My first encounter with girls as ardent capitalists happened between the covers of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club books. The original series totaled 131 installments and from the series’ first page, its entrepreneurial bent roared: “The Baby-sitters Club. I’m proud to say it was totally my idea, even though the four of us worked it out together. ‘Us’ is Mary Ann Spier, Claudia Kishi, Stacey McGill, and me—Kristy Thomas.” The series chronicled the fictional adventures of a marginally diverse girl collective in Stoneybrook, Connecticut, as they grow and maintain a successful business. Common tween issues animated the series’ capitalist story arcs. I don’t remember how Kristy’s Great Idea landed in my lap but once I devoured that debut, I needed more. Hooked, I hoarded my allowance and gophered into the couch seeking derelict change.
I brought my sweaty coins to our mall’s B. Dalton Bookstore and exchanged pennies, quarters, and dimes for YA moneymaking thrills. As I acquired more books, I not only got to know the babysitters better, I felt I was making friends with them. Friends serve as mirrors, they show you who you are, and I saw aspects of myself keenly reflected by two particular BSC characters. I saw myself in Kristy. She generated ideas, stuck to her guns, and gave orders. Her stubborn tomboyishness was my stubborn tomboyishness. I also developed a special affection for Claudia. Since she was the club’s token girl of color (until Jessi joined the group thirteen books later as a junior member), I saw my Chicana self reflected in her, and Claudia’s presence was so important to me, so magnetic, that I doubt I would’ve become as emotionally invested in the series as I became had all its characters been white.
The babysitters inspired me, and Kristy’s entrepreneurial vision seemed plain yet elegant; easy-to-follow, too. While watching her mother grapple with childcare issues, ingenuity strikes Kristy. After finishing her homework, she sketches a business plan. She nominates her friends Mary Anne and Claudia as business partners. She decides that they’ll advertise childcare services using flyers, the telephone, and the newspaper (how archaic!). The club will have set hours of operation during which clientele can call and book a sitter. To generate startup capital, each member will pay dues.
I’m writing about the club using an economic lens because I earn my paycheck doing a fearsome thing: I teach high school economics. In class, I borrow from and build upon the economic models and lessons embedded in the Baby-Sitters Club books. During lectures, I refer to instances like Kristy’s entrepreneurial combination of land, labor, and capital, and one project that I assign is directly inspired by the series. I invite students to work alone or with friends to develop a business plan. Once the plan for their sole proprietorship, partnership, or other organization has been researched and developed, they present it to their classmates and me. We respond with evaluations.
My students’ business plan presentations bring me joy that I was deprived of as a girl. When I tried becoming an entrepreneur, I crashed into what economists call barriers to entry. The primary barrier was bearded. I called it Dad. Dad was also part of the reason I unofficially resigned from the Girl Scouts. My best friend, a blonde tomboy, invited me to join her troop and I attended only a few meetings before cookie-selling season arrived. Like Kristy, BSC president, I’m high-key competitive. I enter contests to win and our troop leader incentivized us to sell, sell, SELL, teasing us with a talc-scented trophy, a Cabbage Patch Kid doll. This prize would be awarded to the Brownie who sold the most sugar and I had major ganas to be that girl, la ganadora. Crowds the world over were rioting for Cabbage Patch Kids, the toy trend had swept California, too, and rumors featuring parents who mugged children and ran off with their dolls impressed me.
“Those are good parents,” I thought to myself. They were adjusting to shortages with loving violence.
Consumer tastes shifted the Cabbage Patch Kid demand curve to the right, and when I teach determinants of supply and demand, I use concrete and culturally relevant examples—like contemporary kid-centric fads—to illustrate my points. I do so in reaction to the sleep-inducing textbooks authored by assholes whose examples rely on theoretical objects, namely widgets. When widgets are used to teach determinants, not only do students never learn how to shift supply or demand, they get stuck on widgets. All their mental energy gets poured into answering the question, “What the fuck is a widget?”
Nobody should be tortured by this question.
Nobody should be coerced into caring about an abstraction that serves the interests of ten economists who’ve already got one foot in the grave.
Anyways, back to my Girl Scout debacle. When I returned home from our troop meeting armed with a catalogue and order form, I announced my intention to hit the sidewalks and travel door-to-door, cookie hustling. Before I could finish explaining my action plan, Dad interrupted me.
“That’s not happening,” he barked.
“Why not?!” I demanded.
“Too dangerous,” he replied. The answer infuriated me but I knew there was no way around his prohibition—becoming a clandestine door-to-door salesgirl seemed impossible. It would’ve ended like the time I tiptoed in tap shoes.
When I discovered the technique my fellow Brownies were using to successfully peddle dozens of boxes, I grew hopeful. I suggested it to my parents. Again, Dad balked.
“Mom and I are not going to sell the cookies for you!” he snapped.
“But you won’t let me go door-to-door selling them!” I protested. “What else am I supposed to do? All the other girls’ parents are doing it! They’re helping their daughters!”
“You can come with me to work one day and pin your catalogue and order form to the bulletin board,” Dad offered.
Crestfallen, I agreed to his “compromise.” I sold five boxes of cookies, the least in my troop. I felt like a loser. Because I was. The troop leader’s daughter sold the most and the bitch received her grand prize during a small party thrown in her revenue-generating honor. When I got home from this celebration, complaining about how the venture was rigged, Dad used my disappointment as a “teachable moment.”
“Myriam, you need to understand nepotism…“ As Dad lectured me about the unjust allocation of resources to family and friends, I realized that I finally had a name for a practice I saw happening everywhere. My parents both worked for the same school district and I wondered if there wasn’t something nepotistic about that. Had my father pulled strings to get my mother her job? Not wanting to start shit, I kept my questions about the matter to myself.
I still wanted to realize my babysitting ambitions, but I knew better than to follow Kristy’s business model. Geographic and transportation challenges posed barriers to entry. My town, Santa Maria, was very spread out, making it tough to congregate at one person’s house without soliciting rides from overburdened moms. Residential sprawl also made it tough to get to potential clients’ homes.
My world differed from the fictional world of the series in other important ways. My bedroom held plenty of things: books, some dolls, a toy rifle, my sister, our bunkbed. Absent from this mess was a phone. My parents never let me have my own phone, not even once I got to high school. They thought a kid having a phone in her room was some gringo bullshit. Because my dad is Chicano, he could sometimes be gringo-y, especially in his dining habits. He, for example, occasionally tasked Mom with making meatloaf for dinner. I despised meatloaf nights and relied on ketchup to survive them. Having been born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, meatloaf and bedroom phones were novel to my mother. She approved of the former but not the latter, believing that if you had something to say, you should say it in front of everyone, on the living room phone.
Requests for privacy triggered suspicion and my parents granted me minimal privacy. My parents, however, were more permissive than other Latino parents. I knew some Latinas whose parents prohibited them from having bedroom doors. They ripped them right off the hinges. I also knew Latinas whose parents prohibited them from riding a bike lest they somehow lose their virginity to the thing.
Instead of belonging to a babysitters’ club, I became just a babysitter. Unlike my sheroes, I worked for only two clients: Mom and Dad. Unlike the club, I couldn’t reject bookings. Doing so could result in punishment and the most demoralizing part of the situation was that Mom and Dad subsidized my childcare services through my allowance. I felt exploited but knew that negotiating with “management” would prove fruitless.
That my parents continuously thwarted my entrepreneurial dreams made me wonder what was wrong with them, and, by extension, me. First I wondered if they weren’t so weird about my tween bootstrapping fantasies on account of us being Mexican. Then, as I got a little older, I started to wonder if they weren’t being such assholes about my moneymaking schemes because I was… a girl. After I had that second epiphany—and this was before I’d ever heard the word intersectionality—I fused these concerns. I then spent time wondering what it was about my being a Mexican girl that provoked their restrictions.
Patriarchy rules the world and Mexico has its own flavor of this system: machismo. Machismo upholds male dominance in all spheres. Machistas rule the home and the street, and they achieve hegemony by using a wide range of tactics to enforce compliance. Physical and sexual violence are among the mechanisms waiting in the machista’s toolkit.
A Chicana tomboy pedaling her bike down city streets to fill her pockets with cash would’ve defied the machista order of things, but my parents wouldn’t state this explicitly. When I pressed them as to why they were so protective, they offered this vague justification: “Something bad might happen to you out there.” In my naiveté, I thought they were insinuating kidnapping.
As I entered puberty and learned about sexual assault, I realized that that was what they meant. Their concern had been for my “sexual virtue,” and their concern was valid. In the United States, racially and ethnically minoritized femmes battle myriad stereotypes that oppressors use to justify the exploitation of our bodies. Brown femmes face several of these tropes including the spicy, hypersexualized Latina and the maid. Men who sexually assault us use the former trope to justify their violence. The latter is used to support the thesis that Latinas lack professional ambition and to justify our exclusion from white-collar environments.
My parents crushed my entrepreneurial dreams, in part, to shield me from exploitation and predation. This sort of exploitation and predation is very real and very dangerous. I’ve witnessed men brag about engaging in it. For example, at school, I once decided to sit with some faculty members who regularly congregated in my department head’s classroom. All except one were white men who belonged to the history department faculty. As we ate lunch, one told a story. He explained that because his father uses a wheelchair, he requires the services of a housekeeper. The teacher said that retaining housekeepers had grown difficult. They kept quitting because his father sexually harassed his female employees, spewing lewd and lascivious language at them. Grinning, the teacher declared, “But I solved the problem!”
He waited a few moments, the way a comic does before delivering a punchline.
Another teacher urged, “How?”
Still grinning, he replied, “By hiring housekeepers who don’t speak English.”
I glared at him in horror, rage, and disgust. I looked at the Chicano teacher sitting across from me. He silently stared at his lunch.
I looked at all the other teachers, glaring, waiting for them to condemn what had just been said. Finally, the teacher sitting next to me said, “What? It’s not like he was raping them.”
Gringos like that are the reason my parents wouldn’t let me go to strangers’ homes to babysit.
The state of California requires me to teach that Adam Smith fathered classical economics. I’m supposed to celebrate his infamous metaphor, the invisible hand. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote that
[the rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity… they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.
The most insidious lie in Smith’s passage regards the hand’s invisibility. Its color and gender are no secret. Its color is white and its gender is masculine and that’s a truth students will learn, alongside Baby-Sitters Club anecdotes, if they arrive in my classroom.
Rumpus original art by Cowboy Rocky.
Excerpted from We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, edited by Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, courtesy of Chicago Review Press. Essay copyright © 2021 by Myriam Gurba.