Mothers on the Naughty Step: Supernanny and Reality Parenting Television
Rebecca Feasey / Bath Spa University

Supernanny Logo

Supernanny‘s Logo

Our television landscape is currently littered with documentaries, docu-dramas and reality programmes that seek to expose salacious and scandalous images of motherhood. Programmes such as Half Ton Mum (2007), Octomom: Me and My 14 Kids (2009), 8 Boys and Wanting a Girl (2010), Too Old to be a Mum (2010), Misbehaving Mums to Be (2011) and Fast Food Baby (2011) present an ostensibly realistic look at some of the more shocking representations of motherhood that exist in the contemporary cultural climate. Moreover, reality parenting programmes such as Supernanny (2004- ) and Supernanny USA (2005- ) that seek to correct well meaning but ultimately ‘poor’ parenting tend to focus on the image of the incapable, ill-equipped and incompetent mother.

Reality parenting programmes are in a position to explore, examine and unmask gender roles in society due to the fact that they focus on the women’s relationship with the domestic sphere. However, although there is the potential for informed commentary regarding the lived reality of mothering without extended family support systems or the challenges faced when combining motherwork with paid labour, programmes such as Supernanny tend to offer conservative agendas and patriarchal conclusions concerning women’s appropriate domestic role and innate maternal instincts.

Supernanny routinely emphasises the mother as the primary caregiver in the family unit. Mothers are portrayed as domestic manager, in charge of meal times, bath routines, bed-time stories, school runs, grocery shopping, household chores and general children’s entertainment planning and activities. Mothers are assumed to have sole responsibility for childrearing, and any problems that they experience in the domestic sphere are seen to be due to individual failings and their own ineffectual maternal practices. The programme makes it clear that it is the lenient, weak and fragile maternal figure that is the family problem that needs to be re-educated, not the supposedly ‘bad’ children, and the fact that parenting techniques are ‘almost exclusively taught to mothers … whether stay-at-home or not’1 is particularly telling here.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S4Zo6cde8o&feature=related[/youtube]

The programme conforms to the patriarchal ‘good’ mother myth that demands a mother be always available to her children, and if that woman happens to work outside of the home, she must plan her work schedules around the demands of her family.2 The programme seems to set up an opposition between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, privileging the woman’s role as caregiver in the domestic sphere over her participation in the public realm. Any jobs, careers or other non-domestic labour is clearly and deliberately established as a troublesome ‘interference’ to a mother’s domestic life.3

Reality parenting television tends to focus on working-class families, so that incompetent, incapable and inarticulate motherwork, maternal care and domestic duties tend to be laid at the door of the economically, socially and educationally underprivileged. Those working-class women who are struggling financially, living in claustrophobic conditions and unable to find time to not only clothe and feed their children, but to also educate them inventively, entertain them and inspire them creatively are held up as ‘poor’ mothers because the show seems to suggest that these women are in a position to choose how to speak to, feed, discipline and clothe their children, with no acknowledgement of the material, economic or geographical constraints which shape their lived reality and thus inform their maternal practices. In short, these mothers are marked as culturally inappropriate maternal caregivers with little attention paid to the context in which they are mothering.

Supernanny appears to delight in humiliating these women and we are routinely asked to bear witness to their shame as they scream and swear at their children, smack them, ignore them, leave them, lock them in bedrooms, force-feed them and resort to sarcasm at their expense. Each episode, without exception, sees supernanny Jo Frost deriding, dismissing and berating mothers for being physically frail, mentally fragile and ineffectual in their parenting practices. Frost asks parents to ‘witness the pinnacle of their own parenting failure,’4 at which point, these primary caregivers refer to themselves as ‘poor’ mothers, talk about their own inappropriate childrearing practices and berate themselves for their lack of consistent disciplinary techniques. Mothers routinely apologise for what they see as their maternal failings and acknowledge their inability to follow through with clear, consistent discipline in the household, aware that these failings are going to create further chaos, disorder and disharmony in the domestic space.

Jo Frost

Supernanny Jo Frost

The voyeuristic camera spends far longer registering the upset, anxiety and humiliation of the mother compared to the father of the piece, with the suggestion that these women should be embarrassed by their parenting practices, reprimanded for their motherwork efforts, and ridiculed for their ineffectual domestic labours. However, although one might look to reality parenting television in general, and the long running and popular Supernanny in particular as an example of patriarchal, misogynistic or class-based programming, some have suggested that the representation of appropriate and inappropriate mothering in these shows is useful, necessary and of importance.

Supernanny not only exposes parenting problems, but offers parents in general, and mothers in particular, ways to create a more harmonious family unit, and as such, one might look to praise the show for its entertainment potential and educational possibilities. Extant research tells us that audiences watch these programmes for interest and educational reasons5 with supernanny becoming a ‘spokesperson for audiences who need a kind of civic education in parenting’.6 Indeed, members of the British Conservative party have praised the programme’s routinised and organised methods in a parliamentary debate on anti-social behavior. The fact that each show concludes with a short revisit to the originally struggling family, and that, without exception, these families are calmer, more courteous, and the mothers more confident about their maternal practices demands that the audience acknowledge the success of the techniques being presented, irrespective of the earlier humiliation and shame of the mothers involved. Therefore, rather than critique or condemn the programme for exploiting fragile mothers or for humiliating depressed caregivers, the programme might be seen to present a powerful maternal voice. Indeed, if one considers that contemporary mothers are said to bring inaccurate or ill-informed, disabling and delusional expectations to that role7 , then the representation of motherhood in parenting reality television might be seen to bridge the gap between expectation and experience here.

Image Credits:

1. Supernanny‘s Logo
2. Supernanny Jo Frost

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. Green, Fiona (2007), ‘Supernanny: Disciplining Mothers through a Narrative of Domesticity’, Storytelling, 6:2, pp.99-109. Available at Literature Online, http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk (accessed 10/08/2011) []
  2. Chase, Susan and Rogers, Mary (2001), Mothers and Children: Feminist Analysis and Personal Narratives, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, p.30 []
  3. Fairclough, Kirsty (2004), ‘Women’s Work? Wife Swap and the Reality Problem’, Feminist Media Studies, 4:3, p.345 []
  4. Green, Fiona (2007), ‘Supernanny: Disciplining Mothers through a Narrative of Domesticity’, Storytelling, 6:2, pp.99-109. Available at Literature Online, http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk (accessed 10/08/2011) []
  5. Ganeshasundaram, Raguragavan and Henley, Nadine (2009), ‘Reality Television (Supernanny): A Social Marketing “Place” Strategy’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 26:5, p.316 []
  6. Tally, Margaret (2008), ‘Reality Television and Contemporary Family Life: Make Over Television and the Question of Parenting,’ Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Boston, Available at: http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/3/9/2/7/pages239270/p239270-1.php (accessed 10/08/2011) []
  7. Maushart, Susan (1999), The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend it Doesn’t, London: Pandora, pp.xi-xxi []

5 comments

  • A great article – I must say I do watch Supernanny from time to time and it is really pertinent to me that there is a very clear focus on the female. It’s rare that the male of the household is berated for his lack of interaction or coping abilities.

    This brought to mind that I’ve also seen similar shows such as Nanny 911, which have a variety of ‘saviour’ Nanny characters – but again, this is a purely female vocation. Surely there must be some male child carers too. That point really washed over me until reading this.

    I have also seen a couple of episode which focus on the single parent, but only ever a mother. I wonder how long it will be before we see a single male parent.

  • There has most definitely been one about a father dealing with the loss of his wife. And I can call many to mind that focus on the father. I think the show goes with however the families have the responsibilities prior. SuperNanny usually has a time where she leaves Dad alone with all of the kids so Mom can have some “Me Time” and Dad can learn how to handle all of them if he doesn’t already know, and she usually comments on how ridiculous it is that he can’t handle his own children. I am a feminist and am always watching out for these sorts of things and I have to say I have only ever been struck by sexism BY the show’s participants, never by the show itself. I am really left wondering if we are watching the same show, here.

  • Could the fact that the expert figures in these corrective parenting shows are themselves always women be indicative of the extent to which mothers more than fathers are being interpellated as deficient? Not only have we had Jo Frost in Supernanny, but also all four of the nannies in Nanny 911, and Tanya Byron in Little Angels and The House of Tiny Tearaways.

    In Supernanny, gestures made by Frost towards the need for fathers to do their share, do often come via her oft asked question “Where’s Dad in all of this???”, flagging up the extent to which fathers are shown to absent themselves from domestic mayhem. But it often seems to me that this is a negotiation, if not almost a tacit “oh well” to an all but normalised scenario. I am not sure that individual episodes profiling lone fathers trouble the show’s structuring discourse to a huge degree, although it is interesting that the episode referred to in one of the comments above apparently profiles a widowed single father, given the ubiquity of this figure in mediations of postfeminist masculinity elsewhere in popular culture, especially Hollywood cinema (We Bought a Zoo is the example currently showing in my local cinema).

    At what seemed to be the height of this cycle of corrective parenting reality shows, around 2007, I remember a chick lit novel called ‘The Manny’ being published, and I wondered if it was going to spawn some sort of ‘Larry Poppins’ type reality TV series. Postfeminist masculinity has taken some seemingly unlikely turns in the media in recent years, but I don’t think it’s gone there yet… (?)

  • Further to my previous post, I see that a reality parenting show profiling deficient fathers is about to start on Channel 4 in the UK: ‘Daddy Day Care’

  • I think the oft overlooked, and most important, issue here is that these shows are not seeking in their mission to truly help anyone. They were not designed as not-for-profit documentaries or socially responsible television programs on public television for the purpose of improving society or or doing some social good. They were designed to make money, sell advertising, and sell products to women – all around the song-and-dance of fake altruism with phony “experts” designed to make the viewer buy more of the sponsor’s products. Period.

    Further, they are obviously catering directly to a traditional view of the predominant demographic watching reality television – women – rather than seeking to portray or talk about what is actually taking place in the community or overall society these women live in. In these shows the relentless focus on the mother as home and child manager and the bearer of all responsibility for dictating discipline, meal-times, etc., and the relentless examples of her failure at this is all set up to make the mothers watching feel better about their own lives as compared to the “degenerates” on TV.

    Further, these shows are also examples of the public being manipulated and exploited by anecdotal stories that don’t represent the whole of society, but purport to. Anecdotal bits and pieces can always be taken out of context, then drummed up and over-blown in order to guide the impressionable in a direction. Politicians (and Reality TV producers) do it all the time. And so if these shows are looked at as anything other than vehicles to sell products, then the real danger here is that they are taken together to say something about our society as a whole these days. Something like “Men are not as present in the home, not as responsible for home management.” Or that “our mothers in today’s society are deficient, weak, poorly educated or unable to deal with their responsibilities to their children/husbands/homes because they are taking on too much in their lives, like jobs, etc.”.

    But the reality is much different, and there are many sides to the full picture. For a bit of the context that these hyperbolic shows are plucking their negative anecdotes from, take a look at a great article this week in Time Magazine on “The Richer Sex” which brings up some great findings: Married men have tripled their domestic contributions over the last generation in child-care, meal prep, and housework hours, and that men are increasingly less likely to be making final family decisions and to govern financial decisions solely anymore. Watching these shows one would never get the impression that the role of the father in day-to-day management of the household, child-care, etc., is actually increasing sharply in America over the past generation. As usual, telling people facts is not necessarily a sexy sales technique, but playing with people’s emotions definitely is.

    We must be careful to take these shows only for what they are – inexpensive exploitative program-length commercials focused exclusively on keeping ratings high and advertising money flowing – plucking heart-strings and toying with our vulnerabilities in order to manipulate the general public into buying products. Nothing more.

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