Shows like Girls and The Nanny portray childcare as a temporary, middle-class job that comes with nonthreatening romantic entanglements. And Downton Abbey depicts domestic work as a stable career, so long as you can adhere to the house rules. But in the real world, domestic work is an unstable profession that can encompass unfair labor practices—and a lack of legal protection against them.
There are lots of films where single men act as surrogate fathers, from the John Wayne flick 3 Godfathers to Annie, Curly Sue, Fred Claus, About a Boy, Role Models, Happythankyoumoreplease [yep], Kindergarten Cop, Big Daddy, and (kinda) True Grit. It’s also a common trope on TV, in shows where the non-dad “dad” is related to the children in question, like Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Party of Five, Full House, or Gilmore Girls, and also where a lone man rescues a needy stranger (and himself in the process), as in Punky Brewster.
In the 2005 Disney movie The Pacifier, Vin Diesel plays Shane Wolfe, a Navy Seal–turned–temporary child minder. After failing to protect a government scientist working on a top-secret program that prevents other countries from deploying nuclear weapons, he’s sent to protect the man’s family as they’ve experienced some attempted break-ins, presumably in search of the secret program (which Wolfe needs to find before they do). After the scientist’s widow leaves for Switzerland to open a newly discovered safety-deposit box belonging to her husband and the hopelessly negligent nanny quits, Wolfe is left in sole control of five children aged from baby to teenager. Hijinks ensue.
Okay, full disclosure, right up front: I'm a babysitter. Like, professionally. So maybe my fascination with the history of this job comes from a place of pure self absorption. Then again, there's a good chance many of you readers have been babysitters at some point (BSC-inspired flyers around the neighborhood advertising your services? A totally undesirable but obligatory gig watching a younger family member?), and besides, the history of the babysitter brings up some issues much larger than diapers and bedtime, like our culture's anxiety with the financial and sexual independence of girls.