Idris Elba should be the next James Bond. But even as the “sexiest man alive” teased that prospect in recent appearances, his latest role — as a failed DJ who becomes a nanny for his successful friend’s daughter in Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie — seems an odd choice for a prospective 007.
Or maybe not: There’s a surprisingly robust history of movies featuring action stars playing comedic roles as caregivers of young children: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby, Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny, Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, and Vin Diesel in the Pacifier. (Even Sean Connery worked as a “babysitter” in real life before hitting it big.)
When you think about it, the prevalence of movies built around the premise of tough guys taking care of little kids is actually pretty weird. I can’t help but wonder what that says about how our culture values and views the work of caring for young children.
To be sure, part of the humor in these movies comes from the fact that very large men interacting with very small children easily lends itself to visual and physical comedy. More problematic, though, is the way these movies draw humor from the idea that it’s aberrant and therefore ridiculous for a man — particularly a big, strong, powerful one — to be in the role of a paid caretaker for children. If fighting bad guys and saving the world from robots is important, heroic “man’s” work, these films seem to suggest that “women’s work” of caring for children is the exact opposite.
The twist, of course, is that our action heroes find taking care of young children incredibly hard. The little rascals are constantly perplexing and getting the better of them, usually in hilarious and often embarrassing ways.
Yet rather than affirm the true value and complexity of the work that early childhood educators and caregivers do, these plot points often seem to double down on the idea that caring for young children is humiliating, and possibly emasculating, work. But by the end of these movies (after the children’s adorable hijinks have conveniently helped thwart bad guys), our heroes establish a bond with the kids, proving they had it in them all along. They turn out to be great caregivers despite their lack of any prior experience with or knowledge about young children. The message: this is work anyone can do if they put their heart in it.
Maybe that’s reading too much into what are, admittedly, pretty silly pieces of entertainment. But I tend to believe that the way popular entertainment portrays people and professions reflects deeper cultural assumptions and biases, and in turn influences them. And the beliefs about caring for young children reflected in these movies — it’s just babysitting, it’s not serious work, anyone can do it if they put their heart in it — are in stark contrast with what research tells us about the crucial role early childhood educators play in supporting children’s learning and development, and the skill and expertise required for this work.
Early childhood organizations, advocates, and philanthropists are increasingly engaged in efforts to strengthen the early childhood workforce and “elevate the profession” by raising public awareness of the complexity and importance of early childhood educators’ work, and by increasing qualifications and pay for early childhood workers. Raising the professional prestige and pay of early educators — whose compensation currently places them in the bottom 2nd percentile of female workers — is important as both an issue of social and moral justice and to improve learning outcomes for children. And as Governor Newsom and 2020 presidential candidates push to expand early childhood programs, those efforts must also engage issues of early childhood teachers’ qualifications and pay. But until early childhood teachers and advocates confront the legacy of sexism, classism, and racism that have produced the current status quo — including messages conveyed by popular entertainment — they’re going to face even bigger hurdles than Turn Up Charlie’s efforts to resuscitate his DJ career.