Today's "Now and Then" takes a trip to the white, skinny worlds —and unrealistic expectations —of Sweet Valley High and Gossip Girl.
In our week-long series, Now and Then, GOOD writers each choose a beloved piece of pop culture from back in the day and pit it against its modern-day equivalent, with a fresh pair of adult eyes. May the best zeitgeist win.
When I was a kid, my family headed to the library every Saturday to stock up on books for the week. During one trip I stuck one of the popular Sweet Valley High books in my “to read” stack—all my sixth grade friends were devouring author Francine Pascal's drama-filled tales about the uber-gorgeous, blond and popular twin sisters, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. As I stood waiting in line for the librarian to check out my books, my mom came along to see what I intended to take home. Once she spied the SVH book, she pulled an annoyed face and told me to put it back on the shelf. I recall her saying that it was “racist trash” that made girls “stupid” and “anorexic.”
I thought she was overreacting, but if my mom said the SVH book wasn’t coming home with me, that was the end of it—or at least, it might have been the end if I hadn’t started sneak-reading them during our library visits. I read the first book, Double Love, while hiding deep in the science stacks. I just had to find out whether conceited and conniving Jessica would steal Todd, the hot football star and basketball team captain, away from her much nicer sister, Elizabeth.
The books are full of trainwreck drama but the girls' lives seemed fabulous: They’re eternally tan, they have their own car, all the guys at school want to date them, and all the other girls want to be them. Plus, as the books endlessly remind us, they're really blond, pretty, and they’re a perfect size six.
It’s only now that I realize exactly how much Elizabeth and Jessica were everything I wasn’t. There was no way that I—a nerdy, half-black, half-Irish teen with a Depeche Mode obsession and really big hair—could magically morph into either one. But I tried.
I couldn’t do anything about my hand-me-downs and outfits from JC Penney, so I began harassing my mom about letting me bleach my hair blond. My mom thought I was crazy and said no.
I couldn’t live up to the twins' looks and boy-magnet personas, either. Eurocentric standards of beauty ruled at my majority white middle school, so no boys liked me. I’m not kidding. As one of the only black girls at my school, I was so undesirable that during a kissing game at a party, no guys wanted to go in the closet with me to make out.
The guys I knew weren’t rebellious like the twins' brother, Steven. In one book he has an interracial relationship with the only black girl in town. But it was just an experiment to prove a point—they end things because, you know, it’s better to stick with your own kind. While this plot line may have been realistic for the times, now I can't help but feel annoyed that the storyline didn't push more racial boundaries and have them become a real couple.
I never felt happy after reading SVH books. Sure, I wanted to know what would happen next, but I always felt guilty and a little dirty—like how I feel nowadays when I spend a lot of time on gossip sites like D-Listed or The Superficial. After awhile, my teen self realized that the twins' constant obsession with their looks, their competitive behavior over boys, and the way other girls were always portrayed as rivals were getting on my nerves. I may not have wanted to listen to her, but my mom was right.
Sweet Valley High books are still being churned out—the series got a reboot in 2008 and saw the twins slimmed down to an even more svelte size four. But are today’s teens still devouring this fantasy ideal of what young women in America are supposed to look like and how they’re supposed to behave?
I asked a friend’s daughter, a freshman in high school, if she reads the new-and-improved SVH and she quickly texted me back, “Uh, no, we don’t read those. We’re into the Gossip Girl books.”
Ah, Gossip Girl. I knew it was a drama-filled TV show, but I hadn’t realized it got its start as a book series. I needed to read a Gossip Girl book and get familiar with the main characters, Blair Waldorf and her best friend, Serena van der Woodsen.
I couldn’t bring myself to sneak into the teen section at my local library. It’s always packed with kids I know from my neighborhood, and how would I look explaining to them that I was trying to read a Gossip Girl book? I headed to a bookstore and picked up It Had to be You: The Gossip Girl Prequel. As I thumbed through it, I wondered, Were these girls teens or adults? They were certainly getting their grown-and-sexy on, page after page. And then I got to the part where their guy "friend" Nate Archibald, who’s slept with both girls, describes Serena:
“The best thing about Serena was her total lack of embarrassing flab. Her entire body was as long and lean and taut as the strings on his Prince titanium tennis racket.”\n
Wow. Any kind of flab equals "bad," which means that Serena must damn near be a skeleton. Forget the emphasis on clothing size in SVH—this was some really direct messaging about what kind of body size is attractive. And what was up with the product placement? So far, I'd read about MAC lip gloss, Gucci dresses, Manolo Blahnik shoes and drinks made with Bombay Sapphire. OK, I get it. You're rich.
But, because gossip sucks you in, I kept reading Nate’s thoughts about Serena and Blair, "hands down the two hottest girls on the Upper East Side, and maybe all of Manhattan, or even the world.”
I found myself standing in the bookstore, making the same “Bitch, please” face my mom made when she saw me with that SVH book years ago. I think that look stayed on my face as Nate went on to explain how he wouldn’t have been friends with either girl if they’d been “awkward” or “butt-ugly.”
There aren’t any black, Latino or Asian main characters in the Gossip Girl world, so I assume if you’re any of those, you’re automatically awkward and ugly. Indeed, no one, even if you're white, can ever be as awesome as Blair or Serena. Despite the addictive drama—like Blair's dad divorcing her mom for a guy—their lives are Photoshopped and their problems read like a poor little rich girl primer—boring and a little disturbing.
Are these girls really what most modern teens are like, or are they who adults think teens want to be—mini grown-ups with lots of disposable cash, Cristal, good looks, and no responsibilities? After a few more pages, I slid the book back on the shelf and found myself feeling nostalgic for the comparatively less vapid and materialistic—and more innocent—existence of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.
Sure, both Sweet Valley High and Gossip Girl are escapes from reality, but at what cost? We don't need yet another generation of girls growing up with the same messages of not being white enough, pretty enough, thin enough or rich enough. And, given the international reach of these books, we're exporting that messaging around the world. No wonder skin lightening creams, hair straightening chemicals and eating disorders are as popular as they've ever been. It's sad that my friend’s daughter and her teen peers are reading either series.
The last thing on earth we usually want is to turn into our mothers, but in this case, I'm glad I have. If I had a teen daughter trying to check either series out of the library, I'd probably tell her to steer clear. Let's hope she'd listen.