Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” Invites You to Say Hello to Your Friends All Over Again

This weekend Autostraddle Deputy Editor Carmen Phillips and I found ourselves texting, with many exclamations!, about Netflix’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club. Carmen, a queer Black Puerto Rican femme, who grew up across Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo reading every single book in sight; me, a white soft butch from rural Georgia who could hardly sit still long enough to finish reading anything when I was growing up; geeking out, as adults, about the easter candy-colored book series that was a touchstone of both of our youths.

It wasn’t just us, of course: Ann M. Martin‘s middle-grades novels gave millions of girls in the ’80s and ’90s the chance to see themselves in Kristy’s tomboy bossiness, Claudia’s funky fashion and creative genius, Mary Anne’s shy studiousness, Stacey’s resilience and “boy-craziness,” Dawn’s earth-loving psychic vibes, Jessi’s compassion and athletic prowess, and Mallory’s over-achieving practicality, long before they were sorting themselves into Hogwarts houses.

Netflix’s BSC adaptation is, to my surprise and delight, a faithful recreation of Stoneybrook, Connecticut and its resident squad of tween entrepreneurs where it needs to be, and a vital update of Martin’s world where Mary Anne is now the biracial daughter of a Black mom and a white dad who finds her voice by advocating for responsible trans healthcare for a trans girl she babysits, Dawn is a Latina activist who’s already got the language and skills she needs to educate her allies and disrupt institutional injustice, Claudia’s Mimi’s devastating past in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II is juxtaposed to the Trump administration’s cruel and catastrophic family-separation crisis at the Mexican border, and Stacey’s type 1 diabetes is explored through the lens of trauma caused by cyber-bullying.

If that sounds heavy, it’s because growing up in 2020 is heavy, and kids don’t have the luxury of ignoring it: they’re inheriting unprecedented global crises on multiple fronts. There’s a paradoxical and essential gentleness in the series, too. Sure, these girls are name-checking Ruth Bader Ginsberg and dropping Michelle Obama quotes into every day conversation, but they’re also facing down regular middle school problems: crushes and periods and tests and dances and parents and a rival baby-sitting business. But even their most weighty issues are usually solved by the end of a half-hour episode (or sometimes two), with a little hard work, creative thinking, and mostly the power of friendship.

Another delightful thing about this BSC is how legitimately funny it is. Alicia Silverstone plays Kristy’s mom, a brilliant hook for ’90s youths, and the Clueless shout-outs are glorious. Kristy’s step-sister, Karen Brewer, is going through a “spooky phase” and forces Kristy to throw a wake for one of her dolls — “Should we close her eyes?” “No, it’s dark enough in the grave” — and later becomes obsessed with a murder-y ghost story at Camp Moosehead. (A welcome update from the previously named Camp Mohawk.) Dawn’s Aunt Esme is a witch — though, as Carmen, pointed out, the word bruja was right there! — who leads a “new moon share-a-mony” in the woods and calls Mary Anne “a Scorpio if she’s ever seen one” when she runs off after being asked to bare her soul. Marc Evan Jackson plays Mary Anne’s uptight, overbearing dad who nearly has a panic attack when he thinks Claudia and Stacey have invited the Queer Eye crew to redecorate his house. Dawn builds a barricade straight out of Les Miserables to protest income inequality at summer camp. And oh, so much more.

While I’ve had a nostalgic fondness for these books all my life, I’m not sure I could have told you, before this adaptation, why I think it’s so magical, why it’s captured the imaginations and hearts of generations of kids and teens. But watching it play out again, anew, I remembered. In a world that trivializes, dismisses, talks over, and ignores the concerns of women and especially girls, The Baby-Sitter’s Club bears witness. Maybe it’s a problem as enormous as climate change, or as low-stakes as blurting out “holla at moi” to someone you have a crush on: Ann M. Martin’s series legitimizes the things girls feel and deal with every day; grants them agency to explore solutions, learn how to set boundaries, resolve inevitable interpersonal conflicts; and offers them a safe bedroom filled with hidden junk food and their best friends see them through.

You want to know if these writers have answered the call and made Kristy Thomas a lesbian, of course. Not yet! She’s definitely the only member of the BSC who isn’t into boys, would rather have head lice (again!) than go to a school dance, thinks all women are just setting themselves up for disappointment with men, and has a lock on androgynous normcore. But there are other queers. Dawn’s dad is gay and in a relationship with another man. There are lesbian teachers. No one bats an eyelash at either of those things the same way Mary Anne understands that Bailey is a trans girl and doesn’t miss a beat in affirming her gender and advocating for her with adults who aren’t paying attention.

While J.K. Rowling, the wealthiest and most famous children’s book author on the planet, was going on another transphobic tirade yesterday on Twitter, I was watching Mary Anne Spier, who made her first appearance on my sister’s bookshelf in 1989, save the day. She called Bailey’s doctors, who were misgendering her, into the hallway of the hospital and demanded they listen. “I know you guys are busy,” she said, “but as you would see, if you looked at her and not her chart, Bailey is not a boy, and by treating her like one, you are completely ignoring who she is. You’re making her feel insignificant and humiliated, and that’s not going to make her feel good, or safe, or calm. So, from here on out, please recognize her for who she is.”

In 2020, we’re not Gryffindors — we’re Mary Annes all over again.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1004 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. God I hope we get a season two of this show. I did not expect it to be so queer and feminist and funny! Praying they explore the story arc where Kristy dates Bart and then realises she’s never going to have anything more than friend feelings for him.

    (Is it wrong that I’m shipping Stacey and Laine?! That was some CHEMISTRY)

    • Oh, I am hoping for the exact same initial plotline, just with a Becky instead of a Bart. Kristy starts a kids’ softball league and has a crush on the rival coach?? I’m almost concerned that looks like too stereotypical of a gay story for 2020.

  2. Oh this show is already firmly cemented in my top ten if only for the Feral Weird Kid representation Karen brings

    Also the show talking about blood not making a family! Mary Anne and Dawn doing the Parent Trap handshake! Momma Pike complaining about her Airbnb rating tanking! I was worried about a modern adaptation because they’re 13 that’s babies,?&95 babysitters. But it was an absolute delight

  3. So in season two for book 11 “kristy and the snobs” Kristy will definitely fall for the new rich girl Shannon, right? In the book series I’m pretty sure Shannon meets and instantly hates Kristy before later admitting she was jealous over Kristy’s babysitting success AND Kristy literally names her new puppy Shannon, so I think it checks out.

  4. I’m so excited to start watching!

    Just wondering, seeing with the Diabetes rep, is there much in the way of needles in the show? Huge phobia here, so just want to be prepared. Would be really grateful if someone could help me out! Thanks!

  5. I LOVE how casual all the queer rep in the show is and I think they’ve set themselves up perfectly for Kristy to have a crush on a girl in Season 2 without any gay angst about it. As I commented to Chess above, I am 95% HERE for Kristy starting a kids softball league and having a crush on the rival coach – just make it a Becky instead of a Bart (the 5% being it sounds too cliche!). I’m so over coming out stories and Kristy is set up perfectly to be uncomfortable having a crush because she doesn’t like losing control, but no qualms (from her, her family, or her friends) about the gender.

  6. Strong agree that Kristy is gay and I think she will come out in season 2.

    When did Dawn indicate interest in boys? I might have forgotten. Either way, I think she could be queer, too.

    Karen was one of my favorite characters!!

    I was so pleasantly surprised that Bailey’s storyline was included and I think handled quite well.

    I hope this show is renewed and celebrated because it definitely deserves it and we deserve more shows about friendships between girls.

  7. Alice Wong tweeted about Stacey as chronic illness / disability representation. I agree as a chronically ill person (though not diabetes) that it was amazing to see a character who moves out of the shame about her condition AND who is supported loudly by that parent during the group meeting about the video of her. It was amazing to see a parent talk about how chronically ill / disabled people can still be great babysitters.

  8. I was AMAZED at how they updated this yet kept it in the spirit of the original books. I am pretty sure I read the first 100 or so books and all the super specials and mysteries as a pre-teen.

    I wondered how they would explain a land-line phone and not using a website, but then showed how expensive it was to join those babysitting websites and that Claudia got a landline because it was cheaper with the internet package for Janine. I almost died, because that is literally the only reason I have a landline right now.

    My only moment of wtf was when it seemed like NONE of the parents had heard of diabetes before or you know… GOOGLED it.

    • I think the thing is with the parents and Stacey’s diabetes, they probably DID google it, and looked at the possible complications and got really worked up about it in the vein of “well it happened to her once, WHAT IF IT HAPPENS AGAIN? Is she really RESPONSIBLE ENOUGH to manage her blood sugar/health needs???” I know I only am as aware about diabetes as I am (and the ability of a middle-schooler to reliably and safely monitor and manage their own blood sugar and give themselves insulin shots, nevermind having an insulin pump) because of reading the BSC books and having a friend who had it.

      Plus, believe me, parents can get REALLY crazy about things like this.

  9. So! Many! Feelings! Claudia meant so much growing up as an example of someone being smart and creative without being good at math. Also, her outfits! I would skim through BSC books I had already read, to reread the descriptions of Claudia’s outfits.

    I have been disabled my whole life, but did not connect with Stacey growing up for that reason in particular (i didn’t really understand i was disabled until college); I was mostly interested in her NY life. But seeing this representation as a grown up disabled person who is still dealing with many of the same issues as Stacey does, even as an almost 30 year old person.

    Also, last night, I exclaimed to my cat, did the BSC just call for a general strike??!?

  10. I loved it so much and I thought “I wonder if Autostraddle posted anything about it.” I feel validated seeing this and you highlighted all the things I adored about the show – which were all the things I adored about the books when I was a kid. Netflix did a good job with this update – it maintained the spirit and charm of the stories and the girls’ friendships while taking on more timely issues. I really hope it gets a second season. It has been a joyful walk down memory lane.

  11. I do love it, but! I so wish they had got the diabetes a bit less wrong. It would’ve been an excellent opportunity to educate young people about the symptoms of type 1 diabetes, and probably make type 1 diabetics feel better represented! It feels like a wasted opportunity which could’ve been not-wasted with a 35 second consultation with a doctor or someone who actually has diabetes. But otherwise I really really love it!

  12. The show has brought me so much joy in an otherwise trash week (mostly from rangling with clients, not so much from what’s going on, but we are all affected by what’s going on).

    I met the series in 1995, when I wasn’t allowed to see the movie, but the books were fair game and seeing the Black and brown casting this time around has shot me back to childhood in a way that I never thought was possible. I loved having Jessi in the series, but I was functionally Mary Anne, and seeing that casting and how she interacted with her dad and the club and clients and Logan (and someone reminding me that in one passage of one of the later books, she speaks quite lovingly on a woman’s body) was all so precious.

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