Babysitter

An American History

336 pages

22 illustrations

December, 2011

ISBN: 9780814728956

$27

Paper

Also available in

Author

Miriam Forman-Brunell is Professor of History at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She is the author of Made to Play House and general editor of ABC-CLIO’s Girlhood in America. She is also co-director of Children and Youth in History.

All books by Miriam Forman-Brunell

On Friday nights many parents want to have a little fun together—without the kids. But “getting a sitter”—especially a dependable one—rarely seems trouble-free. Will the kids be safe with “that girl”? It’s a question that discomfited parents have been asking ever since the emergence of the modern American teenage girl nearly a century ago. In Babysitter, Miriam Forman-Brunell brings critical attention to the ubiquitous, yet long-overlooked babysitter in the popular imagination and American history.

Informed by her research on the history of teenage girls’ culture, Forman-Brunell analyzes the babysitter, who has embodied adults’ fundamental apprehensions about girls’ pursuit of autonomy and empowerment. In fact, the grievances go both ways, as girls have been distressed by unsatisfactory working conditions. In her quest to gain a fuller picture of this largely unexamined cultural phenomenon, Forman-Brunell analyzes a wealth of diverse sources, such as The Baby-sitter’s Club book series, horror movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, urban legends, magazines, newspapers, television shows, pornography, and more.

Forman-Brunell shows that beyond the mundane, understandable apprehensions stirred by hiring a caretaker to “mind the children” in one’s own home, babysitters became lightning rods for society’s larger fears about gender and generational change. In the end, experts’ efforts to tame teenage girls with training courses, handbooks, and other texts failed to prevent generations from turning their backs on babysitting.

Reviews

  • “This cultural and social history captures dominant gender and generational struggles of the twentieth century around girlhood independence, domestic norms, and fragile masculinity. Forman-Brunell takes us on an engaging romp through urban legends, codes of conduct, slasher and pornographic movies, and the teen culture and resistance strategies of girls themselves.”

    —Eileen Boris, author of Home to Work: Motherhood and The Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States

  • “Powerfully reclaiming the marginalized history of girls’ domestic labor, Forman-Brunell deftly examines a broad range of cultural artifacts to help us understand how different generations used the figure of the babysitter to negotiate shifting norms for gender, age, work, and sexuality.”

    —Mary Celeste Kearney, author of Girls Make Media

  • “Forman-Brunell does a service by documenting one of the few remaining common denominators of American life—though this one, too, is disappearing.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “In this well-documented, illustrated discussion of our culture’s perceptions of babysitters through the years, the author skillfully demonstrates how changing social mores and attitudes toward girls and women were responsible for the astonishing range of notions about babysitters, running the gamut from child-care provider to home wrecker. . . . Forman-Brunell makes excellent use of the various babysitting handbooks published over the years, and, particularly, of the commercial novels (e.g., The Baby-Sitters Club series) and movies that came out, from domestic comedies to horror films reflecting parents’ (and babysitters’) worst nightmares.”

    Library Journal

  • “Considers the history of the babysitter in American culture, and why she has so frequently been perceived as a dangerous figure.”

    The New Yorker

  • “What might have just been an amusing collection of related relics is instead a sophisticated and smooth history of girl culture and shifting family values in Forman-Brunell’s capable hands. . . . It’s a thorough investigation of our cultural anxieties about childcare and an intriguing look at what happens when a teenage girl rules the roost.”

    Bust Magazine

  • “Is there a parent who hasn’t fretted about getting a baby sitter for the night? Is there a baby sitter who hasn’t felt put upon, underpaid, distrusted? For more than eight decades, baby-sitting has been part of our social and cultural history. Now, Forman-Brunell has analyzed its origins, evolution and inner workings.”

    Kansas City Star

  • “Forman-Brunell sets out to examine the relationship between teenage sitters and their employers over the past century.”

    The Washington Post

  • Babysitter...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.”

    The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

  • “Miriam Forman-Brunell has written an enjoyable account of a class of employees who, she argues, does an extraordinary amount of cultural working addition to its assigned childcare chores.”

    Oxford Journals

  • “This chronicle of baby-sitting within the changing landscape of girlhood culture provides a voice for generations of baby-sitters and new insights into the history of rapidly shifting norms for growing up in America.”

    The Journal of American History

  • “It is remarkable that babysitting has lacked a history. Meticulously researched, written with humor and acute insight, this book not only chronicles the actual experience of babysitting over nearly a century, but shows how the babysitter served as a cultural lightning rod for anxieties over shifting women’s liberation, the waning of masculine authority, teen sexuality, and the decline of the nuclear family. Powerful, provocative, persuasive.”

    —Steven Mintz, author of Huck’s Raft

  • “As historian Forman-Brunell’s research reveals, the archetype of the bad baby sitter has more to do with adults’ fears about the changing nature of girlhood today . . . than it does with the reality of girls caring for younger kids for pay.”

    —Salon.com

  • “From horror movies and pornography to the squeaky-clean cast of the Baby-sitter’s Club books, our cultural views of babysitters reveal more about our societal hang-ups than they do about the neighborhood teenagers who watch our children.”

    —CalgaryHerald.com

  • “From horror movies and pornography to the squeaky-clean cast of the Baby-sitter’s Club books, our cultural views of babysitters reveal more about our societal hang-ups than they do about the neighborhood teenagers who watch our children.”

    National Post

  • “What might have just been an amusing collection of related relics is instead a sophisticated and smooth history of girl culture and shifting family values in Forman-Brunell’s capable hands. . . . It’s a thorough investigation of our cultural anxieties about childcare and an intriguing look at what happens when a teenage girl rules the roost.”

    Bust

  • “For more than eight decades, baby-sitting has been part of our social and cultural history. Now, Miriam Forman-Brunell, history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has analyzed its origins, evolution, and inner workings.”

    —KansasCity.com

  • “The first tome to analyze the ubiquitous, yet misunderstood teenaged caretaker.”

    —TheGlobeAndMail.com

  • “For more than eight decades, baby-sitting has been part of our social and cultural history. Now, Miriam Forman-Brunell, history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has analyzed its origins, evolution, and inner workings.”

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

  • "In this first-ever history of babysitting, Miriam Forman-Brunell has written an enjoyable account of class employees who, she argues, does an extraordinary amount of cultural work in addition to its assigned childcare chores."

    —Susan A. Miller, Enterprise and Society

  • "Stunning...Babysitter represents a real cultural triumph. The new paperback edition of [the book] belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in women’s history and cultural studies. Academics who teach these topics should get it into the hands of their students."

    Pop Matters

  • “In this intriguing social and cultural history, Forman-Brunell (Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City) uses a wide array of sources to argue that the 20th-century creation of the babysitter can tell much about the changing views of girlhood over time, both from the perspective of adults and of girls themselves.” 

    Choice

  • “In this informative and entertaining book, Miriam Forman-Brunell, the author of (1993) and other works on the history of girls, has creatively mined popular culture sources and personal reminiscences to provide the first history of baby-sitting.”

    Journal of American History

  • Babysitter is an exemplary work of cultural history, using widely disparate sources to correct popular but misguided myths about teens’ labor history, girls’ cultural practices, and “the family” as an ideological construct. Written concisely and accessibly with ample illustrations, Babysitter is ideal for undergraduates and professional scholars alike.”

    Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

  • “Why and how the baby sitter rose to pop culture prominence is one of the topics explored by Miriam Forman-Brunell in her book Babysitter: An American History.”

    The Los Angeles Times

  • "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."

    —Kirsten Pike, Jump Cut

  • Babysitter: An American History is richly researched, investigative, provocative, and a most unique journey through the past century.”

    Estes Park News

  • “A gem of a book. In its ingenious use of sources, its interpretive reach, its marvelous prose style, its wisdom and wit, Babysitter is a model of cultural history. It is also the best work I have read in years on twentieth-century gender politics, youth culture, sexuality, and family history. I cannot recommend it highly enough to scholars, students, and the general public.”

    —David Nasaw, author of Children of the City: At Work and at Play

  • Babysitter offers a sophisticated analysis of the world’s youngest profession that reveals almost a century’s worth of generational and gender-based conflict. The sources are imaginative, the thinking is complex, and the argument is provocative—at times, even startling.”

    —Grace Palladino, author of Teenagers: An American History

  • “Miriam Forman-Brunell’s Babysitter: An American History explores the multifaceted meaning of the sitter in popular culture.”

    Bookforum

  • “Miriam Forman-Brunell’s Babysitter: An American History takes on the trope of the teen sitter.”

    Jezebel.com