Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
Shortly before the pandemic hit, a Gen X coworker loaned me her Sweet Valley High books. Binging this guilty pleasure from youth has been the highlight of my quarantine!
Launched in 1983, Sweet Valley High centers on the adventures of teen twin sisters Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. This pair of perfectly gorgeous California girls reside and attend high school in the idyllic community of Sweet Valley. Liz and Jess are blessed with “all-American good looks,” which means they’re identical blond, blue-eyed, size six, slender babes with peaches-and-cream complexions. But get this, you guys, their personalities are totally opposite!! Studious nice girl Liz writes for the school newspaper and treats everyone with kindness and respect while flirty cheerleader Jess is the the resident messy bitch who lives for drama. We’re supposed to see the twins as everyday girls. They’re not as wealthy as Jess’s snooty friend, Lila Fowler. Nor do they suffer the family dysfunction that once led Liz’s friend Enid down the path of substance abuse. No, they’re just your average Aryan supermodels who drive their mom’s old convertible and live in a split-level house with an in-ground pool.
Even at ten years-old, I knew these bitches were unreal. Liz and Jess were fake teenagers from a too-perfect family who didn’t have any of the troubles families like mine faced (money problems, for example). Granted, I was a jaded kid — the sixth of seven very sarcastic children — I understood the concept of hate reads at a young age. To me, Sweet Valley High was dumb, trashy fare, like soap operas for teens. It was fun staring through this peephole at moneyed hot people and their tawdry melodrama. But no part of me wanted to know or befriend the Wakefield twins in real life. I could relate to Liz’s writing hobby and her sense of fairness, but she was too corny to be cool. And while Jess’s bad girl behavior created most of the intrigue, there are moments in the early books when her behavior borders on psychopathic. For example in book #1 (spoilers), “Double Love,” Jess makes a play for hunky basketball player Todd Wilkins because she can see he’s interested in Liz; when he rejects her, she falsely accuses him of sexual assault. (They oughta have called that one “Double Cock Block”.) In the next book, “Secrets,” Jess learns about Enid’s past struggles with addiction and tells the whole school, because she’s jealous that she’s getting so much attention from Liz. In pretty much every one of the first ten books, Jessica does some psychotically bitchy thing that everyone forgives in the end because she’s hot and charming. Tween me NEVER accepted that outcome, perhaps because I’d yet to learn that pretty blond girls from “nice” families often do get away with murder.
Ah, but if only ten year old me had read book #10, “Wrong Kind of Girl,” I’d have seen Jessica receive the most absurdly overwrought comeuppance! I don’t know how I missed this one as I seem to have read all the other early installments. Rereading Sweet Valley High in quarantine has been somewhat surreal; bits of subplots and scenes would come back to me so I almost felt as if I’d traveled back to 1987 and the dank basement bedroom I shared with my sister. But I remember nothing about “Wrong Kind of Girl,” which has a ridiculous ending I could not have forgotten.
The wrong girl in question is beautiful Annie Whitman, who wants more than anything to join the Sweet Valley High cheerleading squad. She’s got the moves and spirit, but she also has a reputation — known for dating a different boy every night, the other kids refer to her as “Easy Annie.” Co-captain Jessica adamantly refuses to have her squad associated with Annie’s loose loins and plots to keep her off the team. Unbeknownst to Jess, Liz is tutoring Annie to help get her grades up so she can qualify. As Liz gets to know Annie, she learns that her troubled pal has no idea that everyone thinks she’s a slut.
We get a bit of subtle perspective on why Annie is this way. We meet Mrs. Whitman, her boozy fashion model mom (who cringingly refers to her daughter as “kitten”) and mom’s sleazy boyfriend Johnny. We learn Annie’s dad was never really around. Then Annie talks about doing some modeling when she was thirteen… there isn’t much explicit sex in Sweet Valley High which means that there isn’t explicit sexual molestation, but between Johnny and the modeling career, you just kinda know. All that coupled with paternal abandonment tells us what Annie’s deal is; one might now refer to it as “daddy issues.”
I have to admit that as an adult reader who’s on the other side of teen turmoil and hormones, there are are moments when Sweet Valley High strikes me as surprisingly sensitive. This book was first published in 1984 and I expected the slut-shaming to be much worse. Annie may be misguided, but she isn’t broken and she never apologizes for who she is. She even tells Liz in her very earnest way that getting into professional modeling so early made it hard for her to befriend girls her age. “I’ve got lots of boyfriends… but a lot of boys are shallow, you know? Sometimes after you break up, they don’t even respect you.” She then explains that improving her grades and making the cheerleading squad is her pathway to popularity and respect.
And here’s the other thing that’s less problematic than I expected — nobody other than Jess cares that Annie’s a slut and they DO love her amazing cheerleading moves. She wows everyone at tryouts and bewitches the not-so-hot but very sweet squad manager Ricky. When Annie guesses that Ricky has a crush on her, she asks Liz questions like, “How do you have a friendship — a relationship — like you have with Todd?” and, “How do you get a shy boy to talk to you?” Honestly, I found this a wholesome trajectory. Again, Annie isn’t bad for dating all these different boys; on the contrary, she seems to have a lot of fun! But she doesn’t have any real friends (just fuck buddies), so she’s lonely. I love that she goes for this nice nerd boy who might actually be good company to her.
But then Jessica starts spinning her web and the story goes completely haywire. Fearing her talented nemesis might win a spot on the squad, Jess starts whipping votes for the competition (honestly, the way she steamrolls Helen Bradley at the ice cream parlor — telling her the team’s reputation rests on her vote — kinda makes me wish progressive politicians had more Jessicas on their side). But when her chosen favorite Sandra Bacon literally falls on her ass during the final round, Helen chooses Annie instead. Furious, Jessica threatens to quit the squad, so they choose Sandra over Annie.
Annie is shocked when she later learns she didn’t make the cut. Knowing she aced the audition, she begs Ricky for an explanation. He clumsily explains, “Jessica brought up the stories that some guys tell about you.” Horrified, Annie runs away, not to be seen or heard from for days until — and here’s where the story gets really dark — Ricky finds her in her apartment, unconscious with an empty pill bottle at her side.
Ricky calls Liz from the hospital and she immediately tells Jessica what’s happened. And this is where the story gets REALLY good. Turning those pages, I could feel my ten year-old self rising up from within. Finally, at long last, I was gonna see that bitch Jessica get what she deserves!!
What happens next is both ridiculous and amazing. The twins drive to the hospital and Jess is wrecked. The guilt is SO strong. First comes the quiet muttering — “Oh please let it not be serious.” Then comes the full-on bawling in the waiting room — “I did this! You know I did. I’m the one who put Annie in there.” DELICIOUS. After Mrs. Whitman makes a dramatic entrance, screaming, “Where’s my baby?” a nurse leads her to Annie’s room. The young girl seems on the verge of consciousness, but never quite comes to. Dr. Hammond comes in and explains, “When people try to take their own lives, they often don’t want to be brought back. When you catch them in time, as in this case, they have another chance. But they have to want that chance, you see.” Clearly this guy went to the daytime soap school of medicine. His final analysis is that Annie has no will to live.
Jessica retreats to the hospital lawn, where she cries and beats her chest. Liz soon catches up, telling her she’s not such a terrible person (though she is). When Liz mentions trying to reignite Annie’s will to live, Jess marches back in the hospital and confesses all of her treachery to Dr. Hammond. He listens to all of this (inexplicably) and then asks her, “Are you willing to have Annie on the cheerleading squad?” I REPEAT, THE DOCTOR ASKS A TEENAGE GIRL IF SHE’S WILLING TO ALLOW HIS COMATOSE PATIENT ON THE CHEERLEADING SQUAD. Jessica agrees wholeheartedly.
And then, for the next several hours, Jessica talks to Annie about how there was a big mistake with the points tabulation and Annie needs to be the eighth member of the squad. She literally spends an entire night telling an unconscious girl that they’re gonna cheerlead together. When Annie finally resurfaces, Jessica’s saying, “And then there’s the Pendleton game! The Pendleton Tigers have a really terrific cheerleading squad, but we’re going to leave them in the dust. Just you watch!” And that’s how Jessica saves Annie’s life — by begging her to be a cheerleader and bagging on the other team. Reader, I laughed myself to tears. This whole premise is so over-the-top, I’d like to think that no present-day Young Adult fiction writer would have the nerve to pen it. And yet, it completely satisfied every desire I ever had to see Jessica Wakefield put in her place. It’s so bad it’s beautiful.
Alas, I’ve run out of books from my friend’s collection. I’m now catching up on some of the later Sweet Valley High books via Kindle Unlimited. I just cannot imagine sheltering at home without these silly stories. If social distancing lasts as long as I expect, I’m afraid I’ll be recording podcast episodes in which I recap my favorites. Tune in to hear me laugh myself to tears.