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.