The Babysitters Club
10th Apr 2012
From 1986 to 2000, Scholastic were churning out titles of their beloved series The Babysitters Club almost as fast as pre-teen fangirls all over the globe could consume them. In fact, at the peak of their popularity they were producing a new title as often as once a month.
In my primary school years I was one of those fangirls, with a shelf crammed full of the iconic brick-wall spines. Regrettably, I gave them all away in my teens to make room for more ‘grown up’ books.
However, I recently purchased a box of secondhand copies, overcome with nostalgia and curiosity to see to what extent these stories helped shape the strident feminist I am today.
If you were a Goosebumps or an Animal Ark kid, you might not be familiar with the premise of the series. Essentially, The Babysitters Club followed a group of eighth grade girls in a small town in Connecticut.
The series starts with Kristy’s Great Idea, when Kristy Thomas enlists three of her school friends, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi and Stacey McGill, to start a babysitting club.
Later on, they expand the club to include Californian hipster (and my favourite character) Dawn Schafer, as well as Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey, and a couple of other peripheral characters known as “associate members”. The popularity of the series stemmed from strong characterisation created by author Ann M. Martin (and later a selection of ghost writers).
My vague memories of the stories were of friendship, girl power and entrepreneurial spirit, and when I revisited the books I wasn’t disappointed. The second time around I also noticed an attempt to address pretty heavy issues like racism, illness, bullying and on one occasion (Claudia and the Terrible Truth) even child abuse.
When I was a kid I was obsessed with all things Americana. I watched American TV shows and in my head my toys spoke with American accents. In retrospect I think this is why I loved these books so much.
The subplots revolve around dances and baseball and Thanksgiving, and their school experience was totally different to mine. The characters are as American as apple pie. Except, this time around it started to grate on me a little bit.
They’re so preppy and spirited it seems false, and the two blonde bombshells from New York (Stacey) and California (Dawn) are just so totally awesome it’s a bit sickening. On top of the extreme American-ness, my adult prejudices resented the fact that it was all just a bit too middle class.
And other things started to grate on me, too. When I was a kid I thought these books were about a babysitting club. Reading them as an adult I can see they are mostly about chasing boys; the babysitting is kind of incidental.
They are obsessed with boys and getting a boyfriend, and the girls that don’t care are considered immature by the others (or lesbians, according to most TBC fansites). Hand-in-hand with the boy craziness is an overwhelming preoccupation with appearance.
The series gets a lot of criticism for the fact that about 20% of each book reintroduces the characters and recaps storylines, and a great deal of this is dedicated to how each girl looks and dresses.
Claudia’s artistic and eccentric fashion sense is something that a lot of girls note as their fondest memory of the series, and it still comes across as the characteristic of a creative girl with imagination and confidence. But many of Stacey’s ‘sophisticated’ outfits made me wonder whether I’d let a twelve-year-old go out like that.
In truth, the feminist reading of these books didn’t go that well. I found myself getting annoyed by small yet significant details like the girls getting embarrassed when they use the word “bra” in front of a boy.
I understand that in real life girls probably would be, but perhaps demonstrating it with such iconic and influential characters sends out a message that should be embarrassed by it.
And in over two hundred books not one of them gets their period. I’m sure this is probably to do with the age of the audience, but I couldn’t help but question it.
The original series generated a lot of spin-offs, including Babysitters Club Mysteries, California Dairies, The Kids in Ms. Coleman’s Class and the Babysitters Little Sister collection, written for an even younger audience.
With such widespread influence I can’t help but think maybe The Babysitters Club was just another channel perpetuating the idea that to be ‘normal’ you had to live your life obsessing over boys and clothes and makeup, perhaps with a little bit of babysitting on the side.
If you want to make up your own mind or just get your hands on some pure pre-teen nostalgia, TBC books are a little hard to come by. Some titles and reissues are available on Amazon, or you often find bulk sets going cheap on eBay.
Were you a fan of The Babysitters Club? Or were you more into Point Horror, Anastasia or Sweet Valley High? Have you ever re-read the books you loved when you were younger, and how well (or not!) did they stand the test of time?