Entertainment

Netflix's Adaptation of 'The Baby-Sitters Club' Defies the Limits of Television

With candid discussions of gender identity and war atrocities, the show never coddles its main characters, or its audience.

netflix the baby sitters club in bedroom
Netflix

There's a short, almost blink-and-you-miss-it moment in the fourth episode of Netflix's The Baby-Sitters Club that I had to rewind and watch over three times. In the scene, Mary-Anne Spier (Malia Baker) is helping her young charge, a little girl named Bailey, find a new princess dress to change into for their royal tea party, but when she opens her closet, she's greeted by the blues and grays and hunter greens of boys' clothes. "Those are my old clothes," Bailey explains, before opening a drawer in her white jewel-handled nightstand. "Over here are my new clothes." 

Bailey is, of course, trans, though that fact is treated so naturally in the way that Mary-Anne responds to Bailey and the casual, immediate way that her mother refers to her as "Princess" that if you don't immediately get what's going on, you might miss it entirely. In the following scene, Mary-Anne's new friend Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez), fresh from Los Angeles, explains it succinctly: "The same way you know that you're right-handed, Bailey knows she's a girl. We all want our outsides to match our insides, right? And it's rad to have parents and a babysitter who get it. She's really lucky."

The episode is, like every episode in the season and every book in Ann M. Martin's series, a kind of fable through which the main character can learn an everyday lesson -- in this case, it's shy Mary-Anne's turn to figure out how to speak up for herself and for others. Later on in the episode, when a pair of emergency room doctors, having only her medical chart to go by, repeatedly misgender Bailey as "him" and she looks mutely down at her hospital sheets in a way that makes your stomach twist, Mary-Anne takes them aside and admonishes them, kindly but firmly, for not paying attention: "Please recognize her for who she is." 

But the purpose of Bailey's gender identity, or Dawn's crusade against income inequality at a summer camp, or Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada) learning about her grandmother Mimi's childhood imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II aren't simply used as flavoring for the members of the Baby-Sitters Club to learn quotidian life lessons -- instead, they're an opportunity to introduce tweens and teens to the real world they're about to step into, an opportunity that programming aimed at children rarely embraces. 

All their young lives, children are told that it's right and honorable to fight against the injustices of the world, without really being told the details of what those injustices actually are, or mean for those who are affected by them. The Baby-Sitters Club was overwhelmingly positively reviewed by critics, who praised the deft updates it added to many of the classic book storylines. Though an easy nostalgia watch for any millennial who devoured Martin's classic series, the show has a boldly 2020 voice, speaking directly to the kids watching it right now, and the anxieties and realities and changing views specific to our time. There's not much that is considered taboo on The Baby-Sitters Club, which is the show's main strength: What each character goes through is never "just a phase" or "trying something out" or "something they need to hurry up and get over" -- these are their identities, and as such they're treated with respect. 

It's not the first show to try this out -- Sesame Street was famous for choosing the harder route with difficult subjects, which resulted in memorable episodes like the one surrounding the death of Will Lee, who played beloved general store owner Mr. Hooper. Instead of writing Mr. Hooper off by having him move away or get another job somewhere else, the adults behind the show decided not to shy away from death, resulting in one of the most impactful television episodes ever aired. Also like Sesame Street, child and adult characters in The Baby-Sitters Club interact seamlessly, never sidelining the parents or teachers in favor of the youth-centric storylines. It is possible, and necessary, at this young, insecure age, for children to be able to meet grown-ups on the same level in order to explain how they feel and receive guidance.

baby sitters club claudia and mimi
Club member Claudia with her grandmother Mimi | Netflix

The Baby-Sitters Club comes smack-dab in the middle of a sea change for TV and movies aimed at kids, during which media is taking more confidence in deciding what kids can and cannot handle. The answer is, and always has been, quite a lot more than adults think. In a recent interview with Variety, longtime Disney Channel director Kenny Ortega said that one of his High School Musical characters, the jazz-squaring sequin-wearing theater kid Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel), would probably come out in college, but that a gay storyline in the movies wouldn't fly. "I was concerned because it was family and kids, that Disney might not be ready to cross that line and move into that territory yet," he said. Now that Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender is back on Netflix, many are revisiting that show's take-no-prisoners handling of the physical and psychological effects of endless war and genocide. Its sequel series, The Legend of Korra, took another step in giving its heroine a gay storyline, though Korra and her love interest Asami were only permitted an "if you know, you know" hand holding scene during the series finale. 

Another Netflix series, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a sparkly, pastel hued update on the classic Masters of the Universe character, ended its run with an actual, unmistakable kiss between two women -- She-Ra and her lifelong frenemy Catra -- that was in part inspired by what creator Noelle Stevenson saw on Korra, and her desire to bring gay relationships and non-heterosexual gender identities further into the mainstream. "Five years ago there was not anything like this on TV," Stevenson said in an interview with GLAAD. "Well, it was starting to happen, but it couldn't be overt. And then, Korra starts happening and Steven Universe [Cartoon Network's animated fantasy show whose majority of characters are openly queer] starts happening and that wall starts getting chipped away at." 

The Baby-Sitters Club, by contrast, is far from fantasy, set in the suburban real world of school and homework and crushes and little kids in need of care. Yet it refuses to shy away from telling the tough stories native to our reality, leading to wonderful, tiny, enormous moments like one character's bedazzled insulin pump for the diabetes she refuses to be ashamed of, and another's painstaking portrait of her grandmother's lost childhood. The Baby-Sitters Club breaks ground by never treating its characters, or its audience, like we need to be babysat. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.