The Sweet Valley High Gang Goes to College
Joyce A. Litton
In the early 1980s the publishers of young adult fiction re-introduced teen romances. While there were many series, Sweet Valley High, which appealed to eight- to twelve-year olds, quickly rose to the top. In 1993 Sweet Valley University books, marketed for middle and junior high school readers, began to appear.
This study examines the first fourteen books of the Sweet Valley University series and the first three novels of a subset called Thriller Editions, which are slightly longer books with suspense themes aimed at R.L. Stine devotees. With settings designed as window dressing for romantic themes, these books depict college life in a relatively unrealistic fashion. Often badly plotted, the novels use the good twin/bad twin cliche which was so popular in the Sweet Valley High series. In the earlier series, Elizabeth and Jessica may look alike, but their personalities are poles apart. While the romantic fluff is what captures and keeps young readers, the series does deal with the more serious topics of premarital sex and alcohol abuse. The storylines on sex send conflicting messages that make readers believe that premarital sex is not an important issue. By contrast, excessive use of alcohol is the source of serious problems. Examining the types of male and female role models used in the books, one finds that young women are more likely to be portrayed as weak, resorting to feminine tricks to catch men, and rarely committed to pathbreaking nontraditional careers.
While adults would be more concerned with the few serious topic presented in the Sweet Valley University series, young adults get hooked on the books because of the romance and soap-opera plotting. A trivial little story using the good twin/bad twin theme exemplifies what girls find appealing in these books. This college story presents a twist on the theme as it appeared in the high school series. In Sweet Valley High, Elizabeth was always the responsible twin, devoted to one boy, Todd Wilkins. Jessica, a scatterbrained flirt, was always engaged in some outrageous activity from which Elizabeth was trying to save her. In a Sweet Valley University
plot, a partial role reversal occurs when Elizabeth falls in love with Tom Watts, a brilliant journalism student. Jessica who has become studious while trying to get over a broken relationship, helps Elizabeth out of a scrape. One of Elizabeth's English professors wants her to recite a poem at a literary evening. She has made a date with Tom which she does not want to break. Jessica memorizes the poem, impersonates Elizabeth and gives a stellar performance (Good-Bye, pp. 156-57).
S S Heartbreak, an aptly titled novel, demonstrates that the series will go to endless lengths to provide the soap opera that readers crave. When Elizabeth inherits an incredible fortune, she plans to give all of it to charity except for enough to take all of her friends on a spring break cruise. While they are on the cruise every couple has something happen to cause either the breakup of their relationship or some other sort of misery. For example, Elizabeth catches Tom Watts kissing an old girlfriend who is engaged to be married to another young man who is on the cruise. An older man tries to sweep Elizabeth's best friend, Nina Harper, off her feet so that she will abandon Bryan Nelson. Widow Lila Fowler's former brother-in-law causes Lila and Bruce Patman grief; he also tries to break up Alex Rollins and Noah Pearson. And so on (College Cruise, p. 75;S S Heartbreak, pp. 3, 43, 76-77, 130, 134).
Given the melodrama in Sweet Valley University, one should not be surprised to learn that the series pays little serious attention to what real college life is like. In SVU the experience is flat and one-dimensional. One sees little self-development and intellectual change in the characters. People study as an antidote to unhappiness or from parental pressure. Although she has always been studious, Elizabeth overdoes it in the first few books because she is lonely. When love re-enters her life, she studies less. Of all of the women at SVU, the reader knows the majors of only two young women: Elizabeth, who is majoring in English, and Nina Harper, who is studying physics. Although Jessica is one of the main characters, one has no idea about her career plans.
While far too many of the plotlines in Sweet Valley University are incredible, the stories involving Winston Egbert, class clown of Sweet Valley High, are clever and appealing. When Winston arrives on the SVU campus, he discovers that the computer has changed his name to Winnie, and he has been assigned to a women's dorm. Moreover, housing is so tight that he has to stay with the women. (This lacks credibility, but the plot is worth it.) Because he is sweet, funny, and considerate, his female dormmates love him. One, Denise Waters, is so beautiful that Winston wishes that she were his girlfriend, but he concludes that she will only be his friend (College Girls, pp. 30-31, 150-52).
In his early days at SVU, Winston tries to keep his housing situation a secret from the men of Sigma fraternity because he wants to pledge Sigma. Actually, when the fraternity members learn that he knows a bevy of beautiful women, they begin to hound him for introductions. As is de rigueur in college soap operas, the series has a fraternity hazing story with Winston as the victim. After he pledges Sigma, the fraternity brothers get him drunk and coax him out onto the roof of their house. Elizabeth and Tom save him by pulling him back into the house. Eventually gaining Denise's affection, Winston cannot believe his good fortune because he still thinks of himself as a buffoon (What, pp. 97-98, 181, 217-29; Love, Lies, pp. 59-60; Anything, pp. 52-53; Married, pp. 163-67, 202-212; Love of Her, pp. 23-25, 216-17).
Not only do trivial plots dominate Sweet Valley University, but many of the stories which will appeal most to young readers are full of female stereotypes. Many of the young women are silly, conniving, and weak. There are several instances where male characters show their sensitivity, but few where women are strong and use their intelligence to the fullest.
One early Thriller plot has Elizabeth playing the "had I but known" role in a modern Gothic romance reminiscent of R. L. Stine. Two men, Tom Watts and William White (a brilliant psychopath) are both interested in Elizabeth. Unaware that William is the mastermind behind local fraternity hazing and a national racist society, she dates him before finding that she is attracted to Tom. Eventually, she uncovers William's diabolical behavior and is in danger of being killed by him. The creator of the series will not let her be a truly strong woman who can use her wits to save herself. Instead, Tom and the police come to her rescue (Anything, p. 46; Love of Her, pp. 9, 79, 197-202, 207).
For his horrendous activities, William is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Managing to escape for several hours each day or so, he is able to stalk Elizabeth. First, he plots to be with her forever, and then he decides to kill her and her close male and female friends because they do not understand him. Once again, the series requires a clever man -- this time Todd Wilkins -- to save the Sweet Valley gang (Good-Bye, pp. 27, 81; He's Watching, pp. 257-78).
If Elizabeth looks weak and not especially bright when she confronts William White, her behavior there pales in comparison to the lack of good judgment she displays in Wanted for Murder. Elizabeth and Jessica are driving to Colorado for a skiing vacation when Jessica sees a handsome young man with a broken down car by the side of the road. As they are driving along, she pleads until Elizabeth turns around so that they can give him a ride. Although he claims to be a medical student, he actually has murdered operators of convenience stores in several states. Egged on by Jessica, Elizabeth makes one bad judgment call after another. Tom Watts and FBI agent Jeff Marks rescue the twins. (While there is a female FBI agent, she works only behind the scenes.)
Perhaps the most stereotyped character to appear in the series is Elizabeth's roommate, Celine Boudreaux. A southern vamp with a troubled past, she is in college only to play. Bored by Elizabeth's studiousness and Little Goody Two Shoes behavior, she is jealous of Tom Watts and William White's attentiveness to Elizabeth. After William escapes from the psychiatric hospital, she helps him with his terrible schemes so that she can receive at least some attention from him (College Girls, p. 192; He's Watching, pp. 115-20).
Treatment of Serious Issues
In spite of all of the soap and stereotypes, the creator of Sweet Valley University does introduce the more serious themes of premarital sex, date rape, and alcohol abuse. The question of whether to have unmarried sex is introduced in the first novel of the series and appears in later volumes as well. If young readers are looking for guidance on the important topic, they will find only ambivalence. During the first few days of college life, Elizabeth's long-standing boyfriend, Todd Wilkins, dumps her because she will not sleep with him. She does not make this decision on strong moral conviction, but rather because prudently, she does not feel psychologically ready to take such an important step (College Girls, pp. 91-96; Love, Lies, p. 25; Home, pp. 14-15).
Unlike her twin, Jessica has no problem going to bed with Mike McAllery, a young man with a shady background. A close friend tells her that she should not sleep with him, but if she is going to do this, she should at least take condoms along so that she will have safer sex. Shortly after their first sexual encounter (the depictions of sex are not graphic), Jessica moves in with Mike and then quickly marries him (Loves, Lies, pp. 94, 104, 137-38, 230; Anything, pp. 53-55, 94).
Steven Wakefield, the twins older brother, lives with his college girlfriend, Billie. The messages about the couple sharing an apartment are mixed. When Steven and Billie spend the holidays with his parents, they have to sleep in separate bedrooms. Although they accept what goes on at school, his parents will not condone unmarried sex in their home. Billie does not want her parents to know that she and Steven live together. When they visit her, the couple go through all sorts of machinations to keep their secret. Her parents figure out what is going on and are amused at what terrible liars their children are. Thus, neither set of parents are willing to tell the young couple that they cannot live together, and only the Wakefield parents show mild disapproval. The message for young readers seems to be that the question of whether to engage in unmarried sex is not a very important one (Home, pp. 129-30; Sorority, pp. 28-31, 173-74).
Little else is said about premarital sex. This theme is overshadowed by Jessica's marriage, although it is highly unlikely that a college freshman from a good family would marry before her first midterm. The marriage quickly degenerates into soap opera. Mike drinks excessively and becomes abusive. When Jessica becomes both frightened and fed up, she runs to Steven and Billie's nearby apartment. Mike goes after her and pulls out a gun. When Mike and Steven struggle with each other, the gun goes off accidentally and Mike is paralyzed. At a legal hearing, Mike explains that the shooting was accidental, but in an utterly bizarre decision, the judge makes Steven participate in Mike's rehabilitation. After Jessica has the marriage annulled, Mike regains the use of his legs (Anything, pp. 222, 226-29; Home, p. 80; Love of Her, pp. 214-15; Good-Bye, pp. 18-19).
Not all of Sweet Valley University is mindless. Showing a social conscience, the creator has a storyline on date rape. Jessica believes she has found the perfect young man in athlete James Montgomery. When he takes her out to dinner and has too much to drink, he attempts to rape her. In the meantime, Elizabeth's friend, Maia, tells her that James raped her. She concludes that, if Elizabeth wants to prevent this from happening to Jessica, she is going to have to find her and protect her. Elizabeth locates the couple on a secluded road, breaks one of the windows in James's car and rescues Jessica just as James is starting to attack her. Elizabeth finally persuades Jessica to have the university discipline James. Having Jessica blame herself at first, the novel does a good job of developing this theme. When she begins to testify, the university panel does not believe Jessica. Her case is saved because Maia finally has the courage to come forward and say that James raped her. The reader sees how difficult it is for women to get justice (Good-Bye, pp. 218-19; No, pp. 194-95, 138-42, 199-200, 218-227, 230; Take Back, pp. 42, 125-29, 195-203, 206-210).
If the question of the appropriateness of premarital sex is handled ambivalently, this is not true of the theme of excessive drinking. (James Montgomery becomes sex crazed because he has had too much to drink.) The two characters whose alcohol abuse receives the most attention are Todd Wilkins and Alex Rollins.
Todd and Mark Gathers are basketball players accused of illegally accepting expensive gifts and favors. Elizabeth and Tom break the story about favoritism for athletes. Mark is Alex's boyfriend. Kicking the young men off the team and taking away their scholarships, the university administration makes them scapegoats for the whole team. Unable to live without basketball, Mark drops out of school. Alex's heart is broken because he will not accept her sympathy. Todd's new girlfriend leaves him (Love, Lies, p. 179; Anything, pp. 17-20, 107, 176; Married, pp. 38-39).
Todd and Alex begin to drink together and also when they are alone. After a blackout, Todd cannot remember if he slept with Alex. He is so lonely that he tries to get Elizabeth back. Alex's sorority sisters rebuke her for her excessive drinking. When she hits bottom with blackouts and unacceptable behavior, she calls the university counseling hotline. She decides to quit drinking with the help of a telephone counselor, a student named Noah Pearson. Alex and Noah fall in love with each other. To allow the romance to flourish, the novel relies on incredible coincidences and seriously compromises professional counseling ethics (Home, p. 50; Good-Bye, pp. 84-85; No, pp. 88-91; Take Back, pp. 208-212).
Todd cannot have Elizabeth again, but he quits drinking when his erratic behavior makes her believe that he, rather than William White, is stalking her. He regains his self-respect, his friends, and university approval by developing a scheme which results in the rescue of Elizabeth and her friends from William's deadly scheme. While becoming sober is not necessarily as easy as it is portrayed in the novels, the books do send a clear message that alcohol abuse creates severe problems (He's Watching, pp. 113-14, 257-73).
Sweet Valley University is not the only young adult series for girls with a college setting. In 1990, Linda A. Cooney's Freshman Dorm made its debut; in September 1995, Nancy Drew entered Wilder University in the series Nancy Drew on Campus. Sweet Valley Universit does not fare well when it is compared to either of these two series. Although there are no Thriller Editions in which characters may be involved in life threatening situations in Freshman Dorm, the women of Dorm are stronger than the women of SVU. One female character fights with her boyfriend to get her share of the credit for working on a fraternity hazing story; another argues with her fiance so that she can keep her own last name after they marry. Freshman Dorm has even less sex in it than Sweet Valley University, but the older series does not handle the question of alcohol abuse as effectively. Nancy Drew on Campus is more forward-looking than Sweet Valley University, but not as progressive as Freshman Dorm. At times, Nancy and her female friends can get themselves out of scrapes without depending on men; at other times, a man must rescue them ("Dreams, Guys;" see, e.g. New Lives and On Her).
There is little that one can say that is favorable about the Sweet Valley University series. The view of college life is distorted because the series almost instantly plunges readers into the problems of Jessica's relationship and eventual marriage to Mike McAllery. One sees little in the way of social and intellectual growth of the female characters. To the creator's credit, only Celine and Jessica use feminine wiles to attract men. Celine is such a despicable character that few readers will identify with her. It is unfortunate that Jessica, one of the most important characters, is a boy-crazy airhead. While adolescents will love it, the plotting is extremely implausible.
Sweet Valley High deals with quite a few contemporary social issues including anorexia, date rape, disability, the sexism of beauty contests, racism, and a female quarterback. Sweet Valley University does not have a well-defined social conscience. In the first fourteen books, date rape, a brief look at racism and alcohol abuse are the only serious topics. The creator treats the important issue of premarital sex ambivalently. However, there may be hope for future volumes, since Sweet Valley High did not begin to deal with social concerns regularly until about midway through the series.Adults who are worried about adolescent girls who waste their time on the insignificant drivel of Sweet Valley University should not be alarmed. Some early survey research which I have conducted on readers of Sweet Valley High indicates that the young readers are well aware that they are not dealing with reality. More research needs to be done to determine how girls process sexist material. However, caring adults should just be glad that girls are reading. If girls develop reading skills, parents, teachers and librarians can expand their interests (see "Sugar and Spice").
Keene, Carolyn. New Lives, New Loves. Pocket, 1995.
______. On Her Own. Pocket, 1995.
Litton, Joyce A. "Dreams, Guys, Lies, and Occasionally Books: The Young Women of the Freshman Dorm Series." The ALAN Review 22.2 (1995): 10-13.
______."Sugar and Spice: Sex Role Stereotypes in Contemporary Teen Romances," Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, St. Louis, Mo. April 1989.
Pascal, Francine. Anything for Love. Bantam, 1994.
______. College Cruise. Bantam, 1995.
______. College Girls. Bantam, 1993.
______. Good-bye to Love. Bantam, 1994.
______. He's Watching You. Bantam, 1995.
______. Home for Christmas. Bantam, 1994.
______. Love, Lies, and Jessica Wakefield. Bantam, 1993.
______. The Love of Her Life. Bantam, 1994.
______. A Married Woman. Bantam, 1994.
______. No Means No. Bantam, 1995.
______. Sorority Scandal. Bantam, 1995.
______. S S Heartbreak. Bantam, 1995.
______. Take Back the Night. Bantam, 1995.
______. Wanted for Murder. Bantam, 1994.
______. What Your Parents Don't Know. Bantam, 1994.
Documents Librarian at the Ohio University, Joyce Litton has written about the new teen romances in the fall 1991 and the winter 1995 issues of The Review.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Litton, Joyce A. (1996). The Sweet Valley High gang goes to college.The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 20-24.