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.

Links:
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.