Reality TV is a growing genre in the world of entertainment. There are reality shows on how to be fashionable, how to succeed at work, how to alter and improve our bodies, how to manage our families and domestic lives, and so much more. According to Pozner in her article, “The Unreal World”, “Viewers may be drawn to reality TV by a sort of cinematic schadenfreude, but they continue to tune in because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both reflect and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women, men, love, beauty, class and race” (Pozner 97). While some of these programs promote valuable life lessons, others simply reinforce gender stereotypes, as well as masculine and feminine beliefs. However, not all reality TV shows enforce these ideals. For example, “Supernanny”, a series on ABC in which a nanny is brought into a family with naughty, misbehaved children for a week to bring order back into the house, is an exception to this widely shared belief about reality TV shows. Through her role as Supernanny, Jo Frost encourages families to break away from normative gender roles.
The families who call on Supernanny for help all have a couple factors in common. They all have kids that are out of control and act up as well as parents that need to regain command. Furthermore, another similarity that may be overlooked is that “The program also focuses almost exclusively on ‘helping’ heterosexual nuclear families, so that techniques for managing the family and the home are situated within this sanctioned ideal” (Ouellette 95). The families always include a husband and wife and children of various numbers and ages. According to Newman, “American culture is considered heteronormative – that is, a culture where heterosexuality is accepted as the normal, taken for granted mode of sexual expression” (Newman 60). For the most part, the families are white, middle class citizens living throughout the United Sates. Very rarely is a colored family, a blended family, a single parent, or any other type that differs from the norm, featured on the show. This is most likely due to the fact that these are not the acceptable standards in society.
The parents on “Supernanny” also usually follow the hegemonic norms and expectations based on masculine and feminine ideals and stereotypes. Throughout each season, and most evident in Season 1, “Mothers are almost exclusively stay-at-home, or work as teachers… Fathers frequently work long hours, or have jobs that require them to be out of town for long periods of time” (Lenos). The hegemonic belief that men are the breadwinners and women stay at home to take care of the children and the house is noticeably apparent in almost every episode of “Supernanny”. Even when the mothers do work, it is usually at home or part time during the day while the kids are at school. Fathers rarely have the responsibility of watching or nurturing the children. Typical gender stereotype roles are portrayed by the parents in most episodes, which may send out a negative message to the viewers.
However, recent episodes of “Supernanny” have begun to take the first steps in breaking away from the norm. For example, in Season 4, Episode 3, the Schumacher family called on Supernanny for help. The Schumacher family included mother Teri, father Brian, 14 year old daughter Jessica, 11 year old daughter Alexi, and 7 year old son Dylan. The husband and wife both work. Teri works at a specialty grocery store and gets home around 1:30 and Brian works as a bartender and leaves for work around 2:00. According to Teri, they “decided to work split shifts so that the kids were kept out of day care” (Supernanny - Schumacher Family). However, Brian comments that the split shifts have caused a strain on their marriage. While the parents do not follow the stereotypical gender roles, the children are given extremely gender stereotypical labels. The girls are described as “materialistic” and “selfish”, they like to shop and are on the computer or phone all day. Dylan is labeled as “aggressive”, “angry”, and “violent” often cursing and hitting his mother and sisters. Not only are the girls’ qualities characterized as feminine and Dylan’s as masculine but they are also considered bad behaviors. Therefore, it is up to Supernanny to break them of these habits, thus breaking them from the hegemonic norms of masculine and feminine ideals.
Jo Frost, also known as Supernanny, is a 32 year old English nanny, with a British accent and a Mary Poppins-like appearance, as well as sixteen years of nanny experience. From watching her character on the show, it is clear that she herself is an example of breaking out of the gendered ideals that society has built up. Jo displays both feminine and masculine qualities. In every episode “She is dressed in extremely conservative blue or plum colored suits and prim pumps, her hair is pulled into a severe chignon, she wears glasses … (Lenos). By dressing like this, she is completely desexualized, which clearly goes against the way most women are portrayed on television. Her feminine characteristics are demonstrated in the way she interacts with the children, playing with them and reinforcing their good behavior. Her masculine characteristics, on the other hand, are shown when she uses her forceful manner to take control of the household. While it is important for her to not follow the stereotypical behavior and ideals associated with femininity in order to enforce a positive message, what is even more important is the way she attempts to break the families from their hegemonic gender roles.
Parents who beg Jo for help with their uncontrollable households are also inadvertently asking Jo to completely change their lives. The families admit they are not good enough and not living the ideal life so Jo pushes a new ideal lifestyle onto them. The important aspect of this lifestyle though is that it does not abide by the feminine and masculine beliefs that have been the ideal in the past. Jo encourages fathers to spend more time with the family, advises mothers to be more assertive and have more authority with the kids, and forces children to change their behaviors and attitudes. One normative gender stereotype in our society is that men work and make the money while women are the caregivers of the family. Instead of enforcing this idea, Jo, very forcefully, makes the men realize that it is important for them to take time to play with the kids rather than leaving the wife to do all the nurturing. Furthermore, society views men as having the authoritative roles in the household. However, Jo encourages the mothers to also hold power within the family. In most episodes, the mother has trouble disciplining her children and the kids usually take advantage of her. Jo makes the mothers understand that they can still be nurturing and loving while being assertive and powerful at the same time. In her attempt to create a better lifestyle for the families, Jo blurs gender roles by making both men and women perform roles that were designed to be so-called “masculine” and “feminine”. The families on “Supernanny” know their house is out of control and the kids misbehave so Jo is needed to come in and change that, not only to benefit the family, but society as well.
“Supernanny” is a great example of a reality TV show that both disciplines and entertains us. According to Ouellette and Hay, “The goal is for parents to learn to manage on their own so Frost can move on to other needy families. The program promises to equip parents with the skills they need to improve their lives as well as their families, and in so doing allows for a range of viewing strategies, from emotional identification with the harried mothers to relief that one’s own children are not quite as out of control as the ones being documented by the TV cameras” (Ouellette 98). We, as viewers, learn valuable lessons from Jo about child rearing and effective parenting, but we also get pleasure out of seeing these dysfunctional families on television. We are able to distance ourselves from the experience but still come out with indispensable lessons. Jo is a great teacher, not only in her role as a nanny, but also in the way she encourages people to break away from the norms and create a new, less hegemonic, ideal for society.
Jo Frost. AOL Television. 28 May 2008
Lenos, Melissa. "We Need Another Hero. . . Our Contemporary Gunslinger, Supernanny." 27 May 2008
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. 60
Ouellette, Laurie, and James Hay. Better Living Through Reality TV. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2008. 95-98.
Pozner, Jennifer L. The Unreal World. 97.
"Supernanny - Schumacher Family." Surf the Channel. 2007. 27 May 2008
Supernanny Logo. About Supernanny. 28 May 2008