‘What kind of mum are you at the moment?’ Supernanny and the psychologising of classed embodiment

Abstract

This paper examines the rehearsal of familiar debates about how to raise children within the genre of ‘transformational television’ in the UK. It explores the prevalence in symbolic and cultural fields of ideas about ‘poor parenting’ as an expression of pathological culture and lifestyle, alongside the psychological ethic that operates within transformational television. Using examples drawn from the Supernanny (Ricochet Productions, Channel 4, 2003), the most popular of these programmes, and drawing on the work of Nikolas Rose and Pierre Bourdieu, I argue that parenting acts as a significant site for the psychologising of a particular parental habitus, which in turn operates within a wider cultural moment of the individualisation of social inequalities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See, for example, ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion’ (2008), a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and available at www.jrf.org.uk.

  2. 2.

    The problems associated with defining what counts as ‘reality’ television are worth gesturing to here, though there is not space here to fully explore the debate. Kilborn (2003) provides a useful list of criteria, while Dovey (2000) sees it as a facet of first person self-speaking and Ouellette and Hay (2008) conceive of reality TV as ‘post-welfare social work’.

  3. 3.

    This phrase was used by Ellie Lee at ‘Parenting advice and the media’, a roundtable discussion held at Cambridge University, UK, in November 2006.

  4. 4.

    The associations between nutrition and value are one important way in which social class is representationally mediated and spoken, without referring directly to it. See, for example, the series Jamie's School Dinners (2006, Channel 4, UK), which followed celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as he attempted to intervene in the provision of school meals. News that some mothers were ‘sabotaging’ the healthy options by delivering fast food to the school gates prompted an intense cultural discussion saturated with class judgments. Oliver himself contributed to this vitriol, referring in the programme to parents who put cola and crisps in their childrens’ lunchboxes as ‘idiots’ and ‘morons’.

  5. 5.

    One common assertion I have heard informally is that the middle classes read parenting books, and the working classes watch parenting television. Parenting television, in this explanation, emerges as a popularising or even ‘democratising’ system, disseminating parenting knowledge to those unlikely to buy a parenting book; a claim which both replicates patronising assumptions about the literacy of the working classes and ignores evidence that the middle classes do indeed watch reality television (Skeggs et al, 2008). More importantly, it gestures towards ways in which the consumption of parenting expertise, and through which format, is recouped within a wider game of social distinction.

  6. 6.

    David Morley ‘Mediated Class-ifications’, talk given at Media, Class and Value symposium, De Montfort University on 20 June 2008.

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Jensen, T. ‘What kind of mum are you at the moment?’ Supernanny and the psychologising of classed embodiment. Subjectivity 3, 170–192 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1057/sub.2009.2

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Keywords

  • parenting
  • reality television
  • social class
  • habitus