Men who care for children are afforded high status in pop culture if their role is part of some macho, justice-seeking mission (The Pacifier, Kindergarten Cop) or incidental to their real life, allowing them to maintain a cool image (About A Boy, Role Models). When he takes on a childcare role for no other reason than to get paid, however, a man should be prepared to sacrifice his self-respect.
In Melissa & Joey, Joey Lawrence plays an Ivy League-educated former commodities trader (yup) who went broke thanks to a Ponzi scheme. When local politician Mel takes in her sister’s kids, Joe becomes their housekeeper and nanny as a last resort, having previously been living in his car. In one episode, Mel finds out that Joe has donated to a sperm bank, and asks him what the most degrading thing he’s ever done for money is, hoping he’ll admit to selling some of his swimmers. Instead, he gestures around the kitchen and replies, “By far, this.” He’s not entirely sincere, but the joke (such as it is) is predicated upon the audience acknowledging that this isn’t a suitable job for a man who values himself.
In the season 9 Friends episode, “The One With The Male Nanny”, Ross and Rachel seem to have found the perfect candidate to care for baby Emma: qualified, empathetic, impressive experience… Until they open the door and Ross discovers that Sandy (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) is “a little mannish.” Worse, Sandy isn’t a traditional guy. He cries when he talks about his former charge, when given the job, and when he tells Rachel his engagement story. He also plays the recorder, makes his own lotion, and bakes madeleines, to Ross’s disgust: “…Not even butch, manly cookies—you know, with chunks.”
Ross’ discomfort with the fact that Sandy embodies many stereotypically feminine traits is played for laughs at both characters’ expense: Sandy is a caricature, while Ross’ overreaction is ridiculous, especially given that he’s ostensibly a sensitive, geeky guy who doesn’t fit a lot of masculine stereotypes himself. But while the show invites us to laugh both at and with Ross, it also hits on something true: the fact that the kyriarchy pressures both women and men to stick to rigidly-defined gender roles, and the ways men police each other’s gender expression as a result (because being — or appearing to be like — a woman or a gay man is of course considered inferior).
When Ross fires Sandy for being “too sensitive,” he blames it on his own issues, and we discover Ross’ father criticized him for not being “a real boy,” ingraining in him fixed ideas about masculinity — and making him uncomfortable around men who refuse to conform. This could almost be a progressive message, except ultimately Ross’ discomfort is sanctioned by Sandy, who is not only happy to answer intrusive questions about his sexuality (he informs Ross and Rachel he’s straight in a “reassuring” fashion) but tells Ross that it’s okay to fire him, positioning bigotry as just a difference of opinion.
While non-stereotypically masculine men like Sandy can be great nannies without it threatening their street cred (because they have none to begin with), for a man who wants to present a cool image, it’s important to not take the job too seriously — or to even admit it’s a job at all. The 2012 sitcom Ben and Kate was first sold as Ben Fox is my Manny, making the role of Nat Faxon’s character clear. He shares childcare responsibilities for his six-year-old niece, Maddie, often succeeding where Maddie’s mom, his more uptight younger sister Kate, has failed. (Whereas she tries to lecture Maddie into drinking milk, for instance, Ben invents “milk pong.”) But because he’s family, he can pass off his childcare success as a favor rather than a job.
In the “Career Day” episode, where father figures are invited to school to talk about how they make a living (because who cares what women do, right?), Ben hustles to set up a wine merchant business so he can impress Maddie’s classmates and their dads. In the end, though, he spends his presentation describing his many failed attempts at entrepreneurship rather than admitting he’s Maddie’s primary caregiver while her mom is at work.
Sadly, his recalcitrance is not misplaced: Male nannies are rarely admired in pop culture, perhaps reflecting some real-world prejudice. Even though it’s a challenging and responsible gig, it’s usually presented as beneath a man’s dignity, precisely because it’s a job normally associated with women. The way female nannies (and housekeepers) in pop culture are treated makes this difference clear: Characters like Alice in The Brady Bunch, Nan in The Nanny Diaries, and of course, the women of The Help are servile and obedient. Fran in The Nanny was an altogether more brash character, but caring for the Sheffield kids wasn’t a comedown; it only increased her social standing (and more so when she married their wealthy father).
Even when men are put in a deferential position, they often still assert their authority in some way. This is made explicit in show’s titles: He may be only 19, but Charles is in Charge, and Who’s The Boss and the popular British show adapted from it, The Upper Hand, suggest a struggle for dominance between male caregiver and mother, rather than a clear employee/employer relationship. This attempt to restore status to a tough job given little respect might be admirable if it weren’t limited to white male caregivers, perpetuating the message that women, gay men, and black people are and should continue to be subservient to straight white men who fit stereotypical gender roles.