Fresh, inspiring, and inclusive storytelling and casting – proving once again that representation matters

Images: © Netflix

By Mary Ellen Holden

As temperatures rise, so does the anticipation for the launch of the contemporary adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s beloved young adult book series The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix. The 10-episode series releases at a time when demand for babysitting is high, and it will be a welcome addition to families across the country who hunger for normalized lives. The show follows the relationships and experiences of a group of girlfriends as they navigate middle school, and the challenges inherent in starting their babysitting business.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the series showrunner and executive producer Rachel Shukert and the actors portraying members of The Baby-Sitters Club to get an inside look at how the programming stays true to its original messaging, including female empowerment and entrepreneurialism while concurrently highlighting societal realities including, single-parent households, living with impairments, bullying, and belonging. At the heart of The Baby-Sitters Club, we find middle school girls leading the way to a better world.

Rachel Shukert

Introducing Rachel Shukert

Mary Ellen Holden: Please tell us how your experience as an author and onset producer for GLOW prepared you for this role?

Rachel Shukert: GLOW is about women trying to do something important together. This is like The Baby-Sitters Club, where girls, who appear to be quite different from each other on the surface, share important goals as they build the Club. In both cases, I was working with complicated characters who are good people at heart. GLOW was a gift as there is no substitute for three years of hands-on experience learning how to solve a puzzle. It was also incredible to work with Geena Davis. I feel lucky as it’s so rare to have powerful people listening to you as a woman. This was a very natural progression from being an author digging into characters. I am in awe of Ann M. Martin and wanted her to be happy with the adaptation and spirit of the series.

Mary Ellen Holden: What was it about The Baby-Sitters Club that excited you?

Rachel: I was obsessed as a kid. I binged the books when I was about eight years old which was the precursor to binge-watching. I wanted to become one. It is an exciting project at this time as I come at it from a parents’ perspective. It feels hopeful. When Ann came to the set, we were all awestruck, I burst into tears when she gave me a signed copy of the book with a very personal inscription.

Mary Ellen Holden: How did diversity and inclusion inform this series?

Rachel: The books were inclusive for the time. We expanded the inclusion that Ann started as we wanted the series to be reflective of the world that kids live in today. In the books, Claudia was Asian American, and Jessi Ramsey was an important Black character who appeared later in the series. On Netflix, Mary Anne is biracial; her white father is a bit tentative as he tries to figure out the best way to raise a daughter of color. Dawn is written as a quintessential California girl (typically white and blond), yet she is portrayed by a Latina who is outspoken [onset] about social justice. I view this as a mindful organic shift two decades forward as opposed to reimagining the series.

Diversity and inclusivity extend beyond the five core girls. For example, the parents aren’t all heterosexual and white. We used storytelling as a device to deepen understanding. Perhaps one of my favorite episodes was when Claudia’s grandmother Mimi had a stroke. She took Claudia and the audience on a Japanese American journey, which was a story I wanted to tell as she relived her experience in internment camps. It reminded me of stories my grandfather told when he was suffering from dementia; he referenced a time when he was a refugee from Poland. It was very frightening.

Mary Ellen Holden: Who is the target audience for this series?

Rachel: It appeals to a broad swath of people and is great family viewing. I wanted it to be fun for younger people to watch in the way that we are connected to the books; but I also wanted it to appeal to their parents who might have read the books

Mary Ellen Holden: What do you see as the future of young adult programming?

Rachel: More Baby-Sitters Club! The thing I really like about this show is that it honors and recognizes that kids aren’t just kids; but also, human beings who are going to become grown-ups. I would like to see more emotional seriousness. What I like about these books and the series is that it operates on this very human scale. When I graduated college, my professor said, I urge you to do things with great love because that’s how you change the world. I believe he is right.

The Baby-Sitters Club – Cast Close-Up

The main cast includes Sophie Grace (Kristy Thomas), Malia Baker (Mary Anne Spier), Momona Tamada (Claudia Kishi), Shay Rudolph (Stacey McGill), and Xochitl Gomez (Dawn Schafer) all voracious fans of Martin’s books and with personal connections to the series.

Mary Ellen Holden: Are you similar to or different from the character that you portray?

Momona: I relate to Claudia; I love, love, love candy, and art; I’m also super creative. While playing Claudia, I’ve grown and connected to my character more.

Shay: I related to Stacey as a person and her fashion sense. I’ve started becoming more interested in clothes and wearing funny outfits. I care about my friends more than anything else in the world and put my friendships first before boys and fashion.

Sophie: We have a remarkably similar personality – we’re both natural leaders, very driven, and I like to think that I’m intelligent! We both come from large families. It was cool to see while I mainly identified with Kristy, I found bits and pieces of each of the other characters to relate to.

Malia: Like Mary Anne, I am very shy. I feel like I have grown out of my shell just like she has. She’s also genuinely kind, warm-hearted, and funny. I also see myself in other characters like Kristy because she can be pretty bossy.

Xochitl: I have the same personality, strong will and empathy that Dawn has for others. I think the difference is that Dawn is way more into politics than I am and has a much larger vocabulary. I underline words and look them up.

Mary Ellen Holden: Did you ever think that you’d become a role model?

Momona: Reading the books, I looked up to Claudia as a role model, so the pressure is there to be the role model for younger generations. I never expected this to happen so soon.

Shay: Being the youngest sibling I never really thought of myself as a role model. Then I realized how iconic and powerful my female character was onscreen and that kids look up to her. This portrayal made me into a role model.

Sophie: Kristy was my role model for a portion of my life, and it is so humbling and honoring to be considered anything like her for other kids. I’m so excited to get that opportunity.

Malia: I do feel that I am a role model and that the show gave me the platform to fully voice my opinions. When I was younger, I always had this gut feeling that I was going to do something amazing. And, I am.

Xochitl: I always hoped it could happen, but historically there aren’t great role models for Latina girls, so I didn’t imagine. But I’m so glad that it is happening and that I’ll be the one performing the groundbreaking person that girls will look up to in the future and maybe hope.

Mary Ellen Holden: What does representation matters mean to you?

Momona: It’s super important to see all types of representations and the impact of diversity onscreen. I’m already super grateful to be part of that, and I also love how the series celebrates all types of backgrounds.

Shay: To be comfortable in your skin and in all forms of representation. It means that you don’t need to feel ashamed of who you are (especially with my character and diabetes). Just because you have an illness doesn’t make you any less of a person. I’m so glad that there are characters that will make kids feel seen and celebrated.

Sophie: Every little kid watching can see someone that looks like them; just thinking someone looks like you can make you feel less alone. I’m excited to be a part of a show that has so much representation; its crucially important. I can see how the Geena Davis Institute motto “If she can see it, she can be it” plays into that whole concept that representation does matter.

Malia: Representation does matter; we don’t even realize how much we pay attention to the screen. Being a girl of color can go far by using the platform for good.

Xochitl: I feel like I have seen your motto (If she can see it, she can be it) and wrote it down on my school notebook. It’s so important how a Latina character is represented on the show, not just bikini girls but, interesting people with interesting lives.

Mary Ellen Holden: What advice do you have for females/culturally diverse females entering this industry?

Momona: Go with your gut; just be you.

Shay: Stay you authentically. You’re perfect just the way you are, and that’s great.

Sophie: Believe in yourself. Work hard, stay driven, and never lose sight of your goal.

Malia: Don’t listen to anyone. Look for a role that fits your race. Stay grounded and listen to your inner voice because that is the only voice that you’ve got to trust and agree with.

Xochitl: Develop your own story and put it out there because there might not be opportunities if you don’t.

Mary Ellen Holden: What was your most surprising learning about yourself onset?

Momona: My character influenced my fashion sense and made me more open minded. I also learned the importance of family history.

Shay: I learned how much I love the process of being on set with these amazing girls. I also realized how much I like fashion – it got me out of the habit of wearing jeans and a tee-shirt every day.

Sophie: I realized how much I loved acting. I was surprised by how much I related to Kristy – it was a Hannah Montana moment. It’s kind of weird stepping into someone else’s life.

Malia: I can be patient, but I also have strong opinions that I can voice. Other girls aren’t ready to voice their opinions, which makes me think that I should try to take advantage of that.

Xochitl: The series gave me the opportunity to express my voice and to be that bold.