Looking back on your childhood as an adult can be an emotional minefield.
You realise there probably wasn’t a monster hiding under your bed, your mum was right not to let you go to that party and you discover that one of your favourite TV shows was actually a hotbed of sexism, body shaming, and abusive humour.
As a kid, I loved The Nanny. It aired during that time in the 9os when family friendly TV shows were truly at their peak. The airing of these iconic, prime-time shows were a special weekly event, they were nights when the whole family would gather around the same TV, snuggled up on mattresses or under blankets, and watch the familiar characters and story-lines unfold on screen.
The Nanny was one of these shows and, for those of who who may have missed out on this beloved 90s gem, it went a little something like this.
The series focused on Fran Fine (Fran Drescher), who, after being dumped and fired by her boyfriend, turns up on the doorstep of British Broadway producer and widow Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy) attempting to sell cosmetics. She is then accidentally hired as the nanny for Maxwell’s three children, Maggie, Brighton and Grace. It was a family sitcom meets fish-out-of-water-tale that ran for six seasons, from 1993 to 1999, and ended with Fran and Maxwell married and the proud parents of twins.
Recently, the full series dropped onto the streaming service Stan, and during a lazy Sunday I decided to embark on the ultimate nostalgia binge and re-watch the entire thing from start to finish.
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Pleasantly there were parts of the show that truly held up. Fran’s outrageous outfits were still incredible feats of fashion, and her facial expressions and body movements still placed her among some of the greatest comedy performers to ever star on TV.
But along with all the good was a whole lot of bad that as a child I had never ever noticed. Now, as an adult, it’s jarring, cringe-worthy and just many layers of offensive.
First up, most of the humour and jokes centre around Fran’s advancing age (she is 30 in the first season… gasp) and the fact that she is unmarried and childless. Throughout the series, she is also extensively mocked by Maxwell and other members of the cast who make sexist and demeaning remarks about her intellect and personality all because she wears short skirts.
In fact, a large amount of the humour is centred around body shaming in general. Fran’s mother Sylvia’s only comedic beats are centred on her overeating and love of food, with other characters on the show constantly reminding Fran that she could “end up like her mother” whenever she is about to indulge in a sweet treat.
But the character who bears the brunt of the body shaming laughs is C.C. Babcock.
Now, as a child, the roles of everyone on The Nanny were crystal clear. Fran, despite her short skirts and loud voice, was the beloved heroine and Niles, the droll but quick-witted butler, was one of the heroes. With his main plot-point being the constant abuse he hurled at Maxwell’s business partner, C.C.
Despite C.C. not having any kind words to say to Fran or the Sheffield kids at anytime, her main crimes were that she was in her late 30s, single and hopelessly in love with Maxwell. This means that every time she opened her mouth, Niles would throw out a sizzling retort by calling her some combination of fat/old/ugly/lonely. The studio audience would laugh, as would my family and I at home, all because it was just part of the show.
Another childhood truth that was shattered into pieces by a re-watch of The Nanny was the character of Maxwell Sheffield. The first time around he was billed as the ultimate leading man and prime husband material for poor single and ageing Fran Fine. In fact, there is very little nannying going on in the later seasons, the kids are basically just props moving around in the background, all because the whole story-line revolved around her attempts to convince Maxwell she's good enough to be his wife.
And he certainly makes her jump through hoops, while loudly berating her when she misses the mark. In fact, some of his behaviour towards his future wife is down right aggressive. He often screams into her face, chases her throughout the house and even attempts to place his hands around her throat at some points.
I very much doubt that the creators and cast of the show ever intended to showcase scenes that alluded to domestic violence, but in a world where issues like this are spoken about much more openly, they now stick out like a sore thumb.
Of course, there's nothing new about watching beloved family shows back years later and noticing the ways they strayed outside the lines. Friends and Gilmore Girls are two of the most popular TV shows ever made, beloved by audiences across the world and watched on repeat by fans in the years since their show runs ended. But now that we are able to watch them with more open and critical eyes, we see that they are just teaming with jokes laced with homophobia and body shaming.
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One tiny thing The Nanny appeared to do right, however, was in its depiction of mental illness. In fact, in the middle of watching the first season, I realised that as a child this would have been the first time I had ever seen mental illness depicted on screen, even though back then I had no idea what I was watching or that it was a condition affecting many people.
It's only visible in a very tiny story thread that weaves through the first few seasons, concerning the youngest of the Sheffield kids, Grace. And even though they never actually give her condition a name, it's clear she is suffering from anxiety.
Grace talks about having panic attacks, a racing heart and the majority of her dialogue is talking about her excessive thoughts of fear, worry, catastrophising or obsessive thinking. These are all classed as signs and symptoms of anxiety, according to Beyond Blue.
Fran's earliest encounters with the Sheffield kids include her taking Grace to her psychologist appointments and working with her to ease her anxiety symptoms, symptoms that often flare up prior to play dates with other kids or in the response to the death of her mother.
The way Fran treats her is reminiscent of how I have seen my friends who have children with anxiety behave. Letting them lead the way when it comes to handling social situations, nudging them forward but never pushing. Never telling them to just "get over it" or finding humour in their feelings.
But just because we now see these looming flaws in our favourite childhood shows, doesn't mean we can't still watch and enjoy them. It's all a sign that, even though we still have a long way to go, we've made some steps in the right direction.
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