Shay Rudolph, a white 14-year-old who plays cosmopolitan Stacey McGill, changed the link in her Instagram bio to direct her followers to a Black Lives Matter resource site. “Although posting black screens may feel like solidarity and activism, it is not enough,” she posted on Blackout Tuesday. “BLACK! LIVES!! MATTER!!!”
And just last week in Vancouver, Canada, Malia Baker, who portrays the shy Mary Anne Spier, gave a rally speech urging listeners to take action. “I hope you’re all shaking in anger with me because I am tired and angry,” the 13-year-old said. “I am an African-born Canadian. I am black youth. I have experienced racism that comes from unawareness and targeted racism, as well. We need change.”
Since the growing movement to address racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the fresh-faced stars of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” who are all 13 or 14 years old, have spoken out more than some who are double or even quadruple their age, largely pivoting their social media content from promoting their breakout roles to independently rallying for social justice. And for all of its feel-good wholesomeness and comforting nostalgia, the Netflix family dramedy (streaming July 3) echoes the actors’ calls for a more equitable world.
“The actresses who were chosen to portray the characters are very strong, both personally and in the way they come through in the show,” book author and series producer Ann M. Martin told The Washington Post in April, ahead of the series’ originally planned Mother’s Day launch. “I think it’s great and really necessary.”
Martin’s mega-popular franchise about a group of middle school friends who form a neighborhood babysitting club in their idyllic hometown of Stoneybrook, Conn., is already a multigenerational phenomenon. Sensing an appetite for babysitting-related content from its young readers, Scholastic published the first “Baby-Sitters Club” book, “Kristy’s Great Idea,” in 1986. Over the next decade and a half, 212 more tomes aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds followed, as did TV and film adaptations, graphic novels, spinoff series, computer games and dolls. Selling more than 180 million copies, Martin’s depiction of young female entrepreneurs, as well as diverse leads such as artsy Japanese American Claudia Kishi and black ballerina Jessi Ramsey (she and fellow junior officer Mallory Pike arrive later in both the books and Netflix series), resonated with readers searching for representation.
For this reboot, the producers were adamant about pushing things further. More than 1,000 young actresses auditioned for the five main roles across the United States and Canada. While both Gomez and Baker’s characters were illustrated as white on the original book covers and portrayed by white actors in the short-lived 1990 HBO TV series and 1995 movie — Dawn, the blond, blue-eyed California transplant; Mary Anne, the bookish brunette — that quickly changed.
“We wanted a Latina Dawn because she’s supposed to be the quintessential California girl,” said showrunner Rachel Shukert, who is also a producer on the Netflix series “GLOW.” “To me, Xochitl, who plays Dawn, is the quintessential California girl. When we first met her, we heard this clinking in her jacket pocket, and she was like, ‘Oh, those are my crystals.’ And then she and her mom drove around Culver City looking for a vegan ice cream place to go to after her audition.”
Botswana-born, Canada-raised Baker caught Shukert’s eye when she was the only girl to audition for Mary Anne wearing glasses, adding an extra layer to the character. And for Baker, who discovered a box of her mom’s old BSC books and connected with Mary Anne even before auditioning, the chance for viewers to see the character as a biracial black girl is extra special.
“Growing up, I saw a lot of blond characters on screen, and as far as we’ve come [with black representation], we have a long way to go,” Baker said. “Even though my skin obviously isn’t as dark as some kids out there, I hope that they can see their lives represented.”
Meanwhile, an open casting call took place to find the perfect Claudia. That role ultimately went to Japanese Canadian actress Momona Tamada, who also played young Lara Jean in flashbacks in “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You.” Tamada recalled reading about Claudia growing up and “always looking up to her,” as did executive producer Naia Cucukov, who praised the character for being one of the first Asian American role models “who didn’t fit the traditional mold being shown to us in the media.”
“Claudia was aspirational — effortlessly cool, artistic, original. She was the first protagonist who I can recall really wanting to emulate,” Cucukov said. “And for many of us who grew up in immigrant households, her interactions with her live-in grandmother, Mimi, really struck a chord. None of my friends understood why my grandmother lived with me or the bond we shared, so having a touchstone to tell me that, while my experience might seem different, it was still recognized, was really impactful.”
On the show, decisions like having everyone take off their shoes upon entering the Kishi house and centering a moving story line involving Japanese American history acknowledge cultural differences rather than attempt to homogenize the girls’ life experiences. “Representation matters,” Cucukov said. “It mattered to little me in 1995, and it matters to kids today.”
That representation extends beyond casting. Behind the camera, the team staffed the show with female directors and writers from a variety of backgrounds. Eight out of 10 episodes are directed by women, and all 10 episodes are written or co-written by women, including black, Latina and Asian creatives.
“It was an incredibly conscious choice,” said Cucukov, who is also the executive vice president of development and production at Walden Media. “I cannot stress enough how vital it is to have support and representation in the rooms where decisions are made. We all held each other accountable and sometimes had tough conversations, but it was remarkable to be part of such a strong, creative group of women, and I think that spirit carries into our girls and their values, both on and off the screen.”
While the half-hour episodes correspond with early books in the series and millennial fans of the originals will delight in the familiarity — Claudia deals with phantom phone calls, Kristy’s mom (Alicia Silverstone) remarries, the girls have a super special adventure at summer camp — small tweaks have been seamlessly made throughout to reflect the world today.
Like when Mary Anne babysits a trans girl and demands ignorant adults call the child by her proper pronouns. Or how the “witch” who lives next door to Kristy’s stepdad is now a multidimensional “spiritual practitioner.” Another neighborhood family has two dads. And when a young boy mentions he has a crush on another boy, no one bats an eye.
“I really wanted to have a group of characters not only in the club, but in the wider community of Stoneybrook, reflect communities the way they are today,” said Martin, who consulted on the series and provided feedback on scripts, “which is a lot more diverse than they were 30 or 35 years ago.”
Still, Martin’s books were fundamentally progressive. Her feminist heroines focused on their booming business while also dealing with issues such as dead or divorced parents, diabetes and racism. And Martin’s favorite books in the series are the ones where she was able to bring attention to topics such as autism in “Kristy and the Secret of Susan” and the deaf community in “Jessi’s Secret Language.”
One outdated element did make it into the reboot: Claudia’s landline. While the girls all have cellphones on the show, Shukert cleverly found a way to make sure the iconic landline in Claudia’s bedroom is still used when parents call to book a sitter during the club’s thrice weekly meetings. But these actors are part of a new generation, one who learned to navigate FaceTime before they hit double digits and whose previous encounters with corded phones happened only in jest.
“I had this one friend who had a play kitchen with a play landline, and we would always pretend to call our other friends on it,” said Sophie Grace, who plays club president Kristy Thomas. “So, when I heard that there was gonna be a landline on the show I was like, ‘I am familiar with this!’ ”
The hope is that the young cast will eventually get to reunite on the show’s Vancouver set for a second season. Shukert and Martin would both love to see the series get renewed, provided they can shoot before the girls have aged out of their roles. (Despite being approached numerous times to write a grown-up “Baby-Sitters Club” sequel, Martin believes fans don’t really want to see her beloved characters move beyond middle school.)
For all of the excitement around this new “Baby-Sitters Club” iteration, Martin lives a quiet life in Upstate New York where she fosters rescue kittens and sews face masks for those in need. One of the 64-year-old’s greatest joys comes from seeing what happened to the kids who read her books in their formative years. Many, she said, became writers, journalists or other creatives — among them, most of the team behind the Netflix show. In fact, Shukert believes “The Baby-Sitters Club” laid the foundation for her success.
“There are a lot of reluctant heroines in teen literature, like, ‘I just wanted to be a normal girl, but I was chosen to save the world!’ ” Shukert said. “The Baby-Sitters Club girls chose this mission for themselves. It felt like a real prototype for being an ambitious girl who wanted to have a big career later in your life.”
Cucukov added that Martin was in her 30s “at the time she started writing the books, and we are around that age now making the show. It feels really powerful to realize that these books had such an impact on who I am today and that we might have a similar impact on a new generation of kids.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted an executive producer who said “The Baby-Sitters Club” author Ann M. Martin was 36 when she began writing the series. Martin was in her early 30s. The story has been updated.