I’ve had The Baby-Sitters Club books on my mind recently. It might be because Roxane Gay wrote about the Sweet Valley High books in a few of the essays in her book Bad Feminist. I never got into Sweet Valley High, and I didn’t feel a strong need to identify with either twin (I probably would have picked Elizabeth), but for a few years, I really cared about which Baby-Sitters Club member I was.
I sometimes felt like Kristy, even though I didn’t play sports and I didn’t have a short temper and I don’t think I was bossy. I dressed kind of like her (although several of my classmates wore jeans, turtlenecks, and sweatshirts in grade three or whatever) and I sometimes felt more comfortable hanging out with boys than with other girls because boys weren’t socialized to tear each other apart.
I also sometimes felt like Mary Anne, because I had a lot invested in being well-behaved and I was kind of shy. But then I had a friend who I knew (or thought?) would always be better behaved than I was, and who was also very much into The Baby-Sitters Club, so I felt weird claiming the Mary Anne identity when it fit this other person so much better. But I guess we sometimes shared it.
I couldn’t be Claudia, because I was a good student and I got along well with my family and my fashion sense wasn’t as creative as hers. Or at least I thought it wasn’t. I actually did dress kind of weird.
I saw myself in Stacey a little bit. I was from a big city like she was, but that didn’t set me apart from anyone at school because we all lived in downtown Toronto. I wore a lot of black like she did, but I don’t think that ever made me look sophisticated, possibly because I was eight.
I definitely wasn’t California hippie tofu-loving Dawn, but maybe I’ve become more like her in recent years.
I didn’t think much about whether I would be a Jessi or a Mallory, and I wonder now if they were a bit low on personality. Their Wikipedia descriptions are on the short side. I think Jessi’s main traits were that fact that she was a ballerina (I danced too, but in Baby-Sitters Club land that meant you needed to always want to dance, which was not a thing in my world) and the fact that people were racist to her family (possibly to remind the reader that she was the black one). And Mallory just always seemed miserable with her huge family and not liking the way she looked, and that really wasn’t me at all.
And I stopped reading before I really got to know the other characters. But that’s probably enough about the characters (and me). My question now is, why do people need to do this? Why do we need to pick one character in a crowd to identify with? Because maybe some people don’t do this, but I know I’m not the only one who does, and I did it with other books and TV shows and movies, not just The Baby-Sitters Club. But it’s weird, because I’ve never met anyone whose personality actually matches up with a fictional character’s. And when someone in my life does remind me of a character it’s always in an unexpected and kind of weird way, not in a way that makes them an exact copy of that character. I mean, fictional characters are either too simple and archetypical to feel authentically like any real person, or so complex and rounded out that the likelihood of an actual person having their exact combination of personality traits and life experiences is way small.
I guess there’s something comforting about finding someone I can identify with and seeing how they interact with (and are loved and accepted by) people who are different from them, but since none of my friend groups ever really feels like the same mixture of people that I read about in The Baby-Sitters Club (or met in any other story), that identification often ends up feeling a bit hollow.
Also, I really wonder if it’s a coincidence that the two characters I identified with most were the two who had the same hair and eye colour as me. It probably isn’t, which just reinforces the fact that articles like this one (it says that the pendulum has now swung to far in the direction of diverse casts of television shows) are a load of crap. When I was a kid, I had enough white girl characters to pick from that I could sometimes narrow them down based on hair and eye colour, and maybe even height and body type, and still make choices based on personality. Diverse casts are important so that people can see characters that look like them AND act like them in multiple situations and at multiple stages in their lives, and it’s also important so that privileged white girls like me don’t think that the only characters that can really be like them are the ones who look like them.
(Also, Janet Mock and her Smart Ass Pop Culture Feminist Clique tore that article apart last week over here, and you should totally watch that video because her show is awesome.)