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Photos: Jesse Austin/Netflix, Scholastic; Screenshot via YouTube; Collage by author
Entertainment

An Ode to Claudia Kishi, the Coolest Kid in 'The Baby-Sitters Club'

Decades after the release of the Ann M. Martin series, the Claudia Kishi fan club lives on through fan pages and a new Netflix documentary.
July 9, 2020, 12:21pm

In 1986, with the ring of a landline, Ann M. Martin's The Baby-Sitters Club introduced us to a group of friends in the fictional suburban town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, who'd just hatched the great idea to start a babysitting service.

Through hundreds of books and a few spin-offs spanning 1986 to 2000, the Baby-Sitters Club became a tween pop culture phenomenon as it explored the challenges of growing up through its beloved cast of 12-year-old characters. There was the bossy tomboy, Kristy Thomas; her shy best friend, Mary Anne Spier; the New York transplant, Stacey McGill; the environmentalist vegetarian, Dawn Schafer; resident artist Claudia Kishi, and a slew of siblings, friends, family members, and budding love interests.

Decades later, The Baby-Sitters Club's appeal hasn't died down. After a 1995 film adaptation, Scholastic began turning books from the series into graphic novels in 2006, and in 2019, they were made available in audiobook form for the first time. Last week, Netflix released its 10-episode modern-day adaptation to seemingly universal acclaim. On Friday, the streaming platform will stoke nostalgia further with The Claudia Kishi Club, a short documentary by filmmaker Sue Ding that's described as a "love letter" to Claudia, the club's forward-thinking fashion icon, only Asian American member, and—perhaps, even still—arguably the coolest kid in the town of Stoneybrook.

Though the Netflix series has inspired a new surge in _Baby-Sitters Club_-related nostalgia, it has lived another life online for years. In the active days of the blogosphere and the onset of social media, Livejournal communities like BSC_Snark and BabysittersClub provided spaces to revisit the series and its characters. The fan site BSC-Squee shared reviews and ran an archive of memorable outfits, and The Baby-Sitters Club Club podcast discusses the series on a weekly basis. While each babysitter has fans who identify with her, as if each cast member were a zodiac sign, the community around Claudia is especially fervent.

From its start in 2007 to its last post in 2018, Kim Hutt Mayhew's iconic blog What Claudia Wore cataloged each of Claudia's outfits. In 2012, illustrator Yumi Sakugawa published the comic essay "Claudia Kishi: My Asian-American Female Role Model of the 90's," and in 2017, Phil Yu of the blog Angry Asian Man re-imagined Claudia's book covers as relatable memes that still circulate today, like "Claudia and the Racist Little Shits." A band called The Linda Lindas has a song called "Claudia Kishi." Soon, Ding's film will join that canon. Clearly, there's something special about Claudia.

For Ding, it all started at the Scholastic Book Fair, of course, during late elementary school. As a Chinese American kid in upstate New York, she immediately latched onto Claudia's Asian American background, she told VICE. "That was huge already," Ding said. "But I also was an aspiring artist, I wanted to become a painter, I was really interested in fashion, I had really strict parents that I sometimes struggled to communicate with or they struggled to understand me." Claudia checked all those same boxes, and Ding wasn't alone in her appreciation.

With her baggy overalls, colorful sneakers, and extreme statement earrings (all looks that would probably still fit in well in contemporary Brooklyn), the easiest way to remember Claudia was through her fashion. (Netflix's new take on Claudia, with funky outfits and colorful eyeliner, has delivered on what long-time fans expected.) Kim Hutt Mayhew of What Claudia Wore read the series from first to eighth grade, but her interest was revived during an "'I don't really know what I'm doing with my life' era" in her mid-20s, she told VICE. Finding the pastel spines of the Baby-Sitters Club on the shelf at Goodwill gave her a hobby as she began collecting and rereading the series.

"It was so wild—like I was in my 20s, trying to figure out young adulthood and what I'm going to do—but when I read those books, I was also eight again, and the outfits especially just hit so much," Hutt Mayhew said. "Déjà vu isn't quite the right experience, but they just felt so familiar. I would read the kind of Pebbles Flintstone ponytail on the top of [Claudia's] head, and I would be like, I feel like I read that description yesterday. That's how much of an imprint it made on my mind." The blog was born out of the idea that former readers would feel similarly, and they did, garnering it mentions on Rookie, Buzzfeed, and more.

The old blog days are over (Hutt Mayhew now shares book commentary on Instagram), but the appreciation for Claudia's outfits continues on new platforms. Through the page @whatwouldclaudiawear, Anna Nguyen shares her own loosely Claudia-inspired looks, along with annotated pages to comment on the books' approach to food, academics, and more. Nguyen, a researcher who decided to reread the series as a pandemic hobby, sees her page as a way to imagine what Claudia might be like as an adult. "She's actually an academic, but she still dresses wildly," she mused to VICE. Though Nguyen is currently interested in Claudia's style, that wasn't always the case.

"The fashion was actually the last thing I remembered about Claudia until I started rereading them," Nguyen said. The family dynamic between Claudia's strict parents, uptight older sister, and live-in grandmother, coupled with her troubled school life, struck Nguyen initially. Growing up in Arkansas as the bilingual child of immigrants, Nguyen found the books on her older sister's shelf, and they helped her learn to read English. Placed in speech classes because of her accent, Nguyen credits the books—and Claudia in particular—with helping bridge the cultural and reading gaps she experienced. "The empathy building through a character, I think that's what I really liked about Claudia," Nguyen said.

For people in the Asian American community, Claudia's immediate appeal was obvious: Asian American characters were rare in children's media, and nuanced Asian American characters who didn't fit into the stereotype of being quiet and good at school were even less visible. "Her heritage was present—it's not like it was erased or anything—but it wasn't the only characteristic about her," Ding said. All the characters were nuanced, and Claudia saw herself as primarily creative, adventurous, and outgoing; being Japanese American wasn't the first thing on the list. "With Claudia, it was a part of her, but it wasn't the only part of her. That was huge."

As Susan Cheng wrote for Bustle last year, Claudia inspired "a generation of Asian American writers" by breaking the mold of what Asian American girls in pop culture could look like. That idea is what Ding explores further in The Claudia Kishi Club, which was successfully crowdfunded in December 2018; through interviews with other Claudia fans-turned-career creatives—Yu and Sakugawa to authors C.B. Lee and Sarah Kuhn—Ding goes beyond exploring the series' representation to highlighting the character's larger effect on readers.

"It's not just about how we feel about being represented, but it actually affects how you imagine what's possible for yourself," Ding said. In art class growing up, she rarely learned about women artists, much less Asian women artists, so while Claudia was fictional, the ideas she inspired were real. "If you never see that, you don't even think it's a possibility for yourself, and I think that's a big piece of it. One of the really cool things about the film was that I did get to talk to all these amazing Asian American creators who are kind of like modern-day Claudias."

No matter what specifically resonated with readers, there remains a sense among fans, even those who are now much older, of Claudia's undeniable coolness. Though readers might have seen bits of themselves in her character, part of Claudia's appeal was that she wasn't entirely relatable. In many ways, from the candy she had hidden in around her room to the art gallery she'd made in her garage, Claudia was aspirational.

For young girls, the fact that Claudia seemed out of reach might have made it easier to turn her into an icon, Hutt Mayhew suggested. "I think definitely the Cool Girl characters [like Claudia, Stacey, and Dawn] were something I aspired to as a non-Cool Girl myself," said Hutt Mayhew, who identified as "more of a Mallory," an awkward and younger junior member of the club, as a tween. (Now, at 36, she said, "I'm a little more self actualized, so I think I'm a Kristy.")

Joy Yamaguchi, co-host of the recently launched _Baby-Sitters Club_-themed podcast Great Idea, felt similarly about Claudia. "I think that I saw her as being unattainably cool," they told VICE with a laugh, "because I definitely was more of a Mary Anne in how I was in the world: very shy and nerdy." For Yamaguchi, who is Japanese American, appreciation for Claudia was retrospective; after reading Sakugawa's zine, they realized Claudia resonated as a rare example of Japanese American representation, though they hadn't thought much of it as a child.

The goal of Great Idea is to take an analytical lens to explore not only the ways the series empowers young girls, but also how it might still fall short. "Even though she was a really different representation, she was still one of the only [Asian American characters] in children's literature. I think that that is always going to be difficult—when we don't have a multitude of representations of people, that one person can't represent everything to everyone," said Yamaguchi.

Still, Claudia's unabashed confidence broke expectations, especially for a character in young adult fiction. "It would have been so easy to have an [Asian American] character be the quieter one, the Mary Anne type, but she was really not any of those stereotypes," said Yamaguchi. "She was loud and brightly colored and didn't mind standing out, and that was a lot of things that I was really afraid of as a kid. I think that was really exciting to see her reflect that, and reflect that possibility."

With the launch of the Netflix series and the interest in the Baby-Sitters Club reinvigorated, both for nostalgic viewers and young first-timers, Hutt Mayhew is excited for a new generation to meet the babysitters. To her, the journey through the books was a way to take different "pieces and lessons from all of the characters throughout the series" as they dealt with different life issues from those tough tween years, from Stacey's experiences learning to live with diabetes to Kristy's troubled relationship with her father to Claudia's loss of her beloved grandmother. And thanks to personality traits that have converged similarly, Yamaguchi—who is now 24—also sees Claudia in a slightly different light: less aspirational and more relatable.

"I would say I'm more of a Claudia now. I think I've become a lot more outspoken recently and more able to be a voice that stands up for myself and what I believe in," Yamaguchi said. "I'm inspired by [her] and I know that she's a 12-year-old girl in the books, but I like to imagine that now she's some badass art student somewhere."

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.