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‘The Baby-Sitters Club’: The Regrettable Persistence of Pretty Portrayals of Childhood Disability

If we want to have more serious disabled representation on-screen, especially where it regards women, we need to move away from the Stacey McGill model. 

Momona Tamada, Shay Rudolph

“The Baby-Sitters Club”

Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me. Not in school, not at home, and certainly not on television or in theaters. And I’m sure many people with disabilities can say the same thing. We all know the statistics, that in spite of 15 percent of the world’s population having a disability only about two percent of television and movies actually contain a disabled character. Factor in each subsequent generation before that, and two percent sounds like an improvement! All of this is to say that, as a kid, I latched on to the few characters who had anything passing for a disability, whether that was Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) in “Forrest Gump” or, New York-based child baby-sitter, Stacey McGill.

Ann M. Martin’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” book series was my obsession for several years in the mid-1990s. Something about the characters’ entrepreneurial spirit coupled with the typical world of tween girldom spoke to me, as it did thousands of other girls. I never went into a movie or show expecting to see anyone who represented me 100 percent, and if you asked me at the time I’d have told you I was definitely a Kristy, the bossy leader of the BSC who had daddy issues. But as more people found out about my love for the series I was often contradicted and told that, if anything, I should identify with the character of Stacey McGill, BSC treasurer who lived with diabetes.

This confused me. There wasn’t anything about Stacey that seemed to speak to me. She was described as blonde, sophisticated — having lived in New York City — and boy-crazy. Initially, I assumed the comparison was due to my having a single mother. But the more I questioned, the only comparison others seemed to make was that both of us “suffered” from a presumed life-altering medical situation. This was the assumption my non-disabled, able-bodied friends made, not myself. But in watching Netflix’s new incarnation of the book series, I have to wonder how Stacey McGill as a character does or doesn’t resonate with disabled children today? Have we really come that far when a character with diabetes can pass for disabled representation?

As disabled representation remains so underseen, Stacey McGill’s diabetes becomes placed on the same pedestal. And where it concerns feminine disabled representation, it’s par for the course. Throughout most disabled narratives in film, when disabled women are depicted they are given “pretty disabilities,” a term I use to refer to anything perceived to be a disability that doesn’t render the actress physically unattractive. Usually, we see this play out in the abundance of female characters who are deaf, mute, or blind. Where women are physically disabled they’re often facially disfigured, their disability being part and parcel of whether they’re beautiful or not.

SHAY RUDOLPH, MOMONA TAMADA, MALIA BAKER, SOPHIE GRACE

“The Baby-Sitters Club”

Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

So, if you’re a disabled girl growing up, your options were limited to a few disabilities and in Netflix’s “BSC” update, Stacey McGill (played by Shay Rudolph) is still situated as a pretty girl with a pretty disability. The distinction here is an attempt to update Stacey’s diabetes for a more aware audience. We see Stacey as a girl who is protected, a bit overly so, by her family and goes to the doctor a lot. And in a change from previous portrayals of Stacey, most notably the 1995 film adaptation of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” she’s overtly stated as being a Type 1 diabetic who uses an insulin pump. In one episode her mother attempts to put Stacey in different clothes to better hide the pump.

That being said, a crucial element of Stacey’s dilemma in the series is her having a seizure and the parents believing she’s incapable of caring for their children. It’s an element of the series, whether that be the new show or the books, that hasn’t aged well and there is little attempt to update it. Yes, diabetes can be a life-threatening illness, but the way it’s always been presented in the series is by placing Stacey one step away from death. In this case, the parents don’t treat her like a girl with diabetes, but a girl carrying the Bubonic Plague, or someone who could literally drop dead in an instant. This acts as a reminder that many disabled narratives aren’t created to necessarily connect with a disabled person, but an able-bodied audience.

I’ll admit, having a brittle bone disease and using a wheelchair, I laughed at the parents freaking out over Stacey’s disabilities. Baby-sitting for me, as I’m sure for many physically disabled people growing up, was immediately a no-go because of both a lack of accessibility and, more importantly, a mistrust from others that we could care for children. To many, I was the one who needed care; I couldn’t be trusted to care for other people’s kids. So, in 2020, I am once again removed from seeing Stacey’s plight as necessarily serious and it’s something the series could better address in the future, maybe by having an actually physically disabled person on the show.

That being said, I remain thankful for Stacey McGill. For many able-bodied people, she was the closest they’d ever come to meeting someone with a disability, and while it could lead to some cringeworthy encounters I was able to educate my friends who thought we were analogous. And for kids growing up with diabetes, she remains a figure they can relate to onscreen. But if we want to have, and see, more serious disabled representation on-screen, especially where it regards women, we need to move away from the Stacey McGill model.

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