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Babysitter: An American History

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
So that young couple thought they were just hiring the kid next door to "mind" their toddler for a couple of hours while they took in a movie! Who knew that babysitting—past and present—was so fraught with meaning. Forman-Brunell (history, Univ.of Missouri-Kansas City; Made to Play House: The Commercialization of American Girlhood), that's who. 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. Despite her initial observation that she found little archival material on the history of babysitting, 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. VERDICT The results of her admirable research are highly recommended for all interested readers.—Ellen Gilbert, Princeton, NJ
From the Publisher
“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,

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, 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,

“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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814728956
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the 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.

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