It’s Baaack: Sweet Valley High Redux

by Guest Contributor Nadra Kareem, originally published at The Whirliest Girl

Years ago my mother was an avid reader of the Harlequin Romance series, while I read what some would view as the young adult version of those books—Sweet Valley High. From about fourth through sixth grade, I was obsessed with the central characters of the series, a pair of blond, blue-eyed Southern California twins named Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Now, I’ve learned that the books, first published about 25 years ago, are back. The series has been updated to include references to contemporary technology, such as email, the Internet and cell phones. But the most controversial change is that the Wakefield sisters will now be a Size 4 instead of a Size 6. The downsizing of the girls’ much touted tan frames has sparked debates on Feministing.com, as well as at the Dairi Burger site, a blog named after fictitious Sweet Valley’s favorite teen hotspot.

I’ve been unsettled to read comments from visitors to these sites who say that the Sweet Valley series is to blame for their development of eating disorders. The readers say that the books ingrained in them the notion that Size 6 was the ideal. This isn’t surprising because, in each book in the series, the twins’ size and height (5 feet 6) are emphasized. What I’ve forgotten in adulthood, however, is that the books actually contain character after character with dietary habits that fall under the umbrella of bulimia or anorexia. One mother’s use of diet pills during pregnancy is responsible for her daughter being born deaf. And characters constantly criticize each other for doing things like eating full plates of food or looking fat in their jeans. Those who aren’t thin are almost always viewed as being impaired, if not downright sub-human.

Wrote one visitor to the Dairi Burger Web site:

“Here I was, thinking I was the only one who developed an eating disorder after reading SVH. This is fucking hilarious!”

From reading the site’s revisionist retellings of the books, not only does the Sweet Valley High series promote dysfunctional eating, they are also filled with episodes of attempted rape and sexual abuse that are completely forgotten about later. As if that weren’t enough, the books are filled with classist/racist/heterosexist rhetoric.

“I don’t know how she can date him,” a character says about a classmate who is dating a Latino student. “He’s so ethnic and working class.”

WTF? I know that Sweet Valley High got its start in the 1980s, but I’m still shocked that this line made it past the editors.

Later, the series explores the romantic relationship of the twins’ older brother, Steven, and the one black girl in town. In the end, however, Steven and the girl decide that there is no real chemistry between them and ultimately end up—where society dictates they should be—with their own “kinds.” Seems they were only together to make a social statement. What an enlightening commentary on why people enter interracial relationships. They do so to rebel, not because they actually care about each other.

In addition to the lone black girl in town, there is a Latina who passes for white. So ashamed is she of her Mexican heritage that she tells her white friends that her grandmother is her cleaning lady. This sounds like it was lifted straight out of the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.” Anyway, the character ends up revealing her heritage after she is forced to speak Spanish in a life or death situation. Not to worry, though, her friends tell her that they will overlook the fact that she’s a Mexican.

The treatment of sexual orientation in the Sweet Valley series isn’t much better than the treatment of race, as the blogger over at Dairi Burger observes with delicious snarkiness.

“Enid’s cousin Jake comes to visit, and everybody loves him, and Jess and Lila try to get with him. And Tom plays tennis with him and when he is with him, he feels warm and fuzzy …down there. Alas, Jake is GAY!!!! I didn’t think that gays existed in Sweet Valley. Or were allowed to set foot in the town. Enid is a big ol’ homophobe when Jake tells her and Tom gets all weird when he finds out because BAM! suddenly he realizes he is gay.”

God knows what effect this drivel, albeit very entertaining drivel, had on my 10-year-old brain. But the question now isn’t so much about those of us who survived Sweet Valley High when we were little, it’s about the tween girls who will find themselves subject to its messages this time around. Can we expect a new crop of girls to take up bingeing and purging after their initiation into the series, where Size 4 is now the standard of beauty? And how will the new generation of readers counteract the suggestions about the superiority of blue eyes, that it’s only natural for guys to want to date rape their attractive classmates and that anyone who is queer or of color is destined for a life in the margins? Seems to me these books need to contain updates that address more than technological advances. They also need to reflect the advances that have been made in the realms of race, class and gender.