Babysitter: An American History

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Overview

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

From the Publisher
“Considers the history of the babysitter in American culture, and why she has so frequently been perceived as a dangerous figure.”
-The New Yorker

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“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

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“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

“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

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“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

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
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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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