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!)