Like any diehard bookworm, I spent most of my childhood summer vacations at the local library. And there was nothing better on those sweltering days than getting lost in the completely unrealistic and ludicrous lives of the Wakefield twins at Sweet Valley High. As a pre-teen, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield held high court in my heart. Looking back on them now, however, is a different story. Because as entertaining as it was, the Sweet Valley High series completely failed feminism.
Even though the Wakefield twins were more of a trainwreck than a beacon of guidance for a young and impressionable reader such as myself, I don’t regret reading them. Sure, they weren’t the best feminist role models, but I look back on those books fondly. Revisiting the series as an adult, I’m not really sure what about the series captivated me, other than the fact that they were written about two teenage girls, who went to parties, got into fights, almost died once every ten books, and seemingly had little adult supervision. (OK, that does sound like something my 11-year-old self would be seriously into reading.)
Opening the cover of a Sweet Valley High book is a lot like opening a can of worms, which I found out the hard way. Gone were my illusions of Francine Pascal's perfect twins, and in came the startling reality that these books were really questionable at best, with serious plot holes, a lack of direction, and questionable character arcs. And even worse, the realization that the Wakefield twins are not a feminist’s best friend, but something far from it.
1. "All-American" Looks
The Wakefield twins are tall with aqua eyes, wavy blonde hair, and a perfect size six. (In reprints, the Wakefields are a perfect size four. Which is an entire feminist rant in itself, so I'm not even going to go there.) It's hard to get through a chapter without reading about how beautiful the twins are. Their "all-American good looks" get more mentions than their parents. Throughout the entire series, Sweet Valley High relies on the good looks of the Wakefield sisters to get them in and out of trouble. News flash — there is more to a woman's life than being a perfect size six with gloriously bronzed skin. You just won't find much of it in the Sweet Valley High books.
2. Zero Consequences
The world of Sweet Valley High is full of parties, school dances, cool cars, rich folks, and teenagers acting irresponsibly without consequences. Jessica constantly gets in trouble and makes Elizabeth pay the price (like that time at the local watering hole when she gets busted for underage drinking, and gives the cop Elizabeth's name.) And Elizabeth does absolutely nothing. Not only is Jessica's lack of responsibility a reoccurring theme (and a problem), but Elizabeth's lack of a backbone brings to light the notion, yet again, that being a pretty blonde will get you places in life.
3. Elizabeth's Wishy Washy Attitude
Elizabeth is labeled the good twin — quiet, studious, reserved, and thoughtful. Yet despite her intelligence, Elizabeth has a hard time to committing to anything, or anyone. Her inability to commit to anything leaves her feeling like a weak character, and not the good twin I thought she was. Rather than working through her emotional challenges, Elizabeth bumps along the Sweet Valley High road of life, barely changing.
4. Jessica's Sociopathic Tendancies
Jessica is touted as the bad twin — a shallow trouble maker who doesn't care much for grades. And, it turns out, she's sort of a sociopath. Like the time in Welcome To the Jungle, when she gets mad that Elizabeth also wants to be prom queen. Rather than deal with it, she spikes her sister's punch, causing Elizabeth to get into a major accident. Although she definitely lives up to her reputation as the bad twin, it wasn't until looking back that I realized just how awful Jessica truly was. Feminists have to lift our sisters up, not spike their drinks and then let them drive drunk.
5. The Lack Of Personal Identity
In The New Jessica, Jessica decides to dye her hair black, and start speaking with a vaguely European accent. Elizabeth's boyfriend makes a comment about liking Jessica's new hair — because he can tell them apart now — and Elizabeth turns into a raging aqua-eyed monster who demands Jessica wash her hair dye out. And all because Elizabeth doesn't know how to be herself without Jessica.
The twins, regardless of how horrible they are to one another, can't do anything without the other. They even go to college together and wade through the world of growing up together. Talk about co-dependent.
6. The Sad Depiction Of Sisterhood
To be quite frank, the Wakefield twins treat each other like sh*t. Yes, arguing is an accurate depiction of teenage sisters. But at the same time, the repeatedly terrible behavior exhibited by both twins brings to light a sad depiction of sisterhood in Sweet Valley High. While sisters have their bad days, it's not too often that one forgives the other for being completely selfish time and time again. Elizabeth can't help but meddle in all of Jessica's affairs, and Jessica can't help but only care about herself. Together, the Wakefield twins are a Molotov cocktail, waiting to explode.
7. Boyfriends Save The Day
Repeatedly, Sweet Valley High tells readers that getting a boyfriend solves all your problems. Whether it's Lynne Henry's clinical depression being magically cured by snagging Guy Henry as a boyfriend, or Annie Whitman attempting to commit suicide and winding up doe-eyed and in love with Ricky Capaldo. Sweet Valley High does little to encourage young girls to seek proper help, or to do things on their own. Somehow Pascal's series was able to rely on the thrill of a high school boy making eyes at you to get you through even the worst that life throws at you. And if that doesn't make you want to cry out and shake your fists for the love of feminism, I don't know what will.