Forman-Brunell approaches babysitting as "a cultural battleground where conflicts over girlhood—especially regarding sexual, social, cultural, and economic autonomy and empowerment—are regularly played out" (4). She shows that adults were uncomfortable with "modern" girls from as early as the 1920s, when babysitting was a only new concept. In this period, girls were redefining female adolescence, especially through their part in the burgeoning youth commodity culture by wearing make-up, reading magazines, and going to the movies, amusement parks and ice-cream parlours (often on a "double-date"). Girls' new-found independence and interest in socialising at night made the task of caring for other people's children less desirable. Babysitting therefore held little appeal to many American teens at this time. Child development experts also advised parents to be cautious about babysitters, describing these "flirtatious girls" as posing a threat to helpless children.
Adults nevertheless remained suspicious of girl babysitters, at first over their contested use of the home telephone, and later over crimes such as raiding food from the refrigerator. There were also numerous urban myths of wild parties, drug use and child neglect. Forman-Brunell punctuates her history with the various ways in which this suspicion has been made manifest through fears about "bobby-soxers" in the '40s, who were scandalised for "pursuing their social and sexual pleasures" (42) and sexually unstable girls who might spread communicable diseases, as well as fictional representations of crazy, murderous vixens out to destroy happy marriages. The "disorderly babysitter" becomes a prominent figure in the 1960s when American culture "simultaneously stimulated girlhood rebellion but also stifled it" (121). While from the 1970s, the babysitter is heavily eroticised in slasher movies, including Halloween, and pornographic novels.
Throughout their history, babysitters have consistently complained about poor and unfair working conditions: adults regularly failed to provide sufficient emergency information, girls were left stranded for hours when parents did not return home at the agreed-upon time, sitters were commonly underpaid (or received no payment at all), and, in the Depression-era, girls were required to complete extensive housekeeping tasks in addition to childcare. Sylvia Plath is perhaps the most famous babysitter of the 1940s who recorded her cynicism about child minding. As a fourteen-year-old she declared that "little children are bothersome beings that have to be waited on hand and food" (56). The discontent among sitters, primarily about overwork in comparison with meagre remuneration, grew to the point where girls began to form their own babysitter unions in the Midwest and Northeast to demand fair working conditions and payment.
|Iowa State College "Y" members, 1955|
An unexpected aspect of the history of babysitting in America is the cultural support for boy sitters, who were viewed as more reliable and authoritative than their female counterparts. During the Depression, the scepticism about girl babysitters contributed to the popularity of hiring boys to mind children and, similarly, during World War II, the sitter shortage meant that boys actively pursued jobs as child minders. Male college students even formed their own babysitting services, such as Princeton's "Tiger Tot Tending Agency". Male sitters also answered fears about the feminisation of boys while their fathers were busy working 50-hour-weeks: "boy sitters could pry loose the 'skirt-clinger,' and by playing 'rough-and-tumble' games outdoors, instill the manly hardiness experts anxiously promoted" (107).
|Ann M. Martin's|
The Baby-Sitters Club series
The latter part of the book concentrates on the increasing popular cultural representation of the babysitter from the 1970s and offers some intriguing insights into how this figure comes to be blamed for the destruction of the domestic ideal (especially by maniac male stalkers). For girls themselves, however, series such as the Baby-sitter's Club, which began in 1986 with Kristy's Great Idea, promoted sitting as a means to a career and a demonstration girls' competency. The books also presented sitting as an enterprise among a confident sisterhood of friends, well in advance of the concept of "Girl Power". Forman-Brunell argues that the cultural construction of the "Super Sitter", which the Baby-sitter's club espoused, "appropriated feminist ideologies but neutralized empowerment so that girls would not become too powerful" (177).
|The Babysitters (2007), a babysitter transforms her child-|
minding business into a call-girl service