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Last Updated on July 31, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

The Link Between Men's Desire and Violence

Sex and violence seem to be inextricably linked for the male characters of the story. The babysitter's boyfriend, Jack; his friend, Mark; and the father of the children the babysitter cares for, Mr. Tucker, all fantasize at some point about raping her. They...

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The Link Between Men's Desire and Violence

Sex and violence seem to be inextricably linked for the male characters of the story. The babysitter's boyfriend, Jack; his friend, Mark; and the father of the children the babysitter cares for, Mr. Tucker, all fantasize at some point about raping her. They also fantasize about voyeurism and watching her naked through windows, and Mr. Tucker even fantasizes about masturbating in the bushes while watching her in this way; this is also a form of violence. Further, the television is constantly on, and on one detective program, the victim is a "half-naked girl" against whom some obviously grave and mortal violence has been practiced.

Desensitization to Violence via Television

Television has become a huge part of contemporary lives, and not for the better; in fact, it can and has desensitized us to violence, as Coover points out. The fact that the television is on and playing a show in the men's fantasies of raping the babysitter indicates how big a part of their lives it is. Perhaps the shows—some of which feature general violence (like gunfights) and some of which feature sexual violence specifically enacted against women—have actively contributed to all four male characters's ideas about women, sex, and power. If one constantly watches programs that depict violence, it stands to reason that one would eventually be less affected by that violence because it becomes so routine. Even the little boy, Jimmy, is not immune to this, and he likely has imbibed his ideas about sex and violence from the television. His mother is more concerned about what he eats than what he watches, apparently, as she offers no instruction to the babysitter concerning what her kids watch on television.

Monitoring Children's Exposure to Television

People must be careful about what they allow their children to watch on television, and they must not allow it to become another babysitter of sorts. In fact, we might wonder whether the title refers to the actual girl or the television itself—or both. We see how the television plays a role in the sexual fantasies of the men and adolescents in the story, as well as how it has already begun to affect young Jimmy. We think of lots of little things as being potentially dangerous—the baby can choke on a diaper pin or drown in bathwater—but the characters do not think of the television in this way. Perhaps they—and we—should.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

In American culture and literature, baby-sitters have long been the objects of lust and fantasy, especially for middle-aged men. One need only turn to John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp (1978) and John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband” (1954) to find examples of baby-sitters who have become the targets of lustful married men. Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” explores this fascination. The title character serves as the object of desire for three generations of males: preadolescent Jimmy, teenage Jack, and middle-aged Harry Tucker.

In a role reminiscent of the pot-belly stove in Stephen Crane’s 1898 short story “The Blue Hotel,” the Tuckers’ living room television set functions as an extension of the characters. It commands their attention, participates in their activities, and even vies with them for narrative control. The characters regard the television not only as a source of entertainment but also as a reward for obedience, an employment perk (in the baby-sitter’s case), an alibi or excuse, and a companion-protector. So conspicuous is the television’s presence and role that “The Babysitter” can be interpreted as an indictment of television for its harmful effects on viewers. In the course of his intentionally confusing narrative, Coover examines television’s coupling of sex and violence, its tendency to desensitize people, its tacit encouragement of voyeurism, and its function as a surrogate baby-sitter.

Not only do the television programs bombard the characters with images of violence (for example, the fighting cowboys in a western), they also combine sex and violence. In one program, a detective stares “down at the body of a half-naked girl” who has been strangled and presumably raped. Coover’s characters also link sex with violence. In one plot line, the baby-sitter experiences an orgasm as she watches a television gunfight. Other characters fantasize about rape or being raped. At times, the television actually participates in the violence and promiscuity of the characters. When Mr. Tucker returns home unexpectedly, he finds the baby-sitter’s “panties hanging like a broken balloon from the rabbit-ear antennae on the TV.” As Jack and Mark rape the baby-sitter, “the television lights flicker and flash over her glossy flesh,” as if the television were touching her. During one violent scuffle, in which two figures—perhaps Mark and Jack—try to rape a girl—probably the baby-sitter—the television set crashes to the floor, ironically becoming a victim of the violence.

Desensitized by years of television viewing, the characters feel little compassion for other people’s suffering and tend to dehumanize their objects of desire, as Jack and Mark do when they treat the baby-sitter as a pinball machine. Possessing short attention spans, they expect “commercials” at intervals and change channels frequently. They engage in voyeurism, spying on the baby-sitter through the bathroom window or the keyhole in the door. They may not prefer to watch, as Chance does in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There (1971), but they watch anyway, conditioned by their television experience. Television has an especially tragic effect on children, who are more impressionable than adults and spend more time in front of the television. Since its proliferation in the 1950’s, television has indeed earned the epithet “The Great American Baby-sitter.” It is television’s role as a surrogate baby-sitter, which indoctrinates Americans from a young age, that Coover attacks in this story, just as the story is a statement on human sexuality, the art of fiction making, and American culture generally.

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