Elevating Servants, Elevating American Families

by: L.S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

The pursuit of domestic bliss has been around since our country’s forefathers declared the pursuit of happiness as one of America’s founding principles. What constitutes a good home has been in the making (and in the cooking and cleaning) ever since. In the Television Age, “household help” has meant more than just domestic workers; the television box itself has been the central educational device to help housebound women learn domesticity. From Julia Child to Martha Stewart, and with companies such as Procter & Gamble, a producer of soap as well as soap operas, television has introduced women to cleaning products and other goods and services rendered essential for the proper maintenance and management of the American home.

The figure of the domestic servant and the television, come together to teach Americans parenting skills. In the form of British nannies on television who parachute into dysfunctional homes, this class of workers enables American mothers (and fathers, too) to reclaim the domestic skills that somehow have degraded along with the rest of traditional “family values.”

The British Are Coming
In two new programs, Supernanny on ABC and Nanny 911 on Fox, regular folks employ the help of British women to get their house in order. The offer of assistance is appealing and welcome: “When your kids are full of trouble, help is there on the double. The British are coming … on Nanny 911.” In each episode, head Nanny Lilian (who amazingly has her own butler, Fraser) is given cases of American families in need — of domestic help. She has a cadre of trained professionals to choose from, who she assigns to different American households, each of which undergoes an “extreme makeover” facilitated by their nanny.

The nannies are “professionals” trained in child-care. By deploying the figure of the British nanny who is accustomed to a class system and who is temporarily placed in the American family’s home, and by focusing her on child-rearing (rather than toilet-scrubbing), the odd contradiction of ‘middle-class’ Americans living in a so-called classless society yet having servants in their homes is smoothed over. Moreover, that the servants are white and not American, avoids the sticky real-life history and contemporary situation of employing (legally or informally, paid or enslaved) servants of color in American households.

Maids Since the Beginning of Television
Of course not all servants are alike. A domestic is different from a housekeeper, and mammy is very different from nanny. There is a built-in hierarchy among servant work according to tasks, as anyone who has seen the British series Upstairs, Downstairs or who has read about house slaves and field slaves, has learned. In the history of television, the representation of servants is steadfast and yet specific to social and racial contexts: Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With The Wind in 1939, reprised the role a decade later in Beulah, one of America’s first television series. Japanese star and Hollywood film actress, Miyoshi Umeki, famous for her role as bath-giving wife to American G.I. Red Buttons in Sayonara, played maid Mrs. Livingston in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in the late 1960s, providing a pleasant alternative to the images of a losing war against the Vietnamese (and a different kind of portrayal than small, Asian women as Vietcong soldiers). Notable among numerous television servants are: Alice in The Brady Bunch, Marla Gibbs’ character in The Jeffersons, Mr. French in the 1960s, Mr. Belvedere in the 1980s (both were significant eras in which women pushed from the private space of the home into to the public spheres of work and school), and of course, The Nanny — whose striking Queens accent is perhaps rivaled only by Rosie the Robot’s Brooklyn accent in The Jetsons. Even cartoon families have maids in America.

As middle-class American culture became suburbanized, both the maid and the television set became components of a household’s status and success — a mark of upward mobility and an idealized family lifestyle. Domestic perfection and the private sphere of the home have long-been married to the notion, and the representation, of a feminine head-of-household in American television history. The television was, after all, a piece of furniture to be placed (and dusted) in the home. Moreover, television programming acknowledged and hailed female viewers, offering stories and characters to which women could and can relate. Most specifically, these stories and characters portrayed, and continue to portray, the family ideal.

In her recent Flow article, the structural format that Allison McCracken observes in episodes of Wife Swap (which like ABC’s Supernanny, it has its Fox knock-off, Trading Spouses) are common in the nanny shows as well. In both sets of Domestic Reality programs, there are three major similarities: 1) the situations presented emphasize the ‘feminine’ in relation to domestic life, placing the burden of responsibility (and blame) on the woman, 2) the programs provide a venue for patriarchy to be called out, though clearly not overturned, and 3) houses and home-life are evaluated and judged, by the exchange-mothers or the visiting nannies, and by viewers as well.

Supernanny to the Rescue
The interpersonal exchange that occurs in bringing a “new mommy” into a household (the real switch is not in spouses, but in mothers; there is no “wife swap” for families without children!) is more definitively positive — even sparkling — in Supernanny and Nanny 911. These programs tell the (fairy) tale of a magical lady who brings about astonishing changes in a family and their home. Episodes are structured according to a one-week schedule; likewise, the solution for the families with children who have run amok and with parents who have lost control, is the schedule of rules which the nanny establishes and works to enforce in her 7-day stay. The usual schedule goes something like this:

Day 1: Nanny arrives and observes harried housewives, distant non-contributing husbands, and wild-wild children (hopped up on carbs and boldly ignoring bedtime) heading towards real trouble (divorce, maybe?).
Day 2: Nanny dispenses the new rules to establish order and discipline in the household.
Day 3: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being followed by truly malbehaved children.
Day 4: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being enforced by reluctant or doubting parents, and by specifically the mother, who often clashes with the nanny.
Day 5: when children and parents listen to nanny, their home life is miraculously improved (and suddenly the images edited into the scenes are of smiling faces rather than of screaming children and shell-shocked parents).
Day 6: Nanny goes away for a day, having access to footage from “hidden cameras” in the house — a twist on the “nanny-cam.”
Day 7: Nanny returns to tutor, but also to praise and affirm that the family is on the right track. Her job is (well) done. She says goodbye.

It is notable that all ten families on Nanny 911 thus far have been white; Supernanny, too, sidesteps race and questions about race relations by having a white servant in a white family’s home. Perhaps “appropriately” so. Since Nanny (and not Mammy) is here to save.

Nanny is also here to teach. How else would otherwise industrious Americans accept the fact that they are faltering as parents? (Parents are quite often in denial and shown as offended by Nanny’s comments, at first.) In comes British nanny whose accent might belie that she is not part of the “uppercrust,” but who, to most Americans, has the voice and demeanor of authority. She is just what today’s laid-back American family needs. That is, we are willing to acknowledge the existence and practice of “domestic help” in ways that do not delve too deeply into questions of assigned gender roles, of racial positioning in the labor market, and of class stratification. This willingness is demonstrated through at least two mechanisms — the expression of gratitude to the nanny (she is showered with thanks, kisses, and hugs at the end of her stay), and moreover, she is elevated while simultaneously being a servant. (She is now a TV star, after all, isn’t she?) The bio for “Nanny Jo” Frost on the Supernanny website describes her admiringly: “Her practical, no-nonsense style was honed over 15 years of nannying in the U.K. and the U.S. Now American families can tap into the secrets of this modern-day Mary Poppins.”

Collapsing class differences and hence, ignoring the fact of class privilege, denying that there are racial boundaries, and blurring gender prescriptions that are, nonetheless, there, these are cultural and political projects that promote a contradictory and yet very American sense of identity. Racialized domestic servants (which include white British ethnic identity) portrayed on television serve to idealize family dynamics and racial harmony and to mythologize middle-classness and the American Dream.

Happy Ending
The figure of the domestic servant appears in television precisely at times when both race relations and the structure of domestic life are undergoing profound change, and when national identity is under scrutiny. British nannies, like their Prime Minister, serve as reassuring allies in battles to preserve “traditional values.” Mary Beth Haralovich’s fascinating essay analyzing the links between reality television and Italian neo-realism, and its roots in social documentary is relevant here. The website for Nanny 911 is designed around the family portrait, the picture of the perfect, “normal” American family. There is a “before” picture of a maladjusted family “in crisis,” and the happy “after” picture of a healthy family, echoing the happy conclusion to each episode. The images in the web pages as in the television programs themselves, sit on what Haralovich calls a “continuum of hybrid photographic arts,” telling a particular story of family, happiness, and nationhood.

Jo Frost, “Supernanny,” has authored a parenting book, recently released in the U.S. Is this proof that a miss from the working class can, indeed, pull herself up by her Mary Poppins bootstraps? Hattie McDaniel is known to have said, “I’d rather play a maid, than be one.” Amazing Nanny can do both.

Supernanny homepage (U.S.)
Supernanny homepage (U.K.)
Laurie Ouellette’s column on Nanny TV from Flow Volume 1, Issue 11

L.S.Kim is finishing a book on the figure of the racialized domestic in American Television. Please feel free to comment on this essay, or the topic in general.

Please feel free to comment.


  • Kayaneh M Tasian

    Kim again raises some really provocative questions about race, identity, and normativity on television. Particularly read in conjunction with Laurie Ouellette’s article in the last issue of Flow, this piece challenges us to consider the models of families television presents to us as viewers and consumers. While domestic workers on sitcoms like “The Brady Bunch” represent a certain type of economic, racial, and cultural ideal, they maintain a veneer of fiction. Reality-based nanny shows more overtly model how real families should look and act, and their all-too-easy problem solving and pretense of reality make them potentially far more problematic than their sitcom counterparts.

  • Class and Race

    The show does avoid the issue of class and race by only appearing in “middle” class white homes. I read somewhere that middle class is not actually what we would consider middle class. Middle class is defined (by someone I can’t remember right now)as families with incomes up through 6 figure salaries. While these families can afford nannies, the acknowledged middle class for most Americans cannot. I do think that this program “appropriately” sidesteps racial and class tensions. I think there are viewers and families who would be offended to see a white woman acting as a nanny to a non-white family. Not only would it cause conservative whites to be opposed to a servant portrayal, but also some non-white families may not feel respected with a white nanny telling them how to raise their children. Another reason I think it is appropriately avoided, not to discredit race or class representation, is because this show somehow sells itself as a “free” guide to parenting as long as people tune in. The book that the nanny wrote may be entirely obsolete if every American family simply watched the show. (At the same time, I have watched this program and it almost encourages me to buy what may be “supplemental” materials to learn more about parenting.) In this way families, regardless of class and race, can learn parenting techniques and evaluate their own household procedures. I think parenting is something that can cross boundaries of race and class, therefore those who may feel unrepresented on these nanny shows can still relate to the lessons being learned, and take something away from them. There does seem to be a formula to these episodes as far as the problems and solutions suggest. I am sure the participants of this program submit a video to be accepted as households for this nanny. In the viewing, and pre-viewing of these families the producers and nannies have the opportunity to pick out the most general households that have the most popular problems, as far as any kind of research or polls may suggest. In this way, the show can cross those boundaries of class and race to reach the most common problems that EVERY parent may experience.

  • I happened to see an episode of Nanny 911 on Fox a few weeks ago, and the things that stuck out to me were the use of creative editing to overdramatize situations as well as the obvious role of the producers in setting up or recreating situations (a technique frequently and admittedly used in other reality shows such as The Osbournes). For example, if the family has 5 or 6 kids, editing is used to make it seem like all of them are misbehaving wildly at the same time in different parts of the house, and that the parents have to be in several places at once. The parents at time seem very unnatural like they’re repeating something they said earlier that the camera missed at some producer’s request. Basically, the show stinks of off camera manipulation, which, for me, detracts from what it’s trying to accomplish because I am constantly questioning the authenticity of both the misbehaved kids and helpless parents beforehand and the magic turnaround that everyone experiences within the period of a few short days. On another note, I would consider all of the families that I’ve seen on the show “upper” middle-class. They live in large two-story houses on nice pieces of land and their houses are full of nice furniture. It would be interesting to see some diversity, like sending a nanny to a family lower on the socioeconomic scale and comparing the experience to past episodes. A reason for avoiding this may be that in a “poorer” home, reasons for problematic children may extend beyond bad parenting, such as neglect or lack of basic needs due to economic disparity. These darker problems would burst the happy bubble that the show creates, because there is always a comfort cushion in that even though the kids are misbehaved, they are still surrounded with what many Americans would consider luxury.

  • Charlette L. Matts

    In the introduction of this article Kim mentions that household help has began to mean more than a domestic help and now entails a more important role in the family. I am arguing that this has not just begun, but is rather a resurgence and a more commercialized form of it. From the Aunt Jemmima to Alice, whether they are called mammies or housekeepers. Domestic servents have also had influence on how the children were raised. Mammy’s role was to cook, clean and take care of the children, the wife and the husband. Alice cooked and cleaned, but also gave advice and amusing annecdotes that shaped the Brady’s outlook on life. In the same token, family life has degraded. Amoung the type of parents that the nanny visits, (neglective,professional , workaholics)the issues she addresses has always existed. Many times the parents are trying to compromise with their children as if they are a client or co-worker.However, I don’t believe that a week of observation and workshops does not solve the problem between the parents and their children. As Kim mentioned, the mothers are placed in binary opposition of one another in order to compare their techniques in parenting. The reality is that most likely the children is going to act better with a stranger than they would with their own parent. They have established that their parent loves them and they will be forgiven by their parent. Unlike with the nanny or serogate mother, they are scared straight. The same affect happens when my six-year-old brother’s teacher ask him to do sit down and he does it immediately and when my mother tells him to go to sleep but he tries to compromise with her. Many times the children do not see their parents as a authroratative figure and will “try” them. The one time that I watched clips of the show, when the nanny was featured on Oprah, I didn’t notice the nanny giving the father many tips on what he could do better. Maybe she didn’t feel qualified or inexperienced. In my opinion she is just as inexperienced on mothering a child. I can’t imaging she has any of her own if she travels around disipling other children. I am not impressed by her 15 years of experince. My mother has 20 and realizes that every child is different and the same approach isn’t going to work for everyone naughty child in America.

  • Donte' M. Shepard

    There is a vast difference in programs including house hold servants of the past and the present reality programs. Each of those was scripted and the family could dismantle once a week if needed but be “perfect” by the end of the episode. The only likeness in the two is the normal suburban setting. It’s funny how the reality TV uses crafty editing techniques to create these false happy endings hide the many of the obvious flaws in American society. I am totally against shows such as nanny 911, and Super nanny not just because they don’t represent families of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic standings, but for the simple lack of moral value. In supporting these shows we fail to acknowledge the dilemma these families face without these hired nannies that I’m sure are well trained, but probably can’t begin to fathom the deeply rooted disorder of their assigned family. In my opinion psychological education is based mostly on controlled testing and theory which does little to prepare you for each individual case, but instead provides a generalized method for handling certain situations. These children are obviously neglected by parents who value their occupations more than their children and because of a few cuts and edits we as viewers feel at ease by the end of the show even though no major solution was reached. Take in to consideration the time schedule these nannies are given. Let’s take for example an eight year old latchkey girl who only sees her parents off to work in the morning. This child has become accustomed to seeing little of their parents. This means our professional nanny has one week attempt to reverse eight years of deeply rooted and possibly irreparable damage. I would bet if the producers devised some sort of surprise update of the families there would be little change in the children’s behavior. Also note how savage these children portrayed in the beginning of the show diverting attention away from the parent who has allowed this behavior and probably will continue afterwards. In the beginning of the article Kim mentions the pursuit of domestic bliss, and even if given the chance I honestly wouldn’t want a nationally televised show to display my dysfunctional family. So called “poor” families are probably avoided because their are usually a number of issues contributing to the turmoil besides the parents, and good old America wants to hide that!

  • I have seen Suppernanny once, after my mother told me to watch Wife Swap to look for this guy that we know. I wasn’t planning on watching it, but the previews and the central questions before the commercial breaks got me hooked. I just had to see if this nanny could really tame the three little brats on television and “teach ” the mother how to raise her children right. I found myself judging the mother, and the father of the white “middle class” family presented. Coming from a stereotypical Hispanic family, my initial thoughts were to threaten the child with abuse to get them to behave. (Maybe that is why only white families are portrayed in the show.) Watching the entire show, gave me a better perspective on raising a well behaved child. Rather than frightening the child with abusive punishment, the nanny uses psychological reprimands that have proven to work better than abusive punishment. I think that families like my own that watch Supernanny can learn new and alternative ways to keep the household orderly. Having an outside opinion on the way you run your household can help you notice the little things that can make the children restless. Another thing that I have noticed watching that one episode of Supernanny and a few Wife Swap’s, is that the roles of the mother and father are stereotypically the same. The mother is usually at home keeping the house orderly and the distant father spends most of his time at work, blames his wife for the misbehaved children, and comes home expecting supper ready on the table. It surprises me that this is still the “American Standard.” How far have we come since the 1950s housewife? One thing I did like about the episode I watched was that the nanny explained to dad that he needed to be home with the children as well in order for them to have any respect for his authority. Though the show conveys many stereotypes and fake realities, I still enjoyed the good messages against child abuse, submissive mothers, and workaholic fathers.

  • I’d have to agree with many of the sentiments brought about in this article. Upon watching “Nanny 911” on a few occasions, I did, very much find it to be, obviously so, “classless” and “raceless.” The families, are, as far as when I saw the show, always white, and, never ‘too’ well off, but never so poor as to warrant that inadequate income become part of the issue in any shape or form. In the end, however, I believe it’s safe to say most of us can easily see through this carefully constructed reality, and watch the show for what it is truly worth. A half hour to an hour of kids running around screaming obscene things at their parents, with the occasional slap or two. I would also say that the nannies on the show are given an extreme authority within the household, as well as in Wife Swap/Trading Spouses, where mothers “make their OWN rules.” This only furthers the concept that it is mothers who dominate and are responsible for the household and it’s well being. While I would say that the nanny characters have come far from being a source for comedic relief, as they recently became in situational and domestic comedies, they are now stuck in another role within the confines of reality television. The role has been taken from that of silly, lackadaisical frivolity to one of extreme knowledge, and authority. The nannies are now responsible for making or breaking these households, and should the nanny fail, so the households fail with them. I think this reflects the importance placed on American households in general, in that, the nanny, as representative of the home itself, is an extremely important role (as portrayed in these shows). These shows are truly, about the general, typically accepted American homelife, and their classlessness and racelessness only seek to further that sentiment. In the end, the show is not, in fact, about this specific familiy’s problems with their children, but moreso, that problem American families have in general, in being so far from the accepted ideal.

  • Jessica Smuckler

    Great analysis! Kim brings up some very interesting points. As the traditional family has changed over the years, some Americans have lost touch with how to appropriately and effectively discipline their children. She is right, though, that the role of the nanny or domestic is very different in these texts as the nanny here does not receive direction from the parents, but rather, dictates to them with advice in discipline. In addition, it is interesting that even in an age where males are more involved in the raising and disciplining of their children, the experts or professionals depicted to help solve the family problems remain female here. It will certainly be interesting to see whether this role will change in the coming years.

  • I think this article raises relevant issues pertaining to American history, especially as seen through the lens of television and its portrayals of domestic bliss. It is true that the presence of a nanny does immediately bring forth the ideals of the American Dream, the confirmation that a family has truly “made it” in society with their hired servant. Obviously, it is interesting to see how much the perspective of a 1950’s nanny to a present-day nanny has changed, especially considering the fact that the present-day nanny has nearly total control over the household and is not completely subservient. However, I also think it is important to raise the issue of present society, given the fact that many (if not most) Americans do not have a nanny, for they cannot not afford one…this makes me question the role of the American Dream, and how applicable it really is in the modern day era.

  • Olivia-anne Cleary_UCLA: FTV 110A extra credit.

    This article raised many interesting points for me, and made me think about aspects of the programme “Supernanny”, that I had never previously considered. I have watched many episodes of “Supernanny” in the past, both from the UK and US series. As an english viewer I have always found the “Mary Poppins” aspect of a British nanny entering an American family in order to help raise their children as rather traditionally idealistic. When watching the Uk and US series, it is interesting to note the differences between a British nanny helping a British family and a British nanny aiding an American family. The American series, of “Supernanny” highlights the Nanny’s “otherness” in a way that the British series does not. In the american series i have always viewed the nanny as exuding more control and superiority through her ethical difference. On a basic note, the mere change in accent often is shown to alert the american children’s awareness of her presence. This sense of a heightened presence within the home is of course not as relevant in the UK series, as the British children Jo Frost is managing, are in no way perturbed by her accent, as she aesthetically speaks in a similar dialogue to that they are used to.
    This article makes a point of mentioning the significance of fact that “Supernanny” is white and non – American, thus avoids the “sticky real-life history and contemporary situation of employing (legally or informally, paid or enslaved) servants of color in American households”. This is a point that i have never thought about before, however, it is one that is extremely significant in the american context of the show. In the past year I have moved from England to America and this change alone (as well as the studying of race and America in my college classes) has highlighted to me, the deep-rooted subject of racial struggles that not only existed in the past but also still factor majorly in contemporary America. This “sticky real-life history and contemporary situation” has been, and remains to be a fundamental topic within American media.
    The racial identities of maids/servants in American television shows do, as the article states, reflect the racial relations within America at the time of the shows. When African-Americans were viewed as the underclass; the class of people who should never prevail above the control of the white race, the maids/servants presented on television were in fact African-Americans. When a shift in the rights of African -Americans began to occur, there was also a change in who should be represented in the media as the serving class. This shift resulted in Asian, Irish and other immigrants in America as the lower “servant class”. This shift within racial relations is shown in such programs as “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”. This article highlights that through the years, America maintains their dominance in some shape or form. Even though the present day media representation aims to pursue an image of racial harmony within America, various forms of media still represent Americans as the dominant nationality. This article shows that the ‘racial harmony’ within America is being represented through the choice of having a white, yet non-american “maid-type” figure. Supernanny’s British nationality is not merely a representation of otherness. This article highlights the fact that due to the maid-figure being white and non-american, an idealized vision of racial harmony within American is presented, whilst still preserving Americans as the dominant class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *