california dreaming

“That is the stupidest story I ever heard, and I read the entire Sweet Valley High series.” -Moe, “Homer the Moe,” The Simpsons

I read a lot when I was younger.  Standard kids stuff, Narnia and Little House on the Prairie and all that.  Then in sixth grade, I read Julius Caesar for a book report.  It was a big leap, but I managed to trudge through it, relying heavily on the footnotes.  It should have been the start of my literary life: next Macbeth, then Dickens, then, I don’t know, Proust?  But something happened that year, something complicated and indescribable, and pretty soon, I was on my way to owning and/or reading every book in the entire Sweet Valley franchise.  

You know, Sweet Valley High?  Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, twins with “eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean” who live in the perfect (fictional) town of Sweet Valley, California?  The series, created by Francine Pascal in 1983 and maintained by a team of ghostwriters over the next twenty years, has sold more than 150 million copies.  It’s typical teen-lit stuff, sweeter and sunnier than “Gossip Girl” or the “Clique” series, dealing with adolescent stand-bys: the prom, body image, dating, sex, drug use, and the best way to get a perfect tan.  The ghostwriters also repeatedly pushed towards fantasy, with the Wakefields and company facing fires, earthquakes, werewolves, vampires, a countless number of stalkers, a couple of homicide trials, and more than a few “Single White Female”-type plots, all within one magically extended calendar year.  

Looking back, I’m not ashamed to say I read them, though the writing was kind of terrible.  From the first SVH book, Double Love: “Jessica stared at herself in the full-length mirror and saw a picture of utter heartbreak and despair.  But what was actually reflected in the glass was about the most adorable, most dazzling sixteen-year-old girl imaginable.”  Yeah.  A recent afternoon in a used bookstore brought the twins back into my mind.  And then just the other day I sat down with the latest This American Life podcast and my head nearly exploded: Ira Glass was interviewing Francine Pascal.  About the prom.    

Pascal told Ira Glass that at least 30 Sweet Valley books either dealt directly with or were set at the prom, and as many as 500 had some mention of it.  Loyal readers might remember the Jungle Prom, where Elizabeth (the “good twin”) commits drunken vehicular manslaughter.  To hear Ira Glass discuss Todd Wilkins’ antics at the cruise prom…I was sure the universe was spinning out of control.  The “Prom” episode is a repeat, originally aired in 2001, but a quick search revealed that the twins have been in the news in recent months.  Random House is rereleasing the first twelve books of the series, complete with fresh covers and a few more controversial changes. The discussion surrounding the books has been darkly critical, exposing the long-term effects that the students of Sweet Valley High have had on young girls for the past three decades.

Every SVH book began with the same runaround: Elizabeth is nice and smart, Jessica is flirty and fun.  They live in a split-level ranch with their lawyer father and interior designer mother, and they both have long blond hair and, perhaps the most notorious phrase in all of YA fiction: “perfect size 6” figures.  The feminist blogosphere went crazy a few months ago when Random House revealed its updates for the modern Wakefield sisters, including a Jeep Wrangler, a switch from sugar to Splenda, and the phrase that sparked internet-wide indignation, their new “perfect size 4” figures.  On discussion boards across the internet, women who turned to the Wakefields as pre-teens, now in their twenties and thirties, compared horror stories: the “perfect size six” pushing them towards eating disorders; unrealistically homogenous Sweet Valley encouraging deep-seated insecurities over race and sexuality; the lasting influence of Francine Pascal’s dangerously fine line between a fun, popular girl and a slut.  

Shouldn’t books for girls have girls’ best interests at heart?  The updated Sweet Valley worries me; thirty years down the line, we’re supposedly more open and tolerant with issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality, body image, and a whole host of other things that young girls struggle with. Random House took an opportunity to do something better with Sweet Valley and instead cranked the superficiality up a notch.  The results are troubling.  If these girls were bitches in 1983, mix in the past 25 years of pre-teen books and television: “90210,” “The O.C.,” “The A-List,” and “Gossip Girl.”  I liked Sweet Valley when it was a charming relic of the past, with the shoulder pads and the conspicuous lack of product placement.  The blame for all of those negative aspects could be placed on the era in which they were conceived, rather than a book publisher’s incredibly low opinion of young girls, and young girls’ incredibly low opinions of themselves.

I’ll end this post with an example of how bizarre I was as a pre-teen: I couldn’t even fit in with the girls who were freaking out about not fitting in.  The twins were beautiful; nearly everyone in Sweet Valley was beautiful.  It was easy to take that for granted.  Instead, Sweet Valley introduced me to the concept of wealth, wealth as something tangible and desirable.  Though I shared more personal interests with my namesake Elizabeth (editor of the school paper, generally decent person), I was drawn to Jessica’s catty best friend Lila Fowler, the wealthy daughter of a computer magnate and, increasingly, the computer magnate father himself.  “California,” Sweet Valley specifically, became synonymous with the kind of self-made wealth that I now tend to associate with New York, Silicon Valley, or Dubai.  For a short period of time I worshipped California; it’s what makes living there now, ten years later, more than a little surreal.     

I had something in common with the girls that agonized over the “perfect size 6”: California is a place for unrealistic expectations.  At age 12, I placed impossibly high pressures on myself; I aspired to be a “ruthless corporate executive.”  At least half a dozen Sweet Valley books feature characters, some murderous psychopaths, some handsome, brooding strangers, traveling across the country, “Sweet Valley, California” some sort of deranged mantra pushing them west.  Maybe we can’t fault Random House for cashing in on impressionable young girls; they’re just taking Sweet Valley through a logical evolution: today’s version of everything unattainable, all wrapped up in one California town.   

Listen to Ira Glass interview Francine Pascal (plus other stories, like one about a tornado that hit a Kansas town on prom night) here.

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