The year is 1999. I’m eight years old and socially awkward. A family friend who volunteers for the local council gives me a book of ‘retired’ library books. One of them is from a children’s book series about a group of thirteen-year-old girls who form a club to offer baby-sitting services in their town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. History is made. The seeds of feminism are imperfectly sown.
The Baby-Sitters Club, created by Ann M. Martin in 1986, was a series notorious for its repetitiveness. Consisting of more than two hundred titles published in the space of fourteen years (many of which were written by ghostwriters), almost every book had roughly the same plot. One or more of the girls in the club would solve a complex behavioural problem exhibited by a baby-sitting charge that their parents seemed oblivious to, and everyone else would learn an important lesson about friendship along the way. Sometimes the girls did other things, like get their ears pierced, and there were occasional series arcs - such as Dawn moving back and forth between California and Connecticut - but for the most part the books were as soothingly familiar as a popular chorus.
The characters of the BSC hardly ever aged, and the beginning of each book would unfailingly reintroduce their signature traits. There was Kristy, the sports-loving leader-type who is ‘obviously’ a lesbian now according to a 2011 tribute in The Hairpin. Her best friend, Mary Anne, was a sweet, shy introvert. The other club’s two founders were Claudia, a Japanese-American aspiring artist famous for her epic fashion lewks, and Stacey, a with-it NYC native who had diabetes and, even more amazingly, loved maths.
As the books progressed, the club gained other members: Dawn the environmental activist, Mallory the aspiring writer, and Jessi the Black ballet dancer. There was also Abby, who joined the club in book #90, but obviously no one remembers anything about her (she was the series’ Poochie).
The books were also infamous for their awkward handling of subjects that were beyond the lived experience of its creator, to the point where the LiveJournal community ‘BSC snark’ created an entire tag for ‘things Ann knows nothing about’: diabetes, family violence, American Sign Language, dyslexia. Equally, the series vacillated uneasily between a stance of supporting your friends’ differences no matter what and ganging up on them when they dared to depart from the status quo. What the heck was up with the weird guilt trip Claudia was put through when she made a new friend who shared her interest in art (‘Claudia and the New Girl’)? Or that hazing ritual Mallory had to pass in order to attain Certificate III in Child Responsibility from the Kristy Thomas Babysitting College, despite being the eldest of seven children (‘Hello, Mallory’)?
Girls in fiction were then, and still often are, strong female loners. But The Baby-Sitters Club was a series about teamwork.
Eight-year-old me, of course, registered none of this. Eight-year-old me was enthralled by Claudia’s outfits, even though they consisted of this sort of nonsense right from the get-go: ‘[Claudia] was wearing short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and red high-top sneakers without socks.’ Eight-year-old me learnt that friendship and camaraderie between girls was an immensely powerful experience to be sought out and cherished. Girls in fiction were then, and still often are, strong female loners. But The Baby-Sitters Club was a series about teamwork.
The recent Netflix reboot retains the original empowering force of the book series but with a much, much better awareness of the importance of intersectionality. Whereas the original series featured very few characters of colour, and almost no LGBTQIA representation, the new adaptation recasts Dawn as Latina, played by actress Xochitl Gomez, and Mary Anne is mixed-race and Black. In one of the series’ best episodes, Mary Anne, played by Malia Baker, overcomes her instinctual shyness to insist on the correct pronouns for a trans girl in her care. In another, Stacey and Mary Anne befriend two boys at the beach, one of whom casually references having a crush on another boy at his school.
The recent Netflix reboot retains the original empowering force of the book series but with a much, much better awareness of the importance of intersectionality.
It’s an indication of how much the series’ target audience has changed. The flaws of the original books are in many ways reflective of the broader cognitive dissonance in the proto-feminist teen culture of the 1990s and early 2000s, in which Dolly and Girlfriend would present vague platitudes about loving yourself and on the next page triumphantly draw a damning red circle around Mischa Barton’s cellulite. The music industry was constantly straddling the awkward - some might say, hypocritical - line between encouraging women artists to express their sexuality and then slut-shaming them for it.
Not so for Generation Z. With Teen Vogue regularly publishing articles like ‘Black Disabled Lives Matter: We Can't Erase Disability in #BLM’, it’s clear that many of today’s teens are more socially conscious than many of the adults in their lives. And the BSC cast - all of whom are roughly the same age as the characters they play — have given thoughtful, impassioned responses in interviews about what their roles mean to them, and why diversity is so important.
The BSC series taught me a lot about friendship and the importance of solidarity. The Netflix reboot made me realise how much more I had to learn. And it has come at exactly the right time, offering a joyous respite from a year otherwise marked out by loneliness and dread.
Georgia White is a freelance writer.