Asian American creatives describe how Claudia Kishi of The Baby-sitters Club series defined their upbringings in the 1990s.
The companion documentary The Claudia Kishi Club from director Sue Ding premiered Friday on Netflix, a week after the latest rendition of The Baby-sitters Club topped the viewing list.
Birthed in 1986 by Ann M. Martin, The Babysitters Club followed five middle schoolers then eventually seven who start their babysitting business in the fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut as they deal with family issues, boy issues, and school issues. Of the original four is Claudia Kishi, who is Japanese American yet broke the model minority myth by failing her classes and prioritizing her art and fashion.
This is the sentiment of the creatives who participated in the 17-minute documentary. Those creatives include Naia Cucukov, executive producer on The Baby-Sitters Club series and executive vice president of development and production at Walden Media, the series’ production company; Yumi Sakugawa, comic artist; Sarah Kuhn, author of the Heroine Complex series featuring Asian American superheroes; C.B. Lee, author of the middle grade Sidekick Squad series; Gale Galligan, the illustrator behind The Baby-sitters Club graphic novels; and Phil Yu, the creator of the Angry Asian Man blog.
Claudia Kishi has been played by Jeni F. Winslow for the 1990 TV series that aired on HBO, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon; Tricia Joe for the 1995 motion picture; and now Momona Tamada for the new Netflix series.
In the 1980s and 1990s, girls of color looked for the girls of color that represented them the most on TV, films, and books. Claudia became the literary heroine to look up to for Asian American girls.
“Usually the Asian American character or the woman of color character is the one you sorta feel you have to be,” said Sarah Kuhn. “Like if you’re playing Harry Potter, then you have to be Cho Chang where I feel like Claudia is the one everyone seems to want to be.”
Also the limited representation, or faulty representation, made a lot of girls of color question their visibility.
“You don’t see mirrors of yourself, thinking I’m broken or I’m not normal or I don’t exist. These thoughts are kinda subconscious,” said C.B. Lee. They’re pervasive, especially when you go on thinking that the world—or when you perceive the world as a world without you in it.”
The faulty representation also came from the lack of women of color being in charge of these media projects with mostly White women controlling the narrative.
“There’s definitely that quality of othering for sure where you know a lot of these stories are being told from the perspectives of young White girls,” said Gale Galligan. “In terms of racial representation—how do I put this?—I noticed that most of the people were White.”
The Baby-sitters Club famously switched perspectives between the seven members by telling their backgrounds in all of their books. With her Japanese heritage, Claudia is always described by her Asian features, which the creatives in the documentary found as offensive language that struck a chord.
“They somewhat problematically described her as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ and ‘jet-black hair’ and ‘super-beautiful skin’ though she eats tons of junk food,” said Yumi Sakugawa.
The members include Kristy Thomas, the bossy president and founder; Claudia the vice president; Mary Anne Spier, the shy secretary; Anastasia “Stacey” McGill, the fun New York City girl and treasurer; Dawn Schafer, the fun California girl and alternate officer; Mallory Pike, the writer and junior officer; and Jessica “Jessi” Ramsey, the ballerina and junior officer.
For redheads, Mallory is the picture of representation as Jessi is for Black girls. Mallory and Jessi were introduced into the club later into the series as eleven-year-olds, so they have limited appearances in the Netflix show that just focuses on the original members.
Claudia is the only one who owns a landline, so the meetings take place in her bedroom where the girls exchange candy and other junk food that Claudia provides. Along with being the artsy candy lover, she is a horrible student always competing with older sister, Janine, who exceeds in school and speaks Japanese.
Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World, wrote the sixth episode titled “Claudia and Mean Janine,” also the title of the seventh book in the series published in 1988.
The author and now TV writer will be a part of “A Celebration of Claudia Kishi” along with Momona Tamada, Naia Cucukov; Heather Jack, director of episode “Dawn and the Impossible Three,” and The Claudia Kishi Club director Sue Ding. Hosted by Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, Gold House, Japanese American National Museum, and Netflix, the webinar will be held Monday, July 13 at 5 p.m. PST.