‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ Gives Us Intersectional Feminism Without the Angst

The Netflix adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s beloved book series takes a revolutionary approach to feminism by presenting it as no big deal

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

There’s a moment, late in the fourth episode of Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club where Mary Anne, the shyest of the titular sitters, who has been hectored all episode long to stand up for herself, finds her courage by defending the little girl she’s babysitting. The girl, Bailey, is running a high fever, and Mary Anne has rushed her to the hospital, but the doctors are being dismissive. She takes them aside and gives a speech on why it’s important to provide Bailey with proper care.

You’ve seen this moment before, both in Ann M. Martin’s original Baby-Sitters Club novels — the book this episode is based on came out in 1987 — and in a dozen Nickelodeon shows from the ’90s. You could likely predict every beat, right down to the part where Mary Anne’s controlling father overhears her speech and immediately decides she’s mature enough to wear makeup and have her own phone. There is one major difference in the Netflix adaptation, though: In this version, Bailey is transgender, and Mary Anne insists doctors use her proper pronouns.

The new Baby-Sitters Club, which premiered July 3, is an intentionally feminist show, one which wears its sometimes corny girl-power politics on its sleeve. (At one point, one babysitter tells another “we’re both strong women with big personalities.” These kids are supposed to be 12.) Nor does it skimp on covering other political issues: Claudia, a Japanese American babysitter, confronts both historical Japanese internment and current U.S. immigration policy. Dawn, the laid-back hippie, leads a “general strike” to protest economic inequality at her summer camp. Yet what’s remarkable is how seamlessly the show folds those heavy politics into its sunny, sweet vision of girlhood. It doesn’t aim to teach kids a lesson so much as it assumes intersectional feminism is already part of how they navigate the world.

The Baby-Sitters Club was always intended to have a feminist message, at least according to Martin. It was, after all, a story about girls who started a babysitting business, in an era when “career women” in pop culture were more often portrayed as castrating ice queens or sad spinsters in need of a baby than as heroines. The appeal of the book series rested on a structure familiar from Little Women and later perfected by the Spice Girls, splitting all of womankind up into five distinct types: sensitive Mary Anne, brash tomboy Kristy, hip artist Claudia, Stacy the New York sophisticate, and Dawn, the chill California girl. (More girls entered the picture over the course of the book series, but I won’t spoil whether any of them show up here.) Any kind of girl could pick “her” babysitter and therefore see herself represented and validated in the story.

‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ doesn’t aim to teach kids a lesson so much as it assumes intersectional feminism is already part of how they navigate the world.

Yet the diversity of the books left something to be desired. All the original girls but Claudia were white and middle-class. Martin herself is queer, and has a large LGBTQ+ fan base, but the books, in keeping with their era, mostly acted as if same-gender attraction didn’t exist. The first and most obvious thing the new Baby-Sitters Club does is to update these demographics. The majority of the girls are now played by actresses of color (including Malia Baker and Xochitl Gomez in the formerly white roles of Mary Anne and Dawn); queer adults, including Dawn’s gay father, are always a visible part of their world. Admittedly less clear is whether Kristy, the most famously queer-coded YA heroine this side of Jo March, will ever kiss a girl — but then, that’s what second seasons are for.

Yet the show rarely beats the viewer over the head with how progressive it’s being — which is a good choice, given that none of this is actually revolutionary to modern-day middle-schoolers. Children’s and young adult media has been ahead of the curve on diversity for years now. YA literature has largely embraced #OwnVoices — the demand that stories about marginalized characters be written by people who share their identities — along with practices like sensitivity reading and content warnings, which many authors in other genres still consider outlandish. And many children’s TV shows promote sexual and gender diversity; Steven Universe debuted a nonbinary character in 2013, and Netflix’s She-Ra reboot centered on a love story between two girls. YA creators aren’t educating their audience, they’re keeping up with it: The kids of Generation Z — currently between ages seven and 22 — are more likely than any other generation to embrace nonbinary pronouns and identities, favor racial and ethnic diversity, support same-sex marriage, and expect gender parity.

Gen Z girls, or their younger sisters, simply won’t be surprised to see little girls of color as heroines or to learn some of their parents and friends are gay. Older millennials have spent our lives making the cultural space for these stories to exist, but for little girls, those stories have always existed. The ’90s girls who are tuning in to The Baby-Sitters Club in evidently massive numbers — as of filing, the show is the fourth-most popular offering on Netflix — are old enough to have read the books the first time around, but we’re also old enough to remember when even saying the word “feminist” marked you out as a prude, a bitch, or a freak. It can seem inconceivable intersectional politics could ever not be a big deal. But for the little girls who watch The Baby-Sitters Club in 2020, they likely won’t be.

What’s left, after you subtract the angst from identity politics, is simply an honest, sweet, full-hearted appreciation of girlhood: trans girlhood, Black and Brown girlhood, disabled girlhood (well, sort of — does Stacy’s incredibly dramatic diabetes count?), or the girlhood of Kristy’s spooky little Goth sister, who holds doll funerals and proclaims about ancient curses and about whom I demand a spin-off immediately. It is powerful and joyful to be a girl, and there is still something subversive and important in stories that give girlhood all the value and importance we’ve long accorded to boys’ coming-of-age stories. And it is still an important feminist act to show girls they are smart people, capable of fighting injustice, and that their lives can simultaneously be joyful and fun; that they can demand, as Claudia and Dawn do in one episode, a full-scale revolution to overthrow the system, and also some Cool Ranch Doritos in case the revolution takes a while.

Many years have passed since I read The Baby-Sitters Club books, and watching the show now occasionally made me sad, thinking about the childhood I could have had. But mostly, I was excited for my daughter, who deserves to see cool, fun, well-loved girls like Claudia and Mary Anne to reflect her own Asian and biracial experience. She deserves to know there are many ways of being a girl; that she doesn’t have to be a girl if she doesn’t want to, and that being who she is, whoever she is, is great and powerful and worthy of love and respect. Of course, my three-year-old daughter probably won’t be watching Baby-Sitters Club. By the time she’s old enough, this show will seem old-fashioned. But this, too, is strangely joyful: Every time feminists move forward, we make room not only for ourselves, but for the kids who will go further than us when their time arrives.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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