The Surprising Seriousness Of Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead


In the canon of “movies that were on TV a lot in the early 90s,” is one film that, upon rewatching, surprised me with its treatment of women’s rise in the workplace. Also: Christina Applegate’s outfits: A tribute.

Applegate plays the oldest daughter in an unruly family, headed by a single mom who takes off for Australia for the summer. Seventeen-year-old Suellen is mostly interested in going to the beach this summer, and she’s not sure if she’s going to register for City College in the fall. But at the sudden death of their evil babysitter — whose crimes include making the tomboyish little sister wear pink — Suellen is unexpectedly catapulted into the workplace, preferring that form of independence to calling Mom.

Okay, so copying a resume out of a book and claiming to have been a Comme des Garçons’s design assistant isn’t exactly the picture of a positive role model for young female ambition. But it introduces her to Rose, a strong mentor who sees her potential and doesn’t underestimate her like the snippy receptionist.

At first, Suellen stumbles. She has no idea what “amorphous” means, nor how to send a fax.

But she’s a fast learner. And she seems to need no instruction to hold her own with the creeptastic office sexual harasser, who’s trying to two-time Rose.

As over-the-top as the performance is, going to a chi-chi LA restaurant and blurting out “I’m just kidding!” after a sexual proposition is a rather plausible cover for a man preying on a young assistant. (Spoiler: at the end, she shoots him in the crotch with a water gun, in a neat confluence of her youthful past and her newly-earned maturity.)

And here she is telling off another creep, played woodenly by David Duchovny. Okay, she’s being kind of a bitch and doesn’t seem to understand her own job title, but he started it.

Suellen finds out that she’s actually really good at her job in “the bowels of the fashion industry,” manufacturing uniforms: she gets along great with the guys on the factory floor, she has insight on what teenagers want that Rose lacks. And she revels in the financial independence — even if it’s semi-embezzled from petty cash.

But all of this comes with a certain ambivalence, which sounds like the “working girl” anxieties of the 80s with a particular coming of age twist.

Meanwhile, her metalhead, potsmoking brother has found himself in a domestic role — nurturing the kids, wooed by Julia Child into the kitchen. This inverted husband-and-wife schtick may be obvious, but it’s impeccably executed.

Hey look, it’s the female orgasm!

No, she’s never been to Santa Barbara. Hope she gets to visit some day. In the meantime, she saves the company with her ingenuity, with a little help from her friends and the fast-food delivery boy she’s romancing on the side. (A rather dutiful-feeling plot point). And her siblings transform from spoiled to cheerful and productive. Somehow it manages to be both a parent’s and a kid’s fantasy, because they do it all on their own.

The original title of the movie was “The Real World,” which had to be changed when the show premiered around the same time. With all these conversations about emerging adulthood we’ve been having lately, it’s interesting to remember Don’t Tell Mom‘s version of growing up: a bittersweet sense of loss, a little bit of confusion, but also figuring out who you want to be and getting by even when you’re out of your league.

And her outfits. Oh dear, her outfits. Though high-waisted pants have made their return, let’s pray this particularly unflattering permutation never regains the limelight. And I mean lime. Still, she could rock a blazer! And what would early 90s fashion be without a black halter dress?

Previously In Girls On Film:
A League Of Their Own: An Appreciation
Just One Of The Guys: An 80s Stealth-Feminist Sex Comedy
Dirty Dancing Is The Greatest Movie Of All Time
Teen Witch: Feathered, Ruffled, Locker Room Dancing Splendor
Reality Bites: In Which The Girl Never Has To Play Dumb
Overboard: Stockholm Syndrome Sex And Class Comeuppance

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