chapters 8 and 9 examine discourses about babysitters in the 1990s and 2000s. Importantly showcasing girls’ perspectives, Chapter 8, “Coming of Wage at the End of the Century,” details concerns that contemporary girls have about babysitting—from gender inequities and low pay to creepy employers and devilish kids. As one female informant complained about economic disparities between boys and girls,
Although girls in Forman-Brunell’s survey conveyed frustration with their working conditions, they were also hesitant to address grievances with their employers—a pattern the author connects to the ways girls are (still) socialized to embrace traditional ideals. Chapter 9, “Quitter Sitters: The Fall of Babysitting,” chronicles how many girls have abandoned babysitting in favor of other activities. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Mary Celeste Kearney, the chapter also highlights how twenty-first century girls are combining new media technologies with a modern do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos to tell different kinds of stories about sitters. Specifically, through alternative songs and satirical videos, we learn how girls are meaningfully challenging adults’ mainstream visions of babysitters.
Although Babysitter: An American History does touch on TV programs featuring sitters, such as The Patty Duke Show (ABC, 1963-1966), Charles in Charge (CBS, 1984-1985; First-run syndication, 1987-1990), and made-for-TV movies from the 1980s and 1990s, numerous television shows get only a passing reference and many memorable babysitter episodes go unmentioned. As such, a fuller investigation of babysitter representations on TV would be an interesting area for future research. While several sitcoms have featured plots about adults who babysit, including The Honeymooners (“The Babysitter,” 1956), Father Knows Best (“Baby in the House,” 1957), The Lucy Show (“Lucy, the Baby Sitter,” 1967), The Doris Day Show (“The Baby Sitter,” 1969), and All in the Family (“Archie, the Babysitter,” 1976), numerous others have featured stories about teen sitters.
For instance, “The Babysitters,” a 1970 episode of The Brady Bunch, portrays thirteen-year-old Marcia and fourteen-year-old Greg’s first experience babysitting their younger siblings. When their worried parents return home early to check on them, Greg—thinking they’re intruders—calls the police. All ends well when Mike and Carol realize that their kids are in good hands.
This plotline resurfaces roughly thirty years later in an episode of Lizzie McGuire called “Misadventures in Babysitting” (2001). In the updated tale, Lizzie, her younger brother, and her friends design clever stunts (a la Kevin in Home Alone) to thwart the would-be prowler, who is really Lizzie’s dad. The recycling of this story for contemporary audiences suggests that babysitting is still an important site for the negotiation of gender and generational power dynamics. It also raises crucial questions about our culture’s willingness (or not) to embrace more empowered representations of teen girls. Other TV series that have explored the trials and tribulations of youthful babysitters include
In addition to these series, future scholarship on television’s teen sitters might consider My Babysitter’s a Vampire, a new Disney Channel show for tweens featuring actress Vanessa Morgan as a supernatural sitter. Given that representations of white babysitters have dominated our cultural imaginary for over a century, Morgan—who is half black and half white—stands out as a welcome addition to the body of babysitter representations in popular culture.
Of course, babysitters make up one part of the childrearing labor force in the U.S. So while outside the purview of this book, another area of inquiry is the role of maids, nannies, night nurses, and daycare centers in the history of American childrearing. Although youthful, white, suburban sitters undeniably experienced inequities on the job, it is important to remember that domestic workers—many of them African-American and Latino—suffered from low wages and unruly children as well as countless other social, economic, and political injustices related to their non-white, non-middle-class status. Like babysitters, representations of domestic workers have been explored in a range of media—from films, such as Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959) and The Help (2011), to TV shows, such as Beulah (ABC, 1950-1953) and Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present). Surely it would be productive to consider representations of domestics alongside those of babysitters when teaching media histories of domestic labor. To this end, another book to watch for is L.S. Kim’s Maid for Television: Race, Class, and Gender on the Small Screen, which examines representations of domestic labor on TV.
Miriam Forman-Brunell’s Babysitter: An American History has far-reaching implications. Not only does it valuably recover the history of girls’ domestic labor, but it also offers significant insight into the contradictory ways that girls are imagined, debated, and targeted by experts, advisors, and creators of American popular culture. Like other popular discourses aimed at female youth, babysitter narratives have repeatedly told girls to be autonomous yet accommodating, strong yet malleable, powerful but not completely empowered. In so carefully tracing these historical patterns alongside girls’ subjective experiences, Forman-Brunell encourages us to consider why these patterns still persist while reminding us of girls’ resilience, resistance, and resourcefulness across multiple generations. At the end of it all, we are left with the overwhelming impression that despite cultural attempts to encourage girls to cultivate the baby-minder within, many of them have chosen not to listen. Girls may sit for the baby, but they are nobody’s “baby” themselves. Meticulously researched and cleverly written, Babysitter is a must-read for anyone interested in the important yet oft-overlooked history of babysitting and the gendered politics of representation in U.S. popular culture. It’s a delightful book that I encourage you to recommend—not only to your students and colleagues in the academy, but also to your friends, family members, and former babysitting employers.