Netflix’s new original series The Baby-Sitters Club, an updated take on the beloved young adult book series from the ’90s, has been one of the few bright spots in this dark and dramatic year. The adventures of Kristy Thomas (Sophie Grace), Mary-Anne Spier (Malia Baker), Claudia Kishi (Momona Tamada), Stacey McGill (Shay Rudolph), and Dawn Schafer (Xochitl Gomez) have been updated for a present-day setting, but the timeless tales and lessons of female friendship are still the core of this latest adaptation.
The fourth episode of the season, “Mary-Anne Saves the Day,” features the novice babysitter taking care of Bailey (Kai Shappley), a trans child who comes down with a fever and is taken to the hospital. NewNowNext spoke with series showrunner Rachel Shukert about her decision to include a trans character in the first season, the queer appeal of The Baby-Sitters Club, and what she thinks of author J.K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets.
Out of all the storylines from The Baby-Sitters Club, why did you think it was important to tell Bailey’s story in one of the 10 episodes you had?
Well, for several reasons. The first and most important one is that transgender children exist, they need babysitters. It’s important to me to show a kid that is just a kid, and that this is just one aspect of who they are. I feel sometimes with internet discourse, transgender [issues] in particular become so all-encompassing, and it’s like, you’re just simply going through all these other things. And it felt like a really important way also to present that in a way that’s very simple and easy to digest, because I feel that it actually is much simpler and easier to digest. I also don’t think it’s something that children really question. I feel like this entire generation of people, it’s a no brainer. It’s older people who have all these issues about it.
Did you always intend to tackle a trans storyline?
I really wanted to include this character from the beginning. I often feel like The Baby-Sitters Club is so much about inclusivity, and always was, and I don’t want anyone to watch the show and not see themselves included in it. I think to see that trans people, and queer people, and all these people are just part of the fabric of the community, they’re just there. There’s no invisibility by omission. The episode specifically is based very much on a story from the books, where Mary-Anne is taking care of this little girl who spikes a high fever and she takes her to the ER and gets her help. The story is very much beat for beat the same story; the only difference that we made is that we tweaked one character. And it then became meaningful on this whole other level—that part of getting appropriate medical care for this child is protecting her in that moment, and making sure that she’s not misgendered, and making sure that she has everything she needs to feel emotionally safe and supported in that moment.
In the episode you use a metaphor about being right-handed vs. left-handed to explain being trans. I had never heard that before. I thought that was so genius. Where did that line come from?
Lucia, who is one of the executive producers on the show, actually said she heard someone say that. But it made so much sense to all of us because it was so clear and so simple, just something that’s ingrained, and clear to children too because I think our show has a lot of crossover appeal, and there’s a lot of adults that are watching it obviously. But we also wanted it to be digestible for younger kids, and that’s something that you just can immediately relate to. You just know exactly what that feels like. I do things with this hand, if I did it with this hand it would all be messed up and I would waste all this time, and I wouldn’t feel like myself, and I wouldn’t be able to do things.
Did you talk to any of the actresses—Malia [Baker, who plays Mary-Anne] or anyone—about Bailey’s story?
Malia was extremely behind the story. I think a lot of people of her generation it’s much, again, it’s much simpler for them. I feel like none of them had any kind of real questions about it. We felt like it was very important to cast a trans actress. We found Kai, who is so wonderful and such an incredible kid. I don’t know how much you know about her, but she won an Emmy for this documentary about her life, growing up in Texas, being a trans child. She’s really something, this little girl. Our casting directors had seen that documentary and totally fallen in love with her, and wanted to put her in something for a year, and then this thing came along and it was perfect.
Have you heard from any viewers who had strong reactions to this episode?
It’s been incredibly positive. Especially coming off of the J.K. Rowling controversies about all of that, it’s nice for people to see this other beloved children’s story that had a different attitude about it.
What are your thoughts about J.K. Rowling’s tweets?
I mean, I don’t agree with her. I don’t understand. I can’t pretend to know what she’s thinking exactly, or why she has chosen to dig into this position. I feel like from her writing, because I love the Harry Potter books, it feels so contrary to the message that she puts forward in those books. So I don’t exactly understand it. And I have to also say, as a cisgender female feminist, I don’t understand what trans women are taking away from you (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists-TERFs). I don’t get it. So I have a hard time really commenting on a position that I just genuinely don’t understand the logic behind.
A lot of queer women were really drawn to The Baby-Sitters Club growing up. Were you surprised to hear that
I have obviously heard that. At the time, I didn’t really think about it one way or another, because I was a child and, and not a queer child, so it just wasn’t really something that I gave tons of time thinking about to. I’m very enmeshed in that community, professionally and by chance. And as the majority of my friends are not straight, I’m the unicorn. But I think that part of it honestly is because it is a world, the way that The Baby-Sitters Club is presented is a world that is, there are no real male gays in it. It’s really about this group of girls and their interpersonal dynamics and their friendships, and their goals. I think that so many stories written for that age group are often based around this heteronormative relationship structure. Like, which boy do you choose? These two boys are in love with me, which one do I love? It’s like that, and The Baby-Sitters Club doesn’t have any of that. It was not about attracting boys, it was not about worrying what boys thought of you. It was about these girls and their relationships with each other, and their friendship, and their ambitions.
I’m jealous. I didn’t grow up reading Baby-Sitters Club because as a young gay boy, that would’ve blown my cover.
I also worked on that show GLOW, and I have heard from so many friends who are gay men in their 30s now, that they watched the original GLOW as kids because they liked it, because it was girls who were fabulous and obviously, and it was still wrestling, so they could still talk about watching wrestling.
What are you thinking for Season 2? Do you think we’ll see more queer characters?
I hope so. I feel like, yeah. I think so.
What would you say to a young boy who wants to read The Baby-Sitters Club these days, who like me was too afraid to pick it up off the library shelf?
Don’t be afraid. It’s just a book. But I find it really encouraging. I have a little son—he’s just 3, so he’s not really reading books like this yet—but I do find it really encouraging that this next generation of kids is hopefully going to grow up with a less doctrinaire sense of identity than a lot of us were raised with. He happily has these tea parties all the time. It’s lovely to watch a child in a space where he can just like what he likes, and there’s no judgment on it yet. And I think that that’s the most powerful thing any of us can do, is to just be like, “This is what I like.” And I would hope that a boy who wanted to read those books would just be like, “I want to read these books. It doesn’t say anything about me, except that I want to read these books.”