Tuesday 11 September 2018

Retro Reads I love and hate


If you were a teen or tween girl in the 90s / early 2000s, you were probably familiar with the world of Sweet Valley High. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were blonde, 16-year-old twins with "eyes the colour of the Pacific ocean" who ruled over every cool event at Sweet Valley High. (Seriously, if there was a contest to win, a prom or school picnic to organise, an event of any kind, they would be right there, front and centre. Nobody else in the school got a look in.)

For the uninitiated: Jess is a the naughty, devious twin who loves parties and fashion and dating a different guy (or multiple guys if she's lucky) every weekend. Elizabeth is the quiet and helpful bookworm who always has a steady boyfriend, and has a "special bond" with pretty much every kid in school, because even if they've never spoken to her before, she'll be the one who helps them out of their big problem du jour. If it helps, think Gossip Girl: Blair Warldorf is a cross between Jessica, and Jessica's snobby and rich best friend Lila. Serena is basically Elizabeth, except with a rebellious past, less writing for the school newspaper and a lot more sex. Chuck Bass is a clear descendant of Bruce Patman, rich and dastardly and irresistible in equal measure. And finally, sweet boring Dan is sweet boring Todd, Elizabeth's long-suffering boyfriend. (The most bizarre part of the Sweet Valley books is that Elizabeth is the "good twin" but she just can't keep it in her pants (metaphorically speaking sex is taboo in high school, naturally) and cheats on Todd every time she goes on vacation / meets a handsome stranger / gets asked on any date whatsoever.)

For all her many faults, Jessica is mostly monogamous
Sweet Valley is superior to every other high school series because the main characters are twins. Not only does the school in-crowd naturally form around them, but there are also lots of opportunities for mistaken identity and occasionally deliberate swaps to get out of trouble. You will wish with all your heart you had a doppelganger to sit tests you haven't studied for / cover for you when your parents have grounded you / generally pretend to be you whenever if would be helpful.

There were a bunch of spin-offs including Sweet Valley University, Sweet Valley Confidential (when they're aged 26) and my personal favourite, Sweet Valley Twins (when they're 12 years old and at middle school.) In 2008 Francine Pascal and her army of ghost writers updated the first few books in the series for a modern audience, but the reboot was a flop. I'm guessing this is because we have plenty of modern books where teenagers say "like" a lot, so we don't need another. Honestly, part of the charm of the books was how very 80s they were. It was all rhinestones and stone-washed jeans and puffy prom dresses and big hair. The celebrity hunks they lusted after were the likes of Luke Perry and Mick Jagger. (And who could forget how much Mr Collins the dreamy English teacher looked like a young Robert Redford?) Francine probably also realised that if the twins had mobile phones, most of the plot lines would fall apart because they generally depend on people not being able to communicate at crucial moments. 

Another way they show their age is the 1950s morals. Girls often have their reputations ruined by nothing more than a guy implying he had sex with her. She's a slut, he's a stud. (Actually, I think the word used was "tramp" but it was more often referred to as being a girl "like that". Nobody at SVH does anything but kissing. Can you imagine if books like this were published now? They'd be ritually burned for slut-shaming before you could say "sex positive".
I loved Sweet Valley as a kid and I still have all my books, which came in useful recently when I was looking for a bright pink to get colour-matched so I could paint my kitchen. Guess what I took to the DIY store? 

Not quite a perfect match, but near enough. How do you like my bee curtains?

I couldn't resist flicking through a few of my childhood books for nostalgia's sake, and I somehow, er, starting reading them all again. Don't judge me, they're addictive. 

Reading them as an adult was interesting because I saw them in a completely different light. Even as a teen / tween, I noticed an eye-rolling amount of hypocrisy: the twins and their family and friends were constantly described as being physically gorgeous (aparently there are no ugly people in Southern California) but Elizabeth would chide her sister for being superficially concerned with appearances. (There's also a laughable lack of reality: who could swim in a lake and emerge with "silky" hair?)

As an adult, I was struck by what terrible people both the Wakefield twins were. I already knew that Jessica is basically a psycopath she would throw her sister under a bus if she was in the way of something Jessica wanted. In some books she is literally a school bully, trying to keep girls out of her sorority (#4, Power Play) and cheerleading squad (#10, Wrong Kind of Girl) presumably because deep down she's so pathetically insecure that she feels threatened by other girls and gets her kicks out of excluding them.

And Elizabeth? I get the feeling she's the one we're supposed to aspire to be like; sensible, dependable, a favourite of teachers and students alike The trouble is, she's a complete ninny. And that's what I want to talk about today (Long intro, huh?)

Elizabeth is a total doormat, mostly when it comes to her sister, but occasionally for other people too. (She spends most of her hot dates with Todd fretting about some random school friend's troubles.) Almost every book has some reference to her being manipulated by Jessica to do something she doesn't want to do (lying to her parents to cover for Jessica, doing her chores for her, etc etc,) But she also has a really wacky idea of morals and human nature. SPOILERS AHOY so if you haven't read these books yet, get yourself on ebay and snap them up. You won't regret it!

In this book, Elizabeth is too busy (probably doing good somewhere, I can't remember) to do her usual justice to an essay, so when her new friend Rod offers her some help, she happily accepts. She uses some of the ideas he suggests to her, and is promptly hauled into the principal's office for plagiarism. 

I really don't get this book at all. Why would it even be an issue if some students wrote along the same themes because they were using the same source material? Interpretations of art don't have copyright. The problem is, Rod was plagiarising some book when he wrote his essay so by using some of the same ideas, apparently Elizabeth is guilty of plagiarism too. 

You'd think Elizabeth would just say "Oh, Rod shared his essay with me and I used some of the same ideas, that's why there are similarities?" At Sweet Valley High it's apparently fine to plagiarise your classmates' work, just not that of art critics. (Which is weird in itself, but I digress.)

Well, telling the truth in this way is against Elizabeth's principles (shame copying Rod's essay wasn't also against her principles, huh?) She thinks Rod should confess all by himself without her prompting, otherwise it won't count for some reason. Elizabeth, honey. If there's one thing you will learn in your life it's that you can't expect other people to do the right thing and save you from whatever predicament you've found yourself in. You have to EMPOWER YOURSELF and stop being such a doormat. 

But this is a Sweet Valley High book we're talking about, so of course Elizabeth's method is proven right, guy feels so bad he confesses, and Elizabeth is everyone's princess again.


Her lack of people-reading skills is displayed again in The New Elizabeth, where staid old sensible Wakefield decides she needs to shake up her image by doing something wild and crazy. So she secretly learns to surf, failing to realise (not for the first or last time) that boyfriends get a little upset when you keep running off to secret rendevouz and refuse to tell them where you're going. Actually, that is a whole Elizabeth trope in its own right see Love Letters for Sale, Model Flirt etc. 

She invites her pals to a surfing contest she's entered, planning to blow them all away with how cool she is. Except at the last minute she decides she has to lose the contest, and deliberately wipes out. Why? Because the guy who's been teaching her to surf has a secret admirer, Laurie, who is also in the contest. Liz figures if Laurie wins, Sean will notice her (he sees her every day, to be fair) and fall in love with her. Naturally, this plan works perfectly, although Liz now bears the reputation of a boring person who is DELUSIONAL ABOUT BEING GOOD AT SURFING and randomly enters contests she's not qualified for. Never mind, falling on your sword is what life is all about, according to the SHV moral code.

Before you're tempted to do the same, please note that in reality people don't fall in love with people because they're impressed by their surfing skills. This guy isn't going to change who he's sexually attracted to because someone won a contest. Hormones don't work like that. The message seems to be that Elizabeth must never put herself first, because when you win, someone else loses. Um, Francine Pascal? An even better message for teens might be: do your damn best at everything even if it's going to put people's noses out of joint. If it pisses them off, that's their problem.

Winter Carnival is touted as one of those jolly japes the twins seem to go on every few weeks (they have so many spring breaks and summer vacations in their junior year alone I have to assume Sweet Valley exists in a parallel universe where time operates on a different scale. But this book actually gets quite dark. Again, with SPOILERS: Elizabeth starts feeling (rightfully) resentful of the way Jessica always expects her to pick up her slack. When it's Jessica's turn to make dinner she leaves Liz a note asking her to do it as Jess is WAY busy. (at Lila's or something?) Liz was just on her way out for a fun date with (short-lived Todd substitute) Jeffrey but when she sees the note she figures she has to obey it. Jeffrey suggests she just pretend she didn't see the note (one of the advantages of living in the era before smartphones) but Liz rejects this idea, saying she couldn't do it to their parents they'd get home from work and find no meal for them. 

Right, Liz, this is what you should do. Ignore the note. Your parents will get home, be annoyed that Jessica hasn't made dinner, then order a pizza and enjoy that. (They strike me as the kind of people who would probably shower before eating / the minute they got home from work, anyway). Then Jessica gets in trouble, you feign ignorance over the note, and justice is served. If she had just done this EVERY time Jess tried to manipulate her into doing chores, Jess would soon have figured out that she'd have to actually do her jobs if she didn't want to be in trouble. (Another question: why don't the twins' parents ever intervene? They're often there when Jessica asks Liz to start washing up or whatever because she has to make a vital phone call right after dinner.)

Anyway, it's events like these that make Liz really mad. Mad enough to abandon the ski holiday and go home. Jessica follows, her car skids on the ice and she dies. PSYCHE! It's all a dream. (We still have to go through a morose period of mourning, though. Like I said,  it's a surprisingly dark book.) Anyway, when Liz wakes up she's so glad that Jessica's alive she forgets all her anger. So... Jessica doesn't change, Liz swallows down her resentment once again, everyone carries on as before. Fine.... 


I hated A Night To Remember when I first read it, but it's now one of my faves. It marks the first departure from SVH being about small-town school conflicts to the new era of the series featuring werewolves, vampires, supermodels and other ridiculous but likeable melodramas.

Jess and Liz are planning the school prom together and as usual Jess wants all the glory with none of the work. For once Liz shows a little backbone and just starts TELLING THE TRUTH so when people ask her why Jess isn't at the prom committe meeting she just says "I don't know" rather than making an excuse. Why did she ever need to do anything else? Liz decides that instead of being the behind-the-scenes person, this time she wants a little of the limelight for herself. OF course, disaster ensues, and Jess ends up inadvertently killing her own boyfriend via spiking Liz's drink, leading to Liz's first drink-driving accident. 

So I think the moral here is that, if you're a downtrodden doormat, you must STAY that way, because as we've seen, getting angry and trying to change the way people take advantage of you is a short cut to "death by car crash". Two books can't lie. 

I hate this moral, and I especially hate the fact that Liz is held up to young readers as a paragon of virtue. Are we all supposed to put up with people treating us like crap? If we ever try to break out of our shells and become a new person, someone a little more confident and gutsy, will that really lead to catastophe? 

The twins have plenty of admirable qualities: I don't know any teenagers as entrepreneurial as Jessica (she's tried out more jobs than the average 30-year-old) and I was always impressed with how Elizabeth took on adult responsibilites at an age when I was still spending all my free time practising handstands. I just wish the writers had tried to throw in some helpful hints about how not to be treated like crap – useful advice at any age.  

I LOVE the spoof covers from https://twitter.com/paprbckparadise!)

Thursday 8 March 2018

10 Life Lessons from Celebs Go Dating aka Reality TV = Educational TV

I have written before about my love of reality TV and the salient life lessons I believe it can teach us. (I'm all for watching life-enhancing, educational documentaries, but anyone who says that reality TV is a waste of time is clearly not a student of human behaviour.) My absolute favourite is Celebs Go Dating, a little TV gem which has actually made me cry laughing. The sarcastic commentary from Rob Beckett is really what MAKES the show, although I am also completely in love with Tom the receptionist, who is just about the sweetest, purest person I have ever encountered. 

                                        Here he is in his pre-fame days isn't he just adorable?

Mulling over the end of the latest series, I realised that this entertaining show is actually packed full of really interesting little nuggets of info about the world of dating. Here are some lessons we can take from our friends at the agency: 

1) If you want a guy to never call you again, find a way to ridicule his self-image.

When Celine popped up as a "feisty" date for Muggy Mike, we flashed back to when she dated hottie Callum Best in season 3. He prided himself on being a "gentleman" (although I must point out, real gentlemen don't tell you, they show you.) Celine really cut him to the quick when she suggested he was "quite sleazy", shattering the illusion that every girl saw him as the charming, well-mannered man he wanted to portray.  

Likewise in season 4, Jonathan Lipnicki was trying hard to shake off the image of that tiny, cute boy who had once starred alongside Stuart Little. So when one girl giggled that she would find it hard to take him seriously as a sexy grown man, he walked out, never to return.
He's an adult now. Accept it.

Make fun of a guy all you want, but if the teasing turns personal and you let him know that the way he sees himself is not the way you see him, chances are he will never want to see you again. The guy who prides himself on being an adventurer will be outraged by any girl who says "You went to Thailand for a month? That's not very exciting, EVERYONE goes there." But if you play up to this image and say "Gosh, you've done SO MANY crazy things!" you'll have him eating out of your hand.

2) Guys like a challenge.
"Muggy" Mike (I still don't really know what this word means, but I can use it in a sentence) was pretty obnoxious, but girls were falling over themselves to get into his pants. He openly confessed, many times, that he was bored with this and it was "too easy". Think about it. Guys like to challenge themselves – climbing mountains, playing sports, even getting to the next level on their computer game. Easy = boring. They feel a sense of satisfaction when they've tackled something difficult and won, and this includes women. Neanderthal? Yep. But who are we to argue with evolution?

                                   Have a guess at how many girls say no to him... don't you think 
                                   they're more memorable to him than the zillions who say yes?

So when an alpha male like Mike only meets women who (in his words) "roll over" within minutes, you can imagine it might get a little bit dull. (Not that it stops him from sleeping with them, obviously. More on that in a moment.) He only came to life when he met Celine, who challenged him, making him unsure if she liked him or not. Finally! Somebody who knows how to play the game for FUN!

3) If he's interested, he will call. (Also, guys are weird.)

What is it with these guys who kiss the girl enthusiastically on the date, promise affectionately that they'll be in touch soon, then drop her like a hot potato? Seb was all over one delighted girl, then told the agents he'd been stupid to kiss her because he didn't want to see her again. Sam constantly got into trouble for leading girls on – to be fair, it was because he found the end of any date so excrutiating he would fill the awkward silence with "Well, I'd love to see you again...."

The agents also insist that their celebs call to tell dates that they won't be seeing them again, rather than leave them hanging. Their abject horror at this prospect tells you everything you need to know about why so many guys will ghost you rather than actually let you know where you stand. 

The takeaway lesson? A guy might be giving you all the signals that he's fallen madly in love with you, but if he doesn't call you for a second date, it's NOT because he lost your number. 

4) Manners matter. 

One of the most surprising elements of this show is how many young women look absolutely amazing, flirt up a storm and then... they have no table manners! Who could forget the earth-shattering burp of Joey Essex's date Flo in Season one?

Likewise, in series 4, London Hughes was licking her fingers, lip-smacking and practically chewing on chicken bones at the dinner table. Showing that you're enjoying your food is fine, but if you're doing something that would have made your mum tell you off when you were eight, it's probably not something you should be doing in swanky restaurants in front of the guy you really fancy.

5) Ladies don't act like divas.

It's a Princess point of honour, this one. Gemma Collins kept banging on about what a lady she was and how much she needed a guy to be a "gentleman". (Which in her book basically meant paying for stuff.) However, the "gentleman" rule I mentioned earlier also applies to ladies: if you're acting like one, you won't need to point it out!

Gemma stood up a man who'd bought tickets to take her to Paris and left him waiting at the station. She showed up late to dates, refused to so much as top up a man's drink, and basically chose her "winning" suitor on the basis that he'd promised to pay for everything, so she'd never have to work again. None of the above is remotely ladylike – or Princess-like for that matter!

Can you imagine Michelle Obama acting like Gemma, imperiously holding out her coat and saying "Someone needs to take this"? If someone made a faux pas like forgetting to hang up a coat or pour a drink, a real lady would try to avoid drawing attention to it and causing that person embarrassment. Trying to make other people look bad to make yourself feel more important is a sure sign of being totally classless. 

6) Don’t join in the "pick me" dance.

He may have the bluest eyes, the whitest teeth and the cutest dimples, but all of this is irrelevant if a dude is playing you off against another girl. Incapable of making a decision, Sam invited both Tammy and Emilia to Cape Verde. When they met, the girls were admirably respectful towards each other (yay! Girl power!) but I was disappointed that neither of them (or ideally, both) said at this point “You know what? Count me out. I’d rather be alone than compete for a man". 

If you're ever in this situation, just walk away. Some guys will string you both along for as long as they can, basking in the attention and enjoying being the source of competition. An added bonus is that if you're the first to say it, the girl who "wins" will always wonder if he would still have chosen her if the decision hadn’t been taken out of his hands…

7) Your friends sometimes give you bad advice because it's more entertaining for them. (Also, don't pursue boys who don't like you.)

Tallia Storm had a hard time this season. I confess, I wasn't all that sympathetic towards her at first, because in my experience when women say "Oh, I'm just SO SASSY! Men are intimidated by me," it normally means "I'm incredibly rude and I haven't found many guys who will put up with it." However, the agents played a pretty nasty trick when they sent her ex, racing driver Seb, to the same restaurant to surprise her during a date. They made up some excuse about needing to see if she was over him, but come on... That wasn't fair to her, or the guy she was meant to be seeing that night (but was too distracted to concentrate on). Most of her dates seemed to be equally unsuccessful.

                           Why do people say "Resting Bitch Face"? If you call it "Bitchy Resting Face", 
that correctly suggests your resting face just happens to look bitchy, while 
"Resting Bitch Face" implies you ARE a bitch and your face is at rest...

When time was running out for her to find a date for the trip to Cape Verde, the agents set her up on a triple date. The first one held no chemistry, the second acted like he didn't want to know, but the third was cute, equalled her level of cheekiness, and generally seemed interested. She confessed she was fascinated by the guy who acted indifferent. A good friend would have pointed out that this attraction to the unattainable may be why her relationships don't go well, and advised her to go with number three... but Eden and Nadia actively encouraged her to choose number two, presumably because it would make more entertaining TV.

In non-TV world, you may find your own friends sometimes give you advice which won't make your life happy and drama-free, but will provide them with plenty to gossip about. 

8) Love doesn't work to schedules, and it's OK to be single. 

This is a show with an end-game: to find everyone a partner. It normally ends with a party where each celeb brings along their new amour, but in this latest series, the ante was upped with a trip to Cape Verde. This meant that even if people hadn't really met anyone they clicked with, they were under massive pressure to just find someone – anyone! – so they basically picked the date they hated the least, and we all had to pretend to believe they'll carry on seeing each other after the cameras stop rolling. 

And here Tallia showed that she's made of tougher stuff; she realised that bringing a guy who didn't actually like her (but apparently liked the idea of a free holiday) was a terrible idea, so she showed up to the big party alone. How cool is that!

The pressure to find a partner starts early – I'm eternally grateful that my school wasn't full of couples, so when prom time rolled around, pretty much everyone just came with a bunch of friends. Why make a party stressful by insisting everyone must find a date and then have tons of photos taken with them for posterity? Likewise I'm glad that the American tradition of having to kiss someone at midnight on New Year's Eve has never caught on in the UK (we just cheerfully hug random strangers instead). 

                                         You don't need to go on holiday with a man when
                                             you'll have just as much fun with your friends 
The trouble with making imaginary deadlines (like needing to be married by the age of 30 or to have a boyfriend by Valentine's Day) is that you can get so caught up in your timetable you feel compelled to panic-grab the nearest guy, whether you're well-suited or not. In the wise words of Katy Perry, don't let the clock tell you what to do. Even if all your friends are coupled up, it's better to go to their weddings alone than force yourself to find a date for the sake of it (who might scare off the amazing guys you can meet there....)
9) You can control your reaction to everyone else

Jonathan Cheban is seriously unpleasant. I've always kind of liked Kim Kardashian, but knowing JC is her BFF actually makes me think less of her. He's rude, values money and status above everything else (what's the betting he also does yoga and considers himself "spiritual"?!) and drives everyone up the wall with his bitchy ways.

But you know what? When JC joined the agency in season two, no matter how badly he behaved, Tom never changed the way he acted towards him. While the agents lost patience (along with the viewers), Tom just carried on being sweet and friendly and cheerful, and Jonathan responded by treating him (and only him) like a human being. Tom had succeeded in the ultimate Princess move – not letting someone else's attitude change yours.

Tom also wrote a blog which was full of nothing but praise for everyone: https://closeronline.co.uk/entertainment/soaps/celebs-go-dating-tom-read-wilson-blog/ He's living proof of the benefits of seeing only the positive in every situation!
10) Your bosses aren't necessarily brighter than you

I find Eden and Nadia annoying because as well as occasionally stitching up the celebs for their own entertainment (arranging for ALL their previous dates to be at a mixer, surprising them with exes,  group therapy sessions etc) they're also incredibly rude and disrespectful to my sweetie Tom. In the latest season they deliberately made him think he was in trouble before telling him he was actually being promoted. (They also tell him not to get above his station on a pretty regular basis.) Of course, the hilarious thing is that Tom is a STAR, and will still be running around the celebrity circuit in some form or another when Nadia and Eden have long been replaced....