Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Sweet Valley High”

Dear Frank,

It only took about thirty years, but I think the young ladies of today have stopped reading Sweet Valley books. To which I say — oh, THANK GOD.

See, Frank, when I told you what happened in Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, I mentioned that I was giving you one of the true secrets to understanding women. Sweet Valley High is another one. It’s not because it has any real insight into the reality of being a teenage girl — Buffy the Vampire Slayer offers a more realistic portrayal of high school life — but the genius of Sweet Valley is that it had nothing to do with reality. instead, it preyed on the deepest insecurities of young ladies, simultaneously coming off as aspirational and soul damaging. Reading these books could fuck you up for life. Let me explain how.

The series focuses on Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, two incredibly gorgeous blond twin sisters who live in an affluent suburb and drive around in a sports car. The girls are identical appearance-wise (and also wear matching diamond necklaces did I mention that they got some money to throw around?), but Elizabeth is a total goody-two-shoes whose only big secret is that she writes the high school paper’s gossip column anonymously; meanwhile, Jessica is a manipulative spoiled whore. (Okay, she’s more of a tease, but we’ll get to that.)

This series has been around long enough for the characters to undergo several makeovers. Though, oddly, the girls in the 2008 reboot look a lot like 1991-era Christina Applegate in "Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead."

The drama of the first book in the series, Double Love, is approximately as follows: There’s a cute boy at school named Todd who’s more interested in Elizabeth than Jessica (which makes sense, given that he shares her quasi-bland personality) but when Jessica finds out she gets pissed and gives Todd the full-court press (he plays basketball y’see CHECK OUT MY SPORTS METAPHORS I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND MEN). But he rejects her! Quelle jerk! (That is French for “what a jerk” I ALSO KNOW FOREIGN LANGUAGES.)

So Jessica, feeling vulnerable, goes to A BAR (omg she’s only 16!) with an older guy named Rick who totally dropped out of high school because he is a BAD BOY. (By the way, Frank, I am using my quasi-vintage 1991 copy of this book to write this piece, and Rick is described as having “the ice-cool handsomeness of a junior Clint Eastwood.” Oh my.)

This is the only image that comes to mind when I think of Clint Eastwood. What with living in the 21st century and all.

At the bar, Rick gets fresh with her (and Jessica is not yet old enough to understand that when you get into a guy’s car and agree to go to a bar with him, the guy might be expecting things, especially if he is a BAD BOY), and she freaks out, which causes a bar fight, and that brings in the cops!

Jessica, because she is the worst, not-exactly-accidentally lets them think that she’s Elizabeth, and then when the cops drop her off at home and loudly say “ELIZABETH WAKEFIELD, YOU ARE A BAD BAD GIRL” (I mean, they don’t actually arrest her or anything but it’s the SHAME of it that burns), the school gossip happens to be walking her dog at just the right moment and immediately starts calling bitches to blab about it!

So then Elizabeth’s reputation is ruined and everyone thinks she’s a WHORE, including that hot guy Todd, but Elizabeth rises above it and eventually convinces Todd that she a) is not a dirty whore who goes to bars and b) totally into him. And when Jessica fails to really make amends for letting the whole school think Elizabeth was the DIRTY one, Elizabeth plays a switcharoo that results in Jessica getting thrown fully-clothed into the school pool. HUMILIATION! HOORAY! The end.

Frank, there is a chance that the sharp stabbing pain in my shoulder due to recent overwork and bad ergonomics is affecting my ability to tell you about this book in detail. But honestly, what matters here isn’t the plot.

Y’see, for characters not created by Nathanial Hawthorne (literature reference!), the folks who live in sleepy Sweet Valley are fucking obsessed with how they’re perceived by others, especially when it comes to relationships. Beyond the whole Elizabeth-gets-mistaken-for-a-whore storyline, in this book there’s also a running thread about the twin’s older brother Steven and his FORBIDDEN PASSION for a girl named Tricia who comes from a BAD FAMILY (her sister does DRUGS, you see). And all of the Wakefields are worried about this lady who works in their father’s office, because she is UNMARRIED and so may be having an affair with their father, and oh man how humiliating would that be?

Oh! And there’s also the scene where Jessica yells at Elizabeth for agreeing to go to the big dance with the school nerd, because that embarrasses BOTH of them — not to mention the DRAMATIC CLIFFHANGER at the end of the book where Elizabeth’s best friend Enid comes running to Elizabeth because her SECRET PAST is about to be revealed and Enid’s boyfriend will totally dump her when he finds out!

I couldn't find a screenshot of Demi Moore in "The Scarlet Letter," so I had to go with Emma Stone in "Easy A." But it's pretty much the same joke.

I mean, on a one-on-one basis these all seem like justifiable storylines for these characters. (Well, except for maybe the Steven/Tricia thing, which is just stupid.) They may even be vaguely representative of reality. But when you factor them all in together, the resounding message is that all that matters is your reputation. Put another way — ALL THAT MATTERS IS WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK OF YOU. Which is an awfully insidious message to be planting in the heads of pre-teen girls imagining what life will be like once they get boobs and boyfriends.

Sweet Valley High‘s era of cultural relevance has since passed — now young women have Twilight and The Hunger Games to warp their young minds. But while I’ve been clear on greatly preferring the latter to the former, I gotta admit that even Twilight strikes me as a sign of improvement for the girls of today. I mean, the character of Bella may be trapped inside a ridiculous narrative meant to promote celibacy and Mormonism. But she doesn’t drive a sports car.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on July 19, 2011, in All the Spoilers, Books and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. With a first publishing date of 1983 on the book that started it all, I was floored when I came across this article and saw that original Double Love cover – and I’m pretty sure I heard Madonna, Wham!, and Cyndi Lauper playing somewhere off in the distance…

    As a former Sweet Valley High junkie, I love this piece – thank you:) In middle school, we used to go to the mall every month to spend our allowance getting the new books in the series, then passed them around amongst our friends so everyone would be up to speed on the SVH gang. It was especially exciting when special double editions would come out around holidays (like the Spring Break and Christmas extras) in addition to the monthly serials. We couldn’t wait to get the latest glimpse of high school life…of course, what SVH actually offered was hyper-dramatic OMG “reality” that was really more like a training bra for soap operas.

    Thanks again for a great piece, and a walk down pre-teen high-trauma/drama memory lane – that Jessica! Will she ever learn?!!

  1. Pingback: Liz Tells Frank What Happens in Sweet Valley High | nerd puddle

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