Recently, in light of the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Vox examined 1980s rape culture through the movie Sixteen Candles. Constance Grady wrote:
The dominant cultural narrative at the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s high school experience was the one offered by Sixteen Candles. And it taught any girl who went to a party and got assaulted by an acquaintance that whatever happened to her was surely her fault, that it proved she was the wrong kind of girl, that it was funny, that she had nothing whatsoever to complain about, and that it absolutely wasn’t rape.
In the context of this culture, it is hardly surprising none of the women alleging Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them came forward until now. Last week, we had the opportunity to hear directly from Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, the first woman to come forward, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She was a highly credible witness — and it’s worth remembering that even under the higher standards of the criminal context, which this is not, testimony is evidence and there is no corroboration requirement. Meanwhile, when it was his turn to testify about the allegations, Kavanaugh perjured himself repeatedly, including by misrepresenting verifiable facts like the drinking age in Maryland and the definition of the terms he used in his sexualized yearbook entry.
While listening to their testimonies related to high school events in 1982, I kept thinking about Sweet Valley High, a fictional high school from the same period.
The books from the Sweet Valley High series, which first arrived on the publishing scene in 1983, are now available as e-books, which, as author Francine Pascal says in a note to the “Reader,” makes the books accessible to “a whole new generation of teenagers who want to lose themselves in the world of Sweet Valley, the fantasy of the eighties, and the best high school no one ever went to.”
This series, featuring identical twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, is a fictional portrayal of the eighties, but, like Sixteen Candles, it provides a portal to the real-life norms of its time.
After almost three decades, I re-read the first installment of this series, Double Love, in which Elizabeth and Jessica have a crush on the same guy, Todd Wilkins. As the mother of identical twins now, I find it hard to accept Elizabeth and Jessica’s relationship or how often the drama boils down to mistaken identity, but I’ll save my comments on these issues for another time.
The book begins with skinny Jessica lamenting how “disgustingly fat” she is — ugh — and then it goes on to include several instances of sexual misconduct, including groping and attempted rape, and even includes a false groping allegation from someone with a history of lying about matters big and small (much like Kavanaugh in terms of his credibility).
I didn’t remember any of this from the series, which I started reading when I was about ten-years-old, around the time the Senate confirmed Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court despite Professor Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against him.
Unlike Sixteen Candles, the sexual misconduct in this novel isn’t included for humor. They are concerning events, but the characters do not consider reporting it to an adult or the police (even when the police are involved for other reasons) because they don’t seem to think what happened to them is serious enough to report. The police would probably blame them for the event — the supposedly “kind” officer already blames the character for being in a seedy place without knowing the full extent of the conduct she experienced — but the novel doesn’t address whether the characters thought they wouldn’t be believed. Rather, the assaults are in this novel to move the plot forward, and the characters experience them as annoyances that do not have any lingering emotional or physical effects (unlike the experience of people in real life as Dr. Blasey Ford testified and as I also know from my own experience).
This so-called “fantasy of the eighties” is engrossing the way soap operas often are, but I wonder to what extent a “whole new generation of teenagers,” as Pascal hopes, will willingly “lose themselves” in it in our #MeToo era. The Senate may still perpetuate rape culture by advancing Kavanaugh to our highest court — we’ll see what happens — but I hope the coming generations will know better and will help us vote them out.