Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Nanny Diaries' Classy Critique of Class

Here's my latest installment in my series, "Reviewing movies that everyone else has already seen." (The first one was "Juno.")

I watched "The Nanny Diaries" this weekend (on DVD, how else?) and thought it did a surprisingly nice job of reflecting critically yet unobtrusively on how social class functions in the United States. If you've seen it, you know that its portrayal of Upper East Side matrons is merciless. They're self-absorbed, petty, bored, materialistic, and completely unavailable to their kids. They scheme to get their children into the right preschools. They mandate hours of French instruction every week for their preschoolers. They spy on their employees with nannycams hidden in teddy bears. They're a more selfish but equally obsessive version of the mothers that Judith Warner profiles in Perfect Madness: Motherhead in the Age of Anxiety. It's easy to take potshots at them, which the movie plays for both laughs and tears.

While that's probably the most obvious level where the film deflates class privilege, it's not the most interesting one. There are more subtle - and sober - messages about the nannies themselves. And I thought that was cool, and unexpected, for a Hollywood movie.

The first of these is how class and race intersect in toxic ways. The central character, Annie, is a white gal from New Jersey, fresh out of college. When word spreads among the rapacious matrons, they fall all over each other trying to hire her because, as one of them says bluntly, "she's white." And she's not an immigrant.

Since the movie's a comedy, it's not going to give us a blistering critique of how nannies are often women who've been forced to emigrate in order to feed their children in a faraway country. But it doesn't ignore that reality either. There's a painfully funny scene where the matrons drag the nannies en route to a seminar on "conflict resolution" and the matrons sit on gilded chairs while the nannies are pressed up against a wall as if in a police lineup. While the nannies are being interrogated about their grievances (which of course will be punished, not resolved!), one of them, a black woman from Africa, says that she's had to leave her children in order to raise a rich family's kids. That moment is not played for laughs. There's no way you could. You see the discomfort of the matrons as they struggle to repress this knowledge, to sink back into their comfortable denial. And you're reminded of how easy it is for any of us with relative privilege to repress and deny the reality that poverty lives cheek-by-jowl with wealth - that the enjoyment of class privilege depends on that juxtaposition of the rich and poor.

The movie's most subtle insights on class privilege deal with Annie (played by Scarlett Johannson) and her post-college employment dilemmas. Her mother, a nurse who's struggled as a single parent, fiercely wants Annie to enter the financial world and enjoy the security she lacked. But Annie is burnt out after working her butt off in college and has neither the drive nor the desire to become a high-powered businesswoman. Becoming a nanny is her little rebellion against lower-middle-class ambition. It's a gentle but revealing commentary on how class privilege hurts even those who are above the poverty line but still feel constrained from taking chances. In the end, Annie does take a real chance, enrolling in an anthropology graduate program. (Well, humanities grad school is not just chancy; it's a pretty sure ticket to being perennially underpaid. But that would be another post.)

Sure, you could fault the movie for being mostly about a pretty young white girl whose problems are nowhere near as severe as those of the women of color tending their charges in Central Park. There's certainly a need for exposés of the exploitation - and even trafficking - that nannies and other domestic servants too often suffer. But given that it's a romantic comedy and not a crusading documentary, "The Nanny Diaries" went much further than I'd expected in untangling the fraught rat's nest that is social class in America.

Image from Flickr user Roger528, used under a Creative Commons license.

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