Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bad Girls

When I was but a young lass, there weren't a lot of serial books available. I read The Babysitters Club, that ho-hum nod to the young, overworked, underpaid, entrepreneur, then there was Sweet Valley High: the tale of two sisters, twins, gorgeous, white and upper-middle class. Jessica was the "bad" girl, who borrowed "good" Elizabeth's clothes without asking, and kissed the occasional boy, but not much else. Those books were achingly dull, I kept waiting for something truly terrible to happen (Jessica gang raped, then taken to Mexico, something like that...) but nothing ever did.

Not long ago I was perusing the book section at Target, mostly just for the fun of chortling at what Corporate America wants us to read, and was surprised by what I saw in the "Teen" section - tons of books about "bad" girls. Titles include Gossip Girl, A List, Clique, It Girl, Au Pairs (the list goes on), and each had titillating back cover descriptions.These girls are up to shenanigans Sweet Valley Jessica never dreamed of. Drugs, booze, sex, liberal use of the word "fuck" - all those seem to be standard fair in at least the two books I checked out from the library to read for myself. I Like it Like That: A Gossip Girl Novel and It's Not Easy Being Mean: A Clique Novel didn't really distinguish themselves from each other, and, it ought to be noted that although Cecily von Ziegesar appears to be an actual person and the author the Gossip Girl novels, many of the other books are written by a team of writers and attributed to say, Zoey Dean. (She comes complete with a fabricated bio on the publisher's website. And you'd think Cecily von Ziegesar was the fake name, right?)

To go to college a virgin, or not?

Do we do something about it now, with a boy we've known for years? Do we get rid of it over spring break? Over the summer? Or do we settle into our dorm rooms just as we are, bold but innocent, and ready to lose it with the first campus player to say, "Come hither"? Maybe we should just listen to our mothers and older sisters and "wait til the time is right," whatever that means. Of course some of us girls nipped this particular issue in the bud long ago, opting to spend our college years focusing on more important things, like geology and Freud. Not. Face it, even if you're not a virgin anymore now, you're going to feel like one all over again the minute you step on campus. And that's a good thing. (from I Like it Like That)

That passage might shock particularly parents of kids in grades 9-12, the suggested age group of the reader, but, personally, I find the abject consumerism the most insidious part of the books. In a matter of pages in It's Not Easy Being Mean, the following brands are mentioned: Tab Energy Drink, a DKNY bangle watch, Teen Vogue, a Juicy hoody, Bose headphones, American Idol, Porsche, Abercrombie and Rugrats. (Surely there's a kickback for product placement?) There are somewhat established methods of dealing with the pressure to have sex early, but fighting an onslaught of consumerism for largely unattainable items (Juicy hoodies are out of my price range) is a problem with which our culture continues to struggle.

It seems unlikely that girls will read these books and turn "bad" themselves, although they might get a few ideas. As with so much of pop culture, they'll be exposed to a largely ridiculous lifestyle and maybe feel a little lame in comparison. Or, more likely they'll see through it all as a fantasy, just like I did Jessica and Elizabeth's too-perfect middle-American Dream Life with their shared red Fiat Spider, their popularity, perfect bodies and luscious blond hair.

What is quite interesting is that instead of presenting an "ideal" girl of really unreasonable "goodness" who is rewarded for her saintly ways, these books present the opposite: girls of rather unreasonable "bad" behavior who suffer little consequences for their actions. But, what's the difference if they're both extreme behaviors with unrealistic ramifications? I trust real-world girls (especially girls that read) are smart enough to see through both fantasies.

Naturally, I have no problem at all with this new crop of books, aside from the elementary writing style (I couldn't make it through either one of my selections) and plot repetition across series (stealing the best friend's boyfriend seems to be a major theme). They're fun, and a little naughty, and I think I would have gotten a kick out reading them as a teenager myself. Or, maybe I would have hated them, having been a up-tight, modest, virgin, God-fearing, Midwestern teen with absolutely ZERO disposable income.

I like to think of these as "Gateway" books to "Harder" books like The Catcher in the Rye or American Psycho or anything by Chuck Palahniuk or Michelle Tea. I firmly believe that reading leads to more reading, despite the disheartening report in last year's NYT that less and less children read for fun, despite Harry Potter, and another depressing article in the WaPo that one in four adults read no books in the last year. With stats like that, we've got to take what we can get, whether it's some crap being pushed by Target, or Oprah's latest schlocky suggestion, or, God help us all, anything from the Today Show's "book club"*

In my opinion, it doesn't matter what people are reading, as long as they're reading. TTFN, bitches. You know you love me.

*BTW, wtf is up with that? The Today show's list of titles ranges from The Sex-Starved Wife to How to Eat like a Hot Chick to How Not to Look Old... I've got a title for them. How about How to Objectify Women, Cause Eating Disorders and Continue to Dumb-Down Society with Your Moronic Television Show?


annajcook said...

Thanks for that analysis! I followed the link from Feministing.

I worked in Barnes & Noble for a couple of years, and other bookstores before that, and somehow never got around to reading any books from these series--even though I love a lot of teen lit out there! Even just looking at the covers, though, I could have predicted the consumerism inside. I'd agree with you that the way these books sell the uber-rich, elitist lifestyle is way more troubling than whether or not they're sexually explicit, per se. And I couldn't agree more that reading anything leads to more reading . . . and how can that ever be a bad thing?

If you're at all interested, I remembered Caitlin Flanagan doing a somewhat hysterical piece about these sorts of books a few years ago. Read it if you want to get pissed off :).

kbmulder said...

Many school library media specialists and the American Library Association also advocate teens reading whatever interests them, as long as they read. Be it monster truck magazines, gossip books/mags, or whatever. I agree!

I have read one of the Clique Series (Invasion of the Boy Snatchers) and wondered the same thing about product placement of hot fashion items and electronic gadgets. I wondered how high school girls can afford Gucci and Prada. Did Jessica and Elizabeth covet Guess Jeans back in the day?

Special K, you could right a more intelligent teen novel from the perspective of a middle-class, midwestern girl. Oh, wait, you are already doing that, right?

Special K said...

Thanks for remind me, KBM... yes, that must be around here somewhere...

Kat said...

Oh, the Today Show. Almost as bad as Laura Bush's book list.

Anyway, I also followed the link from Feministing. Great analysis! I used to work in the kids' section of a big chain bookstore (up here in Canada), and got sucked into the Gossip Girl series. They're fun and compulsively readable. I tend to share your opinion that as long as people are reading something, good on them, although I also tend towards a wee bit of genre snobbery. But then, I devour Agatha Christie, so who cares what people read as long as they do it?

I also have a (sorely-neglected) book blog, and I'm always looking for more interesting links!

Caitlin said...

In Sweet Valley University book 1, Jessica shacks up with a be-mulleted biker and has sinful dirty dirty pre-marital sex.

Elizabeth holds out until like book 60 or something.

What a pair of tramps.