Back when I was doing my undergrad, I wrote an article titled ‘How Sweet Valley Ruined My Life’. It wasn’t very good - all flowery cliches compensating for poorly articulated ideas - but basically, the gist of it was that I felt like I’d been jipped on two fronts.
Firstly, by the promises of what my life as a young woman would look like - hot boyfriends, cool parties, dates at the Dairy Burger. Secondly - and probably more importantly - by the idea that if these things didn’t come to me naturally, they could be earned by adherence to the Sweet Valley stereotype: blonde, skinny, cheerleader/editor of the school newspaper.
Silvana at Tiger Beatdown puts this better than I do in her excellent post, ‘Welcome to the Institute for Beyonce-related Cultural Studies' (from which I lifted the title for this post):
And THEN. The fun part is that, after all that, after all that effort and humiliation, it doesn’t work? After all that? That’s why Beyonce’s indignation and anger in this video is perfect. She’s throwing a tantrum, almost, throwing things around and flouncing on the floor, as if to say, WHAT THE FUCK?? YOU DON’T WANT THIS? I did everything I was supposed to do, I cleaned and cooked and pranced and paraded around in bustiers and wore extremely sexy makeup! And still! Nothing? I played by the rules and the rules were A BIG LIE.
When I look back on it, I think one of the biggest existential struggles I confronted in my young womanhood was the painful realisation that it didn’t work. That I could colour my hair and straighten it, stop eating or throw up when I did eat, dress up like Elle Woods in pink and high heels or “try to look like I’m not trying” in jeans and a tank top, and still be found secretly, invisibly wanting. (And certainly, this is a smaller and less important existential crisis than the ones that confront many people.)
That I could play at being perfect like Britney Spears’ ‘Lucky’ or spin myself around in circles until I collapsed like season 6 and 7 Buffy, but that I would still feel like a failure. Someone who on the outside “had it all” but was utterly incapable of experiencing the simple pleasures that seemed to come so easily to other people.
Such concerns are, I am happy to admit, wallow-y and quite self-indulgent. I think I even knew that at the time. But I felt so helpless and inadequate that even as I was able to intellectually critique the bullshit I was buying into, I felt I had no choice but to try to architect myself in that image. Because while it didn’t resolve anything on a deeper level, on a superficial level it kind of did.
Now, I’m not claiming that Sweet Valley is to blame for me being a whiny, self-destructive teenager. Being whiny and self-destructive never got anyone very far in Sweet Valley land, after all! But while Sweet Valley High, at least, was labelled “12 and up” in the school library, like The Babysitter’s Club, the books tended to be read by children.
As such, they formed what must have been one of my earliest exposures to how to be a teenager, and how to be a glamorous woman - they were just as influential as, say, Dolly magazine. And all indictors - the ease with which bookish women my age are able to refer to the characters, the vigor with which Diablo Cody jumped to write the film adaptation of the series - suggest that others feel similarly. One of my earliest honors thesis ideas was to write about the construction of ideal femininity in Sweet Valley novels.
Nor is my engagement with the books entirely negative. In fact, I have quite the soft spot for them! I still have piles of the books packed away in my parents’ storage unit, and Elizabeth Wakefield was my “hero” for years (a clear sign that the series was targeted at children: to adults, Jessica is clearly the more interesting character). And terrible writing aside, I’m more than a little curious about the new Sweet Valley Confidential book.
Which is how I started writing this post in the first place. I wanted to tell you that the new cover was released this week. And, uh, that I don’t like it:
Elsewhere: Welcome to the Institute for Beyonce-related Cultural Studies (Tiger Beatdown)