Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead

My friend Billy once defined adulthood as "the time in your life when everything costs about $30." Now obviously that isn't remotely true in any literal sense, but figuratively speaking that is pretty spot on. Thirty dollars is the no man's land of money, small enough that spending it isn't a big deal, but also large enough that you don't want to spend it idly. It is an inconsequential sum on its own, but when you pile a few $30 expenses on top of each other they become consequential very quickly. And that's what adult life is: a series of mostly harmless choices that keep adding up to be real pains-in-the-ass.

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead's definition of adulthood is not nearly as nuanced as my friend Billy's. In case you missed this semi-forgotten gem, it is a kids movie from the early 90s about a young woman who has to grow up very quickly. The plot kicks off when a single mother of five goes on vacation to Australia for two months, and before she leaves she hires a mean old lady to look after her kids because she doesn't trust her 17 year old daughter Sue Ellen to be in charge. As you might expect from the title the babysitter quickly kicks the bucket (...from natural causes...) which means the kids end up being on their own for the summer. Unfortunately, they lost the cash stipend the mom left behind when they hurriedly dropped the babysitter's corpse and her purse off on the back door of a nearby mortuary, so Sue Ellen is going to have to get a job post haste if the kids are going to have food on the table. What follows is basically a workplace comedy about Sue Ellen's naive attempts to be a young urban professional.

Now there is a lot of low hanging fruit in that plot description that I could pick apart. After all, there is no way that the mom's vacation makes any sort of financial sense, and there is no way in hell that a single mother of five doesn't make her oldest child watch her younger siblings on a regular basis. But I'm not super interested in mocking this movie for it's silly set-up because all of that stuff is trivial and I don't want to take it too seriously. But I do want to pick apart the way Don't Tell Mom portrays adult life (and specifically the way it portrays an adult's working life) because it seems like this movie was made to educate dumb kids about what they should expect when they grew up, and it does a very, very bad job of that serious task.

You see, Sue Ellen has had a life long interest in fashion, so when it becomes apparent that she needs a job she decides to apply for a secretarial position at a clothes company. The company's manager runs into her in the waiting room, takes one look at her obviously falsified resume, and then immediately hires her on the spot. Actually, she doesn't just hire Sue Ellen - she promotes her to an executive assistant position that pays much more than the secretarial position she was actually seeking. You would think that Sue Ellen's sudden promotion would turn out to be a curse in disguise because she might have been able to figure out how to answer the phones but there is no way in hell she's going to be able to create the sort of complicated financial reports she claimed to have made during her tenure at Vogue... But nope, she gets away with all of it because another secretary volunteers to do all of Sue Ellen's work for her for no adequately explained reason. And she isn't being helped by any random good Samaritan - she's being helped by a secretary that was applying for Sue Ellen's position but who got passed over because her (real) resume wasn't impressive enough.

Work: where you smoke while you are on the phone

Work: where you smoke while you are on the phone

Now, let's leave aside all the unbelievable coincidences in that set up; I know that no one ever gets the first job they are hired for, but it is just a movie and it needs to keep the plot moving. And let's leave aside the fact that it's insane to think that a person who just got snubbed for a promotion would volunteer to help the person who just leapfrogged them; I'm well aware that no one would ever volunteer to do two jobs while letting the new girl do half of one job, but that other secretary is more of a deus ex machina than a character so who cares. 

No, what makes that entire summary feel like absolute hogwash is because it fails to get at the most fundamental truth of adult life, which is that you are constantly on your own when you are dealing with your problems. Every time Sue Ellen hits an obstacle she is met with sympathy because people immediately fall in love with her inner light, but that's insane. In the real world every adult is so in their own head with their own problems that they don't have time to sit and wonder what a stranger is going through. As such, they aren't going to bend over backwards to help a desperate teen get (and then keep) her dream job when she obviously isn't qualified to do the work.

Over and over again Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead emphasizes Sue Ellen's specialness: within weeks of being hired for the executive assistant position she gets to transfer over to the design department so she can start doing the work she really wants to do. And magically, her design work is a hit with the company's clients, even though the workplace uniforms she makes include neon colored leggings and jester caps, two things that are generally not considered to be professionally appropriate. Again and again the universe conspires to help Sue Ellen to get ahead - which is pretty much the opposite of what happens in the real world, where your best case scenario is that everyone is indifferent to your presence and the worst case scenario is that everyone is actively trying to take your spot in the food chain. This is a movie whose basic message is: when you leave the house for good everyone will love and nurture you as much as your mom does. Again: this movies is totally bonkers.

Do you know why I like Billy's definition of adulthood so much? I like it because it gets at something that's true about how much adult life sucks without being too bitter or too depressing. I'd much rather define adult life that way than define it as "that time in your life where you are constantly sort of stressed out because you know that something could go wrong at any time and if it does then it will be your responsibility to fix it and you might not know how to fix it and if you can't fix it then it will be super embarrassing because everyone will know that you fucked up and then didn't fix it." That's a very accurate description of adult life, but it's also bitter and depressing. So, yes, I totally understand why Don't Tell Mom wouldn't want to broadcast that message to kids. However, the truth is that kids have to hear that sooner or later, and movies shouldn't sugar coat that message for fear of offending them, because those kids are going to need to build up their mental armor before they try to enter the real world. Forget telling mom about the dead babysitter: we need to be telling the kids that they are going to spend most of their lives in a world that is largely indifferent to their presence until they fuck up, at which point the world will be very mad at them but at that point what can you do because the fuck up already happened? Because goddamnit, that is the truth, and they need to know that that's the truth.

Oh, and also: we need to inform them that everything is going to cost about $30. Can't forget to tell them that.

Winner: The Cat

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead on IMDB