Analyzing feminism through the tween book series, The Baby-Sitters Club.
While certainly not a serial that would be hailed as a piece of valuable literature, the first book series I came to love was The Baby-sitter’s Little Sister, which was the young readers’ version of its elder sister series, The Baby-sitters Club (BSC hereinafter). I picked up the latter series around the age of seven, inheriting many of the books from my older sister who discarded them in favor of (in my opinion, less interesting and less inspiring) Sweet Valley High, which was more appropriate for her burgeoning snobby teenager mentality. Though no Beatrix Potter, Alice in Wonderland, or any other iconic, classical children’s literature, BSC afforded me literary opportunities and nurtured a love for reading. I also believe that BSC had a stronger moral compass over any other series during its peak popularity (hence my disregard for its equally popular competitors, like the aforementioned Sweet Valley), contributing greatly to my own development.
Common themes explored major social issues like divorce, miscarriage, equality, eating disorders, religion, cultural diversity, racism, censorship, alternative lifestyles, death, and many, many other topics that were not typically encountered in most children’s and pre-teen book series. Each book included a brief history of its main characters, therefore allowing them to be standalone stories. Reading them in sequential order, while helpful to maintain the arcing storyline, was not necessary to enjoy the series.
It was not until I was much older that I could reflect on my beloved childhood past-time and realize how much it impacted me as an adult. I realized that many of my moral values were built on the philosophical ideals that I gleaned through the escapades of Kristy Thomas and crew. I came to understand certain things about life and society that I had not learned from school or family. The different realm I was allowed to explore had significant influence on my understanding of the world and relationships, as well as discovering oneself. It was in the fictional world of Stonybrook, Connecticut that I first become familiar with empowered females and the capabilities of the gender, in spite of patriarchal oppression.
The four main characters of BSC consisted of the wealthy and tomboyish Kristy Thomas, who came from a “broken” home and lived with a blended family; the artistic but academically deficient Japanese-American, Claudia Kishi; the mousy, quiet, and sensitive Mary Anne Spier, whose mother died when she was an infant; and the cosmopolitan, fashionable, New York-transplant, Stacey McGill, who struggled with diabetes and split her time between her divorced parents’ homes. Each embodied some sort of typical, female stereotype (and also featured some sort of “flaw”), but their differences were bridged through their mutual love for childcare, and their characters were of the most friendly and agreeable dispositions. Generally, any conflict that would present itself would be from those outside of their circle; to them, it was perfectly normal that four girls of completely different backgrounds and widely-variant tastes could get along harmoniously. Internal conflict was never addressed; there was no reason to assume that there should be any issue with this close friendship. It was perfectly logical and natural in the BSC universe for these four girls (and their later additions that would include an African-American and a Jew) to be bonded together primarily by their gender and their compassionate hearts. Together, they were a celebration of cultural and racial diversity, and were stronger females because of it.
I have long suspected that BSC had an ulterior motive intended to cultivate feminism in its young readers. The aversion to include exhaustive conversations about boys, fashion, and other stereotypical feminine activities was initially cause for me to wonder, but those thoughts were quickly forgotten as the girls revealed themselves to be powerful and inspirational models. There always existed a very strong sense of independence among the characters, even if they had different approaches and individual ideologies. At seven years old, I thought it was acceptable, and quite fantastic, that a group of 13-year-olds could thwart a jewel thief, win a lottery for a trip across the country, or be expert mediators for sibling crises. The girls were portrayed as fiercely self-sufficient and extremely motivated. While they would sometimes indulge in typical “girly” practices (like doing each others’ nails or occasionally talking about boys), these sorts of events were never primary storylines, and in fact, would serve a purpose to cement their senses of female empowerment and friendship. If a club member was upset over a boy, the great lessons learned were knowing that her friends would always be there, and that she did not need a male companion in order to foster some sense of self-worth and self-validation. The girls were never paired with boyfriends to enhance their character; male classmates, friends, and siblings did not, by any means, “better” the girls’ identities and beings. While some girls flirted briefly with monogamous relationships and would experience emotional upset from a fight or break-up, they never reduced themselves to weeping, bitter, angry messes.
It can be argued that the very thread that tied these girls together was anti-feminist and that it forced the girls to adhere to the domestic and submissive expectations of their gender. A club that was centered around childcare enforced the belief that only women are the best choice for rearing children. This was subtly hinted at with the addition of Mary Anne’s boyfriend, Logan, who became an “associate” member, and never reached such high success rates as his female compatriots. His title also forced him into a position below that of the girls’, furthering the idea that men cannot be adequate caregivers. This would be a very rare example of a vague demonstration of misandry. Logan’s lack of involvement, and relegation to an associate member, confirmed that the girls were the better sitters. Though, this could be interpreted that their strong wills and motivation made them that way, and Logan was there to contrast their success to highlight a female’s ability to be better than a man at something, but the avenue in which this was exhibited is questionable as it is already stereotypically female-dominated. If their playing field was a male-dominated arena, such as something sports-related, evidence of their feminism might possess a stronger argument.
However, the club’s creation was perhaps solid proof of the girls’ assertive independence and their “girl-power” roar. The club was founded not to be a charity offering free childcare nor was it grown from some overwhelming obsession of piously helping to raise dearly beloved and precocious children. Rather, it was an entrepreneurial business that established these girls as competent businesswomen. Their club was structured with weekly meetings, obligatory duties assigned to each officer, accountability for the members and their involvement with club-related fundraisers and activity, and of course, profit-sharing and allocation of funds. The series started in 1986, and perhaps in that time, a childcare business would seem to be the most marketable part-time job a group of eighth-graders could achieve. Even while the girls did enjoy advantages that their femininity granted them (each book went into great detail about their appearances and interests, though this simply could have been a maneuver to make the characters’ backgrounds and personalities accessible to one-time readers, so that they would not be confused), the girls could easily exist in a world where they did not have to sacrifice their feminine behaviors in order to pursue their individual interests and desires. Their femininity was a part of them, but certainly did not define them.
In Richter’s compilation, Lillian S. Robinson considers a feminist approach that can “reinterpret women’s character, motivations, and actions that identify and challenge sexist ideology” (154). On a watered-down, pre-teenage level, the girls of BSC should certainly exemplify this ideal, particularly in their era of the late 1980s, and were at least, noticeably different to the other characters of juvenile fiction of the time. BSC was a refreshing contrast to the saccharine-sweet, artificial, narcissistic and heavily-superficial series of Sweet Valley High, and others in the ilk. The BSC series was created by Ann M. Martin, and while she wrote many of the books, there were many others ghostwritten by other authors, including a male writer. However, the structure of the books were so formulaic, there was no detectable “male voice” that dominated the narration. Additionally, each book was entitled with a different character’s name, and that character would be the first-person narrator for the story. Essentially, each girl “authored” the book with their own voice, which was distinct from the others.
At the most basic level, the girls are merely conduits that young, female readers could identify with: describing Stacey’s fashion sense, or detailing Mary Anne’s relationship with Logan were aspects of their personalities that many girls of a varied audience could relate to. The BSC members, in all of their variety and different personality attributes, were created to reach a very wide audience, which would explain the purposeful creations of the athletic tomboy, the fashion guru, the environmentalist-vegetarian, the black dancer, the nerdy and bespectacled red-head, the Jewish twin sister, the Asian artist, and the overachieving blonde who attended a private school. All of these characters were created so that a female reader could find at least one type to latch onto and identify with, and by maintaining that relationship with one of the girls, the reader would be guided into contemplation of deeper issues that went beyond the superficial descriptions of the characters. A relationship would be established and carry the reader through the series.
Since each book would feature one of the girls as the “main” character for the duration, there always existed opportunities to give equal attention to the characters, and therefore, equal attention and acknowledgment of the diverse audience. If a reader, for example, came from a big family and felt lost in that sea, she might find refuge in Mallory Pike’s character, who was the eldest of 11 children. A horse lover and, for lack of better words, a complete dork who enjoyed reading and writing, Mallory may provide a comfortable parallel for a reader with a similar background. Through her adventures, Mallory would also provide her fan with ways to deal with issues that her character endured in the series. One title, Don’t Give Up, Mallory, focused on her struggles to succeed in a class where her teacher favored the male students. In BSC Super Special #2, the girls are at a summer camp, and Mallory has a cruel encounter with racism when another camper calls Mallory and her best friend and fellow baby-sitter, Jessi (who is black), “Oreos.” Situations such as these are handled with maturity, and generally are instructions for the audience to never resort to violence, name-calling, or other inappropriate behaviors when attempting to resolve conflicts.
Even early on in the series, the girls encountered many situations unique to their sex, such as confronting male authority and eating disorders. In the fourth book (published early in 1987), Mary Anne finally challenged her overbearing father, who was extremely overprotective and controlling of her life. He had dictated how she could dress and forbade her to cut her hair. The readers later learn the reason for her father’s behavior was rooted from his fear of losing his daughter, like he did his wife. After reconciling this issue, and having a mature conversation with her father, Mary Anne embraces her liberation, and exercises her new freedom by lopping off her brown braids and styling her hair short – a symbol of her cutting off the male dominant from her life. Struggles with body identity issues introduced readers to anorexia, which were seen through the perspective of the African-American ballerina, Jessi. Jessi, being a confident girl who never experienced any body dismorphic disorders, discovered a fellow dancer, Mary, was suffering from anorexia. Jessi was completely naïve to this revelation, and learned about it through research. Here is another example of self-guided education and desire to learn, especially for a sensitive topic. Jessi offered her friendship and help Mary, after coming to understand her situation. Mary, a victim of society’s expectations for women to have perfectly skinny bodies, was aided by friends to receive much-needed counseling to try to reverse the socially-imposed, female-suppressive standard she was trying to obey. Scenarios like these are probably unlikely to appear in any male-oriented children’s literature. The series displays how even a pre-teen girl can have encounters with female oppression in society.
BSC is hardly celebrated as literary greatness, but it has provided a springboard into feminism for young girls since the 1980s. The series would not have been as nearly as successful, if the characters were wild, misandric, militant feminists presented to an audience that hardly had created their own identities. While these characters certainly embodied some overtly-feminine characteristics, I believe they were devised so that young, female readers could gain a connection and investment in the fictional universe, thereby allowing the series’ many authors to subtly channel their feminist rhetoric through Day-Glo-wearing, perm-haired, baby-sitting teenagers.
Richter, David, ed. Falling Into Theory, Conflicting Views On Reading Literature. 2nd. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. Print.