Adventures in Babysitting, The Baby-Sitters Club, and Freewheeling Teen Girl Authenticity

Comedy Features Adventures in Babysitting
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Adventures in Babysitting, The Baby-Sitters Club, and Freewheeling Teen Girl Authenticity

In North America, “The Babysitter” is as much a mythological figure as she is a part of a real caregiving tradition. Born of the one-two punch of the Great Depression and World War II, bolstered by the 1950s explosion of independent teen culture, and honed to a semiprofessional fine art by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Girl Scouts, the YWCA, and the Women’s Army Corps, babysitting pretty much had no choice but to become both a hallowed 20th-century money-making tradition, and a mainstay of 20th-century American (and Canadian) pop culture.

Anyone interested in drilling down into the nitty-gritty details behind babysitting’s mythological rise can track down Miriam Forman-Brunell’s definitive cultural survey, Babysitter: An American History, but Chris Parker—reluctant Blues singer, heroine of the Chicago suburbs, and the titular sitter in Adventures in Babysitting—doesn’t need a book to explain it to her. As is made clear by the fact that she spends the first leg of her and her suburban charges’ doomed drive into downtown Chicago winding them up with not just a gory horror story, but a babysitting-themed one, the 17-year-old sitter (played by a delightfully world-weary Elizabeth Shue) understands all too well that in taking on “The Anderson Job,” she’s stepped temporarily into a role as brimming with history and ritual as that of her neighborhood doctor, priest, or elected official.

On the off chance you’ve clicked through to this post without having ever experienced the wild rumpus that is Chris Columbus’s 1987 teen comedy triumph, the gleefully ludicrous premise of Adventures in Babysitting is thus: a high school junior (Elizabeth Shue), having had her big anniversary dinner with her boyfriend (Bradley Whitford) scuppered on account of an allegedly contagious sibling, begrudgingly agrees to watch a couple of neighborhood kids whose original sitter canceled. The Anderson kids, Chris’s soon-to-be-troublemaking best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) suggests, are enough of a handful to ruin anyone’s night, but when Chris arrives to find a pair of kids who would honestly be most babysitters’ dream charges—Sara (Maia Brewton), a roller-skating, Thor-obsessed 8-year-old and Brad (Keith Coogan), an awkward 15-year-old with a poorly hidden crush on Chris—it becomes clear that Brenda’s view of the world might not be that dependable, after all. This suspicion is almost immediately borne out when Brenda, who’s evidently run away from home in a fit of teenage pique, calls the Anderson’s house phone to beg Chris to drive into downtown Chicago and pick her up from the bus station, where, cashless, she’s managed to strand herself. A better friend than Brenda deserves, Chris agrees to come get her. She tries to leave Sara behind with Brad, but as both want desperately to hang out with the cool older teen as long as possible, they blackmail her into taking both them and Brad’s lascivious friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp, in his debut role) along for the ride.

Naturally, what Chris intended to be a simple trip in and out of the city to rescue her best friend goes immediately south, first with the tire on her mom’s car blowing out in the middle of the highway, then with the windshield getting shot out by an errant bullet when the kindly tow truck driver who pulled over to rescue them takes a pit stop to chase his wife’s lover out of their marital home, then with the car the quartet jumps inside to escape the line of fire being jacked, then with that same car being driven into the criminal hideout of a gang of international car thieves. And that’s just the first third of the film! The rest of it includes a spontaneous Blues performance, a gang fight on a moving train, a psychedelic dream of a college house party, an audience with Thor himself, and a nail-biting final confrontation between Sara and the villainous leaders of the car theft ring on the canted glass walls of the top of the Cain Communications Building. Oh, and in the middle of all that, Chris manages to also both confront and dump what turns out to be her skeevy two-timing boyfriend.

Compared to the “neighborhood thirteen-year-olds band together to create a babysitting small business” premise of Ann M. Martin’s long-running middle grade series, The Baby-Sitters Club (the first installment of which came out 11 months before Adventures in Babysitting’s July 3, 1987 premiere) the film is basically a fever dream. And yet, the kind of freewheeling autonomy that greases the wheels of Chris and the Anderson kids’ nigh unbelievable Chicago adventure is the exact same thing that makes Kristy’s Great Idea the sustainable business venture it becomes. Which is to say, where other kids their age might be finding life as a teenager stifling and unbearably restrictive (see: Brenda), the babysitters had found their way to freedom. A limited freedom, maybe! But freedom nevertheless. And that, right there, is more than enough of a foundation on which to build a pop mythology.

Still, it isn’t just the fact that both Adventures in Babysitting and its kid sister counterpart so deftly embody the mythological ideal of Babysitting with a capital-B that’s seen them each withstand the test of time. More, it’s that both properties invested their respective core babysitters—Chris in Adventures in Babysitting, and Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, Stacey, Dawn, Mallory, and Jessi in The Baby-Sitters Club—with inner lives rich enough that they were all able, in specific and memorably realistic ways, to both to interact with and defy all the tropes and clichés bound up in that same capital-B ideal. And in grounding the highs and lows of the responsibility of babysitting in reality, they were—and continue to be!—able to show just how multifaceted the job is.

Can babysitting be a slapstick comedy? Chris fainting at the “Who’s on First?” level of miscommunication around the fate of a barely stabbed Brad in the overworked inner city ER in Adventures in Babysitting says, You bet it can! How about a horror story? Claudia’s proto-stalker in The Baby-Sitters Club #2: Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls says, Absolutely it can be that, too. What about a crucible for some of the hardest parts of growing up? Chris slowly recalibrating her expectations for how other people should treat as her wild night with the Anderson kids (and Daryl) wears on, only for her to get to use those newfound high standards to confront her asshole of a boyfriend (Bradley Whitford) with more grace than he frankly deserves says, Yes! Of course it can be!

Genuinely, if babysitting isn’t the most universal crucible of 20th- and 21st-century teen girl life, it’s hard to imagine what might beat it—especially when, as the back-to-back debuts of The Baby-Sitters Club and Adventures in Babysitting in the late 1980s proved, babysitting is a tradition that can be shared by teen and preteen girls from ages 11 to 17. I mean, how many other things might 11- and 17-year-olds ever meaningfully share in common? Not schoolwork. Not social interests. Not even generational pop culture cornerstones. (You can test this one yourself! Find someone six years younger than you and ask what the most iconic cartoon was when they were a kid. High five if you’ve even heard of it.) But developing your caretaking qualifications, polishing your storytelling skills, and working your neighbors hard enough to spin up a stable part-time independent contracting gig? That’s something Chris Parker and Kristy Thomas could bond over immediately.

That said, it might be that the thing that both Adventures in Babysitting and The Baby-Sitters Club both understand best of all is that, as funny as the job can be, moment to moment, babysitting’s not a joke. And not only is it not a joke, but it is, like life, both messy and unpredictable. It’s in this space that the tender hearts of the teen girl babysitters central to both projects beat most fiercely, not just in the ‘86/’87 originals, but also in The Baby-Sitters Club’s exceptionally rich (and too-soon canceled) recent reboot. And unfortunately, it’s also in this space that Disney, in making Disney+ Adventures in Babysitting’s sole streaming home, has absolutely ruined the film’s intentionally messy legacy.

Why? Because Disney+ doesn’t allow swears.

This might feel, to anyone who’s never seen Adventures in Babysitting, like a real non-sequitur on which to end this retrospective. But as fans of the film will have already calculated, a global moratorium on swears renders entire key scenes of Adventures in Babysitting meaningless. To wit, when Daryl realizes Chris is serious about the four of them escaping the car thieves’ warehouse by climbing the literal rafters, he expresses his disbelief by whisper-shouting “You’ve gotta be shitting me!” This is important, and not just because You’ve gotta be shitting me is so obviously the thing a proto-edgelord like Daryl would say in a moment like that (although it is), or because it sets up Chris coming back with the hilariously irrelevant “Watch your language!”, at which point Daryl emphatically repeats, ”You’ve gotta be shitting me!” More even than either of those details, this specific word choice is important because the thing that Chris, the responsible babysitter, is asking these kids to do to rescue themselves, is deeply, seriously dangerous. I mean! Shimmying across the rafters, over the heads of a couple dozen armed car thieves? To quote an edgelord redhead I once knew: You’ve gotta be shitting me.

And yet, if you watch the Disney+ version, the extent of the shock Daryl is allowed to muster is “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” Kidding! KIDDING. (Hey kids—watch your language.)

So, too, go the rest of the film’s messiest, most dramatically potent scenes. Chris’s two-timing boyfriend Mike? An airhead. What the warring, knife-wielding gangs on the subway dismiss her as? A witch. Chris’s injunction to said gangs about the dangers of interfering with a babysitter in the discharge of her duties? A warning not to fool with her.

Here’s what you get when you command-F airhead in the original script: Zero results. Witch? Zero. Fool? Also zero! Meanwhile, pulling zeroes on the Disney+ version of the script are asshole, bitch, fuck and shit—this despite the latter showing up in the original script four separate, critical times: Once when Chris realizes she’s left her purse behind (which the Disney+ version cuts out entirely), twice in the rafters of the stolen car warehouse (see the unnecessarily confusing “you’re kidding!” example above), and once when, after catching him out on their fancy anniversary date with some other girl, she rightfully calls her asshole boyfriend out on his absolute and utter bullshit, a degree of personal and moral failing that Disney+, in its bid to strip the authentic punch of the original for the sake of an ideologically and artistically hollow decorum, downgrades to mere bull.

Considering the fact that, over the course of their evening, Chris and her charges are met with gun violence, mob violence, gang violence, implied adultery, underage sex work, underage drinking, smoking, porn, Sara nearly being menaced off the roof of a 39-story building, and Brad literally getting stabbed, the idea that cutting a handful of narratively critical swears from the script is going to make Adventures in Babysitting appropriate enough for kids with parents for whom censoring swears is important isn’t just laughable, but infuriating. The whole point of the 1987 film—like the 1986 middle grade book series that came before it—is that babysitting is the messy, occasionally dangerous business of real and really responsible teen girls. That Adventures in Babysitting, intended for a teenage audience, punctuates that thesis with a handful of swears, that’s meaningful! As meaningful, really, as the fact that The Baby-Sitters Club, intended from the start for a pre-teen audience, has always told that same story without them. Disney+ erasing them from the former is as much an act of artistic vandalism as it would have been if Netflix had tried to add them to the latter.

But don’t take my word as a critic for it. Take my word, instead, as one of millions of retired babysitters born the year Kristy had her great idea: Making the messy freedom of babysitting any less real than Adventures in Babysitting showed it to be, all for the sake of a few swears?

You’ve gotta be shitting me.

The inanely censored Adventures in Babysitting is streaming now on Disney+, but please just pay $3.99 to purchase it, in its linguistically authentic form, on your digital media service of choice.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.