A despot welcomes a riot. Disorder provides an excuse to rescind liberties in the name of restoring calm. There are only two choices, after all: chaos and control.
The creators of Supernanny and
understand this. Each week they poke their cameras into a dysfunctional suburban home where the children are bouncing off the walls and the parents are ready to climb them. There’s whining, there’s yelling, there’s hitting…and the kids are just as bad. But wait. Look up there: It’s a bird. It’s a plain-dressed, no-nonsense British nanny, poised to swoop in with a prescription for old-fashioned control. Soon the clueless American parents will be comfortably back in charge, the children will be calm and compliant, and everyone will be sodden with gratitude. Cue the syrupy music, the slow-mo hugs, the peek at next week’s even more hopeless family.
Of course, the choice of anarchic households sets us up to root for totalitarian solutions (anything to stop the rioting). Moreover, we’re asked to believe that families can be utterly transformed in a few days and to assume that the final redemptive images reveal the exceptional skills of the nanny–rather than the program’s editing staff. We might just laugh off the implausibility of these programs except that they’re teaching millions of real parents how to raise their real kids. To that extent, it matters that they’re selling snake oil.
Consider ABC’s Supernanny (Fox’s copycat, Nanny 911, differs mostly in that a rotating cast of nannies shares top billing). The show is rigidly formulaic: Jo Frost, the titular nanny and now bestselling author, arrives, observes, grimaces, states the obvious, imposes a schedule along with a set of rules and punishments. The parents stumble but then get the hang of her system. Contentment ensues.
The limits of the show, however, are less consequential than the limits of its star. Frost’s approach to family crises is stunningly simple-minded; it’s the narrowness of her repertoire, not merely the constraints of the medium, that leads her to ignore the important questions. Are the parents’ expectations appropriate for the age of the child? Might something deeper than a lack of skills explain why they respond, or fail to respond, to their children as they do? How were they raised?
The nanny never peers below the surface, and her analysis of every family is identical. The problem is always that the parents aren’t sufficiently vigorous in controlling their children. She has no reservations about power as long as only the big people have it. Kids are the enemy to be conquered. (At the beginning of Nanny 911, the stentorian narrator warns of tots “taking over the household”; the children in one episode are described as “little monsters.”) Parents learn how to get them to take their naps now. Whether the kids are tired is irrelevant.