- Babysitter: An American History
Miriam Forman-Brunell's newest monograph, Babysitter: An American History, is a welcome addition to the histories of adolescence and girlhood which have increasingly emerged over the last dozen years. Forman-Brunell is one of those rare academics who easily bridges disciplines, using the methods of the traditional historian, the literary critic, and the popular-culture commentator to present a well-researched and highly readable narrative about babysitters—who are among the most visible, yet invisible, figures in American culture. While babysitters (most often teenage girls) became a ubiquitous element of twentieth-century American domestic life, the discourses that underlie and structure the topic have never previously been examined, or even named. This is the biggest contribution that Forman-Brunell makes to the subject: dragging it out of intellectual obscurity and subjecting it to systematic analysis. She reveals that the history of babysitting has been fraught with competing ideologies about youth, gender, and the American family, from its inception in the 1920s to the present. Organized chronologically, Babysitter charts the historical shifts in American domestic life and economics that gave rise to the need for babysitters in the early twentieth century and juxtaposes those historical facts with insightful analyses of the discursive field that formed around the subject in subsequent years.
Forman-Brunell locates this history in a variety of sources including babysitting manuals, newspaper and magazine articles, college archives, educational films, horror films, teen fiction, and even soft-core pornography books and films. Indeed, the topic is ripe for analysis partly for this very reason: the figure of the babysitter has had cultural significance both for sitters themselves and for those who consume their services, but the signifier carries different meanings in each context. The adult views of babysitters that have most often peppered the pages of newspapers and mainstream magazines have [End Page 301] cast the teen-girl sitter in a harsh light, making her a repository for cultural anxieties about the well-being of children, the liberation of mothers, and the definitions of adolescent girlhood in a rapidly changing society. Most articles about babysitting in adult-oriented periodicals have historically focused on the behavioral problems of girls, framing them as disruptive, irresponsible, and disturbingly "unfeminine" in their supposed lack of proper maternalism. During and after the 1960s, the media of pornography altered that message, making the sitter a shining example of femininity, but only its most harmful aspect: she appears as "jail bait" who is simultaneously delectable and dangerous to the stability of American fathers. Forman-Brunell deftly connects this portrayal to men's anxieties about the diminishing authority of patriarchy during the latter decades of the twentieth century, revealing that definitions of girlhood have had as much emotional significance for grown men as they have for girls, albeit for starkly different reasons.
Such adult anxieties and desires, while previously under-analyzed, have nonetheless been widely visible in American culture; what has remained obscure until now is the history of how teens themselves have assessed the "career" of babysitting, and Forman-Brunell culls evidence from teen books and magazines to reveal the conflicted nature of girls' responses: while glad to earn money, girl sitters have often had even more to complain about than have the parents who hired them. Low pay, bratty or violent children, inconsiderate employers, and even unwelcome sexual advances from the occasional father have long been deterrents to babysitting expressed through communities of teenagers. At the end of the twentieth century, as girls' opportunities for better-paying employment increased, fewer and fewer of them chose babysitting as a desirable job, leaving many parents without adequate resources for child care. One of this book's greatest strengths is its discussion of babysitting as actual work, from the employee's perspective, replete with potential pitfalls that even UAW members would recognize. Forman-Brunell teaches her readers to jettison their comfortable fantasy of babysitting as easy, fun, or "natural" for young females and instead to recognize their labor as labor.
Another of Babysitter's boons is...