In middle school, after a long day of not understanding algebra and having autonomy over almost no part of my life, I liked to treat myself to the occasional evening of watching women make each other’s lives a living hell.
Tyra Banks cut off an America’s Next Top Model contestant’s hair and then told the model she looked bad with short hair. On Gossip Girl, the richest women in the world performed Machiavellian designs on each other to insure that each supermodel billionaire was equally unhappy.
Imagine if instead I and my millennial peers—now unable to access either haircuts or wealth—had instead wiled away our Wednesday nights watching The Baby-Sitters Club. The show, a new addition to the mini-empire based on the original ‘80s and ’90s novels by Ann M. Martin, premiered on Netflix today, July 3, and it’s all that and a bejeweled Gucci fanny pack (that’s the rarified place where baby-sitter Stacey dreams of keeping her insulin pump).
Written by Glow writer Rachel Shukert, directed by Broad City alum Lucia Aniello, and starring Alicia Silverstone as well as a cast of age-appropriate actors, The Baby-Sitters Club reboot updates the classic story in a way that is somehow both unbelievably wholesome and seriously entertaining. The girls buy a landline phone on Etsy, hit up local parents with targeted Instagram ads, and make comments like, “Art shouldn’t be only the province of the privileged!” Their comedy is funny, their trauma is real, their style choices (by costume designer Cynthia Ann Summers) slay. And even though the intended audience is clearly 11-year-olds, I ate it up like chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream straight from the carton.
Despite the twenty-year time jump from the original series, the premise hasn’t changed: Kristy (smart, bossy, dresses like she only has access to fishing and hunting catalogues) has an idea: a small business of local babysitters, run by her, to capture the suburban market. Her best friend Mary-Anne (shy, sheltered) is in. Their much cooler friend Claudia (fashionable, artsy, can’t stop eating candy) is harder to convince. But she brings on Stacey (rich, blonde, but inexplicably nice) and suddenly, they’re in business. By the time Dawn shows up (chill, vegetarian, drops phrases like “socioeconomic stratification”) they’ve become each other’s chosen family.
In Ann M. Martin’s cult classic paperbacks, the girls all have one thing in common, despite differences in personality, ideology, class, and ethnicity: They love taking care of children. In the newest adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC, to fans) the girls are still individuals, and they’re still great with kids—but what they really have in common is that each one has a broken relationship with one or both parents.
“My dad left me,” Kristy says, tearfully, and there’s no sugar coating it—he really left her, her three brothers, and their single mom, played by Silverstone. Mary-Anne’s mom is dead, and grief has made her dad distant and controlling. Claudia’s parents just don’t seem to understand her, or even to like her, the way they do her sister Janine (Aya Furukawa, laugh-out-loud funny) who spends her free time correcting grammar on Reddit. Even rich, beautiful Stacey has legitimate fears that her parents are ashamed of her.
Maybe I’m taking too much of an I-read-every-Babysitter’s-Club-Book-as-a-child-and-then-got-an-English-major approach here, but the young women of the BSC make themselves into part-time parents to fulfill their dreams of the families they wish they had. “That’s when I realized,” says Claudia near the end of an episode about mysterious phone calls. “No matter who your parents are, they could always make you feel like you’re letting them down. And that feeling—the one that makes you feel sad and scared and not good enough—that’s the real phantom caller.”
In the world of Stony Brook, Connecticut, parents can never be fully trusted. It’s only safe to believe in your friends and yourself. And the world the girls create together, in the brief period in which they are interested in both playing with dolls and going on dates, is magical: the outfits Claudia and Stacey wear to Kristy’s mom’s wedding, so gorgeous they made me feel physically ill; Kristy, reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu to take down a rival babysitting group; the babysitting charge who throws a wake for her dead doll (“Should we say a prayer?” “Krakatoa was an atheist.”).
The show bills to a satisfying height in the last two episodes, when the BSC goes to the last true bastion where children-taking-care-of-children is accepted: summer camp. Mary-Anne—who in the book is white and annoyingly demure—is rewritten in this series as a biracial Black girl who always stayed quiet but finally has something to say. She throws herself into directing the camp musical, but her plans clash with Claudia and Dawn when those two plan a giant protest to stop the shoddily-run camp from discriminating against poorer campers. “It’s socioeconomic stratification. It’s creating haves and have nots in what’s supposed to be a utopian environment,” insist Dawn and Claudia, proposing a strike after poorer campers are shut out of pricey activities. But their activism inhibits Mary-Anne’s opportunity to finally be a leader as the director of the musical.
It would be nice, The Baby-Sitter’s Club argues, if life was simple—if parents were good, if suburbs were decent, if girls could just play sweetly, if everything worked out in the end. But intolerance and cruelty roil under even the smoothest surfaces, waiting for a strong girl or woman to pull back the curtain and make things right. And that’s really hard work. What happens when the arts and a justice movement actually threaten each other? What happens when you want to follow the simple feminist rule that “girls should support each other,” but supporting certain girls means violating your own principles? What happens when you’re in the middle of a friend fight, a crucial rehearsal, and a social uprising, but you really want to kiss a cute boy?
Anne M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club was gently radical—it was about a group of actively anti-racist girls monetizing caregiving, something women and girls are typically expected to do for free. This adaptation takes things a step farther, with lessons about America’s internment of Japanese Americans next to critiques of white feminism next to truly iconic pre-teen fashion.
TV has a pretty steep ask from audiences these days—we want to be distracted from the public health crisis and economic wasteland, we want to be magically educated into understanding hundreds of years of racism and trauma, we want to feel good about ourselves, we want to not be bored. The Baby-Sitter’s Club, which feels like a mixture of a Girl Scout meeting and a Young Democratic Socialists of America induction ceremony, can’t do all those things. Instead, it offers a little bit of hope, showing how the next generation can be better advocates, better friends, better caregivers, and better at accepting care.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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