The Nan ShowHow Nannies Rewrote the Rules on TV Parenting

This article appears in our 2005 Fall issue, Fun & Games. Subscribe today!

In this era of social conservatism, the so-called mommy wars, and renewed cultural clashes about gender, work, and “family values,” it’s hardly surprising that nanny narratives are making a comeback. Faster than you can say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” nannies have popped up in movies (Uptown Girls) and bestselling novels (The Nanny Diaries, I Don’t Know How She Does It), as characters on TV shows (Friends, Kevin Hill, Desperate Housewives), and even as a subgenre of reality TV (Nanny 911, Supernanny).

Until the 1980s, pop culture nannies came in just two basic models: stern European disciplinarians or magical Mary Poppins/Maria von Trapp types who go way beyond their childcare duties to mend dysfunctional families. Despite the fact that African American housekeepers/nannies have long been a fixture of movies and TV shows (from Mammy in Gone with the Wind and early sitcom Beulah to Gimme a Break’s Nell and Whoopi Goldberg in Corrina, Corrina), and although these women often do all the work of nannies, they are almost never explicitly referred to by this title. Until much more recently, the term, and the position, has been reserved for white women bearing the appropriate class markers.

Today’s nanny narratives are focused as much on absent or otherwise deficient mothers (and occasionally fathers) as they are on nannies themselves. And though the new breed of nannies is in some ways more varied than its predecessors (we now have male nannies, non-nannies who are more buddy than boss, and power nannies who take their cues from management consultants), these characters bear little resemblance to real-life nannies, who are most likely to be women of color and/or immigrants, whose work is often underpaid and/or undocumented. The experiences of nannies that are omitted from pop culture tell us as much about the current state of childcare in America as do the types of nannies and parents that are portrayed.

Fewer than 4 percent of children in the United States actually grow up with a nanny, so why are we so drawn to stories about them? Perhaps it’s the guilty satisfaction of watching other people’s children behaving badly, or the emotional payoff of seeing a family transformed by a caring stranger, or the fantasy of being able to afford an in-home childcare provider, or all of the above. But entertaining as they may be, pop culture representations of nannies and the families they work for sidestep larger social issues, particularly the intractable pressures facing working mothers, and the lack of quality, affordable childcare in this country.

As pop culture nannies have changed over the years, so have the families who employ them. In most nanny-themed TV shows and movies of the ’60s and ’70s (like Nanny and the Professor and The Sound of Music), nannies provide a substitute for deceased mothers and a possible romantic interest for widowed fathers. A classic of the genre is mid-’90s sitcom The Nanny, starring Fran Drescher as the “flashy girl from Flushing” who is hired by a wealthy widower when she appears on his doorstep selling makeup. Fran is refresh­ingly candid about both her lack of qualifications (“I’m the worst nanny in the world! Okay, Rebecca De Mornay, then me”) and her desire to win the affections of her employer—which, by the end of the show’s run, she has.

Sexual tension between female nannies and male employers is implied, if not consummated, in many other nanny stories (for example, in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and the Desperate Housewives episode in which Lynette’s husband sees their short-lived nanny naked). In fact, the sexualization of childcare providers dates back at least to Freud’s lusty writings about his beloved nanny. (Jude Law’s tryst with his children’s nanny, Daisy Wright, is the most recent real-life example of this tired old story. Striking a blow for beleaguered nannies everywhere, though, rather than taking the fall for Law, Wright has used the tabloids to publicize the power differential between male employer and female nanny, pointing out that she lost her job over her employer’s indiscretions. A Sound of Music/Nanny–style ending doesn’t seem likely for Law and Wright; indeed, it’s possible that the scandal will only further embellish Law’s rakish persona.)

Who’s the Manny

Nervous wives who want to forestall a possible nanny-husband attraction might hire a male nanny (provided, of course, that their husbands are unswayably straight). But pop culture mannies bring with them a unique set of worries about gender, sexuality, and who’s really the boss. In the 1980s, a triumvirate of sitcoms starring male childcare providers—Charles in Charge, Who’s the Boss?, and Mr. Belvedere—signaled a major cultural shift: The mothers in these shows aren’t dead; they’re at work. None of the protagonists are explicitly identified as nannies, and all three are hired by happenstance rather than by design. (In Who’s the Boss?, Tony is an ex–baseball player looking to move his daughter out of Brooklyn; Charles needs a way to put himself through college; and it’s never really clear how or why ­ex-butler Mr. Belvedere ends up in Pittsburgh.) Despite their lack of experience, all three men make good nannies, and both Charles and Tony also stand in for absent parents.

In some respects, these shows are quite feminist in their portrayal of straight men as competent caretakers and household managers, but the working mothers, especially Angela of Who’s the Boss?, are rendered far less sympathetically. The shows also foreground anxieties about gender role reversal: The ambiguous employment status of the male caretakers preserves the characters’ masculinity by avoiding the N-word, while the shows’ titles try to establish male dominance: Charles is “in charge,” Mr. Belvedere is addressed with formal deference, and Who’s the Boss? signals the class, gender, and sexual tensions between Tony and Angela.

Following a few 1990s aberrations like Murphy Brown’s Eldin and, er, Mrs. Doubtfire, mannies are back in the pop culture spotlight, thanks to characters like Sandy (played by erstwhile teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr.) on Friends and George on Kevin Hill. (It may also reflect changing demographics: According to the witty and informative website, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 men now work as nannies in the United States.) The new mannies differ from their predecessors in two important ways: They are nannies by profession, rather than by chance, and they’re proud to claim the title. However, while Sandy and George are comfortable with their skills and identities, their male employers are not.

Ross, the father of mannied baby Emma and ostensibly the most “sensitive” of the Friends guys, turns into a boorish jerk when he discovers that dream nanny Sandy is a guy, demanding to know if he’s gay. Sandy assures Ross that he is in fact engaged to a woman. “I realize it’s a bit unorthodox for some people,” Sandy replies, “but I really believe that the most satisfying thing you can do with your life is to take care of a child.” Ross becomes so incensed by (or envious of?) Sandy’s skills that he fires him for being “too sensitive.” While this episode is an interesting reversal of the typical nanny-mother power struggle, it’s also a pretty sad commentary on pop culture’s obsessive policing of masculinity.

By contrast, the character of George on the now-canceled UPN show Kevin Hill is gay, but far less “sensitive” than Sandy. He’s highly qualified to look after playboy lawyer Kevin’s infant charge (whose mother died, leaving Kevin as the baby’s guardian), but he’s also critical of Kevin’s shortfalls as a father. Like Mary Poppins with patriarch George Banks, George’s role goes beyond taking care of the baby to teaching Kevin how to be a better parent—the show takes pains to reinforce that parenthood doesn’t make Kevin less masculine, just masculine in a different way (a way that involves staying home with the baby on Friday nights, drinking beer, and watching sports on TV, instead of going out to clubs). George clearly has the upper hand in the household, periodically threatening to quit when Kevin wants to stay out too late or shirk his parental responsibilities. There’s not much new about the show’s basic premise (unexpected baby, oddball male coupling), but Kevin Hill does provide a pair of note­worthy images of male caretakers that challenge stereotypes of both gay and Black men.

The Non-Nanny: Avoiding the “N-Word”

Just as the manny is an attractive childcare option for mothers who have reservations about turning their domestic duties over to another woman, the non-nanny offers a way to skirt the deeper issues of class, race, and parental responsibility that surround nannies and their employers. While non-nannies like Nan in Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s blockbuster roman à clef The Nanny Diaries, Molly Gunn in the film Uptown Girls, and Paula in Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It differ in terms of professional qualifications and motivations, the key to the non-nanny is that she shares the class (and usually race) background of her employers. This shared class status allows mothers to assuage their guilt about hiring an “outsider” to care for their children. In the opening pages of The Nanny Diaries, Nan describes her interview for a position with Park Avenue society wife Mrs. X: “We will dance around certain words, such as ‘nanny’ and ‘childcare,’ because they would be distasteful and we will never, ever actually acknowledge that we are talking about my working for her.”

While Nan, a child-development major at NYU, is impeccably well qualified for her job, her social credentials trump her professional skills. As Nan notes: “In every one of my interviews, references are never checked. I am white. I speak French. My parents are college-educated…. I’m hired.” What’s more important is that the non-nanny blend into her class surroundings as deftly as possible. Of course, in the real world a minority of nannies resemble Nan, and even in the novel there’s a clear racial hierarchy among Nan and her nonwhite colleagues—white nannies are coveted, even poached from other families, while badly behaved children tend to have foreign nannies of color, presumably because the white nannies can afford to be more choosy about their employment situation.

In Uptown Girls, Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy), the orphaned daughter of a minor ’70s rock star, has never worked a day in her life; but when an unscrupulous accountant cleans out her trust fund, she suddenly finds ­herself in need of a job. Despite her total lack of qualifications, Molly has no trouble scoring a nanny gig with one of her father’s former music-industry colleagues, Roma (Heather Locklear). On their first night together, Molly and her charge Ray (Dakota Fanning) commiserate about the shortcomings of the family’s housekeeper: “There’s nothing like good help,” Molly intones with a knowing wink, making it clear that as a non-nanny and fellow uptown girl, she is not included in the category of household help herself. Paula, the non-nanny in I Don’t Know How She Does It, doesn’t just share the class status of her employer Kate, a hedge-fund manager—she exceeds it. Paula earns more than Kate’s architect husband, leaving Kate feeling that she works for Paula.

Non-nannies are sometimes bumbling, usually loving, and, unlike the classic British nanny, they rarely discipline their charges. This is both the strength of the non-nanny and her Achilles’ heel—Nan, Molly, and Paula are all fired when they overstep the murky boundary between non-nanny and family member and start to outstrip their employers in the children’s affections. Not surprisingly, non-nannies often serve as a locus for working (or, in the case of Mrs. X, nonworking but emotionally absent) mothers’ guilt about their relationship with their children. Non-nannies are by definition transient figures, because their chief purpose is to inspire their employers to be better mothers. By the end of Uptown Girls, Molly has guilt-tripped workaholic Roma into becoming a tutu-sewing, ballet recital–attending supermom, while Kate quits her pressure-cooker job and moves her family to a house in the country. And though Nan is fired, she uses the nanny-cam she’s discovered in her charge’s room to issue Mrs. X a last warning about her son: “Time is running out. He won’t love you unconditionally that much longer. And soon he won’t love you at all.” As it turns out, Mrs. X is actually the one under surveillance, her every shortcoming chronicled by Nan with equal parts dark humor and disbelief.

While non-nannies invert the traditional household hierarchy between mother and paid caregiver by holding “bad” mothers up for scrutiny, a new genre of power nannies takes this act literally, turning the eye of the nanny-cam back on the parents and broadcasting the results on network TV.

The Power Nanny: Nanny Knows Best

The power nannies of the reality TV series Supernanny and Nanny 911 look and sound much like their largely ­fictional white British predecessors, with their slightly frumpy formal attire, huge handbags, and high standards of “correct behavior”—for both children and ­parents. However, today’s power nannies come equipped with a camera crew and are fluent in corporate management–speak—think Mary Poppins with an MBA. Power nannies take on quasisuperhero roles, with magical childrearing powers the parents lack, and their absolute authority is based on their foreignness, race, and class as much as on their skills and methodologies. (There’s also a strong undercurrent of fantasy, as most of the families on these shows don’t appear wealthy enough to afford live-in childcare help.)

Supernanny and Nanny 911 share a basic premise: The power nanny is dispatched to oversee the total transformation of an “out-of-control” family, and within a week she magically restores discipline and leaves the household running in chaos-free nuclear harmony. Super­nanny stars London import Jo Frost, who is chauffeured around in an imposing black taxi; each episode begins with her in the taxi, watching a DVD dossier on the week’s family and clucking in disapproval at their “unacceptable” behavior. Nanny 911 operates like a consulting firm, based in a picturesque thatched-roof cottage where grandmotherly head nanny Lilian views footage of deviant kids and parents (mainly mothers) on a big-screen TV and dispatches one of her stable of red-caped power nannies to intervene.

The most common no-no’s on both shows include physical aggression; bad table or toilet manners; lack of respect for “traditional” notions of household structure, routine, and parental authority (especially where bedtime is concerned); and parents who let their children run wild. Both Nanny 911 and Supernanny draw on the authority of the power nannies to reinforce social norms—such as framing mothers as primary caregivers and white, suburban nuclear families as “typical” American families—through the families cast for the show, and the solutions provided for their problems.

Almost all the families who appear on the show are white and middle-class, and live in interchangeable homes in identical suburbs. The shows present a remarkably hom­og­enized vision of American life, devoid of women who work outside the home, people of color, single parents, same-sex couples, immigrant families, and families in cities or rural areas. Each family has one thing in common: a largely absent dad. Because the moms get a disproportionate amount of camera time, viewers are invited to blame them for the bulk of the family’s problems, most of which have to do with spoiled, unruly, tantrum-throwing children. But before the family can be “saved” (in the parlance of Nanny 911), mothers must surrender their authority to the nanny.

Regardless of a family’s problems, the standard fix is to implement corporate-management techniques: daily schedules broken down into 15-minute increments, ­family rules that read like company mission statements, and rituals like the use of a “naughty spot” (variations include the stool, mat, chair, step, corner, and room) in which children are placed for a set amount of time when they misbehave. The techniques are as much about disciplining the parents (mothers in particular) as they are about the children’s misbehavior. (Interventions for the fathers usually focus on remaking them as less authoritarian and more nurturing—Dad version 2.0.)

So, do the power nannies’ techniques actually work? They seem to (although that may be the magic of editing), and at the end of the week a new and improved family emerges, with children who seem to respond positively to the new structure, and a mom who is grateful to have her authority restored. Sometimes the power nannies even address substantive issues facing the families: the effect of poor nutrition on children’s behavior, the rampant overconsumption in American society (especially where children’s toys are concerned), and husbands who don’t help out around the house. Supernanny and Nanny 911 explode the essentialist myth that motherhood is somehow an innate trait; rather, the shows demonstrate that it’s a skill like any other, one that must be honed through a process of trial and error.

This is a potentially revolutionary message, challenging age-old stereotypes about women as “natural” nurturers. The shows also foreground the skills of nannies, presenting them as hardworking and knowledgeable professionals who deserve respect from employers. How­ever, the format of the shows—in which mothers submit to ruthless critique from an expert outsider and find them­selves and their children radically reformed within a week—perpetuates the idea that it was their shoddy mothering, and not a whole culture of imperatives and inequities, that was the problem to begin with. It sets impossible standards for real mothers everywhere, for whom no red-caped supernanny exists.

Remaking Reality

The current vogue for nanny stories, whether of the manny, non-nanny, or power-nanny variety, obscures the economic realities of childcare in the United States, for childcare workers (few of whom are actually nannies), working parents, and children themselves. Although the success of Nanny 911 and Supernanny has sparked a flurry of media profiles of real-life power nannies who hold master’s degrees, help manage the family’s finances, and make salaries in the high five figures, these stories rarely reflect the experiences of the majority of childcare workers, only about 14 percent of whom work in private homes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, childcare workers (including nannies, babysitters, and daycare-center staffers) earned a median hourly wage of $7.86 in 2002. (The distinction between the three categories of childcare workers is not always clear; some nannies occupy prestigious and better-paid positions, but others, particularly undocumented live-in nannies, may actually get paid less than those who work in daycare centers.)

These statistics reveal only part of the true situation of nannies, however, because an untold number of them are women of color who immigrate to the United States without the necessary documents for legal employment, and so must work off the books, often as live-in help. It’s impossible to document how many nannies or other domestic workers find themselves in this situation, but the trend seems to be growing rapidly. Yet with the exception of The Nanny Diaries’ Sima—a nanny who formerly worked as an engineer in San Salvador and who has seen her own children only once in the past two years—foreign women of color, not to mention nannies with children of their own, are noticeably absent from the new nanny stories. Although nannies in the United States have always looked more like Sima (minus the engineering degree, perhaps) than Nan, excluding them from media representations allows us to avoid the awkward reality that the professional gains of some women are achieved on the backs of other women (and, often, their children).

Although 79 percent of mothers with children aged 6 to 17 are in the labor force today, only 3 to 4 percent of those children are cared for by nannies. The vast majority of families who can’t afford a nanny face tough choices when it comes to childcare: Full-time care can cost between $4,000 and $10,000 a year, but a quarter of working families with young children earn less than $25,000 a year. Only one in seven eligible children receives subsidized childcare. Even if a family can afford childcare, there’s no guarantee that it will be safe or beneficial: A national study cited by the Children’s Defense Fund found that over one-third of childcare programs were of such poor quality that they actually risked harming children’s cognitive development.

Still, you don’t need a degree in child development to realize that the United States is facing a childcare crisis too vast to be tackled by even a battalion of supernannies. Indeed, the quick-fix cookie-cutter solutions and improbably happy endings provided by pop culture serve to distract our attention from the reality at hand, and the urgent need for political action on behalf of working parents, childcare workers, and children. Childcare hasn’t been high on the feminist agenda since the ’70s, but our fascination with nannies both fictional and real suggests that it’s high time to revisit the issue. We can start by turning our attention away from nanny fantasies and toward dreaming up some realistic solutions to America’s childcare woes.

This article was published in Fun & Games Issue #30 | Fall 2005
by Summer Wood
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Summer Wood studies and writes about gender, health, and media. 

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1 Comment Has Been Posted


I'm writing my master's thesis on nannies and the commodification of women's work/gender roles, etc and I loved your article! I'm currently exploring male nannies as well. Thanks so much for a great read.