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I participated in a group reading at Skylight Books tonight called The Lit Thing, wherein five of us chose to either rant or rave about books that influenced us when we were young 'uns.

This is my rant. People laughed. It seemed to go well.

I remember the Sweet Valley High books. Shakespeare they were maybe not. They were more like our fifth-grade version of crack. We gobbled them up, got high off them, passed them around, eagerly awaited each month’s installment.

The series started with Double Love, which came out in 1983. This was also the year of Return of the Jedi, so the same year that gave us Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield also gave us the Ewoks. There’s a lesson in that, although I’m damned if I know what it is.

Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are better than you. They just are. They are golden Californian perfection, which looks like this: blonde hair, blue-green eyes, five foot six, wears a golden lavaliere necklace and drives a red Spider Fiat. They’re also a perfect size six. As a ten year old, this was a valuable lesson to me: perfection comes in size six. Which of course is too fat today – in the recent rerelease of the books, the twins are now a perfect size 4 (and they don’t drive a Fiat, they drive a red Jeep Wrangler, because the books are progressive like that).

Their mother, Alice, is blonde and youthful and often mistaken for their older sister (like your mom). She’s an interior decorator, so she has a career, but it’s not like a hard-driving career where she might come off as all power-hungry and shit, it’s about making things pretty and nice. Their dad, Ned, heads up a law firm. The parents have the decency to be absent for much of the time, so the twins can compete over basketball players, get kidnapped, get sexually assaulted, date bad boys who drive motorcycles, fall into comas, date princes with psychotic mothers who lock them in castle dungeons, traumatize fat girls, date rich boys who drive sportscars, switch identities, and the like.

The twins have a brother named Stephen. At one point Stephen dates a black girl, and this is very daring and audacious of him, before he decides that the differences between them are just too, well, different, and it would never work out.

When you’re ten, and then eleven, when you’re on the trembling edge of adolescence, you look for clues and cues to tell you how to be, what’s desired and acceptable. The Wakefield twins present you with your options.

You can be a good girl or a bad girl.

If you’re a good girl, you’re like Elizabeth. You’re serious and responsible and hardworking and sweet and loyal and just not particularly interesting. She’s the smart girl, the scholar, so she does supersmart things like write a gossip column for the school paper (in the new series, she writes an anonymous gossip blog and edits the school website. Because the books are progressive like that). On the cover of Double Love, she has her hair primly pulled back, is looking at you with disapproval, and wears a sexless yellow sweater. Her morally superior nature is further demonstrated by the fact that her best friend has the name Enid, which is about as sexy as that stupid yellow sweater. In Double Love, her good girl nature is rewarded, because she’s the one who gets the guy. The guy’s name is Todd and he plays basketball. These are his two distinguishing features. Somewhere, in some alternative universe, the book ends with Elizabeth releasing her inhibitions and straddling Todd the basketball player with a riding crop while Todd snorts cocaine off her left breast, but in this universe they just go to the prom. Or something. They don’t even meet any teenage vampires. These books happened before teenage vampires.

Jessica is the bad girl. We know this because on the cover of Double Love she has mussed-up hair, wears an edgy denim jacket, and stares out at the viewer with a come-hither gaze and a ready-for-anything smirk. Except Jessica isn’t really a bad girl because she doesn’t do drugs and she doesn’t have sex and she’s not working class, like this other girl Tricia in the book that she fears her brother Stephen might be dating (this is before he dates the black girl). Except Stepheen is actually dating Tricia’s angelic sister, so phew! -- everything ends happily there, until the angelic sister dies several books later of leukemia or something, but whatever. All Jessica does is lie constantly, exploit her sister’s good nature, cheat, use people for her own ends, torture fat girls, accuse Todd the basketball player of sexually assaulting her because she’s pissed off that Todd would rather date Elizabeth than her, and stuff like that. Jessica, you see, is a straight-up sociopath. But this is okay because she doesn’t actually have sex, which means she’s not a slut (like Tricia). Besides, she’s also massively popular, and popularity is good for your soul, and she's a perfect size six. I mean a size four. That’s the important thing, so we can forgive her in the end and give a wink and a smile and say, Oh, Jessica! That’s just your silly sociopathic nature!

And they live in the world of Sweet Valley, where the sun always shines, where the rich kids are total snobs (except for the nice rich girl who dies of a cocaine overdose, because Drugs are Bad), where girls compete for boys the way girls are biologically programmed to do, at least according to The Bachelor and those other very fine reality shows, where the boys can’t help but attempt to date-rape their attractive classmates but the girls never press charges or anything and it’s forgotten soon after, and where everybody is white and thin and heterosexual except of course when they’re not and they freak people out. Being fat is kind of okay because you can lose the weight and transform yourself from social pariah to Homecoming Queen, like this one character Robin does. Being gay, or of color, is a little more problematic. (At one point one character snipes to another, "I can’t believe she’s dating him, he’s so ethnic and working class"). So if you’re gay, or of color, you should live somewhere else.

These characters are happily devoid of intellectual concerns, never pondering whether or not there is a God or what they should do with their futures or even if they’ll have a future before global warming turns the world to soup. They go shopping. They go to parties. They go on dates. This confused me a bit when I was young, because I went into high school also expecting to go on dates, but dates were being phased out. Instead, you were described as “going with” someone, which means you were boyfriend girlfriend, which means you could make out and nobody would call you a slut. Now, of course, there’s this whole thing about “hookup culture” and giving boys blowjobs, because blowjobs don’t count as ‘real’ sex, but ‘hookup culture’ doesn’t exist in Sweet Valley. There, a blowjob is kind of like a unicorn: this mysterious mythical thing that nobody really believes in.

But what I learned from the series was that you could be a good girl, like Elizabeth, or a bad girl, like Jessica. Bad girls have all the fun, but they’re sociopaths, and also they don’t get rewarded with the really nice boyfriends like Todd the basketball player. Also, bad girls aren’t so bad that they actually have sex. You can dress sexy, and act sexy, but it’s kind of like a game of pretend, or a performance, like when your younger brother dressed up as a squirrel in his third-grade play. He’s not really a squirrel. He’s just teasing.

Jessica seemed like the powerful one because she was sexy. It would take me years to learn that although it’s fun to have the sexy, it’s not like the sexy translates to real power. It doesn’t change social policy or get you into the corporate boardroom unless you’re sneaking in there to have sex with the CEO on the conference table. Not that I ever did this, but you get my point. If sexy was powerful, then Dick Cheney would be popping diet pills and wearing fishnets. But he is not.

Elizabeth isn’t sexy, because although sexiness is kind of good, sexiness is also bad. It gets you into trouble with those boys who want to date-rape you in their cars after they take you to the Dairi Burger. Is it possible for a girl to be compassionate and smart and sexy? Is it possible for a girl to be good and bad? The universe would probably implode if this happened. You can be sexy and dumb and glamorous, or asexual and smart and completely boring. You can even be a sociopath. What you can’t be, however, is complex.

Thank you, Sweet Valley, for teaching me what it means to be female. For teaching me about rich boys and basketball players and sororities and lip gloss. For teaching me that girls, even twin sisters, should compete for guys, because guys are such a limited natural resource. And that there is no problem on this planet that can’t be saved, in the end, by your own massive popularity. Oh, and that nice girls shouldn’t take drugs because drugs will totally kill you dead.

I’m really glad, Sweet Valley, that you’re moving on to teach these lessons to the new generation of young girls who will look to you as eagerly as I did for such cues and clues and messages. Because it’s not like they’re reinforced by the larger culture or anything. It’s not like those messages get beamed at them over and over from the television and the movie screens and the advertising they see all around them. Maybe that was the case when I was ten, but things are really really different now. Girls know they are prized for who they are inside, that they matter, that boys should treat them with respect and not as random booty, that competing in the Hotness Olympics is ultimately a trap that sets you up to be dismissed or discarded. They know that they can go on to have full, dynamic careers and won't have to 'choose' between work and family because of things like excellent maternity leave programs and wonderful universal daycare and husbands who happily do half of the housework. They know that they can even run for President without getting flak for their hairdos, because it’s not like any of us are put in our place through our appearance anymore. Except in you, Sweet Valley, so may you live forever.

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2010 08:22 am (UTC)
The later novels were serious crack, with all those "mini-series" and "magna editions". SVH Senior Year sucked, though. But Sweet Valley University was good :-) Until the twins moved into a duplex. Then the books became particularly wangsty, but not in a fun way - just annoying...
Jun. 17th, 2010 11:27 am (UTC)
Oh my stars and garters - I, too, was addicted to SVH as a young girl, and was under it's perfect six six mind control years before I even realized that pants HAD sizes. Very sad.

Great commentary on the books - absolutely on point and true.
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:19 pm (UTC)
*laughs* That was awesome. I remember loving those books when I was young (and of course I don't remember any of the stuff you pointed out, being a young and naive farm girl).
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
Brilliant. I LOVED those books, and Sweet Valley Twins as well (were they first, or were they prequels? I can't remember...) I still remember things like the Unicorn Club in SVTwins, and the whole dilemma in SVH with the one guy who really loves someone else but can't leave his girlfriend because she's in a coma and it's all his fault because he was flying the plane when it crashed (or driving? I think it was a plane crash, not a car crash...) That was the defining ethical issue of the entire series, I think - and isn't it fitting that the only one with a sincere moral choice to make was a guy, not E or J?

I was a bit ahead in reading level from my classmates, and perhaps had an overly permissive mother, so I recall reading these at far too early an age (maybe, 1st or 2nd grade? I was in 1st in 1983...) and getting in trouble for bringing them into class and reading them to the other girls at recess.
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
Even at age 10 I vaguely felt sick reading these, but as so many of us did read them, we were obviously hungry for something. I read Nancy Drew at about the same time for a somewhat more balanced, if not equally as skewed perception of what it meant to be a woman
Jun. 17th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
This post is BRILLIANT and I am linking it EVERYWHERE.
Jun. 17th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
I never really thought about this stuff when I was reading this... But it's all so true. Except, of course, in the SVH: Senior Year series, where EVERYTHING gets turned around, Elizabeth becomes a slut, and Jessica is actually the nicer one... I knew there was a reason I felt odd reading the books, I could just never pinpoint it. (:
Jun. 17th, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
"If sexy was powerful, then Dick Cheney would be popping diet pills and wearing fishnets. But he is not."

OMG - Wouldn't it make so much more sense if he WAS secretly? I mean doesn't everyone get that slightly pinched look when they wear fishnets under their trousers?
Jun. 17th, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC)
I think I only ever read one of these books, but I remember it well--it was the one with Robin, the "fat" outcast who gets a makeover and becomes even more popular than Jessica, thus giving a big SO THERE! to Jessica. Naturally, I didn't identify with the Sweet Valley twins but with Robin (even though I was underweight in high school and never had a makeover that made me popular). But that book was a great wish-fulfillment story for any girl who'd ever been bullied by another girl.
Jun. 17th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
Excellent. It's funny how I didn't really think about it at the time, but my overwhelming memory of reading the SVH books was how bad they made me feel about myself.

Every day I felt awful and like I would never be happy because I was short and flat-chested and kind of a geek, and the SVH books only reinforced my feeling that I wasn't normal, and that because of those abnormalities I would never be able to have the kind of life all of the other girls obviously got to have. After all, if Jessica and Elizabeth lived this awesome dating-parties-boys-and-friends lifestyle, obviously, all teenagers did, but I didn't so there must have been something wrong with me.

But I still read them, at least until they got to like number fifty or something. And now I wonder why. Was it because I wanted to pretend that was my life, or was it because I just wanted something else to reinforce my horrible feelings about myself? A lot of other girls read them and I find out now they felt the same way, so why did they read them?

I wonder how that translates into YA fiction today, if it does?
Jun. 14th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
"the SVH books only reinforced my feeling that I wasn't normal, and that because of those abnormalities I would never be able to have the kind of life all of the other girls obviously got to have."

OMG I totally thought the same thing when I was reading them in junior high/high school too. I figured all the other girls must be living this life - but I'm stuck at home being boring and dull and an outcast. I felt the same way watching Beverly Hills 90210.
Jun. 18th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I was so hooked on those books as a little girl and though I didn't realize it then, I think you're spot on with most of your comments. That's kinda scary to realize as a parent now :P
Jun. 20th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
There's something wrong with your earlier post, "Hot Pink:" it shows up on the RSS feed but not on the website. (I sent you an e-mail about this, too.)

The reason I mention it is because your comment here -- "it would take me years to learn that although it’s fun to have the sexy, it’s not like the sexy translates to real power" -- connects directly with the themes you raise in "Hot Pink" -- which, by the way, I found to be an extraordinary piece of writing, not only some of your best work but a truly great essay.

Among other things, I've been struck recently by the continuing uphill battle women face in this culture when trying to pursue a path not based on "the sexy." I'm thinking here of the way Elena Kagan's life story is being framed as that of a woman who has suppressed her femininity to become a Supreme Court justice, or how Meg Whitman is being portrayed as a woman with an anger management problem, or how Carly Fiorina is being cast as an incompetent CEO finding her level in life as an insincere politician. It's not just that women are presented with an Elizabeth/Jessica choice, it's that the Elizabeth model carries the added potential of public derision. In my mother's time, girls who studied hard were called "grinds." It's incredible to think that Elena Kagan is about to become a Supreme Court justice and a huge number of people look down on her for it.

-- Dan Owen
Jun. 20th, 2010 10:45 pm (UTC)
I did not read these books. In 83 I was in high school, and read much loftier stuff. Like Barbara Cartland.
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:19 pm (UTC)
I also loved the hell out of these books when I was in Elementary and Junior High school.

Your commentary is hilarious and spot-on! I loved it!

... I'm also dismayed they have re-vamped the series for today's generation, too.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 01:05 am (UTC)
Dick Cheney would be popping diet pills and wearing fishnets
That is perhaps the most frightening image I have had forced upon me in a looooong time.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 09:56 am (UTC)
Blast from the past
Wow this definitely brings back memories of my childhood. I also remember being 10 and living in sunny Southern California and voraciously reading these books. Of course my life turned out to be nothing like either Elizabeth's or Jessica's even though I was a perfect size 4 and living in LA. Most likely probably because I was Asian instead of blonde, tall and gorgeous =).

Now I'm going to go reminisce about the major mind games and serious scars the old VC Andrew books left on me. That lady was seriously messed up. That was where I first learned that such a thing as incest existed. Bleh!
Jul. 26th, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC)
Have you heard that they're making a comeback? :)

Sep. 28th, 2010 05:24 am (UTC)
Sweet Valley High
Hi Justine! I just read your story from Marie Claire and wanted to drop by and leave a comment. Awesome blog, btw. Great post about Sweet Valley High. I remember reading those books and now know how awful they were. At least I wasn't reading Twilight, though! I remember reading a great series in elementary/middle school called The Whitney Cousins: Amelia, Erin, and Heather. Sweet Valley High is to Beverly Hills, 90210 as The Whitney Cousins Series is to Freaks and Geeks. The Whitney Cousins was a great series. The books were realistic and the characters were strong young women.
Jun. 12th, 2011 11:05 pm (UTC)
I will send a link to this to my favorite high school teacher. She, even more than my mother (and my father) made me a committed feminist. I'll be interested to find out if she has anything to say about SVH and Justine's thoughts on them.

I also have an odd attraction to reviews of popular culture fixtures, even if I have never enjoyed them myself. Awhile back, frex, I read a voluminous history of USAn TV soap operas, and another about radio shows that went back to the 1920s and forward into the 1960s (yes, some lasted that long).
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

I'm the author of three published novels: the dark fantasies BLOODANGEL and LORD OF BONES (Roc/Penguin) and the YA supernatural thriller UNINVITED (MTV/Simon&Schuster). I also have stories in the MAMMOTH BOOK OF VAMPIRE ROMANCE 2 and ZOMBIES: ENCOUNTERS WITH THE HUNGRY DEAD. I'm working on a psychological thriller called THE DECADENTS. I am divorced, with sons, and live in Bel Air.

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