18/January/2021Netflix’s Babysitter’s Club is a fun, simple, #woke comedy about growing up in suburban Connecticut, diversity and the inherent failure of American liberalism. Let’s start at the end and work our way back: in the last two episodes of The Babysitter’s Club, Netflix’s adaptation of novels by the same name, our titular babysitters start a revolution.
The Babysitter’s Club and the Limits
of American Liberalism
The Babysitter’s Club and the Limits
of American Liberalism
by: Daniel Joslyn
In its last two episodes, all of the main characters go to summer camp and at that summer camp – away from the shelter of their comically wealthy suburban Connecticut town – our heroes have to face the evils of the real world. More specifically, they have to face the evils of art class, or, well, they have to face the evils not art class itself, but of a camp counselor who overcharges for her art class. From the moment they arrive at camp, our intrepid journeyers are faced with the fact that at every turn the camp extracts extra money from campers. This, we learn from the kind and good-hearted but bumbly director of the camp, Meany, is so that the camp can not run at a loss and can allow her to eke by in her small New Jersey home.
It is also, though, as our heroines decry, “unfair.” All of these hidden charges mean that kids get very different experiences, based on whether they can or cannot pay for “archery,” or fork over $20 a shirt for tie-dying, or pay for horseback riding or anything else. This, the show implies, creates a class system among the campers: those who can pay end up spending more time with other kids who can pay and thus making friends with them and developing the kinds of relationships that will help them months and years down the line. The other campers can sit in their huts and eat the terrible food, which they can’t even afford to supplement at the commissary.
The worst offender in the eyes of Dawn – the budding activist – and Claudia – the budding artist – is art class. Here kids are made to pay again and again day after day to just participate in any of the basic activities. Here all but the richest kids are groaning under the pain of each class’s exorbitant price tag. After complaining to the teacher, to their fellow campers and multiple times bringing their complaints very respectfully to the director of the camp, Dawn and Claudia have had enough: the system, they realize, is unfair.
Because this show is about liberalism, by liberals and an incredible cross section of the politics of that particularly affluent political class/movement, the answer, of course, that this art teacher was single-handedly manufacturing a class divide amidst what was otherwise an egalitarian, or as they put it “utopian” world. This causes them to riot and rebel: their utopia had been broken – Claudia even briefly being put on house arrest – and their dreams of peaceful class-free camp life had been shattered, and they were going to fight that utopia back into existence.
Their goal isn’t to burn down the camp but to restore their illusion that the world could be fair and just. They want not the abolition of art class, nor of class in general, but the permission to teach a free art class in the woods as an alternative to the other. For this demand, they build and mount barricades and call for a general strike among the campers. After a stand-off between them and Meany, the strikers win their demand, and their utopia is restored.
There is much to be said in praise of The Babysitter’s Club: it is well-written, fun to watch, pithy and lets you cheer for adorable, go-getting protagonists. It generally handles tough storylines well and carefully and does not make you feel like it is forcing any storylines into being, but instead allowing the different characters’ nuances to emerge over time. It does a quite successful job of offering a portrait of contemporary childhood in a highly sheltered, wealthy or at least upper-middle class Connecticut suburb. At the same time, it is so successful at offering the world from the perspective of the American elite, that it offers a telling reflection of American establishment liberalism and demonstrates its inherent failure to be able to grapple with or quite correctly identify the problems plaguing the United States.
In the revolutionary episodes, we see a glimpse of a liberal ideal: people coming together to help the poor and needy, making reasonable demands and receiving small but meaningful concessions from power. The problem of course is that none of the girls is actually poor or needy or even particularly close with anyone who is. They are not revolting because they can’t afford to eat special snacks or engage in the million different camp activities. They have not brought together people who are actually oppressed by the class system at the camp, or even talked to them. Nor will the concession they won in any way meaningfully change the class relations at camp. It will, however, look less violent.
These young women have correctly and even courageously identified a problem, but they have also fundamentally failed to grasp at the root of that problem. The problem isn’t an individual grifting art teacher. The problem is capitalism: the camp needs to turn a profit so that Meany can survive and in order to turn a profit, all of its laborers need to be exploited, and in order for them to survive, they need to jack up the prices on the services that they offer. Everything about this camp, and the world that it exists in relies upon exploitation and the creation of class differences, as do the rest of the Babysitters Club women’s lives. On some level, it makes sense that our heroes, who are children and thus do not realize the depth of the problem, strike out at the clearest manifestation of it, without actually building relationships with the people most directly harmed by it.
“We see a glimpse of a liberal ideal: people coming
together to help the poor and needy, making reasonable demands and receiving
small but meaningful concessions from power. The problem of course is that none
of the girls is actually poor or needy or even particularly close with anyone
At the same time, this childish confusion of reform for revolution and the desire for more diverse oppressors, rather than fundamental systemic change, is the very basis of contemporary U.S. American mainstream liberalism. It is Nancy Pelosi’s tweet informing us that we do not need stimulus checks, in a country in the midst of an historic depression, and on the verge of an unprecedented eviction crisis, because Biden has been elected president. It is Obama’s admonition of protestors to “reform” and not “abolish” the police, and Joe Biden’s stocking his cabinet with war mongering Wall Street millionaires who are “diverse.” It is the call for “black capitalism” and the renaming of streets instead of reparations and defunding the police.
Viewed through this lens, The Babysitter’s Club is about a group of affluent middleschool girls who become affluent middleschool #girlbosses, small business owners who are multi-racial in a non-threatening way, chic, and fun. These girlbosses, moreover make their way in the world by undercutting other existing services and commodifying their own lives and their experiences. They only become babysitters in the first place, because the other babysitting business in town – presumably run by professionals who presumably rely on that income to survive – charges too much money, and they decide to systematically undercut it. Even their openness is massively profitable: one main character’s diabetes becomes a way that she markets her ability to watch over others; another whose mother is a witch has extra nurturing skills because of looking after her mom in her various exploits that make her a better babysitter; moreover, standing up for their trans charge makes them the babysitting service of choice in the eyes of the “progressive” parents of suburban Connecticut.
Like the babysitters in the babysitters’ club, U.S. liberal “thought leaders” make themselves feel better by earnestly tinkering at the margins of a system that exists to benefit them. They too bemoan “classism” and “racism” while sending their children to segregated schools and using the police as their personal security forces. Like the petty capitalists in The Babysitter’s Club, they want it all: representation and success, the end of hierarchies of race, class, gender and sexuality and the pleasures of a secluded utopia, violently defended by money and power.
Hopefully this show, which unlike these smug elites is just a blast to watch will grow up and learn the truth that summer camp art class wasn’t the problem, and that a separate art class, run by the free labor provided by the campers really just hurt another worker and that, moreover, our titular babysitters have lived their whole lives within a utopia built with blood, lashes and the hard work and tears of the masses just offscreen (maybe even in the next towns over). Maybe these precocious kids will realize the inability of liberal social change, actually grasp the problem at the heart of their utopias and have the courage to grow up and take a stand against capitalism and exploitation in all of its forms. But I’m not holding my breath.