On New Year’s Eve, tekanji and I watched Nanny McPhee, a British fantasy movie for children. In the film, the magical Nanny McPhee comes to the Brown Estate to help Cedric Brown, widower and mortician, manage his seven unruly children, free of charge. Since the death of their mother, the Brown children have driven away seventeen nannies.
Nanny McPhee is a movie that tells both women and children how they ought to be. I want to analyze the messages in this film because I’m interested in the power dynamics between children and adults. Even powerful people were children once. I’ll explore some of the lessons I “learned” from this movie in this post.
Torturing children is appropriate–indeed for their own good–when they misbehave.
Nanny McPhee comes to teach the Brown children five lessons: to go to bed when they are told, to get up when they are told, to get dressed when they are told, to listen, and to do exactly as they are told. In other words, adults define what appropriate behavior is for children, and punish children for stepping outside of their roles. This is illustrative of oppressive power dynamics beyond age.
The Brown children use what little power they have to misbehave and get their father’s attention. When the children fake sick and refuse to get out of bed, Nanny McPhee uses her magic to bind the children to their beds and make them feel physically ill. She forces them to take foul tasting medicine. Limiting a person’s movement, creating feelings of illness, and force-feeding constitute torture in my opinion.
Getting a make-over makes plain-women noticeable to men
The Brown family’s illiterate scullery maid, Evangeline, is secretly in love with Cedric. She loves the Brown children, and appears to be the only adult in the film who spends time listening to the children prior to Nanny McPhee’s arrival.
Cedric’s family is supported financially by Aunt Adelaide, his dead wife’s aunt. Adelaide insists that Cedric must marry by the end of the month if she is to continue supporting the family. Cedric can’t support a hired staff or afford his large home on his mortician salary, so he must do as Adelaide wishes. Adelaide wants to take one of the girls to live with her, because she is nearsighted she doesn’t notice when the maid Evangeline goes in place of the children.
While Evangeline is living with Adelaide, she learns how to read and carry herself with etiquette. Cedric nearly marries Mrs. Quickly, who is certain to be a wicked step-mother, but after wedding hijinx drive Mrs. Quickly off, Cedric finally notices Evangeline, who is dressed beautifully for the wedding. Evangeline finally catches Cedric’s eye once she is polite and beautiful, and is rewarded with a husband and financial stability for her change.
Pretty and thin = wanted
If Evangeline’s makeover weren’t enough to support the pretty is desirable theme in Nanny McPhee, Nanny McPhee herself goes through such a transformation. At the beginning of the film, she is a big woman with moles, a unibrow, and a snaggletooth. As the children learn their lessons, Nanny McPhee’s “ugly” traits begin to disappear. By the end of the movie, when the children learn to want Nanny McPhee although they no longer need her guidance, Nanny McPhee is both slender and beautiful. When the children didn’t want Nanny McPhee around at the beginning of the film (and it’s no wonder, given the cruel ways she punished them), Nanny McPhee embodied their dislike for her with an ugly face and fat waist.
Women will bail men out
The last lesson of the movie was one I agreed with. Many of the conflicts in the movie would have been avoided if Cedric spent more time with his children, talking to them as people instead of sending them away when they wished to see him. Cedric learned to have an honest relationship with his children.
Although it was refreshing to see a caring man as a protagonist, the one of the ways in which Cedric was nontraditionally masculine caused part of the problems for his family: he lived beyond his own financial means, and he was willing to marry for financial stability rather than love. In the end, it was women who constantly bailed Cedric out. He was unable to care for himself, and the women in his life had to support him so he could become a better father.
Nanny McPhee is illustrative of the greater, often unsaid expectations of children and women in this culture. The children’s world is defined by adults, and they’re punished for stepping out of it, much like women are punished for deviating from their gender roles. It’s even more telling that these subtle messages are in a children’s movie, where lessons on maintaining the status quo start young.
Cross-posted on Feminist SF – The Blog!