Tag Archives: tokenism

SVH #93: Stepsisters

23 May

stepsisters

Estimated Elapsed Time: 4 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Annie Whitman’s mom has been spending a lot of time in New York as part of her work as a fashion model (strictly catalog work, Annie is quick to tell her friends), and when she comes back from her latest month-long trip (leaving Annie alone, I guess?), she tells her that she’s been seeing a man in New York–a photographer named Walter Thomas, and the two of them are getting married! Walter has a daughter about Annie’s age named Cheryl, and the two of them will be moving to Sweet Valley.  Oh, and they’re black.  Annie is stunned but works hard to not be prejudiced about the fact that her new family will look different from her.  Whatever, I hate this book already.

In the span of like a day of this news, Annie’s mom buys the house next door to the Wakefield twins, and within the week, the new family is moving in, Walter and Cheryl already in tow.  The twins are excited about the new neighbors and are totally cool about Cheryl.  They help the girls unpack and notice that things between Annie and Cheryl are already tense, despite the fact that it’s clear Annie is trying as hard as she can to make Cheryl comfortable.  The problem is, Annie’s so concerned with not being a racist that she ends up being super, super racist, obsessing over color and inviting a bunch of students of color to the party she throws in Cheryl’s honor even though she’s not good friends with them.  She also doesn’t tell anyone that Cheryl is black before they meet her, making the situation even weirder.

Annie keeps trying to include Cheryl in her life, but everything keeps going wrong.  She encourages her to join Pi Beta Alpha and go to football games, even though neither is Cheryl’s scene. The two continue to resent one another but neither one is willing to admit it out loud.  At a pool party at Suzanne Hanlon’s house, Cheryl makes a little speech thanking the PBAs for considering her for membership, but then declines to even pledge.  She also accuses Annie of trying to make her fit in by turning her white.

Eventually, the two figure out a way to talk to one another, but it takes a trip to the hospital to do so.  Annie’s mother had appendicitis–but she’s fine now.  The girls decide to allow them to be themselves or something, and all is well with the world.  Cheryl also starts flirting pretty seriously with Steven Wakefield.

Oh, and Annie and Tony Esteban get back together.  YAWN.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Cheryl’s friends spend their summers at Blue Water, a place for musicians
  • Cheryl is a lacto-ovo-vegetarian
  • Rhomboid is a new up-and-coming band.  The name is literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
  • Annie throws a party for Cheryl at their house the DAY AFTER they move in.  Jesus, that’s fast.
  • Apparently Annie is quite the cook?

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Annie thought carefully about the question. She was friends with Patsy Gilbert and Andy Jenkins, who were black, and Rosa Jameson and Manuel Lopez, who were Hispanic, and she could honestly say that she didn’t think about their skin colors or ethnic backgrounds any more than she did about, say, Jessica and Elizabeth’s English and Swedish background.” (13) [Blogger’s note: Are you fucking kidding me?]
  • “‘You actually have sororities in high school here?’ Cheryl asked, sounding surprised. ‘Sweet Valley sounds like something out of a 1950’s beach-party movie–football, cheerleaders, sororities, surfing. I suppose you have a burger joint, too?'” (75)
  • “‘And there’s something else I wanted to ask you about,’ Cheryl went on, looking a little troubled. ‘What gives with all these black, Asian, and Hispanic kids here? I don’t think I’ve seen this many people of color since I got to Sweet Valley, and certainly not in place.'” (86)

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

Guys, this book is fucked.  Like, seriously, seriously fucked.  It’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure that the underlying message of the book is that skin color doesn’t matter and that people who worry about whether or not it does are doing the real anti-racist work, but the message is so, so wrong and so convoluted it’s hard to tell.  Annie’s obsession (and seriously, she is OBSESSED) with the fact that Cheryl is black is so hard to read, because I think we’re supposed to identify with Annie?  We’re supposed to think that because she’s worrying about it, it means she’s not racist?  When the reality is that she comes off as more racist than anyone else, even Suzanne Hanlon, who is clearly a racist little twat?

There were so many moments when I laughed out loud because I was completely incredulous about what was being said or done in the book.  Take this quote, for instance:

‘I’m sure you have less to worry about than you think,’ Elizabeth suggested. ‘Maybe you should talk to Patty or Tracy Gilbert, or maybe Andy Jenkins. I know Andy did have that trouble with Charlie Cashman, but aside from that I don’t think he or any of the other black kids have had much reason to feel uncomfortable at Sweet Valley High.’ (40)

She’s talking about that time that Andy Jenkins was jumped by five guys, punched in the stomach by his best friend, and was hospitalized.  You know, “that trouble” where Andy was the victim of racialized violence.  But apart from that, students of color at Sweet Valley don’t worry about racism in their high school or their town!

Except for when Rosa Jameson lied about her ethnic heritage because she was afraid that students wouldn’t accept her.  And when Sandy Bacon dealt with comments about the fact that her boyfriend, Manuel Lopez, was Hispanic and she was white.  Except for those incidents.

Also, how completely fucked is it that Liz is speaking on behalf of students of color to begin with?  YOU ARE THE PROBLEM, LIZ.

Ugh, I just can’t.

 

SVH #69: Friend Against Friend

7 Mar

friendvfriend

Estimated Elapsed Time: 2 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Andy Jenkins is totally one of the gang at Sweet Valley even though the first time we’d ever heard of him was offhandedly in the last book.  He’s also one of the only black students at SVH, but he’s a super good student, especially when it comes to science.  That’s why he’s won a special scholarship to spend the summer studying marine biology at the Monterey Bay Acquarium.  He’s thrilled about this, and so is his friend, Neil Freemount, and his girlfriend, Tracy Gilbert (who the book wants you to know is also black).

Not everyone is super thrilled about Andy’s existence, though.  One day after school, Andy opens his locker and finds all sorts of garbage stuffed in there, as well as a note that says “Go back to Africa where you belong.”  Charlie Cashman is likely the dude behind this stupid, racist prank, because he hassles Andy in the parking lot of the Dairi Burger a few days later, and then Tracy discovers that all four of her tires have been slashed in the parking lot, too.  Neil witnesses all of this but is nervous about pointing fingers, yet he’s also confused as to why Andy doesn’t seem to want to report it.

Secretly, Neil is feeling conflicted about the whole thing.  Charlie Cashman’s father and Neil’s dad both work at Patman Canning, and they both make fairly overtly racist comments about their black supervisor, Willis.  Neil hopes that his dad is just saying these things because of Mr. Cashman, but deep down, he doesn’t believe that to be true.  Things worsen on this front when Mr. Cashman is fired, and Neil’s dad says a bunch more racist things.

What’s more alarming to Neil is that Andy doesn’t seem to want his help.  At one point, Neil tries to suggest that Andy think of what Martin Luther King, Jr. would do in the situation, and Andy (rightfully) loses his shit at him.  The two part ways, and there’s genuine tension on both ends.  Neil feels like Andy is being racist towards whites; they can’t all be bad, right?  This angers him, and he starts to resent how Andy shuts him out.

Things continue to escalate: Charlie purposely trips Andy in the hall and makes some stupid comments.  The two boys fight, and Mr. Collins breaks it up.  He pulls Neil aside and asks if Charlie started it because Andy is black, and Neil sort of shrugs his way out of the situation.  He feels increasing resentment about his perceived persecution by Andy.

The culmination of these increasingly violent acts comes when Neil and Penny see a movie and are leaving the theater one night.  They see Andy’s father’s car being attacked by Charlie and his gang, and then, when Penny goes to call the police, Neil watches in horror as they pull Andy out of the car and start beating him.  Neil runs over to save the unconscious Andy, but instead ends up hitting him, just once, after being pressured by the group to do so.  He immediately flees the scene and then lies to protect himself.

When Neil finally comes clean, it’s because Charlie Cashman has basically blackmailed or threatened him to lie about it, and he can’t live with the guilt any more.  He comes clean in the cafeteria one day, after Andy has apologized for being angry, and everyone is appalled that Neil could ever do such a thing.  It’s clear that his friendship with Andy is over, and it looks like his relationship with Penny, too.

Andy is walking home from school and is being trailed by Charlie and his gang.  While he doesn’t see them, Neil does, and he runs over to stand with Andy, despite the fact that Andy clearly hates him.  Presented with Neil and Andy, Charlie and his gang back down.

The B-Plot is nearly non-existent but basically serves to further the plot about the racist shit happening at SVH and set up the plot for the next book about a female quarterback.  Liz asks students what they’d like to change about their school and is SHOCKED when they have serious answers for her about racism, sexism, and other stuff that’s hard to think about.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Things to change at SVH: Olivia wants 3-day school weeks; Penny wants to outlaw Pi Beta Alpha, Manuel wants a non-white perspective of history; Jade Wu wants pizza ovens (?); Dana wants less focus on boys’ sports; and someone wants girls to be able to try out for the football team.
  • Mr. Archer is the marine biology teacher at SVH, Miss Jacobi is the sociology teacher.
  • Neil and Charlie listen to the Rolling Stones in his car

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Privately, Elizabeth had thought of it as just a fun thing to do.  More soft drink machines, shorter classes, better food in the cafeteria: those were the responses she had expected.  But maybe there was more dissatisfaction at Sweet Valley High than she thought.” (7)
  • “It was almost as if Andy held a grudge against every single student at Sweet Valley High because of Charlie’s bigotry. It was true that many of them hadn’t ever faced real hardships or discrimination, but that didn’t make them terrible people.” (40)
  • “‘Everyone is completely shocked,’ Penny continued.  ‘I just can’t believe something like that could happen here. I thought it only happened in big cities, like New York or L.A., but I guess I was naive.'” (84) HAS EVERYONE LOST THEIR DAMN MIND?

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

This was a hard book to recap, and it’s actually a hard one to write a critical analysis of, too.  It’s like so many other books that are published about hard stuff like racism and racialized violence and white guilt: well-meaning, completely misguided, and about as subtle as an anvil.  There’s also the fact that this book was written in 1990, which means that the lens we view it through now is fairly different.

Some thoughts, in bullet points because why not?

  • This is a classic case of a story about racism being told through the eyes of a white person.  What’s interesting here is that unlike many of the other books in the series, we never spend a minute inside Andy’s head, despite the fact that we are inside both Neil and Elizabeth’s heads at several points, as well as Penny’s.  So, we spend a lot of time being taught about racism but never actually hear from anyone experiencing it.
  • There’s a scene in which the sociology teacher tries a social experiment on her class, treating those with light-colored eyes as second-class citizens in an attempt to teach them about discrimination.  Again: well-meaning, but totally fucked up.  All these white kids get to go back to being the dominant majority as soon as the class is over.  Are we, as readers, supposed to feel bad for Jessica because she’s uncomfortable for a class period?  How can this possibly compare to a lifetime of living it?
  • Throughout the book, there are several mentions of feeling guilt over being privileged.  This is white guilt, and it’s very real–but it’s never named or explored.  And why would it be?  This is Sweet Valley.
  • When Andy apologizes to Neil for being angry, my jaw actually dropped.  It takes a lot to shock me when it comes to these books, but it was one of those moments that was so misplaced and so incredibly wrong (and I’m speaking of being unintentionally wrong, because it’s clear that both the reader and Neil are supposed to see  this as the right thing for Andy to do) that it defies logic.  Andy should be angry.  He has every right to be.  And to have him apologize for it?  Sends. The. Wrong. Message.

Look, I understand that this is a Sweet Valley High novel, and it’s not supposed to be super great literature or provide its readers a really nuanced, in-depth look at structural racism.  It can’t have been easy to be that ghost writer writing this didactic novel about racism that’s supposed to leave its readers (especially the white ones, and maybe only the white ones) feeling good about they know racism is bad.

I need something to cleanse my brain after this one, and I somehow doubt it’s going to be SVH #70: Ms. Quarterback.

SVH #68: The Love Bet

5 Mar

lovebet

Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Elizabeth gets it into her pretty little head that Dana Larson, who has announced she’s given up on love, should totally date Aaron Dallas, who claims he’s too busy to find love.  She bets Todd that she can get them together.  Todd disagrees, but offers to help.  He also bets her that she can’t do it.  The loser has to grant the winner three wishes.  This entire premise is so fucked that I can’t even begin to dissect it.

At any rate, the two conspire to get their friends gossiping about how Dana likes Aaron and Aaron maybe likes Dana within earshot of the two, and then they invite them both to go see a movie at the Plaza.  The two seem to blush a lot around each other, so Liz feels like her plan is working.  Then it turns out that they actually have things to talk about.  Aaron tells Dana all about soccer, and she tells him all about songwriting, which she is apparently very good at because she wrote a song called “Fed Up With Love” and it’s not about the Federal Reserve Bank, despite my sincere hopes that it was.

The two continue to go out with Liz and Todd on what amounts to friend dates because neither one of them will shut up about how they’re through with love even though they’re totally having eye sex with each other all the time.  Then Dana gets a card from a secret admirer and shows it to Liz.  Dana tells her she’s going to be honest with Aaron and tell him how she feels.  Liz recognizes the handwriting as Todd’s and urges her to keep her feelings to herself and let Aaron be the first to speak it.  But Dana doesn’t listen, and tells Aaron about the card.  He tells her he didn’t send it and Dana is embarrassed and literally runs away.

Meanwhile, Liz blows up at Todd about the card.  She accuses him of intentionally sabotaging the set-up.  He’s not smart enough for that, of course, so he gets mad at her, too.  Whatever.  They’re so steady in their relationship until one of them farts and the other freaks out.  It’s hard to care.

There’s a Battle of the Bands at school, and the Droids are facing off against a couple of other bands, including SVH’s new band, Baja Beat.  The band has token black male student Andy Jenkins in it.  This doesn’t really matter now, but it will in the next book, so whatever.  The other bands are local, as well.

Anyway, right before the Droids perform, Aaron finds Dana and tells her that he’s totally into her.  They kiss, she sings, the Droids win.  Then they write notes to Todd and Liz, pretending to be Todd and Liz to get them to make up.  Everyone is happy in their heteronormative little bubbles.

The B-Plot involves Jessica getting pissed about Aaron getting serious with someone other than her because she likes to keep him in her rotation.  Again, that is literally her thought process in this novel.  So she tries to volunteer as a roadie for Baja Beat, thinking supporting the competition might make her feel better, but they don’t need help.  Andy tells her to try Spontaneous Combustion.  Spy, the leader of that band, sounds promising on the phone, so she enlists the help of Lila.  Turns out the dude is not hot, and kind of a letch.  Whatever.  This is literally the secondary plot in this book.  It goes nowhere.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Battle of the Bands contenders: The Droids, Baja Beat, Spontaneous Combustion, Suede Men.
  • Todd gives Liz what he calls “The Todd Wilkins Deluxe Smooch” and I puked in my mouth.

Memorable Quotes:

  •  “‘Having more competition will give me an excuse to spend more time writing songs and performing with The Droids,’ Dana went on. ‘Since I gave up love, the band has really become my life!'” (3)
  • “Enid agreed. ‘People don’t blush over people they don’t find attractive.  They yawn.'” (20) ENID WOULD BE THE EXPERT THERE.

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

It’s hard to care about this one enough to really dissect it.  I remember liking Dana Larson a lot when I was little, but I suspect that was because she wore weird clothes and sang in a band–both things I desperately wanted to do.  Now, I think she’s sort of boring and lame.  I’ve always felt this way about Aaron Dallas, so it’s nice that some things never change.

But I do think it’s completely stupid that Liz and Todd make a bet that involves granting the other three wishes and none of the suggested wishes are remotely interesting in any way.  Like, Todd jokes he needs his car washed and waxed.  Liz says she would’ve liked a dozen roses and someone to carry her books for a week, then changes her mind and asks him to never fight with her about something so trivial again.  GOOD LUCK WITH THAT ONE, LIZ.  THIS IS LITERALLY WHAT ALL YOUR FIGHTS LOOK LIKE.

UGH.

Next up: #69 Friend Against Friend.  Racism.  This is is going to be painful.  Do they have critical race theory in Sweet Valley?