Thursday Interview: Author Allison Klein

I wanted to explore the topic of Nannies in the media further. So I asked an astute observer/researcher of TV women: Allison Klein, what she thought about it. I caught up with Klein in the West Village on a particularly rainy day. We discussed Nannies on TV, and how representations of Nannies can provide invaluable insights into the roles of class, gender and race in the USA today. 

Allison why are most Nannies in the media Caucasian and why ultimately do they become successful individuals? (The Nanny, The Nanny Diaries)

Unfortunately, like much of television, the under-representation of many groups is still a problem. The reason, I feel, that white nannies on television are written to end up successful is part and parcel of the essential American rags-to-riches delusion. A nanny is not considered a high-esteemed station in life (which in and of itself is small-minded) and thus, she gets to escape her position, either by marriage or some form of success. The problem with this archetype is that it leaves no room for someone who enjoys their work with children and is inspired and proud of their role.

Why are African American Nannies generally portrayed as ‘mammies’ either down trodden and resentful or brimming with pride over their Caucasian charges? (The Help)

If you look into any history of African-Americans on television, the picture is often bleak. For decades, they were limited to the roles of housemaids and caretakers, particularly women. If there is something to be celebrated it is the amount of African-Amercian shows on television now, still not enough, but the characters are certainly getting better. The ABC series Scandal is a good example (strong, black female lead). In terms of childcare workers represented, it is often minor characters. It would be great to see the situation from the point of view of a black nanny for a white family, for instance. (Women television writers, take note.) The one thing I can say for the small screen is that it has been much more forgiving than the big screen. Of course, film is a whole different problem. My hope is that there are more women of color who take up television writing and production. We want more Shonda Rhimes!

Are there positive Nanny role models in TV today? 

I really had to rack my brain to think of positive nanny role models on  television. I think back to the show, The Nanny, and I imagine that few people would want the goofball, Fran Fine, to take care of their children. I think that is generally the case, but CBS’s biggest new hit this season, a show called 2 Broke Girls, has a lead character who works as a nanny to a very wealthy Manhattan family. Of course, the character, Max, is financially unstable, lives in Brooklyn and couldn’t be more different from her boss, who is an extreme parody of a socialite. What I like about the setup for this sitcom is that Max cares for twin infants and protects them from their mother’s insanity, for instance, when the mom wanted to infants tanned because they look so pale. It is Max who is the childcare voice of reason and that is a nice change for television. I’d certainly like to see more of it.

How can stereotypes and cliches damage female solidarity? 

Of course stereotypes hurt everyone and my main problem with this situation for women is that women, then, don’t get portrayed in the most realistic terns. If you break anything down by category, there are going to be generalizations. That is why we have multiple outlets (many shows, many networks) to counter those stereotypes with programming. I think there are some great shows that address women’s real situations (as real as you can be on TV). Shows like The Middle (overworked mom) and In Plain Sight (single working mom who needs help with childcare) are great to show the situations mothers experience. We need more shows to address a much larger variety of archetypes. Without that, women will continue to align themselves against each other. With more popular culture representation comes more understanding and thus more compassion.
Allison Klein

Allison Klein is a former writer and producer for MTV news, where she produced MTV’s award-winning documentary series, True Life. A freelance journalist, TV critic, and feminist scholar, she lives in New York City. ‘What Would Murphy Brown Do?” is her first book. 

What Would Murphy Brown Do?
How the Women of Prime Time Changed Our Lives
$16.95 US
From workplace politics to single motherhood to designer heels in the city, revisit TV’s favorite—and most influential—women from the shows of the 1970s through today, who stood up to and held their own with bosses, husbands, friends, and lovers. More