Rainbow Rant: 'The Baby-Sitters Club' is back, and it is more queer than ever
In the 1990s, a queer woman was queen of all things teen. Her name was Ann M. Martin and she was the author ofThe Baby-Sitters Club. Twenty years after the end of Martin’s book series, a new Netflix adaptation of “The Baby-Sitters Club” has finally come out of the closet – and it's even more queer-friendly and anti-racist than the original.
Martin was the darling of Scholastic Books at a time when the children’s publisher would have sooner printed a recipe for bathtub gin than a book with queer and trans characters. She presided over a literary empire so vast she couldn’t rule it alone. Martin published more than 300 books set inThe Baby-Sitters Clubuniverse at a breakneck pace. Eventually, she needed a staff of 12 ghostwriters to help her keep up, but Martin conceived, plotted and line-edited every book. As quickly as she wrote, kids read faster – queer kids included.
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The Baby-Sitters Club was set in a white suburban nightmare of heterosexual happiness and babies, babies, babies. Nonetheless, there is evidence of Martin’s queerness on every page. TheBaby-Sitters Club books let readers revel in a world that placed girls at its center. Their club meetings were tiny, feminist utopias.
The club members were a smart, ambitious group: There was tomboy Kristy, artsy Claudia, shy Mary Anne, sophisticated Stacey and hippie Dawn. Sure, they had lots of crushes on boys, but friendship was everything. That is a special, under-acknowledged facet of queer culture; one I didn’t appreciate as a child, but which is now the most precious part of my own queer experience.
Baby-Sitters Club fan Sonnet Gabbard read the books from age 9 to 13. “As a baby dyke, I shipped Kristy and Mary Anne and wanted Claudia to be the other half of my imagined fashion power couple,” she said.
Claudia, of course, was the most legendary of the club members. She was the girl everyone wanted to be. She stood out not only because she was a fashion-forward femme and creative genius, but because she was one of the only Asian American girls to be found on the pages of children’s books.
Now Claudia is back with even more spunk on Netflix. In 2020, she is taking fashion inspiration from Ruth Bader Ginsberg and learning about her grandmother’s experiences during the internment of Japanese Americans.
Claudia’s friends are just as cool. Kristy is a full-blown feminist who proudly declares that she is bossy. Dawn is a Latina babybruja who leads a direct-action campaign against economic inequality at summer camp. While none of the babysitters are out yet, there are enough queer side characters to populate a Stoneybrook Pride Parade.
My favorite babysitter is Mary Anne, played by Black actress Malia Baker, who tells off a transphobic doctor for misgendering a child in her care. After J.K. Rowling came out, pen blazing, as a proud transphobe, watching a children’s series model supporting trans kids is a balm.
As I binged the show, I texted my friend Liz Hamilton: “Four episodes in and ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ is all trans liberation and witchcraft. Is this even allowed?”
She answered, “Everyone is texting me about ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ and I’m the happiest I’ve been since the start of the pandemic.”
Of course, the series has limitations. A few of the show’s afterschool-special-worthy plotlines are inexpertly handled, such as its discussion of gender identity and diabetes. And it could be more queer. But Dawn has yet to smooch a boy and Kristy says she would rather get headlice than dance with one, so maybe there is still a chance for some queer teen romance. Could they all be bisexual?
Whatever happens, it is a pleasure to finally see “The Baby-Sitters Club” as queer-friendly as Ann M. Martin must have wished it always could have been.