THE BACK PAGES

In defence of mean-girl books

'The Clique’ and 'Gossip Girl’ are vicious, but not every school is like Sweet Valley High

LIANNE GEORGE October 15 2007
THE BACK PAGES

In defence of mean-girl books

'The Clique’ and 'Gossip Girl’ are vicious, but not every school is like Sweet Valley High

LIANNE GEORGE October 15 2007

THE BACK PAGES

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In defence of mean-girl books

books

'The Clique’ and 'Gossip Girl’ are vicious, but not every school is like Sweet Valley High

LIANNE GEORGE

When Francine Pascal, the elusive creator of the Sweet Valley High books, set out to write the first few titles in the series in the early ’80s, the teen-girl fiction market was wide open. “The field almost didn’t exist, actually,” she said last week from her home in New York. There was Young Adult fiction, which she also wrote, but that was a grittier, more urban and literary genre, and not gender-specific. For girls exclusively, she argued, there had been nothing new since Nancy Drew was invented in the ’30s.

And so she ventured to write a sort of chaste Dallas for teens. She set her narrative in the fictitious, idyllic town of Sweet Valley, Calif., and she put a pair of beautiful, blond teenagers at the heart of the action. “I decided that the best characters would be twins,” she said, “a good one and a bad one.” Jessica Wakefield was the original mean girl: the

flaky, snobbish head cheerleader. Elizabeth, her identical sister, was brainy and, according to Pascal, “the best friend you could have.” In each Sweet Valley story, a social conundrum was neatly resolved, and the mean girl always did the right thing in the end. The books sold so well that Pascal and her team of writers could hardly crank them out fast enough.

Still, as squeaky clean as they seem by today’s standards, Sweet Valley High books were denounced by critics at the time as trashy and shallow. “Librarians were my first foes,” said Pascal. The response, in fact, was not

unlike the kind of criticism that’s been levelled at the newest wave of teen-girl books.

Ever since the CW network announced it would produce a TV adaptation of the bestselling series Gossip Girl (which CTV now airs Tuesday nights in its youth-friendly 7 p.m. time slot), the genre has attracted renewed attention, much of it negative. Although many of the books look rather like Sweet Valley High—with their candy-coloured packaging and glossy cover photos—inside, they reflect the high-stakes, low-standards uni-

verse of today’s teen culture, with storylines that could have been ripped directly from the tabloids.

There is The Clique series, created in 2004 by Toronto native Lisi Harrison and featuring book titles like Dial L for Loser and Best Friends for Never. Its five spoiled-rotten, morally vapid 12-year-old heroines—a.k.a. The Pretty Committee—from the posh suburb of Westchester, N.Y., speak in “Ehmagawds!” and “Ah-mazings!” (The Clique is now being made into a feature film.) Similarly, Gossip Girl, marketed to slightly older girls, chronicles the lives of teen socialites on Manhattan’s

Upper East Side: their clothes, their love lives, their substance-abuse problems and cruel high-tech rivalries. Over on the West Coast, The A-List by Zoey Dean is set in a posh Beverly Hills high school, where name-dropping, fake pregnancies and rehab are familiar pastimes. Each series has sold more than a million copies. “We’re seeing double-digit increases in teen sales for the past few years,” says Lisa Huie of Indigo Books & Music.

The girls at the heart of these novels expend their energies angling to get to the top of the social ladder, no matter whom they have to devastate on their way up. There’s a profound cynicism about them, says Gisèle Baxter, an English professor at the University of British Columbia, who specializes in young people’s literature. “Their whole attitude puts me in mind of some teen girl’s version of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, only without the horror or the satire.” Even the

approach to sexuality is calculating and callous, say critics: “This is not the frank sexual exploration found in a Judy Blume novel,” Naomi Wolf wrote in the New York Times, “but teenage sexuality via Juicy Couture, blasé and entirely commodified.”

“[With these series], I think girls have been given permission to be meaner,” says Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education at Colby College in Maine, and the co-author of Packaging Girlhood. “They’re being told that this is how girls show their power. It’s been valourized.” But it’s at least a good thing that they’re reading, right? “Oh please,” says

• Brown. “Garbage in, garbage out. We are what we take in.’ Even Harrison, who now lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., agrees. T’m terrified of half the girls that read my books,” she says.

That’s because this generation of girls—like every generation that came before them—can be terrifying. Although the scale of psychological warfare in these books may be exaggerated—this is, after all, a world in which seventh-graders get spray tans and eyebrow waxes at Bergdorf’s—the central issues of self-esteem, consumerism, sexuality, and drug and alcohol experimentation are the same-old same-old, and still as creepy as ever for grown-ups. Before Stephanie Savage, co-creator of the Gossip Girl television series, set out to make the show, she spent a week hanging out with wealthy private-school girls in New York for research purposes. “One of the things that the girls all said is that the stuff that happens in Gossip Girl is not made up,” she says.

“It’s out there, but it just doesn’t happen all the time and to everyone.” The show, like the book series, is just another high-voltage re-enactment. (As a bonus, central casting at the CW network could not have chosen a better set of androgynous-chic, real-life names for its Gossip Girl cast members: Leighton Meester, Blake Lively, Penn Badgley, Taylor Momsen, Chace Crawford.)

After a recent viewing of the Gossip Girl pilot, a panel of seventh-grade girls, readers of the books, gathered in north Toronto to discuss its resonance. “There’s a lot of people at our school like this,” said Anthi. “Well, not exactly like this because obviously no one at our school is that rich and no one goes to parties and stuff. But some people at our school are like that. They’re obsessed with being popular.”

Her peers nodded. At their school, the cool kids, whom they call The Peoples (“because we couldn’t think of anything better”), seem to play by Gossip Girl rules—without the sex, drugs and alcohol, at this point.

“You know The Clique slogan, ‘The only thing harder than getting in is staying in’?” says Sophie. “I think it’s true.” To stay on top, says Kristen, “you have to have the right clothes, and if you’re not rich, you pretend to be rich and hope no one finds out.” “You have to make sure you’re getting noticed all the time,” says Julie. “Some people think they’re just so great,” Anthi says.

Girls, in other words, seem to already understand the Darwinian social dynamics of junior high. And the books may actually serve as a tool for them to attempt to make sense of it all. They play to conventional fan-

tasy, of course, offering a rarefied version of what girls see in their everyday lives. “The world of the Upper East Side in New York is really interesting and attractive to people because it’s really exclusive,” says Savage, who says she spent her childhood in Calgary, a latchkey kid who lived with her single mom and her sister in a duplex by the airport. “It’s

Tm terrified of half of the girls who read my books, ’ says Lisi Harrison

the American aristocracy, and people have always been fascinated with aristocracy going back to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare.”

But the books also give the girls who are not necessarily perched on the top social rung a risk-free context in which to play out various social hypotheticals. “I think the reason girls like to read the books is because they make you feel like you’re actually part of a really important clique,” says Anthi. “It gives you a feeling of power.” Adds Kristen: “And you know the secrets.” At the same time, they can judge and reject the bad behaviour from the safety of their room. “We often don’t have the wherewithal to get revenge on these people in our real classrooms and cafeterias,” says Thompson. “We can therefore get our revenge in fiction.”

The books are hardly subversive, but they are indeed satire, and kids seem to get it. “For me, they’re funny because they’re stupid,”

says Sophie. “These girls are fighting over how popular they are and how rich they are. I feel like it tells you what not to do.”

In fact, in many ways, even though the good characters aren’t overly sweet and the bad characters rarely get their comeuppance, Gossip Girl, The Clique and A-List offer the same old teenage cautionary tales, only wrapped in a more salacious, contemporary package. (Certainly, they are no more disturbing in theme or execution than V.C. Andrews’ ’80s teen-cult series, Flowers in the Attic, which contained both a psychotic mother and a brother-sister romance.)

Arguably these books are a very effective, if indirect, way to deliver tried-and-true wisdom to a generation of sophisticated young people who have a finely honed sense of irony. At least they appear to subvert corny, old-fashioned morality tales. ‘You’ve got to slip a moral message in so they don’t feel like they’re being preached to,” says Thompson. “It’s like a Trojan horse. They want to feel they’re going to the kind of movie their older siblings would like.”

Of course, the crass commercialism in these books is impossible to ignore. The first 50 pages of The Clique, for instance, reference dozens of ultra-luxe brands: Chanel, Hermès, Prada, Range Rover, Jimmy Choo, Glaceau Vitamin Water, Louis Vuitton, and so on.

“That’s just pop culture, and to deny that is to deny your culture,” says Harrison, a former MTV producer who has no intention of denying her culture. To date, there’s no paid product placement in her books, but “believe me, I wish there were,” she says. “I wish I was getting truckloads of designer clothes so that I would mention their brands. I welcome it, but not one brand has offered.”

This is the kind of thing that makes Brown cringe. “To say this stuff is just fun, to me, it’s like ‘the banality of evil,’ ” she says. “It’s such a height of thoughtlessness. Because in order to see it that way, you have to ignore all of the research and all of the psychology and what the educators are saying girls are struggling with.” Does Harrison have any children of her own, Brown wonders.

“Yes, I have two,” says Harrison. “Both boys, thank God!” M