2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
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. 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).
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.
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
“the well-balanced preadolescent ‘Super Sitter’ reconciled anxieties about the dangers of female autonomy with the desirability of feminine accommodation” (178).
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,
“I have always thought that it is odd to pay a boy $10.00 to shovel your walk for an hour and a girl a dollar an hour to watch your most precious creation” (182).
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.
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