Monday, January 25, 2010

Fucked up books of my childhood




Respectively, the Sweet Valley High (and satellites) books, as examined at The Dairi Burger

and VC Andrews (Inc), Trapped in the Attic.

If you, too, had your formative years at all warped by these literary classics, and had blissfully put most of the details out of your consciousness, now's your chance to have it all come flooding back to you, with hilarious commentary.

If you don't know what I'm talking about...check the sites out anyway. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll spork. Most important, you'll realize "Twlight" had nothing on the 80's for professional Mary Sues. Tragic orphans! Terrible accidents! Murder, even! Ghosts, werewolves, and vampires! And that's just the Sweet Valley series.

Perfect size six suburban twins with sparkling blonde hair! Perfect helpless heroines locked away in secret-and-spider-riddled garrets! With sparkling blonde hair! Many, many lovingly described outfits and other material details, which were of course in no way why I read the things in the first place. And of course, a whole shitload of men, some of whom are teh sexxy and buy pretty things before revealing themselves to be as bastard-y as all the others, not that there is ever any other ultimate goal besides landing one.


******

Edited to update:

A conversation elsewhere got me thinking more seriously about this essay by Joanna Russ in To Write Like A Woman on the modern Gothic, "Somebody's Trying To Kill Me And I Think It's My Husband." It's basically second-wave feminist analysis applied to lit crit, but she's by far one of the better ones out there.

More details and quotage shortly, but essentially her point is that in the Gothic the female "subject" position isn't really much of one; the protagonist doesn't really initiate plot, she stands there and things happen to/around her. Her main task is figuring out the "mystery" of what the hell is going on around her. Much of which involves figuring out other peoples' feelings
(especially the Man, natch).

It's interesting because her thesis not only fits the gothics she was writing about as well as the more sensationalistic VC Andrews books that probably came out after she wrote the essay, but also applies to True Blood and of course Twilight, no doubt among other contemporary hits.

As far as that goes, I was snarking when I first noted that the Sweet Valley Books, once they started not just jumping the shark but doing trapeze acts with it, eventually have all the elements associated with more standard "gothic" books like the VC Andrews books, but actually, it's not that dissimilar. There *is* no real action in SVH as such-the girls don't really *go* anywhere, despite having cunning plots to defeat rivals and hook boys and career aspirations and such-they stay forever frozen at a perfect age, and they don't ever really set anything in motion. So in order to be "exciting" it has to get soapier and soapier...

I had figured that the reason for this in the SVH books was more because having them actually change and grow would defeat the magic fantasy stasis of Perfect Teen Suburbia, but actually the Mary Sue-ism isn't at all unrelated to that fetish. I mean, it's specifically a woman's fantasy Perfect Teen Suburbia (Francine Pascal, more or less, via her many ghostwriters), a retro one, I mean. So the "waiting for something exciting to happen, which will almost certainly come from a Man" is probably kind of implicit in that.

Anyway, here's Russ in her own words:

The Modern Gothic is episodic; the heroine does nothing except worry; any necessary detective work is done by other persons, often the Super- Male. Whenever the Heroine acts...she bungles things badly. [Hi, Bella!] There is a period of terror, repeated sinister incidents, ominous dialogue spoken by various characters, and then the sudden revelation of who's who and what's what. In terms of ordinary pulp technique, these novels are formless. Even so, they obey extraordinarily rigid rules. There must be a reason for these rules.

I would propose that the Modern Gothics are a direct expression of the traditional feminine situation (at least a middle-class [white] feminine situation) and that they provide precisely the kind of escape reading a middle-class believer in the feminine mystique needs, without involving elements that either go beyond the feminine mystique or would be considered immoral in its terms.


...and here she puts a finger on the Mary Sue phenomenon in all but name:

Most striking about these novels is the combination of intrigue, crime and danger with the Heroine's complete passivity. Unconscious foci of intrigue, passion, and crime, these young women (none of whom are over thirty) wander through all sorts of threatening forces of which they are intuitively, but never intellectually, aware. Most of all, *they are of extraordinary interest to everyone*-even though they are ill educated, ordinary, characterless and usually very hazily
delineated (as one might suspect) as a stand-in for the reader.

Sometimes Heroines are very beautiful (although they don't know it) or heiresses (which they don't know, either) or possess some piece of information about the Secret (which they are incapable of interpreting). Their connection with the action of the novel is always passive; they are focal points for tremendous emotion, and sometimes tremendous struggle, simply because they exist...

In the face of this really extraordinary passivity-for if the protagonist of a novel is not active in some way, what on earth is the
novel about?-it is tempting to see these books as genuine family romances, with the Heroine as the child who is trying desperately to figure out what the grownups are up to...At their best Heroines merely stand (passively) for love, goodness, redemption, and innocence. They are special and precious because they are Heroines. And that is that."


This becomes a lot more evident with VC Andrews, who made the "family romance" part way more explicit than any of the earlier goffics Russ was examining.

As per the Mary Sueism, passivity and all, I think that's what had irritated me so much about True Blood, more so in the first season. Sookie is a *classic* of the type. And she only gets more special and precious and besotting of others as it goes on.

BTVS, whatever its flaws, was satisfying because it explicitly *doesn't* do this: Buffy really is a true protagonist, a Hero with a journey, not just someone who radiates goodness while all the fighting takes place all around her.

That said, I'm digging True Blood more in its second season probably precisely because there's so much more focus on all the subplots and secondary characters, most of whom have a more interesting "story" imo than Sookie.

So Russ concludes:

"The Modern Gothic, as a genre, is a means of enabling a conventionally Heroine to have adventures at all. It may also be a way that conventionally feminine readers can see their own situation...validated, justified, and glamorized up to the hilt, without turning Heroines into active persons or into sexually adventurous persons, both of whom violate the morality of conventional femininity.,


[It'd be interesting to see her take on the later Judith Krantz and such genre. wherein the Heroines do become much more sexually adventurous-within certain strictures-and nominally have careers, but a lot of this still applies. The "Lace" books as I recall them could be termed the Cosmo Gothic. More sex, more designer name dropping, the women become successful fashion designers or that sort of thing, and the rest is still pretty similar]

...
1. Housework, etc. is banned. I'm on holiday.

2. I'm upper-middle class, not lower-middle class.

3. My upward mobility is achieved through marriage.

4. I'm a good girl-modest, not too pretty but quite pretty, not too rich but rich enough, womanly, loving, dependent, and somehow "average" (even though I am uniquely precious)

5. The Super-Male *really exists* (all evidence to the contrary)

6. He really loves me, even though I am not strikingly beautiful, brilliant, talented, famous, or rich. I do not see why he loves me, but he does. He may appear to treat me badly or brusquely; still, he loves me.

7. I do nothing. I do not have to do anything. Merely because I exist, violent emotions and acts spring into being.

8. I am rewarded for being good. Aggressively sexual, beautiful, worldly women are wicked and are punished accordingly. Men don't *really* like them.

9. I have intense emotional relations with places-houses, weather, nature. (Scenery-painting is often the best-written part of these books).

10. I have pretty, romantic clothes (but not sexy or flamboyant ones). Clothes really are very important.

11. *My sexual value is my personal value and is respected by all but villains and villainesses.* Men's desire is a testimony to my personal, individual worth. I have no character, interests, or achievements, but those who do come to a bad end (if female).

12. I am a virtuoso at interpreting faces and feelings. [Sookie in True Blood takes this one further by being actually *psychic.*] This ability is not "wasted" on the everyday drudgery of infants' needs or husbands' grumpiness-it is vital in saving my life and the happiness of all about me. (Even if I come to the wrong conclusions, my intense over-reading of everybody else's emotions is still justified).

13. If I don't know what's happening, that's all right: my man does.

14. I can't save myself, but my man will do it for me. [More often torqued these days, if not consistently; Sookie's killing Rene in self-defense has shades of Final Girl, but she still has the men running to her aid, the distraction helps enable her to defend herself, and they do outright rescue her on many other occasions]

15. Life with the Super-Male is *really satisfying.*


Sookeh! SOOKEH!!!...

annnd

*sparkle out*



137 comments:

SnowdropExplodes said...

Oh God, my sister used to be HOOKED on SVH (I've just emailed her the link to that site!)

My fiction crimes of youth were the Famous Five/Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton (and no, I was totally oblivious in my youth to the racism etc, I just remember admiring George for going against gender stereotypes)

Nell Gwynne said...

oohhh, i faintly remember a series called "The Babysitter's Club", which involved self absored teenagers, their not-nearly-as-cool families, ZOMG BOYS!, and babysitting.

head. desk.

Kristin said...

The main thing I remember about The Babysitters' Club is the token black character, Jesse. What I remember, in particular, is the fact that the first chapter of every book would say something like, "Jesse's black, but she's one of us, and we've never looked down on her." Even when I read those books (I was maybe about 8), I thought that was fucked up.

Of course, those intros were sort of a list of ridiculous stock characters, if I remember: "Stacey's the pretty one! Mary Ann is the smart one! Kristy is the tom boy!" Oh my god, I can't believe I remember that many of the babysitters. Argh.

Kristin said...

Anyway, I'm thankful that this phase didn't last more than about a year for me (fourth grade, I think). I also read some of the Sweet Valley High books at the time, but that didn't last very long. I saw on some blog post several months back (feministe, maybe?) that the twins are no longer a size 6 because a size 6 is no longer "the perfect size." They were scaled down to a size 4, apparently.

Kristin said...

Oh, and when I was little, my parents were still fundies, so I was never allowed to read V.C. Andrews. "Demonic" or something. In the end, I guess, I really didn't miss much.

Kristin said...

Ah, right, Johanna Russ. She's...interesting. In a college course, over ten years ago, I remember having to read her novel, The Female Man. '70's radical feminist sci fi. One of the few things I remember about it is that it was really, really transphobic (a sci fi portrayal of Janice Raymond's thesis). I've read that she's since apologized for that, but I haven't read her since.

Anyway... About the post... I agree with much of what you're saying, but I also thought that Buffy seemed like a kind of device too. Buffy the Anti-Mary Sue. And sometimes it felt like Joss did that just 'cause. As a statement rather than a way of deepening the character. I thought it was cool that she was a hero, but I didn't think she was ever a whole lot more than a Morally Conflicted Hero. That's why I always like Joss's supporting casts better than the Lead Actor...as well. (I felt the same way about Angel, Malcolm Reynolds, and Echo, to be honest.) So, basically, I don't like a gimmicky anti-Mary Sue all that much better than I like a gimmicky Mary Sue. At first, it's Something Different, but eventually I start going, "Okay, how much longer do I have to watch this character be all emo about the moral ambiguity of the human condition?"

Anyway... Yeah, haven't seen True Blood past the first three or four episodes, and this doesn't make me feel like rushing out to watch it either. There is that early episode where Sookie saves Bill from the folks who want his blood. Meh...

belledame222 said...

Yeah, "Female Man" is...very 70's radfem a la Raymond. I had understood similarly (that she apologized since). Mainly I liked her for her essays, which as far as I can recall said nothing about trans people.

I see what you mean about Buffy the character, but I guess I do dig the whole Joseph Campbell hero's journey schtick and her arc really did follow it overall. There was a bit too much emo overall, yes, but I think that's more to do with the writers' personal aesthetics than with the character arc.

"True Blood" gets...better, in season 2. In the sense of it's completely on crack and there's overall less about women getting murdered and Sookeh mooning over Bill, more about corrupt fundie churches and bratty teenage vampires and were-collies and evil Greek demi-goddesses who enjoy making the whole town go Bacchanalian and ripping' out hearts. And much, much moar! I've just been laughing my ass off mostly.

belledame222 said...

Also, there's a bit where she does kill some guy in self-defense, which has a fair amount of "Final Girl" to it. Overall it's still pretty Standard Goth, though. I suspect that many of the deviations from the formula are Alan Ball's idea more than the author of the books, but I haven't read the books.

Jenny said...

There's a few good snarks of a the babysitters club series here: http://community.livejournal.com/bsc_snark/

belledame222 said...

unfortunately (or not) i never really got to those.

I am trying like hell to remember the name of this series that I swear existed, but has since disappeared into the Land That Publishers Forgot. it was like historical romance for teenagers? each one was named after the heroine, and they all had different settings, like an Irish woman fleeing the famine who ended up working in some Boston mansion, or (of course) the Titanic, that sort of thing...

DegreeFinders said...

I think part of the writing, where something is always happening to the lead, as opposed to the lead doing something, is more of comfort zone type of writing and reading. The lead does X because XYZ happened to him/her and now they must act. Actually, it's very much like real life in the fact that there are many people who don't act unless given a reason to. "I lost my job so I'll go back to school." Or "I lost my job, maybe now I can find one I like." Instead of just looking for a job they like while still employed. Or going to school before they are unemployed.

This trend isn't just toward the women. The lead male is usually thrown into action because something happened to propel him forward. Damsel in distress needs his help, or one armed man killed his wife and now he must prove it to free himself. I guess overall, there probably aren't that many stories out there where the lead isn't in action because of something that happened to make them act. Usually though, at the end the character has grown...even if just a little. Well, usually anyway...

Politicalguineapig said...

This amuses me a lot. I occasionally picked up volumes of SVH when I was in second grade. I remember being astounded at how dumb older kids were. And for the record I never thought the Babysitter's Club books were that bad.
I once did a paper on Dr. Jekyll as a Victorian heroine. Weirdly enough, he fit all the criteria.

Natailya Petrova said...

Belle,

All my family in MD has been struck by the vampire craze heh

I was compelled to investigate it myself...the second season probably is more entertaining but all the gore n stuff is a bit much for me sometimes. The vampire love stories are cute and comedic....

: )

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Reha said...

I am trying like hell to remember the name of this series that I swear existed, but has since disappeared into the Land That Publishers Forgot. it was like historical romance for teenagers? each one was named after the heroine, and they all had different settings, like an Irish woman fleeing the famine who ended up working in some Boston mansion, or (of course) the Titanic, that sort of thing...

I totally read those, too. I practically lived on them in junior high. The Oregon Trail one was called AMANDA. Apparently the series was called Sunfire.

I also remember a turn of the century one called EMILY, or maybe SARAH, where her family just got a telephone, but she didn't really like it? I can't really remember. It was a long time ago and Google isn't helping me.

belledame222 said...

Omigod!!! Those were it! You rule. "Sunfire," huh. Never would have thought of it. I must have completely forgotten that bit. But yeah. It was always a woman's name, with her front and center and all historical; and there are two men in the background, and she almost invariably has to choose between them at some point.

I can't remember most of the names. "Kathleen" was the one of the woman who fled the Irish famine and went to work in a Boston brahmin household, I think? "Nicole" might have been the Titanic one.

There was one where she makes it as a Hollywood star in the 20's/30's.

"Emily"...yeah, that rings a bell. Was that the rich, bored New York debutante? The Gibson Girl one? She falls in love with a working class hero (of course) and defies her ever so stuffy parents...

On the whole I remember them being at least somewhat better than your average teen womance; at least the historical bit usually had some actual history to it, and there was generally some class/race stuff, and her happy ending tended to be as much about the whole life package, career and such, as the magic man. it was a really long time ago, though.

belledame222 said...

...oh score! Scroll down a bit on the Amazon page; there's a whole bunch of other titles listed. Yep, Emily would appear to be the deb. Oh, this is SO COOL. I kind of want to order them now...

belledame222 said...

...Roxanne was the Hollywood one. Yep, I'm totally getting these. Nine cents!

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Belle,

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http://www.jennifershahade.com/chessbitchreview.html

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Westerly said...

SVH and VC Andrews! Twisted alright...tried my hand at the Baby-Sitters Club and to me that was like Judy Blume or something horrible like that. Never met Jesse but I do remember Claudia Kishi who was a Japanese fashionista who wasn't very good at math... Mary-Ann was the annoyingly mousy one, right?

Anyway, just wanted to say that I am going to look up Joanna Russ' essay so the next time that I teach or lecture on Twilight, not only can I point to specific the internet sites and get them to learn what a Sue is (and all the different types there are), but I can get them to read the text, read Russ and then ask if any of it sounds vaguely familiar.

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Jenny said...

off topic: this is from last year,but I thought you'd find comment # 41 ironically amusing:

http://www.racialicious.com/2009/05/13/geishas-and-whores/

And I love the 90s young adult snark blogs as well.

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