In the 1980s, Claudia Kishi was the cool, fashionable and fun-loving character girls looked up to and wanted to be. She was artsy, confident and stood up to her bossy best friend Kristy Thomas in the popular “The Baby-Sitters Club” series. The first of Ann M. Martin’s classic children’s books was published in 1986 and the stories quickly became a big hit with young readers everywhere, but especially for a generation of Asian American girls and young women.
Asian American representation in books, movies and TV shows was hard to find, or offensively reductive, in American pop culture at the time. "I think everyone who grew up in the '80s and '90s kind of had this experience where you could name every single Asian American character that you'd ever seen in mainstream media on one hand. You'd even struggle to even get five people," Sue Ding, a filmmaker who is honoring the character in a new documentary, told TMRW.
Fans then and now loved that Claudia wasn't a stereotype; Ding even refers to as a "touchstone" before other Asian female voices could come to the forefront in the ‘90s (like Margaret Cho's sitcom “All-American Girl," which premiered in 1994).
Now “The Baby-Sitters Club” is back with a Netflix reboot that debuted on July 3. A week later, the 10-episode series is in the streaming platform's top 10 shows in the U.S. Although the series has been adapted before, for TV in 1990 and as a movie in 1995, this new show adds a modern twist.
“We just thought that doing a modern interpretation especially for the girls that are now reading the graphic novels, the rereleased books, felt like the right way to go," Naia Cucukov, one of the executive producers of the new “Baby-Sitters Club” told TMRW. "And it also gave us a real ability to deal with and talk about issues that are facing kids today, as well as showcase a diverse cast.”
On the heels of the revival’s success, Netflix is releasing Ding's short documentary Friday, aptly called “The Claudia Kishi Club.” The 17-minute film is a fun and colorful love letter that celebrates the groundbreaking impact of the first Asian American member of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” complete with a special song, “Claudia Kishi,” performed by The Linda Lindas.
"A really key part of why (Claudia) was so popular, and certainly for Asian Americans also, (is) seeing someone who is so comfortable in their own skin and really just doing their own thing, and also kind of loud; she's a very flamboyant character. I think a lot of Asian Americans are portrayed in media as quiet nerds, very obedient, and they're not really taking up space the way Claudia is, so I think that was really empowering as well," Ding told TMRW.
The documentary introduces fans to a group of Asian American creatives — Cucukov, along with “Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu, graphic novelist Gale Galligan, artist Yumi Sakugawa and authors C.B. Lee and Sarah Kuhn — who’ve grown up idolizing Claudia in “The Baby-Sitters Club.” They explore how "badass" Claudia was, how she tackled real issues like racism and microaggressions and navigated relationships with her sister, grandmother and best friends. The new series even includes references to her grandmother's time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
"The episode is the one where Mimi has a stroke and you find out that Mimi was actually interned and Claudia's learning really kind of real time about what that means," Cucukov said. "And it's really powerful because I think what we're hoping to show viewers is that history can be really present and it sadly can be repeated. And it is being repeated right now and I think Claudia, in this season and hopefully even more so next season, is really going to learn to embrace her culture and her roots. That's a really cool thing that we got to put into the world and Takayo Fischer, who plays Mimi in the show, was actually interned when she was a child. "
Cucukov said Claudia was a big influence to her as a young girl. She told TMRW, "I grew up in a small town in southern New Jersey where there really weren't that many other API (Asian Pacific Islander) people at all. It was (only) my family so she, in a weird way, became the closest thing I had to other Asian American friends growing up and just having a character that was so aspirational and broke the stereotypical mold of Asian characters in media at the time was really helpful for me.
"I really saw her as not just my style icon as a kid but also just someone that I wanted to be like and I think the other thing that I always felt is it was also the only portrayal of a family situation that felt like mine that I could show to my friends. I grew up with my grandmother. I was very close to her, she lived with us, my grandparents lived with us. And in most of my friends, my Caucasian friends' households, that wasn't the case, so it really was a way for me to show why culturally that mattered to me and also just kind of normalized in general."
Cucukov collaborated with Ding to bring “The Claudia Kishi Club” to Netflix and it was accepted into the SXSW 2020 Film Festival lineup in March. Interspersed alongside interviews in the documentary are hand-drawn illustrations from Sakugawa's zine all about Claudia and stop-motion animation from Ding herself that capture Claudia's creative essence throughout the film.
"Part of post-production on this project was me going to Michael's first thing in the morning and buying art supplies and then cutting out tiny pieces of paper and squeezing out glitter glue and stuff and I felt like it was a nice way to sort of embody the spirit of Claudia, to get very hands on and do these DIY stop-motion sequences," Ding told TMRW.
Through original artwork, creative filmmaking and heartfelt interviews, "The Claudia Kishi Club" is ready to inspire a new generation of Claudias and "Baby-Sitters Club" fans who will likely be just as enamored with the artistic and stylish role model.