The Magic of Pre-Teen Realism in ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’

by Robyn Matuto | September 21, 2020

In Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club, there’s a particular scene that stands out, because of the sheer simplicity it carries. In episode eight of Season One, de-facto leader Kristy (Sophie Grace) is decidedly not having a good time at her mother’s wedding. Then, of course, she gets her period. Audiences might brace themselves for some classic dramatic hijinks. Maybe her dress gets stained, or her brothers humiliate her on the dance floor. Maybe there’s a five minute caper sequence where she tries to steal a tampon from a wedding guest. But none of this occurs. Instead, the scene happens as, well, life happens. Her best friend Mary-Anne (Malia Baker) passes her a pad, and instructs her how to use it as the rest of the club wait supportively on the other side of the door. Kristy exits and together they laugh it off. Having your period in their world is nothing to be ashamed about. 

Adapted from a series of popular novels written by Ann M. Martin, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club focuses on five middle school girls — Kristy, Mary-Anne, Claudia (Momona Tamada), Stacey (Shay Rudolph) and Dawn (Xochitl Gomez), all of varying personalities, who come together to form an after-school club where they offer babysitting services to the families in their area. Its legacy is still strong, 30-odd years later, and for people of all ages. Even with a modern update, the Netflix show retains its old-school charm in a distinct way. 

The Baby-Sitters Club is a rarity in that it shows life as it is. The pre-teen market is decidedly a strange and nebulous one. The age group itself isn’t easily defined (it can be anywhere from 8-12 to 9-14). With the lack of decisiveness in the demographic, shows tend to either age down or age up. This phenomenon can be attributed to ‘KGOY: kids getting older younger’, the marketing term used to describe how children, specifically tweens, grow up faster and are more attracted to products with a social function. Less Legos, more Lululemons. This concept translates to how television development and marketing works too. There is an unwritten expectation that pre-teens (especially girls) will just skip over to young adult shows like Riverdale (2017 —) and Euphoria (2019 —). While these shows certainly make for great entertainment, they still fall prey to sensationalism. Even important topics exploring agency around sex, body image and race reach soap opera level dramatics. It makes for great popcorn TV, but not necessarily for an impressionable preteen. 

Baby Sitters Club body image
The Baby-Sitters Club. Netflix.

Watching The Baby-Sitters Club is reminiscent of its predecessors like Clarissa Explains It All (1991-1994), Boy Meet World (1993-2000), and Lizzie Mcguire (2001-2004) rather than its Disney Channel sitcom contemporaries in that there is a grounded element to it. There is no Gossip Girl glamour to the series. School is school, rather than being a backdrop for scandalous hookups and off-the-wall hijinks. In fact, when the girls do run into trouble, it serves as a fable-like lesson. In the season finale of Season One, Dawn and Mary-Anne clash because of overlapping projects at camp. Yet, the conflict is not a backdrop for some mischief, or worse, a blow up for a friendship. Rather, it’s grounds for understanding priorities and compromise. That’s what makes it so special.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, director Lucia Aniello talks about the normalcy of the series being its stronghold: “There’s something almost everyday superhero about these girls. Every single girl has something in her life that is not perfect. Yet somehow, even though sometimes they mess up, they always know what the right thing is, and they always try to fix it. Morally, I feel like they are all kind [sic] of superheroes.” It’s through this emphasis on every day, slice of life reality that brings a shine to The Baby-Sitters Club

Pre-teens already have so many expectations thrown out at them, especially in the digital age of social media. Girls in particular are bombarded by the media for what life should and could look like. As much as comedy and grandiosity is needed in entertainment, there is value in having scenes grounded in reality; They reflect experiences as they actually happen, instead of bringing them to impossible heights. It’s relatable. It offers role models rather than runaway models. 

Thankfully, The Baby-Sitters Club shouldn’t be the last of its kind. The emergence of streaming services has allowed more creative control to flourish and age groups to find their place, instead of networks allowing them to fall through the cracks. Fellow Netflix shows like Alexa & Katie (2018-2020) have found success through streaming. Even shows with theatricality as its selling point like Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (2019 — ) still finds ways to make the mundane magical by including grounded storylines about singing your way through your parents’ divorce, being the new girl, and finding your voice.Growing diversity is also prevalent in this resurgence. Disney’s Andi Mack (2017-2019) features a mixed Asian-American family and had Disney’s first coming out scene. Stoneybrook has its fair share of inclusivity too; three of the five members of the club are women of colour and Claudia’s storyline involves her beloved grandmother remembering her days in Japanese internment. 

While The Baby-Sitters Club hasn’t received a renewal for Netflix thus far, it’s easy to feel hopeful from its critical acclaim. People want to see Kristy, Mary-Anne, Claudia, Stacey and Dawn navigate friendships, love and loss through middle school and beyond. We get the real deal with them. The Baby-Sitters Club tells us that sometimes magic and mayhem isn’t fighting off demons (real or otherwise) or sexy school dances. Sometimes, it’s the simple pleasure of sharing candy in your best friend’s room.

Robyn is a Filipina culture critic, writer and actress living in Toronto, Canada. A film school graduate (or survivor), she’s written one too many essays about Clueless (1995) and doesn’t regret it one bit. You can follow her on Twitter @robynranika.

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