Dreams, Guys, Lies, and Occasionally Books: The Young Women of the Freshman Dorm Series
When innocent teen romances were re-introduced in the 1980s, all of them concentrated on girls who were between fourteen and seventeen years of age. With the creation of the Freshman Dorm series in 1990, Linda Cooney (probably a pseudonym for several different authors) has given girl readers of teen romance series the chance to realize that there is life and love after high school. These novels present a soap-opera view of life at a medium-sized state university located in the West. While Cooney devotes much space to romantic entanglements, the young female protagonists with whom readers are expected to identify are not usually dependent in their relationships with young men, nor do they engage in the more traditional behavior of trying to trap young men through the use of feminine wiles. Furthermore, the author goes out of her way to show young women who are struggling to attain their own identities.
This study is an examination of the first 14 books in the series covering the time period from freshman-orientation week until roughly midterm of the spring semester. The series' picture of college life, although exaggerated, does give readers an idea of what college is like. The author seems consciously to include characters from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, but she indicates that ethnic differences do not matter because people are basically alike. When she deals with race, she posits a scenario that should give black readers hope. There are several story lines in which young women are striving for self-definition, and the author provides positive role models. The 14 books contain many romantic episodes, but there are few sexist stereotypes. Since this series has characters who are older teens, the author occasionally introduces the more mature topics of alcohol use and sexual intercourse. She handles these themes superficially. If one were to compare Freshman Dorm for overall merit to Sweet Valley High, a very popular, but vapid high school series, and to the Sunfire historical series, a much less lucrative, but truly excellent set of romances, one would conclude that it is closer to the Sunfires, but does not quite achieve their stature.
The author makes college life more of a drama than it probably is for most students. For example, one of the female protagonists, Faith Crowley, experiences far greater success in the drama department than is likely for a freshman, achieving major assisting and directing roles. Such exaggeration is undoubtedly necessary to hold the attention of young adult readers who are either in middle school or just beginning high school.
Nonetheless, there are elements of reality that readers can find in the series. From the outset, readers learn of vast difference in terms of choices, freedom, and responsibility as a young woman moves from high school to college. The college student is able to set her own rules about when and whether to study, choose whether to join sororities, and deal with greater freedom in deciding whether to be sexually active or to break state laws and university regulations governing the use of alcoholic beverages.
To set forth this saga of college life, the author invents three very different girls who have been close friends since the eighth grade. They attend the University of Springfield, located in an indeterminate western state that sounds as if it might be Colorado. The girls are KC Angeletti, Faith Crowley, and Winnine Gottlieb. Although their names indicate Italian, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and German-Jewish heritages, the girls' stories are not varied because of ethnic background. The author presents the idea that most people are much the same regardless of ethnicity. KC, whose hippie parents named her Kahia Cayenne, is poor, but aspires to be a business tycoon. Faith, who has dated Brooks Baldwin all through high school, is a drama major with maternal instincts. Winnie is the daughter of a divorced psychotherapist who provides much love but few rules. She is a bright, unpredictable, boy-crazy girl who lost her virginity while traveling through Europe the summer before she started college (Freshman Dorm).
Once the scene is set, the soap opera begins. However, there are flights into reality. As one might expect, poor KC wants to pledge Tri Beta, the most exclusive sorority on campus. Faith breaks up with Brooks, and Winnie gets so drunk at a dorm toga party that she cannot remember if she went to bed with computer whiz Josh Gaffey or whether she merely passed out in his room (Freshman Dorm, pp. 57, 141-159, 192-193, 247-251). All of this happens in the first book, which only covers the week of freshman orientation. To adult critics, the soap opera aspects of the novels are overpowering. However, these aspects are probably what keep young adult readers hooked, especially since each book contains the beginning of the first chapter of the next in the series.
The series' depiction of college life, while exaggerated, is somewhat realistic. The author presents a fair-to-negative picture of Greek life. When Lauren and KC go through rush at the beginning of the school year, they have to engage in a lot of superficial activities. The treatment of KC's problem with the need for money and expensive clothes to compete seems accurate. A dirty trick played on Lauren because she is not pretty highlights the cruelty of the system. The fraternity hazing incident where an unacceptable pledge is forced to drink too much, stripped, and then left in the trunk of a car reveals the worst about Greek life (Freshman Dorm, pp. 126, 203, 211-215; Freshman Nights, pp. 157-165).
On the other hand, individual members of different Greek houses are both good and bad. Faith's student drama director, Christopher Hammond, is self-centered and opportunistic. Marielle Danner, who is eventually forced to resign from the Tri Betas, is shallow and vindictive. Courtney Conner, Tri Beta's president, eventually learns to accept people from different backgrounds and to place the seemingly rigid rules of the Greek system in perspective (Freshman Dorm, p. 138; Freshman Loves, pp. 174-175; Freshman Schemes, pp. 13-19; 41-49, 144-145). In an effort to show both the good and bad sides of Greek life, the author resorts to stereotypes and cardboard characters. Individual Greeks seem either to be totally evil and shallow or too perfect.
The picture of academic life for students at the University of Springfield provides a reasonably good idea of what undergraduates study. All of the young women take the history of Western Civilization; the three friends and others form a study group to prepare for this required and difficult course. The author has chosen a variety of majors for her characters, and this gives some idea of the diversity of courses available at a medium-sized state university. The young women do not make career choices that are particularly traditional. In fact, none intends to enter the usually female fields of teaching, nursing, or social work. Winnie's roommate, Melissa, for example, wants to go to medical school (Freshman Dreams, pp. 39-45; Freshman Lies, p. 27).
The reader does get a sense that these young women are trying, and sometimes succeeding, in their efforts to determine who they are, what they should be studying, and how they should react to the various pressures in their lives. Faith's roommate, Lauren Turnbell-Smythe, the wealthy, well-connected daughter of a domineering mother, realizes that she is not cut out to be a Tri Beta; indeed, she knows that she was only allowed to pledge the sorority because her mother made a huge contribution to the Springfield chapter. Creative writing and journalism are her real passions. She manages to get herself kicked out of the sorority when she and her boyfriend, Dash Ramirez, write a prize-winning article for the school newspaper on fraternity hazing. Her mother is furious and insists that, if Lauren does not return East to attend a "good" college, then she will cut her off without a cent. Lauren will not budge, and her mother fulfills her promise. Without credit cards or automobile insurance, Lauren sells her wrecked BMW, gets a job as a maid in a local hotel, and eventually moves out of her dormitory into a sleazy apartment in order to be able to continue her writing (Freshman Dorm, pp. 29-31, 55; Freshman Nights, pp. 156-165; Freshman Changes, p. 171; Freshman Dreams, pp. 162, 198-200; Freshman Games, pp. 13-18, 51-57). Given her shy, frightened nature, Lauren shows a great deal of courage in taking these steps. She is a positive role model that any young reader would do well to emulate.
Winnie Gottlieb undergoes a similar transformation. When she starts college, she has no idea what she wants to study. In her personal life, she tries to juggle two very different boys: Travis Bennett, a young musician -- who is impulsive, has no desire to go to college, and was her lover when she was in Europe -- and Josh Gaffey, a young, sensitive computer nerd. Winnie wants to end her relationship with Travis but does not want to hurt him. When the two boys find out about each other, they gang up on Winnie and tell her that, since she cannot seem to make up her mind about them, they are both leaving her. By her erratic and uncaring behavior, she also alienates KC (Freshman Dorm, pp. 69, 170-171; Freshman Games, pp. 37, 178-183).
Feeling that everything that she has done is wrong, Winnie considers dropping out of school. She tries to call the Crisis Hotline, a volunteer phone service for people with acute psychological problems, but the line is always busy. Distraught, she spends a terrible, rainy night wandering around in the worst areas in Springfield and ends up sleeping in the Greyhound Bus station. Later, she is chased by an unsavory character. Breathless from running away from him, she finds herself at the door of the Crisis Hotline office. She goes into the office with the intention of finding safety and of complaining about never being to reach any of the phone volunteers. While she is waiting to talk to a volunteer, she realizes how busy the phones are, and she picks up one of the phones where a caller has been put on hold. She finds that it is easy to talk with and comfort these troubled peopled. She decides that she would like to work as a volunteer. She does a good job and concludes that she will major in psychology (Freshman Secrets, pp. 128, 158-163, 172-183; Freshman Schemes, pp. 24-40). To Cooney's credit, she does not present Winnie as a perfect person. The young woman does provide a helpful role model; but, although her story is about self-realization, it is so full of soap-opera elements that these features may distract young readers from the more serious themes.
In the first 14 books, there is only one female black protagonist, Kimberly Dayton. There is, however, an uplifting depiction of her struggle for self-definition: Kimberly is a dance major who is studying dance not because she enjoys it (she suffers from stage fright), but rather because her mother, who owns a dance studio, wants Kimberly to follow in her footsteps. After being so paralyzed with fear that she is unable to perform in a show, she discovers that she has a real talent for physics and wants to change her major to that field (Freshman Changes, pp. 31-34, 67-70, 83-84, 173-182, 190-192; Freshman Fling, pp. 6, 10, 50). A young black woman who decides on a career track dominated by white males provides an excellent role model.
Because the Freshman Dorm series is a romance series, the young women in these books spend a great deal of time worrying about breaking up with or looking for young men in their lives. Not all of this material is couched in the traditional terms of a young woman needing a young man to give her a sense of identity. There is the early story about Faith's break-up with her long-time sweetheart, Brooks. Brooks is so over-protective that he smothers Faith with attention and unwanted and often bad advice. She needs to leave him in order to gain confidence in her own abilities in performing arts. Unfortunately, as soon as she leaves him, she almost instantly becomes involved with Christopher Hammond, who is the undergraduate director of a play in the drama department and a big man on campus. After Faith breaks up with the insensitive and wandering Christopher, she becomes dedicated to her work; but as the series progresses, one has the impression that she does think that she is no one without a man. In spite of her numerous successes in theater, she decides that she has been virtuous for far too long. She lets her new roommate Liza play match-maker in a situation that could be disastrous for her because the boy with whom she is paired is impulsive and has little regard for state and university drinking regulations (Freshman Dorm, pp. 246-251; Freshman Lies, p. 115; Freshman Flames, pp. 63-80, 103-110, 151-161).
At one time or another, every female character in the series seems to be involved with a young man. Winnie's roommate, Melissa McDormand, becomes engaged to Faith's former boyfriend, Brooks Baldwin, and fights successfully to retain her maiden name after they are married. Faith's roommate, Lauren, links up with Dash Ramirez, a radical journalism student. Lauren argues with Dash first to gain credit for her role in the hazing article and then over the issue of the right of women journalists to be admitted to male locker rooms. First, KC looks opportunistically at the well-connected men in her business classes and on fraternity row, but finally falls for Peter Dvorsky, a talented photography student who knows not only that she is breathtakingly beautiful but also that she has the potential to be a caring person (Freshman Rivals, p. 184, 199-203; Freshman Nights, p. 167; Freshman Flames, pp. 60-61, 172-177, 208-209; Freshman Lies, p. 129). The tempestuous relationships ebb and flow from book to book. One suspects that pre-teen and teen readers identify with the soap opera because they feel that their own lives have a soap-opera quality to them and because they like the excitement.
Unlike most innocent-teen romances about high school students written in the 1980s and 1990s, the Freshman Dorm books do deal with the more adult themes of alcohol and sexual intercourse, but not with the use of illegal drugs. The treatment of drinking is more specific than the treatment of sex. As has been noted, students who are freshmen, and hence underage, do consume alcohol in a dormitory setting during the toga party that occurs during freshman-orientation week. None of the students is caught in his or her infraction of state law and university regulations, and the only consequences with which the author deals is Winnie's rocky early relationship with Josh because of the toga-party indiscretion (Freshman Dorm, pp. 41-47, 169-177, 192-193).
In Freshman Nights, the brothers of ODT fraternity hold a coed party where a lot of drinking goes on, and then they engage in the drinking-related hazing mentioned previously. The boys are punished for their hazing by being required to perform a certain amount of community service. However, when they do this work, Christopher Hammond makes certain that they receive favorable publicity for their deeds (pp. 153-164; Freshman Schemes, pp. 21-23, 134-136).
The other major story dealing with drinking is Faith's. She lets Liza talk her into the idea of going to a bar with a fake ID so that she can appeal to Scott, a star volleyball player. Faith goes to the bar with Liza to meet Scott. Liza is supposed to protect Faith while she takes her first drinks, but Liza is humiliated by a young man and leaves without telling Faith. Faith drinks quite a bit, and, when she goes to order another beer, she is caught with the fake identification card and placed on probation. Once on probation, she has to be very careful because if she is caught in even a minor rule infraction, at the very least her parents will be called in and will be informed of her drinking. At the worst, she will be expelled from the university. She is unjustly accused of breaking an insignificant regulation, but the student judiciary body dismisses the charge (Freshman Flames, pp. 96-97, 103-104, 158-161, 167-170; Freshman Choices, pp. 207-214).
The treatment of alcohol use by college students in the Freshman Dorm series is not pedantic; indeed, it suffers once again from too much soap opera and too little guidance. Alcohol use by teens is a serious problem that merits serious treatment. Instead, the various stories present mixed messages. Winnie gets off to a rocky start in her relationship with Josh because she gets drunk, but she does not have unsafe sex because of her state. Her relationship with Josh will eventually work out positively. Faith breaks university rules and the state law, but she does reform. The author's attitude seems to be "Boys will be boys" as far as drinking and fraternity hazing are concerned. One does not necessarily want the author to take a prohibitionist approach, but she could deal more realistically with what is, for some students, a terrible dilemma. She could show that underage drinking can have bad consequences.
The issue of emerging sexuality among college-age students receives minimal and non-graphic treatment. This decision is probably wise given the young age of the readers. Readers know that Winnie had sex with Travis when they were in Europe. One can complain that the casual nature of this relationship between two eighteen-year olds is not presented as something that could have had serious psychological and physical consequences. Winnie does not suffer mental anguish, nor does she become pregnant, nor does she develop a sexually transmitted disease. However, any of those results could have happened in the real world. The only other time the question of sexual intercourse emerges is when Faith decides that she will seduce Brooks to deepen their relationship. She does not have sex with him, however, because she concludes that the spark is gone from their romance, and it is time for them to break up. All other romantic entanglements end with chaste kissing and hugging consistent with the definition of innocent teen romance (Freshman Dorm, pp. 170-171, 197, 209-211, 246-251).
In evaluating the Freshman Dorm series in relationship to the very vapid Sweet Valley High series and the very excellent Sunfire ;series, one would have to say that the Freshman Dorm novels do give young adult readers a more realistic look at college life than Sweet Valley High does of high school life. In the Freshman Dorm series, one sees young women searching for self-definition in both their careers and their social life. In many of their romantic relationships, the female protagonists in the series are a bit closer to the strong heroines of Sunfire, who want men with qualities that will not dampen their high aspirations for themselves. Like the heroines of the Sunfire series, and unlike many of the girls in the Sweet Valley High series, most of the females in the Freshman Dorm series do not play feminine games to trap men. They do not usually resort to tears, fluttering eyelashes, and attempts to appear less intelligent than they are. Since Freshman Dorm is a soap-opera series, it does not always provide readers the opportunity to see clearly the development of a single strong heroine. By contrast, each individual Sunfire novel concentrates on the emergence of one young woman. One worries whether young readers of the Freshman Dorm series can wade through the mire of soap to pick out the valuable lessons that are there. This problem is typical of the genre, and it is unfortunately more likely that many young adults will prefer soaps to historicals (Litton, pp. 22-23, 25).
While neither the Sunfire ;series nor the Sweet Valley High series devotes a great deal of attention to racial and ethnic differences, each series contains, to date, one book that deals specifically with the issue of being black. The novel Corey in the Sunfire series is about a young slave who becomes free and must deal with the changes at the end of the Civil War and during the early days of Reconstruction. Friend Against Friend, from the Sweet Valley High series, concerns contemporary racism. Both of these books are somewhat more explicit in their treatment of the issue of being black than is Freshman Dorm's storyline about Kimberly. Nonetheless, Kimberly's tale is certainly a positive one.
One can reach several conclusions about the Freshman Dorm series. First, many pre-teens and teens are going to read romances, and doing so may be positive as long as they balance their reading program with other genres. Second, the Freshman Dorm series does provide a reasonably accurate picture of college life if one accepts the caveat that these novels have soap-opera qualities. Third, although not totally consistent, the author usually provides strong role models. Fourth, the treatment of sex and alcohol is superficial. Finally, adults probably would prefer that adolescents read books from the Sunfire series; but, if they are going to read such novels -- and they will -- the Freshman Dorm series is preferable to the Sweet Valley High series.
Works Cited Cooney, Linda A. Freshman Changes. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Choices. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Dorm. Harper, 1990.
______. Freshman Dreams. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Flames. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Fling. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Games. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Guys. Harper, 1990.
______. Freshman Lies. Harper, 1990.
______. Freshman Loves. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Nights. Harper, 1990.
______. Freshman Rivals. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Schemes. Harper, 1991.
______. Freshman Secrets. Harper, 1991.
The ALAN Review, Fall, 1991, pp. 22-23, 25.
Documents librarian at the Ohio University, Joyce Litton continues her study of teen romances begun with her article in the Fall 1991 issue of The Alan Review.