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babysitting

Dear Christine Parker,

Dear Chris Parker,

Dear Christine,

Dear Chris,

Dear Eponymous Babysitter of Adventures in Babysitting,

My calling you dear is no mere adherence to epistolary convention, for you are and always have been truly dear to me. You are not real—never were; never will be—but to me you have been more influential than plenty of actual people. I hold you in my mind and I find you in my heart at unexpected times as I walk through Chicago, the city I live in, the city of your own cinematic (mis)adventures.

Like the other night, walking home with a friend from a party on a misty May evening beneath the orange sodium lights—their vapor, their mystery. Heading north on Western Ave, we passed a black tow truck labeled “Mr. Hook,” which reminded me of one of the hilarious crises that you and your young charges had to contend with during your own night on the town. Racing down the expressway to rescue your desperate friend Brenda from a seedy bus station where she’d gotten stranded during an abortive attempt at running away, your mom’s station wagon busted a flat. That alone would have been bad enough, but it happened just as you’d been regaling the kids—Sara, age 8, and Brad and Daryl, both 15—with the classic urban legend of the hook-handed man who murders a babysitter and her children. You had an admirable way with detail—he left their faces looking, you said, like “Spaghetti-Os with meat.” In a neat coincidence, Handsome John Pruitt, the tow truck driver who stopped and had mercy on the four of you had a nasty metal hook where his right hand should have been. But you kept it together and accepted his assistance, illustrating to your babysittees and to a young and dumb suburban me that a disability should not be seen as scary, and that city people—though at times eccentric—are generally decent and desirous of doing the right thing.

I mentioned you to my friend, and told him this story. Told him how I am reminded of you continually by being in the city, meeting people or not, but especially at night when the landscape is dream-like and you get the feeling that as you walk east from a street for miles, you might re-meet yourself at the end of that same street, dreamy episode after dreamy episode stringing themselves together seemingly without end for the structure of the city is—or can be for those who know how to approach it, as you, Chris, taught me—the structure of a dream. But my friend had never seen Adventures in Babysitting, didn’t know who you were, and sort of laughed it off as a girl movie from the ’80s. He didn’t mean anything by it, but I quietly felt insulted. I didn’t try to defend you or your movie to him too much in that moment, because the thing is, he was right: your movie is a girl movie—a movie with a winsome girl at its center, being its heroine. Over the years, that has meant more to me than I’d realized, and I want to try to explain to you my love and my gratitude.

That is why, Chris, I am writing to you: there are relatively few opportunities in real life to be genuinely heroic. There are perhaps even fewer such opportunities for women in the movies. But you, on that fateful night depicted onscreen, got several, and you took them all and you handled them dreamily.

Chris, what I mean is that you are my dreamgirl, the girl of my dreams, but not in the cheesy way people say that, meaning flat and unhuman: stereotypically angelic or stereotypically sexy, virgin or whore. And not in the way of those purloined issues of Playboy magazine that comprised a critical plot point with the centerfold, Miss March—who resembled you, as people told you—which you handled with poise—all throughout the madcap filmic proceedings.

Chris, wherefore my love for thee? At first sight. I loved you the millisecond the opening credits began rolling over you dancing in your preposterously large bedroom in the Chicago suburbs to “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals, pirouetting around the Phil Spector wall of sound, waiting for your boyfriend, Mike, to show up and take you out to dinner. Answering the door just before he was about to cancel on you (unbeknownst to you, with a flagrant lie), you said to yourself: “Okay, Chris, just relax, tonight is going to be the greatest night of your life.” And it was, but not for the reasons you thought.

Wherefore my love? In part, the fact that you went by Chris. You possessed the talisman of an androgynous name. You were a girl with a nomenclature that could be male or female (even though the actress who played you goes by the obviously feminine “Elisabeth Shue”).

Wherefore the persistence of my love this past quarter-century? Multifarious and multifactorial, enduring now for some 25 years, an attachment neither attributable to, nor dismissable as, 1980s nostalgia.

For one thing, it was 1990 by the time I saw you, though your movie had come out a full three years prior. I was only 10 years old at the occasion of our meeting, watching you do your coolheaded babysitter routine at a slumber party in the basement of a Chicago suburb not dissimilar to the one you were supposed to be from.

I did not know what the Bechdel Test was, but I already knew—instinctively, like I could smell it—that most movies did not pass it, and therefore I did not like most movies: films where women were at best prizes to be won by the male characters for their daring achievements, where women were in peril and in need of saving by a man (never by themselves or by another woman), or where women were simply not present at all. Seeing you VHSed on the small screen that night in elementary school threw into explicitness the questions that I had long had implicitly about the women in the Westerns my dad watched, dainty and requiring the manly aid of cowboys and sheriffs, or consigned to stay literally “back at the ranch.” Questions I also had about his action movies, like in the Dirty Harry films (and let the record reflect that I love John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, too, though this is not their love letter, so that’s all I’ll say), where at most women could be the motivation for heroism—getting attacked or being tragically dead like Harry’s wife, adding texture and backstory and provocation, but never getting to do anything.

Your film Chris was another Chris’s debut—the director Chris Columbus. It was the first PG-13 movie released by a Disney division, but you were no Disney princess. PG-13, Chris! You were not reduced to a sex symbol, but you were not unsexy—you, like the city, had sexiness and edge. But that was not all you had—you had quick wits and a willingness to act.

To act, Chris. That might sound minor, but it’s not, and here’s why. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” And I watched you, yes, but I watched you not sitting around and letting yourself be watched and wanted; rather I watched you kick considerable ass.

The 1980s were the age of the pumped-up male action hero, and there you were, action-heroing better than any of them, not oiled and tanned and musclebound, but tastefully clad in your camel-hair coat with shoulder pads over your fuzzy, hot pink sweater. Not wrapped in latex with cantilevered breasts upthrust and an impossibly skinny waist like a comic book character or a Disney princess, some masculinist fanboy shit or some animator’s caprice. You were a girl just doing your thing, just using your body to run and jump and stand and be without making a big production of it, and it was exceptional.

“Men act and women appear,” says John Berger, but you did both. You jump-kicked gracefully between the raindrops comprising a veritable storm of male gazes: your creep boyfriend Mike finding you beautiful but prudish and therefore cheating on you; the horndog boys, one crude (Daryl) and one sweet (Brad), getting a load of you and lusting, lusting; and the kindly college boy, Dan, who was smitten enough to use the pretext of Sara’s lost roller skate to find you by the end of the night.

You balance-beamed across the rafters to escape the chop-shop warehouse lair of the Mafioso car thieves who’d accidentally kidnapped the four of you. You stepped in between two warring street gangs (dressed, as is the way of street gangs in the movies, in improbably stylish and coordinated costumes indicative of their respective allegiances) to stop their impending fight and let you and your charges get off the El train unscathed. You did it with dedication and grace despite being, like many real women, underpaid, or at least not paid what you’re worth. And you did it while either driving or attempting to recover your mother’s wood-paneled station wagon, a practical ride unlike the phallic penile-substitutes car-chased through so many contemporary movies’ male-centric fantasies.

You, Chris Parker—you are my fantasy.

Let me elaborate. In his original 1987 review, Ebert of Siskel and Ebert quips that Adventures in Babysitting is a cross between two other Chicago teenager movies, Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Your movie, he says, “could also be called Ferris Bueller’s Sister’s Day—Night!—Off.” Watching him say that now on YouTube makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, specifically of her character Judith, Shakespeare’s Sister, created to make the case that a female born with Shakespeare’s talents would never have received the same chances to develop them because of systemic sexism. It’s not quite the same, of course, being a writer or being a female film hero. But the idea resonates. You had the chance, Chris. You were Disney, but you were not a princess, and you kicked ass calmly and competently, with skill and dignity.

Ebert’s stated reason for why “this movie as a whole never quite caught hold for me” is that “it kept drifting back and forth between realism and absolute, unbelievable fantasy, and I was never sure if they were visiting the real Chicago or a movie Chicago. Ferris Bueller to me, which is a parallel story, was more believable. I don’t think they were every really sure in this movie whether it was a fantasy or not.” He admits that it was a close call, but ultimately condemns you: thumbs down.

Although a fair critique, this uncertainty is one of the reasons I love you so much, Chris. Your movie blurred the waking world of what the urban consists of and the gauzy dream of what it could be. So you get two thumbs up from me, enthusiastically and forever, thumbs up for eternity.

Siskel, to his credit, gives your movie a thumbs up, as well, pointing out that while the depiction of race in the film is perhaps not as complex as it could be, at least there is interaction between white suburban kids and people of color in the city, which is a great deal more than a lot of movies—and a lot of actual neighborhoods—afford their viewers and residents.

And that is another part of what you showed me, Chris. That while reality may at times be disappointing, it does not have to be. For the appeal and potential of the city—any city (because the movie was set in Chicago and Oak Park, but shot largely in Toronto)—is the possibility of contact with strangers. Strangers as in people you don’t know, but more importantly, people who are nothing like you. You taught me correctly that the city is a place of great self-actualization and discovery, but also kindness and generosity both from and toward other people. Even the toughest people with whom you interacted did not desire to hurt you.

These lessons were in contrast with the ones my parents instilled on the rare forays we made into the city to go to a museum or catch a ballgame at Comiskey, when it was still called Comiskey. They worried openly about “bad neighborhoods,” and it was not hard even at age 10 to see that by “bad” they more often than not meant “primarily black.”

One scene Ebert did say he particularly enjoyed—and that has attained iconic status—is the one where you found yourself onstage at a South Side blues club. Real-life blues legend Albert Collins informed you, “Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues,” and you had to improvise “The Babysitting Blues” on the spot, a bunch of white suburban kids winning over what had seemed at first a hostile black audience, having to reach across difference, hoping for the best, and then finding it. I do not want, Chris, to make this scene more than it is, but to see it as only a silly sight gag would sell it short. The brief period of accord it depicts is a fantasy, maybe, this idea that people are capable not just of tolerance, but enthusiastic acceptance, but it’s a fantasy that offers a way to at least imagine small moments of connection and sympathy.

Even Dawson, the mechanic demanding payment for the return of your mother’s repaired station wagon, was proven not to be in possession of a heart of stone. At first, when Sara felt hurt that this man whom she’d mistaken as her hero, “Thor,” was acting uncharitably, she said, “I thought you always helped people in trouble.” And he replied, “Hey kid, this is the city. I don’t help anyone but myself.” The interaction was going poorly, but you let her keep having it, until, in the end, she managed to persuade him to give you the vehicle even though you were five bucks short with her own touching act of kindness, offering to give him her winged Thor helmet so he could remember the person he was meant to be.

The reason I love you, Chris, is because your movie, in all its silliness, is about this: becoming the person you have the ability to be. Within its etymology, “adventure” holds the word “advent,” meaning the arrival of a notable person or event, the beginning of something. What you showed me were a lot of little episodes in which you and your charges had the chance to begin, and to begin to be better. The city offered you difference, and that difference need not be feared, but faced head-on.

And I love you, Chris, basically, for being the babysitter, that trope of horror, that trope of porn, subverting both the scary girl in peril paradigm, and the sexually available and down for whatever one in favor of comedy. When I say comedy, I mean not just gags (though there are antics aplenty), but comedy in the Aristotlean sense: a threat to the story’s society leading to some kind of breakdown that is followed by a return to order—a reunification that is better than before.

In this way your movie, Chris, is like a surrealist novel or Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the city is the journey by night or the enchanted forest. Even the film’s structure is kind of Situationist—a series of chances for the creation of entertaining and transformative situations. Putting yourself in the way of things and seeing what happens. You went into the city and came back changed and better.

But not just romantically. You discovered your sleazy boyfriend’s sexual deceit, yes, when you found him at a fancy Loop restaurant with another girl, and he got his comeuppance, getting kicked by Daryl into and over a dessert cart. You got a new boyfriend, sure, but while we’re talking about dessert, that was just the icing; it wasn’t the cake. You saved your friend: a girl saved by another girl. And you did your job and you did it right and well. You proved that one needn’t be a man or a mother or even an adult—you were just 17—to possess authority, and to have that authority be well and rightly placed.

By the time you were rescuing Sara, who was dangling by a rope from the slanted diamond roof of the Smurfit-Stone Building as it was known then, the Crain Communications Building as it is known now (names I only learned recently because it will always be the Adventures in Babysitting building to me), I remained unworried: you had this. Researching this love letter to you, Chris, I learned that this building is sometimes called the Vagina Building, due to the “locally popular but apocryphal story that, with its prominent vertical slit up the front, the building was designed to be a yonic counter to the phallicism of most skyscrapers.”

I love you for being a counter to phallicism.

You were humble, Chris, but never self-effacing, falsely modest, or apologetic. Everyone kept laughing in your face and you said “I’m still in control here,” and by virtue of your saying so and following it up with the necessary actions, you remained in control. In the gang fight scene, the gang leader told you: “Sit down, bitch.” But you didn’t sit down. The gang leader told you, “Don’t fuck with the Lords of Hell,” but you brandished his own switchblade until you got the kids and yourself safely off the train. “Don’t fuck with the babysitter,” you said, and though they tried and they tried all through the night, you remained unfucked with, and I love you for that.

Thank you, Chris, for teaching me how to act and to be.

Love always,

Your fan and friend,

Kathleen

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Her most recent book is the novel O, Democracy! Follow her on Twitter at @KathleenMRooney.

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