DECEMBER 2003/JANUARY 2004
AMY BENFER

THE TRAINING BRAS
OF LITERATURE

DESPITE THE FRANCE-BAITING, THE COAST-BAITING, AND—WORST OF ALL—THE INCESSANT BRUNETTE-BAITING, SWEET VALLEY HIGH’S WORLD OF FLAT SUPERLATIVE DESCRIPTIONS PROVES INESCAPABLY SEDUCTIVE.

DISCUSSED: The Marketability of Hot Blonde Twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, Francine Pascal, Double Love, Super Thrillers, “I did not write the Nancy Drew books,” The Enjoli Perfume Ad, “1 Bruce 1,” Ms. Quarterback, “Oh, just some little place on the Left Bank”

SUGAR SERIAL

For the past three months I have been hiding my reading material from other riders on the subway. If you were to look behind my magazine, you would see one stash of serial novels—the Sweet Valley High novels, starring identical twin sisters Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, “created” (but not always “written”) by Francine Pascal.

But tonight I’m sitting in a bar in Brooklyn asking everyone around me to talk about twins.

The bartenders are not twins—one is twenty-one, the other twenty-three—but they are sisters. And they are both gorgeous blondes. This seems to sell drinks. The owner insists that the sisters work the same shifts.

It’s easy enough to find two gorgeous young women to bartend. But why is it twice as appealing when those two young women appear related?

Ask the people at Coors. Like my local bartender, they found that employing two look-alike blond girls was a really good way to get boys to buy beer. Their most successful ad campaign of the last year features two twenty-six-year-old identical twins, Diane and Elaine Klimaszewski. Apart, they are ordinary, beautiful blond beer broads in bikinis; together they are extraordinary blond beer broads in bikinis. Recently, Shari Waxman wrote an article in Salon.com in preparation for which she went around and asked a bunch of her guy friends to explain why, exactly, they had a thing for twins. If the twins fantasy were actually consummated, wouldn’t they be bothered by that incest thing?

Not really. One of the most articulate responses was “There are two of them and they are the same and I can have sex with both of them at the same time and did I mention that they are the same?”

Watching the boys watching the two girls at my local bar, it’s easy to see the appeal. Their sisterhood gives them a kind of easy girl-on-girl intimacy. The girls play to their audience—first wrapping their arms around each other, then practicing fake karate kicks on each other.

Blond twins must top the list of the things most likely to sell stuff. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen—despite being insipid, and not that talented or even cute—are apparently, at seventeen, the richest teenagers in America. And back in the eighties, a pair of blond identical twins were used to sell serial novels to eight- to twelve-year-old girls, a demographic that buys the things they like at approximately the same rate that some people buy crack.

I haven’t been between the ages of eight and twelve for a good long time now. But serial novels are still my crack. I love the endless descriptions of clothes, the florid adjectives used to describe improbable hair, eye, and skin colors; the crazy soap-opera plotlines that start out with routine betrayals and inevitably get entangled in the assorted comas, deaths, and rare diseases necessary to extricate the good boys and girls from the impossible situations they’ve been put in.

Fuck subtext. It’s all surface. And that is the pleasure.

Back in the bar in Brooklyn, I take out my secret stash of serial novels. Pandemonium ensues. The books get passed around the bar, and everyone exclaims over their sudden retro chic, how they’ve seen those haircuts and dropped-waist dresses pictured on the cover worn by kids in Williamsburg and on Delancey Street.

Most people in the bar are in their twenties and early thirties. These are the novels that we read as children in the eighties, the ones that taught us exactly how we were supposed to be beautiful and good and reminded us of the ways in which we might not measure up. Somehow, we’ve grown up and they’ve become historical fiction.

The books I have with me are (now vintage) copies from the original series, which debuted in 1983 with Double Love. I was ten. Since then, hundreds of Sweet Valley novels have been written; the franchise continues to this day. Many publishers of syndicated novels, perhaps afraid to tinker with their formula, preserve their heroines for decades in cryogenic youth. Francine Pascal was perfectly happy to be promiscuous. The twins regressed to preadolescence in the series Sweet Valley Kids (76 novels) and Sweet Valley Twins (118 novels); they went to Sweet Valley Junior High (30 novels); they were allowed to age past sweet sixteen in Senior Year (48 novels); in 1993 they went to college at Sweet Valley University (64 novels); Elizabeth even left her home in California for a junior year abroad in London in her own eponymous series in 2001. And in 1994, Sweet Valley High debuted as a thirty-minute drama on UPN, where it ran for four years.

I’ve never seen the TV show and I’m not interested in most of the novels past, say, SVH #40. The original Sweet Valley High series went up to 143 novels, the last one published in 1998; but by then the plot mill had run its course and some of the titles became frankly ridiculous.[1] By that time, there were also Sweet Valley Super Editions (which ran to around 225 pages, compared with the regular 150-page novels, and usually centered around vacations and holidays, like Spring Break!, Malibu Summer, or Special Christmas), Super Thrillers (in which even more encounters with the occult and the murderous took place), and Magna Editions (which were even bigger than the Super Editions and often told a family saga, including The Wakefield Legacy, The Fowlers of Sweet Valley, and The Patmans of Sweet Valley).

The Sweet Valley High novels I love are perfect, undiluted artifacts of what we thought perfect, undiluted teenage girlhood should look like in the eighties. They have the original covers, in the horrible Smartie-colored pastel shades we wore then—seashell pink, goldenrod, mint green, and of course, peach, teal, and dusty rose. Across the top is the logo, spelled out in bright red block letters like the ones on the cheerleading sweaters we all wished we owned. (Of course, the Sweet Valley High football team has the most desirable colors: red and white.)

But best of all, these novels have the cover illustrations by one James Mathewuse. (No, I don’t get the spelling either.) As a preteen girl, those covers seemed to be the most satisfying form of pornography I had. I remember finding the real stuff, in the usual basements, and on the top shelves of cupboards I opened while babysitting (my own parents had nothing racier than The Joy of Sex, that old hippie tome). But images of actual sex, at that time, seemed simply mechanical; real sexiness, to me, had to do with some vague notion of being validated as supremely beautiful. I would stare for hours at the covers of Sweet Valley High novels, as if they were catalogs and I could literally shop for a perfect self.

DEAR CAROLYN KEENE

About four years ago, I wrote an essay on—well, really a love letter to— Nancy Drew novels. I included all of the delicious details that roughly five generations of American eight- to twelve-year-old girls have feasted on—the roadsters; the attractive split-level ranch house; the chums (pleasantly plump Bess and tomboy—read dyke—George); the seemingly impotent beau, Ned Nickerson; Carson Drew, the dashing lawyer-father, who, while a bachelor since the untimely death of his wife, never seemed to need a female companion other than his eighteen-year-old daughter, whose sleuthing career he supported with the kind, perhaps unknowing, attention of a father who may not quite know best what is suitable for a young unmarried girl; Hannah Gruen, the perfect housekeeper (German, naturally, and an even better surrogate mother—as a domestic employee, she had no authority whatsoever over Nancy, which was a good thing when one’s heroine was in the habit of running around after minor felons in an era when good girls did not).

Aprés Keene, le déluge. Four years later, the mail still comes in, at the rate of two or three emails each month. I have heard from grandmothers who read Nancy as young girls. College professors have sent me feminist critical essays on Nancy. Weirdly enough, I have far too many letters from people—usually children, but an alarming number from people who should know better—who seemed to have been confused by the whole byline thing and were under the impression that I was revealing myself to be the true Carolyn Keene. (I didn’t bother to sort out how I could have both written about reading these novels as an eight-year-old and have written the novels themselves roughly five decades before my birth.) Correspondents who believed I was their favorite author wanted all sorts of things from me: autographs, my biography, guest visits to their school. But most heart-breaking were the emails signed by girls so young I wondered how they had managed to Google their way to the essay in the first place. Dear Carolyn Keene, you will always be my favorite author. Dear Carolyn Keene, My best friend is sick.You are her favorite author.Will you send her a get-well card? Dear Carolyn Keene, I am writing a book report. I want to know when you were born and when you died.

For girls my age, Nancy Drew was historical fiction. From Nancy, I learned why my mother still believed that one shouldn’t wear white shoes after Labor Day and that one’s handbag should match one’s pumps; I learned why the highest virtue was knowing what was “appropriate” and the worst sin was being “flashy,” and that if one saw a person of low social station walking into the best dress shop in the city or wearing expensive jewelry, it was a sure clue that they were probably a villain.

You won’t find out much about how actual people live by reading serial fiction from random decades. But you will find out how they aspire to live: the houses they must build, clothes they must wear, and cars they must drive to become the Joneses; what their mothers are telling them about modesty, boys, and sex; who they are supposed to marry and what jobs they are supposed to take and how, exactly, they are supposed to get there.

Serial novels about teenagers are especially poignant. Like Britney and boy bands and Barbie and sexual rehearsal play, they aren’t really intended for actual teenagers, most of whom outgrow simulacra of teenage life once they have their own. Rather, they are the training bras of literature; books that teach young girls how to be older girls before they get there. And even though girls inevitably move on— whether to Harlequins or Anna Quindlen or Don DeLillo—for many of them, their first favorite author, the one who taught them what to want and what to envy, is likely to have been a ghostwriter hired by a team to distill the essence of middle-of-the-road idealized teenage life.

A TALE OF TWO NANCYS

The Sweet Valley High novels were undoubtedly the literary training bras for those of us who were preteens in the eighties.There are no mysteries involved in this series, other than the universal mysteries of high school life: Who will make the sorority; who will be the co-captain of the cheerleading squad (and who will attempt suicide when she fails to do so); and, mostly, who will get the guy and how.[2]

The jacket copy on Double Love, the first novel in the series, pretty much sums it up:

Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are identical twins at Sweet Valley High. They’re both popular, smart, and gorgeous, but that’s where the similarity ends. Elizabeth is friendly, outgoing, and sincere—nothing like her snobbish and conniving twin. Jessica gets what she wants—at school, with friends, and especially with boys.

Jessica is a cheerleader who goes through boys like pop albums, keeps a ridiculously messy room (which she painted, on a whim, chocolate brown), and is generally scheming, manipulative, and popular. Elizabeth, in contrast, is a news reporter for the school paper, The Oracle; has a steady boyfriend, Todd Wilkins (for most of the series anyway); and is everyone’s best friend, thanks to her honesty and forthrightness.

It’s a brilliant construction. With twin heroines, the writers are free to have not one, but two ideal versions of teenage girlhood. But what keeps the series fun is that Jessica is really the star. She is a heroine. And she’s a bitch.

The truth is, Elizabeth is a horrible bore. She’s supposed to be the smart twin, but Jessica is actually much more intelligent. Liz keeps an open mind, which really means she never knows what’s up because she’s too busy plodding along at her own methodical, carefully considered pace. Jess has never met a conclusion without jumping—and probably doing a cartwheel and screaming, “Go Sweet Valley!”—and as a result is always about thirteen steps ahead.

At first, it seems liberating to have your sympathies split between two very different heroines. But eventually it becomes clear that the twins thing reinforces the principle lesson of these kind of novels: personalities are fixed, and you are either one kind of girl or the other; there is no room for ambiguity. Thus you can be either sincere or manipulative; earnest or playful; dependable or flighty; a hard worker or a party girl.

MOTHER, FATHER, AND TWINS KNOW BEST

Nancy Drew had to kill off her mother and kind of, sort of marry her father in order to be the ultimate thirties bluestocking. The Wakefield household is an updated eighties version of the perfect American family. In the same decade that brought us the Keatons (Mom’s an architect; Dad worked for PBS) and the Huxtables (lawyer; doctor) the hottest family was one in which both parents are working in chic professions.[3]

The twins’ father, Ned, is still a lawyer. (I am convinced that his name is a direct allusion to Nancy’s beau, Ned Nickerson.) Thus they are solidly upper-middle class, which means the twins have plenty of money to charge at Lisette’s, the exclusive dress shop, yet avoid the stigma of having a parent in a gaudier profession. (Rich kids, as we will see, do not fare well in the Sweet Valley.)

The twins’ mother, Alice, is beautiful, of course. “When Alice Wakefield was around,” we are told, “it was easy to see where the twins had gotten their striking looks. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and slim figure, it was almost possible to mistake her for the twins’ older sister.” (Which has always led me to wonder: How old, exactly, would an older sister be? Are we to presume that a woman in her early forties looks twenty-two? Or that the otherwise perfect Wakefields, members of a demographic known to put off child-bearing until one’s early to mid-thirties, had an accident in high school?) She’s also an interior decorator, a member of a profession that seemed to be invented in the eighties. But, as her husband is fond of reminding everyone, she has a master’s degree! In the Superwoman decade, the perfect mother—even one whose profession is literally decoration—is supposed to be, or at least seem, equal to her husband.

I don’t know how she does it. In each novel, the writers play around with family scenes and plots designed to show off this new American ideal of the democratic working family. Unlike the Enjoli vixen, Alice Wakefield does not have to both bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.[4] Much is made of the division of chores. Each member of the household takes a nightly turn at preparing dinner, including Ned and the twins’ older brother, Steven, when he’s home from college. The writers take pains to show how a guy can both be masculine and help out around the house. In one scene, Jessica walks into the Wakefields’ “spacious and Spanish-tiled” kitchen to find her father,“wearing an apron over his shirt and tie,” standing at a counter and “fussing over the salad” with the “same concentration and commitment he gave his successful legal practice.” (“On anyone else, the apron may have been comic,” Jessica reflects, “but Ned Wakefield was the kind of man who looked good in almost anything.”)

He even teases the twins about their mother’s ineptitude in the kitchen: “‘I have never been able to teach your mother how to do justice to a salad. That woman has a master’s degree and still can’t mix a decent dressing.’” To which Alice replies,“‘My master’s was in design. You’d be surprised how few salad courses we had to take.’”

But even if Alice’s tall, dark, and handsome[5] husband has liberated her from the tyranny of mixing a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette, their updated version of the modern American family is enlightenment lite. In practically every novel, some hapless outside family is held up to, and falls pitifully short of, the Wakefield ideal. Some, like classmate Bruce Patman’s family, are snobbish old money. (Bruce displays his arrogance by driving a Porsche with a license plate that reads “1 Bruce 1”; he becomes one of the series’ early demons when he expects Jessica to put out more than she wishes— whether we’re talking heavy petting or more is deliciously ambiguous.) Others, like Lila Fowler and her father (she’s missing a mother), who owns a computer company, display the gaucherie of the nouveau riche. And throughout the series, many of the “social lessons” learned by the girls come at the expense of families who fuck up: the poor alcoholic parents; the rich parents who work too much; divorced parents who refuse to let their children see their grandparents; stepchildren; and foster children.

One of the most egregious—and perversely entertaining— examples is found in Rumors (SVH #37). The plot revolves around figuring out the lineage of the lovely Susan Stewart (who is tall, with “coppery hair,” “tanned skin,” and “rich, smoky brown” eyes accented by “delicately arched brows”). Susan lives alone with a woman she calls her “guardian,” but her beautiful clothes and seemingly cultured ways lead everyone to believe that she is the daughter of some mysterious, important person (duke, duchess, Hollywood mogul?). Lila, the nouveau riche princess, is, naturally, jealous of the girl who may have an actual royal pedigree, and spreads the rumor that Susan’s real mother is incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane.

While this nearly medieval tale of mistaken ancestry unfolds, there is also a subplot, ripped from those days’ headlines. Just when one was ready to congratulate Alice Wakefield on her New Womanhood, a scene opens at the Wakefield breakfast table, prompted by an article Elizabeth reads in the morning paper about women who remain childless to pursue their careers. Immediately, all three women react with outrage. “‘What a shame!’” exclaims Alice Wakefield. “‘I enjoy my work, but my family is much more important to me. Much more.’”Jessica chimes in, “‘It must be so much easier to be a man. You wouldn’t have to make any of those really hard decisions we women have to make all the time.’” Even the usually enlightened Elizabeth adds, “‘I know what you mean. Like which blouse to wear with your new skirt. One of yours or one of mine.’”

As it turns out, this conversation is a prelude to the twins’ deciding that their mother is pregnant. Both react with something akin to revulsion: “Gross,” thinks Jessica. As Pascal notes, “She didn’t like the idea of a woman in her forties having a baby.”And when their older brother, Steven, finds out, he actually offers to quit college and take a job to support the family. The pregnancy scare turns out to be a false alarm, but the family’s reaction makes the chore wheel appear to be little more than cosmetic liberation. Sure, Ned may wear an apron, but we’re guessing that he probably didn’t ask for flex-time at this law office and that Ms. Wakefield was one of those women who started work part-time after her children were school-age.

Susan’s story turns out to be straight out of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her father is indeed a modern-day royal, in the form of a famous Hollywood director. And her mother turns out to be her guardian, the woman who raised her. She explains her decision—apparently made in 1971!—in an astonishing letter to her daughter:

Back then how could an unmarried woman raise her child without being shunned or scorned? I couldn’t let you grow up with that kind of stigma. I didn’t want you to go through life ashamed of yourself or of me. And then you became so popular with the people who could get you ahead, give you all the wonderful things I wanted for you but couldn’t provide. How could I tell you then that your mother was only a waitress? I knew your best hope was for you to keep believing that you were really just a princess in disguise, or something just as good.

So the gist is this: Susan’s mother was knocked up by a loving, but ambitious, up-and-coming Hollywood filmmaker. Not wishing to derail his career, she refused all child support, and instead worked double shifts as a waitress to support her child, as well as keep her in tennis, golf, and piano lessons (and still found the time to sew all of those “designer” clothes by hand). In addition, her shame at being a single mother was such that she gave up motherhood as well, and instead assumed the status of kindly, self-effacing house-servant to her own child. This is supposed to make sense to readers—all of Sweet Valley seems to find it a perfectly sensible explanation, and Susan is forgiven because—hoorah!—she really is the daughter of some famous, rich guy. (No one, not even Susan, asks where he was all those years while her mother was raising a debutante on a waitress’s salary.)

SERIALLY BLONDE

Like Scarlett O’Hara, Nancy Drew was not beautiful; she preferred to be called “attractive.” The momentum of the novels had nothing to do with whom she loved (Ned was always more romance prophylactic than boyfriend) and everything to do with what she did. In this way, they were almost career novels. But Nancy’s indifference to her sexual or romantic life made her a caricature of the prim, conservative career girl, one who could only pursue mysteries so long as she avoided marriage.

The Wakefield twins were perfectly happy to be called beautiful. They were even perfectly happy to be called perfect, as in “perfect size six figures.”[6] Each Sweet Valley High installment begins with a litany of the twins’ virtues, which becomes hypnotic because it’s always the same: Their shoulder-length hair is “golden,” “sun-streaked” blond. Their wide-set eyes are “blue-green,” “turquoise,” or “aqua,” and often compared to the color of the ocean. They are five feet six inches tall. Their legs are long. Everything—shoulders, legs, arms—is tan, year-round. Jaws are smooth. Eyelashes are long and black.

Everyone in Sweet Valley is gorgeous, of course, which eventually becomes comical as the series progresses, as the writers have to come up with even more creative ways to distinguish one beautiful girl and boy from another.

There’s Lila Fowler, the rich girl (long brown hair, brown eyes); Cara Walker, Jessica’s best friend (curly chestnut hair, brown eyes); Enid Rollins, Elizabeth’s best friend and a bore (curly red hair, green eyes); Caroline Pierce, the school gossip (straight red hair, green eyes); Amy Sutton, Elizabeth’s childhood best friend (tall, long blond hair, gray eyes); Regina Morrow, the rich, beautiful deaf model (black hair, blue eyes); Suzanne Devlin, the evil Manhattanite daughter of a diplomat (dark hair, blue-violet eyes).

It goes without saying that the eighties version of Sweet Valley hadn’t quite come up with the cast of racial diversity that became a staple of the nineties.[7] The closest thing I’ve ever found to a vaguely ethnic character in the early books is Ricky Calpado, the co-captain of the cheerleading squad, who sounds vaguely Italian; and Tony Esteban, a football player whom I can’t remember ever speaking at all. (I did find a reference, in the Ms. Quarterback of the nineties, to a previous plotline about a racial incident with a black kid in a Sweet Valley High novel from early in that decade.) For anyone who grew up in the America of the eighties,[8] the catalogue of Wakefield perfection is familiar because it was the stuff we saw each month in magazines. And it goes without saying that it’s a catalog meant to cause immediate panic in anyone who does not fit the ideal. I distinctly remember running through a checklist of how closely I resembled the perfect teenage girl, based on the Wakefields. Blond? No. Five-six? No. Long legs? No. Long eyelashes? Fuck! No—not even that. The best I could come up with as a small, thin, pale, land-locked brunette was that my eyes were blue. (And large!) I consoled myself by deciding that in the world of Sweet Valley High, I would be described as a petite, porcelain-skinned brunette with striking blue eyes. Maybe I’d be the literary editor of the school newspaper or something and hook up with a band member, like the lead singer of the Droids. (After all, the Droids and I were kinda sorta new-wave/punk/mod kids.)

But then came Sweet Valley High #32, The New Jessica, a caricature of sophisticated brunettes with artistic pretensions. I think every brunette Sweet Valley High reader I know remembers this novel, which sets up the contrast between the “natural,” “wholesome” California blonde and the “artificial,” “sophisticated” brunette. Some of their best friends may have been brunettes, but if we ever doubted what the Sweet Valley crowd really thought of us, The New Jessica was there to remind us.

In that book, Jessica decides that she’s sick of looking like Elizabeth, and tries something new. She bases her “new look” on Katrina, a model in French Vogue who is called “the essence of European beauty... the daughter of a ballerina and a film director” and whose hobbies include “Indonesian cooking, French museums, and skiing in the Alps.” So Jessica dyes her hair black, gels it up to lose the waves, and slaps on a lot of kohl:

Jessica could hardly believe her eyes. Her hair hung straight to her shoulders. For the first time she could remember, her skin looked pale—delicately, exotically pale. Her eyes were the bluest she had ever seen them and were outlined dramatically with black pencil. Soft, dull-red lipstick completed the look.

Jessica borrows her new outfits from her rich best friend, Lila Fowler, whose father has just returned from Paris bearing Parisian booty. The list of faux eighties haute couture is unbearably funny: “[O]ne of the more casual outfits” is “a purple jumpsuit and lizard boots”; another, dressier, outfit is composed of “an olive green leather skirt with a slit up the back,” matching hose in a “lacy pattern,” “three-inch heels,” and a “silky, oversize blouse and green leather belt worn over her hips” completed with a “chunky necklace and big gold earrings.” There is also a “white gauze dress and striped boots”; a “white, really slim cut skirt” paired with “a white sweater with sequins on it” (of course “a white beret completed the look”); a “blue two-piece knit dress” with matching (!) blue stockings; and “sleek gray trousers” paired with a “cherry-red blouse” and a “lightweight, man-tailored jacket.”

When asked where her new costumes came from, Jessica replies airily (while “twirling her necklace and trying for the right expression—midway between total boredom and faint generosity”), “‘Oh just some little place on the Left Bank.’”

The new Jessica is not even Jessica; she renames herself “Jessa Fields” because “Jessica Wakefield sounded too wholesome.” She loses interest in cheerleading (“‘I’m thinking of starting ballet lessons instead,’” she tells Lila, “‘Ballet is so artistic and elegant, don’t you think?’”), picks up a fake British accent (and uses phrases like “you are simply a dear” and “I’ve got to dash”), goes to coffee shops, and carries a copy of Paris Match in her chemistry book.

As if that weren’t enough, Jessica also decides to go on a diet. “Neither she or Elizabeth ever had to diet to maintain their slender figures,” we are reminded, but “the fashion models in Vogue were gaunt and Jessica resolved to live on yogurt and carrots until she had lost at least five pounds.” (Ah, the eighties, when dairy products were considered diet foods.)

Though everyone in Sweet Valley believes that Jessica has become an elitist snob and a horrible bitch, as a pale-skinned, blue-eyed brunette who wore red lipstick and black eyeliner and read art magazines and went to coffee shops for poetry group, I was thrilled with her. Thus far my kind of girls had been so far out of the range of the Sweet Valley gaze that even being satired was better than being completely ignored. Alas, it was a brief moment.

It’s a model scout who kills Jessa Fields. Jessa, who has based her look on a model in Vogue and now believes that she belongs in Vogue, signs up with an agency. At first, the agent loves her new look. But then Elizabeth drives Jessica to her appointment and, predictably enough, the agent raves about Elizabeth’s “‘scrubbed, sunny’” California girl beauty. “‘You see, we really want someone fresh faced. Someone original,’” he tells Jessica. “‘Your look is fine, but it’s much too unconventional and stylized for us.’”

Out goes the hair dye (it’s the shampoo-in, shampoo-out kind, of course), off go the white powder and the leather trousers, and in comes the same tan, blond, well-scrubbed “natural” Jessica. Immediately, she “suddenly had a desire for a good old American hamburger” and tells Lila, while reaching for a chocolate-chip cookie, “‘Wholesome means that I get to gain back the three pounds I lost.’”

Sure, it sounds... wholesome. And while we know we should applaud a girl with a healthy appetite and abhor diets, the Sweet Valley High novels do an awfully good job of sending mixed messages in that department. Practically every other chapter has the twins conspicuously consuming mountains of food—burgers, fries, baked clam specials, double milkshakes, triple hot-fudge banana splits. It happens so often, you begin to wonder if they have a fetish. Who needs to diet—or even eat grilled chicken—when you can maintain a “model-slim, perfect size-six figure” while gorging on junk food?

The “natural, wholesome” look is often even more tyrannical than the “stylized artificial one”— at least when one’s standards of beauty are as stringent as those in Sweet Valley High novels. Each novel is full of scenes in which girls who are overly made-up or who dye their hair, for example, are held in contempt. But it’s easy to prefer a “natural” look when a girl has naturally blond hair, blue eyes, long eyelashes, and a flawless complexion.

Style has always been the refuge for girls who are best described as “interesting” or “unique” rather than “beautiful.” (Which is why it is so funny that the agent describes the twins’ California beauty as “original.”) Perversely, it’s always seemed to me that women who develop a look— whether it’s intentionally crazy or Dallas-Cowgirl conventional—seem to own their beauty in a way that other women do not. And, in contrast, preferring a “natural”— conventional—beauty sounds an awful lot like believing in the divine right of kings.

SOME DREAMERS OF THE GOLDEN DREAM

The true subject of Sweet Valley High novels is California itself. When the novels debuted in 1983, our president was a Hollywood cowboy; Christie Brinkley was our super-model, and our mythmakers were busy trying to get us all, once again, to dream the golden California dream.

This California dream had nearly nothing in common with the one of a generation before when pretty much all of Northern California was one big counter-cultural mass of hippie émigrés from other climes, smoking pot, dropping out, and waiting around for a Joan Didion to come around and deem the whole mess an experiment in futility. It also had little to do with the classic pioneer version of Southern California as the edge of the earth—a place where pretty much anyone could go to escape the boredom of the plains or the snobbery of the East Coast, reinvent themselves, and maybe become a famous movie star or mogul, or at least live on the beach and sell fruit to famous people.

Sweet Valley dispenses completely with the vision of California as a pioneer mecca for outsiders, misfits, and rebels. Sweet Valley may as well be the Midwest: It’s Our Town with beach access. Everyone knows each other; the town is filled with solid, middle-class professionals, and, with a few exceptions, no one seems to leave. If I had to locate the place on a map, I would say it’s probably somewhere in the hot, beachy belt of Orange County, where the electorate is solidly Republican and the sun shines every day.

Outsiders do not fare well at Sweet Valley High. The entire plot of Bitter Rivals (SVH # 29) revolves around the strange power of the East Coast to transform Elizabeth’s best friend from middle school, Amy Sutton, from a sweet California girl into a bitchy sophisticate. Amy was perfectly fine in Sweet Valley, but when she goes to Connecticut, she comes back a monster who—horrors!—is interested in such trivial pursuits as cheer-leading, pledging the sorority, and boys. She shows just how callow she is by overdressing for a trip to the pancake house in a black jumpsuit and boots (“that even Jessica had to admit was ahead of fashion”), then ordering nothing but black coffee and a grapefruit. (“‘I hate myself if I’m over 110 pounds,’” Amy explains helpfully, while Elizabeth’s long-suffering best friend, the good but boring Enid, drops a pat of butter into her syrup and is filled with self-loathing.) Another entire novel—Spring Break—is devoted to the snobbish, anti-American French.

But the most animosity is reserved for brunettes from New York City. Suzanne Devlin, the New Yorker in question, makes for such a good villain that she comes back twice. The first time round, Suzanne, who is the daughter of a diplomat and has grown up in European boarding schools, comes to stay with the Wakefields while Jessica goes to stay in the Devlins’ Manhattan penthouse. By the time the novel is through, Suzanne has insulted small-town life, burgers, and California, as well as filed trumped-up rape charges against Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s favorite English teacher (who looks like Robert Redford) after he shuns her sexual advances. (Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Jessica is fighting off sexual advances of her own—from Suzanne’s big-city boyfriend.) Suzanne is so reviled that her return is the subject of Special Christmas, a double-sized Sweet Valley High Super Edition. It all turns out OK: Suzanne is humanized, but she has to get a bizarre disease (she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but as it turns out, she simply has mono and a confused doctor) and a car accident first. She leaves singing the praises of California, small-town life, and parents who care (unlike her own career-obsessed city parents).

It’s shocking, then, to find out that Francine Pascal, the creator of the series, spent most of her adult life not in California but in Manhattan and the South of France. What’s more, during the seventies, she wrote three very good young-adult novels (I actually read two of them before the Sweet Valley High novels, but all three are out of print now). The first, Hangin’ Out with Cici (Viking, 1977), is about a pot-smoking, school-cutting, hippie teenager who hates her divorced (I think) mother. She goes back in time to the fifties and hangs out with a girl who sneaks cigarettes, cuts school—and turns out to be her then-teenaged mother. The novel is less hokey than it sounds; it’s actually a brave book that uses an imaginative plot device to fulfill the ultimate teenage fantasy: What were my parents like as kids? And would I like them? (The second, The Hand-Me-Down-Kid, was rumored to be one of her best books, but I never read it as a child, and I haven’t been able to find it now.) In the third novel, My First Love and Other Disasters (1980), the same teenage girl, now fifteen, goes to Fire Island to work as a nanny and, among other things, has her first sexual experience with a lifeguard.

I’ve always wondered how a woman who started out writing realistic, gritty novels about urban teens who fuck, do drugs, and hate high school and their parents ended up writing sunny, sugary novels about girls whose lives always reassemble perfectly at the end of the hour. And I really wonder about a sophisticated Manhattanite (who vacations in the South of France!) ended up wanting to write an ode to burgers, sunshine, letterman sweaters, and a California that doesn’t exist. Was she jaded? Did she need to pay the rent? Could she pay the rent but really wanted a penthouse on Central Park West? Does she think of her cash cow as one big ironic joke?

I say this as a girl who spent most of my childhood reading serial novels—and, of course, as a woman of thirty who still takes serial novels on the subway and to bed when I am sick or tired or sad. As a child, I once wished that I could grow up to be Carolyn Keene. I wrote mysteries, then sagas about perfect teenage girls who were nothing like me. And then, as a teenager, I moved on to write stories about sex, abortion, and pot-smoking. Now I write complicated stories about pretty much nothing.

We never really believe in stories about perfection. But I imagine their appeal is the same as, say, an old-fashioned personals ad: For a moment you can live in a world of flat superlatives that say everything and nothing. You can simply be beautiful. You can simply be brilliant. Never mind that none of us ever really know what that means.

  1. E.g., Kidnapped by the Cult! (SVH #83), A Date with a Werewolf (#106), The Treasure of Death Valley (#116), Camp Killer (#126), and Tall Dark and Deadly (#127).
  2. Recently, I found the entire Sweet Valley High series summarized on the Book-a-Minute website as: “This GIRL likes this GUY. And this other girl likes this GUY who doesn’t like her but likes this OTHER GIRL who only likes him as a friend.”
  3. Note: We said “chic.” None of these new working mothers have tiring and/or dead-end jobs.There are no customer service workers or telemarketers or grocery clerks.The earlier ideal was that women wouldn’t work for money, because (a) motherhood was considered a fulfilling full-time job, and (b) it would reflect poorly on a husband’s salary. In the eighties, women had to have such a great, creative job that it was obvious they were working for the sheer joy of it all.
  4. The Enjoli perfume commercial ran in the early eighties and was sort of the ultimate super-woman commercial. It featured a woman in a tight-fitting business suit and high heels, dancing around and singing a song that went like this:“I can bring home the bacon / fry it up in a pan / and never, ever let you forget you’re a man / ’cause I’m a woman. Enjoli!”
  5. But not “deadly.”
  6. Now size six seems almost quaint; after the Kate Moss–ification of America and the invention of smaller and smaller sizes, anyone who wishes to refer to a girl with a perfect figure will say she wears a size two, or even a zero.
  7. And thank God for that—I can’t imagine how caricatured it would have been. We’d probably have the smart, shy Asian girl and the black basketball player.
  8. A young editor at my office who was born in England remembers that SVH novels were all the rage at her Swiss boarding school. In fact, she tells me, the girls at her school agitated the administration to start a cheerleading squad.

Amy Benfer is the managing editor of Paper magazine and a regular contributor to Salon.com. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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