There are those who would posit that the Sweet Valley High series, written for boy-crazy teen girls in the 1980s, is not a definitive late-20th century Marxist text. Those people are unenlightened.
Class struggle, alienation within a repressive bourgeois society, and the looming specter of antagonistic capitalism are all principal underpinnings of the ongoing saga of a pair of blond twins living it up in sunny Southern California during the materialistic Reagan years. But the definitive proof that author Francine Pascal wrote her own Das Kapital between the lines of a popular mass-market paperback YA series is the presence of a complex Marxist dialectic that runs from book to book.
Reality, as conceived in the Sweet Valley High fictional universe, is a distillation of the bourgeois fantasyland of the post-industrial, pre-internet era. A size-six figure, blond hair, and the possession of a Fiat Spider are the aspirational standards; parking is prolific and traffic is non-existent in Los Angeles and its environs; everyone is by default white and middle class unless otherwise specified; and so on.
The dialectic put forth between the books is similarly simplistic. For our purposes, it will be rendered in the following barebones formula:
Thesis + antithesis = synthesis
Where the thesis is the current state of affairs at the outset of the book, the antithesis is the conflict that drives the plot, and the synthesis is the plot resolution that carries over to another book in the series, becoming that next book’s thesis.
To discover the dialectic in action, let’s consider three Sweet Valley High books selected at random (they are also the only Sweet Valley High books I’ve ever actually read—I was a Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins spinoff girl myself).
Here we go, comrades!
The New Jessica
Thesis: To change who you are as a person, you must change your appearance.
Published in November 1986 and read by yours truly soon thereafter, The New Jessica charts a futile attempt by the transgressive Jessica Wakefield to break free of the dual chains of identical twinhood and bourgeois repression through revolutionary action. Shackled to her twin by their superficial similarities, and to her upper middle class life by her own conformist fashion sense, she experiences a brief identity crisis.
Jessica decides to transmute herself from West Coast every-blond into a worldly young woman she sees in Vogue magazine, described as “the essence of the new European beauty…the daughter of a ballerina and a film director. Her hobbies include Indonesian cooking, French museums, and skiing in the Alps.”
“That’s going to be me,” Jessica declares. “No more kid stuff. No more of the old Jessica Wakefield. … As far as Jessica was concerned, it was time for drastic action. She was sick and tired of looking exactly like Elizabeth. And it was high time she did something to ensure that no one ever confused them again!”
The “something” she settles upon is limited to an alteration of her appearance; namely, borrowing several pounds of sophisticated French outfits from a wealthy friend, and dyeing her naturally blond hair black. Skirting implications of the ongoing interracial conflicts in 1986 Los Angeles, the author assigns her transformation a Caucasian-passing savor of Eastern European exoticism (see also: the Armenian extraction of the Kardashians).
“She spun around to face herself in the mirror, her eyes widening as her fingers flew to her damp hair. It was black. Raven black. … For the first time she could remember, her skin looked pale—delicately, exotically pale. Her eyes were the bluest she had ever seen them.”
The dye-job has the intended effect, instantly cleaving Jessica from her identical twin, both aesthetically and emotionally.
“Elizabeth grabbed the table behind her for support. ‘You look completely different,’ she said accusingly. … Elizabeth wasn’t exactly sure why, but she felt that Jessica had betrayed her. ‘You look like a stranger!’”
No longer considered an identical twin in the strictest sense by society, and garnering ersatz outsider status thanks to her Parisian clothing and Borat-territory makeup, Jessica’s attempt to change who she is would seem to have succeeded.
Antithesis: If you change your appearance, you will not change who you are as a person—only your reaction to society will change.
Jessica cannot maintain her pose of Otherness for long. Each day that passes requires a more daring outfit…a different picturesque pose with a French magazine that cannot be comprehended or a cup of espresso that is undrinkable…a more forceful assertion of material difference that does not penetrate to the core of her being. Though superficially her attempt to convert herself from prosaic California teen to foreign sophisticate has succeeded, Jessica becomes frustrated and bored with the game. When society—in the form of a sketchy teen modeling agency—judges her outsider look inferior to Elizabeth’s, she gives up. Clearly, she has not changed.
Synthesis: To change who you are as a person, you must change your behavior.
In the end, Jessica realizes that hair dye cannot penetrate one’s soul. She washes the dye out of her hair, returns her borrowed clothes, and resumes her former life as an identical twin and uncultivated 1980s American teen.
The New Elizabeth
Thesis: To change who you are as a person, you must change your behavior.
Never let go of a good literary theme until the last drop of blood has been squeezed from it—this is the lesson of the next text under consideration. I discovered The New Elizabeth stuffed into the clearance rack of a local used book store, priced at the princely sum of one whole dollar, about two months ago. Since one whole dollar was just about all the cash I had on me at the time, I decided that I must buy and read this fine tome.
This time around, it’s conventional twin Elizabeth who seeks to change herself. Dissatisfaction settles heavily upon her at the outset of the book, as she reflects upon her unwavering adherence to the Sweet Valley cultural orthodoxy (tame dates at the Dairi Burger with her emotional-abuser-in-training boyfriend Todd, writing middle-aged reflections about Life in her diary—playing the recorder for God’s sake!)
“Elizabeth was beginning to get tired of her conservative, sensible reputation. And now she was wondering how to change things, once and for all.”
At first, she tries to follow Jessica’s self-transformational trail by changing her hairstyle with a temporary perm. However, the falsity of this step becomes quickly apparent (very quickly; as in, on page one) and Elizabeth realizes that to change who she is inside, she must change her behavior.
She decides to become a surfer and starts training in secret, lying by omission to everyone around her in the process, rather like Keanu Reeves in Point Break—which, interestingly, came out one year after The New Elizabeth.
Just like rogue FBI agent Johnny Utah, Elizabeth embraces the danger and “100 percent pure adrenaline” lifestyle of the Great American Surfer, with all the obnoxious 1990s beach bum traits that this implies. For reasons that probably made sense to the juvenile audience this book was written for, Elizabeth foolishly decides that she will reveal none of her new activities to her friends or family until she has perfected them.
“She wanted so much to tell Todd everything. She hated to see him jealous and grumpy. But, on the other hand, she wanted her surfing debut to be a complete shock to everyone. … She did have a point to prove to herself. She had started this whole surfing thing to be more daring and unpredictable. … She thought, At least I’m doing something different.”
Before long, Elizabeth has become a competent surfer, accepted within the local wave-riding community and gunning for the championship in a much-hyped surfing competition. She surfs, therefore she is a surfer.
Elizabeth’s attempt to change who she is would seem to have succeeded.
Antithesis: If you change your behavior, you will not change who you are as a person—only society’s collective reaction to you will change.
Elizabeth’s secret doings alienate her from her twin, her friends, and especially her crabby boyfriend. They sense that something is different about her—but she appears to be the same old Elizabeth Wakefield.
Lies pile upon lies, and eventually Elizabeth is almost ready to reveal herself as a surfer, but her rejection by her bourgeois counterparts is already nearly complete. Society has already determined her transformation to be inadequate.
“I wish I’d never tried to change at all! Elizabeth thought as she wiped her tears away with a tissue. It’s just not worth it.”
She confesses, gives up surfing, and resumes her former life as an identical twin and unadventurous 1980s American teen.
Synthesis: To change who you are as a person, you must change your appearance and your behavior.
Thesis: To change who you are as a person, you must change your appearance and your behavior.
This one raises myriad intriguing questions today, just as it did when I read it ironically at some point during my late high school years.
Once again smothered by the constraints of her bourgeois milieu, Jessica decides to claw her way to freedom by changing herself. But this time, she makes two notable adjustments:
1) She hedges her bets by simultaneously trying out two very different identities, and
2) She realizes that she must alter both her appearance and behavior to enact a complete transformation.
To that end, she submits herself to the ministrations of Lovestruck Computer Dating, which is based out of the Sweet Valley mall and is even less like Tinder than you’d expect. She fills out two separate profiles to be matched up with compatible single boys.
The first is similar to the raven-haired Vogue model from The New Jessica: “‘Daniella Fromage’ seemed to be an intellectual. She liked foreign films, modern poetry, French cuisine, and world travel. Her idea of a perfect evening was ‘a meaningful conversation in front of a crackling fire, with an opera on the stereo.’”
The other is Magenta Galaxy, “a wild rocker whose passions were ‘everything new and anything hot.’ She liked fast cars, loud dance bands, the latest fashions—the wilder the better. Her perfect evening consisted of cruising the hippest music clubs in L.A. and ending up in a coffee shop at four in the morning, eating hamburgers and dancing on the countertop.”
Jessica cleverly bases each of the divergent personalities on a classmate. Without divulging her true motivations, she hangs around each inspiring girl to soak up her mannerisms, borrow outfits, and pick up facts she can drop into everyday conversation, such as the difference between Manet and Monet, and whether Abbie Hoffman was a Grateful Dead guitarist or a radical hippie. With her appearance and behavior altered, Jessica is ready to meet her matches.
Her Daniella Cheese persona is matched with one Pierre Du Lac, who “was born in France, has traveled extensively on the Continent…speaks four languages, plans to be a novelist or a museum curator, plays the piano, and loves jogging and sailing. His favorite foods are truffles and foie gras.”
Not long after, Jessica’s Magenta profile gets pinged by Brett S., who “wants to be a race car driver or a rock guitarist, or both. He believes in living life to the max. He says he’s tall, dark, and wild, and likes his girls to be tall, blond, and wild.”
She goes out on a date with each boy (they are indeed both teen boys, not pervy middle-aged guys, as one might expect today). Both lads are fully convinced and besotted by her respective façades of urbane sophisticate and cool pre-grunge rocker chick. Now she just has to decide with of these false selves she wants to keep.
Jessica’s attempt to change who she is would seem to have succeeded.
Antithesis: If you change your appearance and behavior, you will discover that others have also changed their appearance and behavior.
Surprise! It turns out, after complex shenanigans that involve Elizabeth assuming both of Jessica’s made-up personas, that the spunky fellas were pulling the very same scam Jessica concocted. Cool Brett S. is a really a preppy future frat boy, and suave Francophile Pierre is actually a garage band loser who will probably move to Seattle with his band right after graduating in ‘92, spend 18 months playing the late set at the Crocodile Cafe, toy with the idea of quitting to join the sell-outs at the burgeoning Microsoft campus, fully commit to his music when Subpop signs him, and die of a heroin overdose three months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
Jessica drops her phony personas and both boys immediately, and resumes her former life as an identical twin and more or less honest 1980s American teen.
Synthesis: Bourgeois society is a network of masked dissemblers engaging in insincere interactions with other masked dissemblers.
I suspect that this new thesis will evolve in a most intriguing manner in the other Sweet Valley High book I bought for one whole dollar at the used book store, and have not yet read: Kidnapped By the Cult!
How will Francine Pascal tackle a discourse on the opiate of the masses within the context of a series notoriously devoid of spirituality and religious trappings? Find out in Sweet Valley High: Marxist Dialectic #2!