Adventures In Babysitting: How Did Something So Innocent Become So...Lurid?

A new book asks: why are babysitters portrayed as slutty, evil bad girls? Well, probably a few reasons:

Miriam Forman-Brunell's Babysitter: An American History, takes on the trope of the teen sitter. As opposed to the more obviously fraught dynamic of nanny and mom (as examined in Tasha Blaine's Just Like Family and by the estimable Dodai), a babysitter's role is more marginal. Usually a social equal, generally a teen girl, the bebysitter is a transient figure, less a servant than the object of fantasy, idolization, and, in the world of John Cheever, sexual intrigue.

Babysitting's also an important trope in the teen girl world: it's often the first job a girl has, and, as embodied by The Babysitter's Club, an important way for girls to achieve financial independence and life skills, and an introduction into "teen" existence. As an interview in the New Yorker with the author tells us, the practice started in the 1920s, and has been going strong since.

Whereas nannies are characterized by their accountability - the tyranny of references and the omnipresence of moms - babysitters have always occupied a weird place: they're generally unqualified, but given a lot of responsibility. And, in the popular imagination, hijinx ensue. From the brats of Beverly Cleary's Fifteen to the adventures In Babysitting or the misadventures of Honey I Blew Up the Baby a stint with the sitter is less a part of the world than an opportunity to step outside of the norm, whether this means, for kids, entering a teenage world (Dar Williams-style) or, for the sitter, raiding the fridge and sneaking in a boyfriend.

The reality, of course, is usually a lot more boring: make the mac and cheese, get the teeth brushed, watch TV for a few hours, get $40. So why is the babysitter an "ambivalent" figure in pop culture? Says Forman-Brunell,

Teen-age girls have been contesting traditional gender ideals in highly visible ways since the nineteen-twenties. The babysitter has conveniently served as a lightning rod for adults' uncertainties about what the limits of girls' autonomy and empowerment should be. These uncertainties have played out in the media: for instance, unease about the influence of feminism, the sexual revolution, and the counter culture on girls' behavior in the nineteen-sixties led to depictions of delirious babysitters who endangered children and slutty sitters who destabilized marriages in soft-core-porn novels. In the nineteen-seventies, maniacs in horror movies like "Halloween" and "When a Stranger Calls" sought vengeance on teen-age girls unwilling to curb their pursuit of personal independence. In the eighties, it was the babysitters themselves who turned murderous in made-for-TV movies, a fantasy created, perhaps, in response to girls' uninterrupted determination to achieve authority and self-sufficiency.

The author also notes that, in the early days, male babysitters were actually considered more desirable: dependable and level-headed, as opposed to flighty girls. Whereas nowadays, where a boy might be considered a desirable mentor to a wild male child, most parents are going to turn to a female neighbor as a safer choice. Does this indicate a shift in our attitudes towards young women, or merely a calcification of gender roles? Maybe both. And maybe also something less palatable. Nowadays, it seems like oftentimes the moms who employ a neighbor as a sitter is eager for a responsible older girl's influence on her daughters - as opposed to the quotidian care of a nanny, who presumably doesn't have the same wisdom to impart. I know as a teen nerd, I was in high demand in my neighborhood as a "good influence" - and the fact that I was always free on a Saturday night didn't hurt, either. I get that, especially in a world rife with questionable influences. But the contrast between the babysitter and the actual employees - even when some people tossed the terms around with optimistic interchangeability - sometimes felt weird. Says the author, The ultimate evidence of sitters' dissatisfaction over the past century has been the frequency with which girls faced with other options turned their backs on babysitting." But maybe the fact that there will always be some who do it is even more telling.


Ask an Academic: Babysitters as Bad Girls
[New Yorker]
Related: Nannies: Friends, Family, Or Employees?