When Netflix first announced that they had a reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club in the works, fans of the original series were nervous –and understandably so. After all, the 90s books spun stories that were sweet, straightforward, and utterly sincere. They centred on smart, ambitious girls. They talked to us about relationships, friendships, and family issues. They taught us about overcoming jealousy, standing up for ourselves, and coping with competitive situations. And they did it all without speaking down to us, too.
How on earth, then, could a contemporary-set, live-action TV show ever hope to compete with all that?
I, too, had my doubts when I sat down to watch the show for the first time. I worried that it would fall into one of two categories: unrelatable kids TV (here’s looking at you, Bratz), or darkly sexy teen drama (aka Riverdale). Thankfully, it was neither. Indeed, having happily binged my way through the first season, I am here to reassure everyone, particularly those who own a well-thumbed book from Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series, that the Netflix series is a truly wonderful adaptation. And not just because it champions empathy and kindness above all else.
Rather, it’s because it gets this message across while expertly dismantling sexist trope after sexist trope in the process, too.
First, though, a little about Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club
In the first episode, we see Kristy (Sophie Grace), Mary-Anne (Malia Baker), Claudia (Momona Tamada), Stacey (Shay Rudolph), and Dawn (Xochitl Gomez) launch the titular Baby-Sitters Club after Kristy’s mum, Elizabeth (Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone) laments the neighbourhood’s dearth of accessible and affordable childcare.
Ostensibly, they do so to make money. In truth, though, cash isn’t the point of this little venture: rather, it’s about a) finding a way to hang out more with one another, and b) showcasing their independence.
Naturally, tensions crop up. The girls argue. Occasionally, they say hurtful things. And, sometimes, they even stop talking to one another. These middle-school squabbles, though, are never milked for overriding drama. Instead, issues are resolved quickly and sensibly – often with gentle guidance from Elizabeth – and the show instead makes a point of championing friendship, forgiveness, and empathy.
So, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club banishes all catfights and feuds
A recent survey of 19,000 adolescents – conducted by UCD School of Psychology and the Jigsaw charity – revealed that the number of teenagers reporting severe anxiety has doubled since 2012. It also confirmed that there is a gender gap between the sexes, with teenage girls scoring significantly lower than boys in crucial areas such as self-esteem and personal competence.
Analysing the findings, Dr Gillian O’Brien – chief clinical officer at Jigsaw – suggested that the issues could stem from female friendships.
“A lot of the young women we see coming to Jigsaw have issues related to school and peers,” O’Brien said, as reported by The Irish Independent. “There are lots of unwritten, unspoken rules that govern female friendship, and this makes it particularly confusing. Male peer groups tend to operate differently.
“The many swift changes in female friendship underscore feelings of not being safe and secure in school. We see a lot of young women who are upset by being excluded, isolated. You can imagine how that would influence your self-esteem.”
It’s worth noting here that the same is not true of adult women. Indeed, a study published recently in The Leadership Quarterly journal showed that in environments where senior leaders are granted significant power and discretion, female leaders treat more junior female colleagues kindly and respectfully. They also appoint more subordinate women to managerial positions, which has the effect of reducing pay inequality relative to men in similar roles.
Unfortunately, though, these shining examples do not necessarily get much attention. Instead, young women and girls are fed the ‘Queen Bee’ myth – either by fictional characters (Mean Girls’ Regina George has made female exclusion look “fetch” for some time) or stories about real-life celebrity women clawing at one another behind the scenes. Is it any wonder that it’s having such a damaging effect?
Thankfully, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club deliberately steers away from this toxic and pervasive myth that girls cannot get along. That the best way to get ahead is to exclude others. That catfights are the rule, and trustworthy female friends “the exception”. And, in doing so, it sets itself up as a positive influence on young people and especially young girls who are in this type of situation day in and day out at school.
And Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club shatters the ‘mean girl’ stereotype, too
Of course, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club doesn’t just veer viewers away from the toxic belief that girls cannot get along: it also dismantles a number of sexist tropes, too.
Take, for instance, Claudia: she’s pretty, she’s popular, and she’s boy-mad. Indeed, in the opening scenes of episode one, Kristy informs viewers that Claudia stopped hanging out with her and Mary-Anne “when she decided she was more into boys and clothes than she was into us”.
Damning, right? In any other tween or teen drama, Claudia would be forced into the role of resident mean girl. The bully who reluctantly sets out on a redemption arc. The ex-friend who, after a great deal of drama, finally admits that the girls she once shunned “aren’t so bad, after all.”
In this Netflix series, though, things are very different. Claudia is immediately open to the idea of setting up The Baby-Sitters Club with Kristy and Mary-Ann. She invites them round her house, introduces them to her friend, and shows off her latest sculpture (inspired by menstruation, because she’s awesome). She helps make flyers, she gets the business rolling, and she encourages shy Mary-Ann to speak up for herself more.
And, when Kristy tells the group that they’re not allowed to babysit for her mum’s new boyfriend’s kids under any circumstances, Claudia politely reminds her that they’re a club. That there’s no one person in charge. And that it’s Kristy’s desire to control everything which originally led her to stop hanging out with her as much. Not, as Kristy mistakenly believed, her newfound desire of boys and clothes. Natch.
Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club gives us a mum that’s relatable AF
It’s rare, incredibly rare, to find a TV mum who channels empathy and esteem. Who puts the wellbeing of her children above all else. And who is able to argue with her kids one minute, but set differences aside the next to sit down with them and help them through something major?
Yeah. I don’t know about you, but I’ve often found it difficult to find an on-screen mother-daughter relationship that reflects the one I shared with my own mum growing up. Silverstone’s character is probably as close as I’m going to get.
She’s a working mum, but that isn’t her entire identity: sure, she mentions clients, and meetings, and sometimes relies on babysitters when she knows she’s going to be home late, but the kids don’t resent her for it. They don’t say stuff like, “ugh, you’re always working” while shrugging and rolling their eyes extravagantly. And Elizabeth, in turn, doesn’t force her tween daughter to cancel her sleepover plans when she can’t find a babysitter for her youngest.
When Kristy gets upset about Elizabeth’s engagement to a much wealthier boyfriend (Mark Feuerstein), and causes a scene at dinner, Elizabeth deals with the situation calmly. There’s none of the usual screaming, crying, exasperated slapping down of the hands on the table. Nobody screams “GO TO YOUR ROOM!” And there’s no lingering resentment, either. Instead, the situation is dealt with calmly and, when Elizabeth learns Kristy has fallen out with her friends, she immediately sets aside her planned “We need to talk” moment to have a proper heart-to-heart with her daughter.
Best of all? Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club empowers its young heroes
Claudia, as mentioned, is a feminist artist, who takes life drawing classes and creates menstrual-inspired sculptures. Dawn, a Latina activist, is heavily into crystals and alternative therapies. Mary-Anne speaks up for her new babysitting charge, a young transgender girl, when she is misgendered by the adults around her. Kristy schools her misogynist teacher when he insists she write an essay on female decorum. And Stacey learns to stop hiding her chronic illness and embrace it as part of who she really is.
Each of the girls’ stories feels incredibly timely. Each, too, feels as timeless as the original books.
Because compassion – whether that’s being kinder to yourself, or being kinder to others – is never out of vogue.
The Baby-Sitters Club is available to stream on Netflix from Friday 3 July.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.