Labouring inside and getting outside of labour: lessons from (re)watching The Nanny

With Australian job losses continuing to rise in our first recession in thirty years, and many of the jobs that remain being done from home, there’s perhaps never been a more opportune time to sit down and (re)watch The Nanny.

There are six seasons of the show, which has been out of production for over twenty years but is now available to us once again, endlessly, via the streaming service of your choice. In the context of the pandemic and the changes it has wrought upon our labouring lives, the show serves as more than a time filler over long days and nights at home: we can turn to it in our search for ways to make sense of work – the lack of it, the dire need of it, but also its (apparent) relocation into the home, and its reclassification as essential or inessential.

The state of affairs for Australian workers varies, of course, depending on who you ask, and how you as. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that over the month August – the last for which data is available – the unemployment rate fell to 6.8 per cent, a 0.7 per cent improvement over the month of July, effective unemployment was predicted to reach 13 per cent by the end of September, and it was further claimed that young or early-career people seeking work at this time may have their employment prospects reduced in the long long term.

The changes that our experience of work has undergone, though, aren’t fully articulated by this picture. Many of those still in their jobs have found themselves working in their homes – if these jobs, mostly white-collar and reasonably well paid, can accommodate it. The production of value, that is, has been relocated into the main site of social reproduction.

The work of social reproduction intrudes in the space and on the time reserved for ‘productivity’ proper, as symbolised by children babbling in the background of the parent’s Zoom interview. These conditions, to call upon the wonderful Amy De’Ath, remind us that caring for one’s dependents in the home is work ‘that undergird[s] capitalist production, while being kept outside of it.’

The Nanny also turns upon the status of domestic labour as labour – but as labour of a distinct kind, because of its entanglements in relationships other than that between and employer and a worker. As a nanny, protagonist Fran is an employee, but also feels a genuine attachment to the children in her care, her colleagues in the house, and even, eventually, to her boss. In the frames of the Zoom window and this sitcom alike, it’s work to raise a child, to prepare meals, to hang out the laundry. It’s also work that exceeds in some way the mere production of exchangeable value; work which points to alternative systems of care, of solidarity, and of keeping ourselves going when paid productive opportunities are scarce.

In The Nanny, the dependence of production on reproduction is given, like everything in the deliciously camp, self-consciously soapy show, almost too obviously. Where Fran Fine, a working-class Jewish woman from Queens, takes care of the reproduction, her employer Maxwell Sheffield is a literal producer – of Broadway musicals. The central conceit of the show concerns the simultaneous porosity and insurmountability of the barrier between the waged work that Fran does, and the work that is regularly performed for free by the kind of woman she would become were she to marry her boss – that is, historically, by wives and mothers. The hours (and hours) of will-they-or-won’t-they between Fran and Maxwell which drive the plot of the show nowhere for five of its six seasons is certainly, in part, to do with the class divisions that a marriage between them would cross. It’s also, however, about the ambivalence of Fran’s work – the question of what work we must, what we can, and what we can’t sensibly attach a wage to.

Two stand-out characters in the show provide opportunities to think about the ways in which the labour of care exceeds the waged work that Fran does for the repeatedly-mentioned sum of $6 an hour.

One of these is the Sheffields’ youngest daughter, Gracie, a precocious girl constantly costumed in child-sized versions of Elaine Benes’ dresses, whose time in therapy tells itself in her wonderful one-liners. Imagine these delivered by a six year old: ‘Dr Warren and I did some regression; she took me back through my childhood,’ or ‘I’m drained. I don’t bounce back like I used to.’

Quick-witted and analytical, Gracie doesn’t take long to become troubled by the liminal status of Fran’s role in the house. In Season 1, Episode 5, Gracie acts out (in a floral-print dress with balloon sleeves and an oversized, slightly clownish yellow collar) in fear that what she understands as Fran’s love for her is actually just a requirement of her nanny’s job. Comforting her in a cough-syrup-pink bridesmaid dress, replete with multiple sewn-in satin corsages and a tulle headpiece that puts me in mind of Kath Day-Knight at the races, Fran assures her that ‘It’s true I do get paid to take care of you, but I don’t get paid extra for loving you – and I do.’ Perhaps it would be fairer for Fran’s wage to better reflect her labour of love. Perhaps it’s just nonsensical to put wages and love in the same sentence, like that.

The other clear standout character is Fran’s grandmother Yetta, whose character is defined by being outside of productivity: she’s retired, the non-sequiturs which make up the bulk of her dialogue also disrupt the other characters’ work, and her presence in the Sheffield house is seen as an impediment to its efficient functioning. She also has the kitschiest wardrobe, full of sequinned tracksuits and Dame Edna glasses. Her nails are usually red and her perm is enormous.

I keep coming back to the costumes – as so many do – because they’re a powerful escape route from the stickiness of the labour relations that thematically preoccupy the show. Is Fran’s wage fair? Do waged labour and the social reproductive work of care fit together sensibly? How can she afford to dress like that on her budget? In part because of their implausibility, and in part because of their high excess, the show’s costumes short-circuit these questions. They’re a field for play, for fantasy, for creativity – for kinds of thinking and imagining which don’t have to serve the interests of anyone’s boss. The costumes let us get into Yetta’s position, outside of all that.

There are, too, a few relationships on The Nanny which model modes of kinship that can exist outside of production, or the social reproduction on which it depends. These are heartening, and instructive. The trade union of two comprised of Fran and the family’s butler, Niles, brings us not only a series of plot lines about negotiating working conditions, but perhaps the show’s most genuine scenes of companionship, good humour and teamwork. Fran’s relationship with her best-friend-since-high-school, Val, also models alternative ways of caring for each other which can help us to navigate through the dark woods of the workplace (or lack thereof). Val – seemingly unemployed throughout the show, and living with her parents – cares for Fran, and Fran for her, with a level of intimacy that makes their dialogue sometimes unintelligible: it’s mostly in-jokes.

The Nanny’s central friendship gives us a reparative vision of what care can be; Fran and Val cook for each other, help each other dress, do each other’s hair, complain, speculate, and fantasise about their futures, and it’s never about producing good workers or doing anything ‘productive’ in and of itself. They just hang out, comfort each other, know each other. This is also essential work.

Rewatching six seasons of an old sitcom can indeed feel unproductive, but in this instance that’s much of the point. I want the home to be something other, something more, than the site of social reproduction, whether this reproduction takes place as waged labour or unwaged work. I want it to be somewhere I can care for my friends and family in a way that has no point beyond itself; somewhere we can make jokes at the expense of our workplaces; somewhere to fantasise and to play and to put on head-to-toe sequins if we want. Of course, it can be a place to raise difficult questions about our social and economic lives, but it can also be a place – so The Nanny attests – for what the woman who raised me calls ‘just fun.’ It can be a way of refusing the logic of productivity at home and elsewhere, of insisting on something better.


Erin McFadyen

Erin McFadyen is a writer, educator and arts worker living on Gadigal Land.

More by Erin McFadyen ›

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  1. Hi Erin,

    Loved reading this article. I recently re-watched the Nanny in a time in my life where labour and production were at an all time boiling point and find it quite the reprieve. The ridiculous gaudiness of it all was utterly fabulous at offsetting my sad, pathetic and grim (unpaid) academic pursuits and labour. I found Fran, as a Motherless, downwardly mobile but ‘faking it til she’s making it,’ sexually charged woman super relatable, and it’s fucking fantastic when someone gives their time to put into words one reason why that might be. Here’s to the Nanny (name Fran, BOOM!)

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I think one of the things I like the best about the show (really, about Fran) is the idea of a woman defending the value of her own happiness, imagination, sexuality, and kinships of various kinds – even when she’s precariously employed, or downwardly mobile as you rightly say. I relate to her too, and to your experience as well. May you continue to wear red when everybody else is wearing tan!

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