Tuesday 3 April 2012

Monster High vs. Sweet Valley High

A while ago, I wrote a post on Mattel’s range of ‘Monster High’ dolls, particularly on their female werewolf, Clawdeen. Not long afterwards, I picked up a copy on Lisi Harrison’s first Monster High novel to see if Clawdeen shaped up any differently in print than in plastic. Like the toy range, Harrison’s novel is aimed at the ‘tween’ market – specifically pre-teen girls – which made me think back to what I used to read when I was a pre-teen girl myself. Some people may be surprised by this, but I actually devoted quite a scary amount of my ‘tween’ years to working my way through Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series. (For those of you who either don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, this series, the Sweet Valley High books were about identical twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, from California, who had to deal with all the usual high school problems of growing up, falling in love, being ridiculously rich and beautiful, and coping with jealousy from people marginally less rich and beautiful than themselves.)

Reading the Monster High novel stirred a distant memory of a werewolf-themed Sweet Valley High mini-series. I got rid of all my Sweet Valley High books when my tastes turned to more blood-thirsty fare, but I seemed to remember keeping hold of one of the werewolf books (A Date With a Werewolf)… obviously knowing where my future career would lead me. Sure enough, I managed to dig it out (along with a whole load of other books from my pre-teen/teen years that I don’t think I’ll mention here).

So, I thought it would be kind of interesting to compare Monster High and Sweet Valley High’s take on werewolves, and to see if anything has changed in the world of tween lycanthropes in the last two decades.

Monster High

Harrison’s novel, in a wonderfully late-capitalist way, is an adaptation of a toy range. While the Monster High dolls are simply ‘characters’ with profiles, outfits and accessories, the book seeks to offer some backstory and ‘depth’ to their presentation. The story takes place in Salem, Oregon, where monsters (or RADs – Regular Attribute Dodgers – as they call themselves) have taken refuge, believing a) they are in Salem, Massachusetts and b) Salem, Massachusetts is a safe haven for monsters, given that a lot of witches live there happily. I’ll just leave that odd logic to one side for now, as Harrison does in the novel.

The story follows the parallel experiences of two new girls at Merston High. The first is Melody Carver, a human (or ‘normie’ as the monsters call them) girl who has experienced bullying due to her physical appearance at her old school. Her father, a plastic surgeon, has ‘corrected’ her face, leaving Melody feeling hollow as people now only like her because she is pretty. Her airheaded and materialistic sister, Candace, ignores any sign of Melody being bullied, calls her by the name (‘Smellody’) her bullies have used, and seems only to care about designer labels and expensive accessories. The second new girl at the school is Frankie Stein, the newly-created and green-skinned ‘daughter’ of Viktor and Viveka Stein, and granddaughter of ‘Dr. Viktor Frankenstein’ (a weird amalgam of the creator and the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel, viewed through the lens of subsequent films and Hallowe’en costumes). Though Frankie has had 15 years of memories and knowledge placed into her head – including, apparently, literature, art, culture, science and history – she is an extraordinarily shallow creation, who is absolutely obsessed with fashion and celebrity. Both Frankie and Melody are desperate to make friends at their new school, but both encounter problems with ‘fitting in’.

On her first day at Merston High, and in a scene which should be familiar to anyone who has seen any films about high school girls, Melody bumps into one of the popular girls and is humiliated in front of the entire cafeteria. The difference here, though, is that the girl she gets on the wrong side of is Cleo (a mummy), who is accompanied by Claudine (a werewolf). Melody is consistently snubbed and mocked by Cleo and Claudine, and also by Blue (a mermaid) and Lala (Draculaura, a vampire). The only friends she can make are a couple of rather odd human girls, who have also been slighted by Cleo and are out for revenge. Frankie, on the other hand, is immediately accepted by Blue and Lala, who introduce her to Cleo and Claudine, and soon the girls are all heading off to an expensive spa for the day. They admit later that they all suspected she was a monster, even before this fact was confirmed. Despite its tagline of ‘Fitting in is out’, the message of the book seems fairly clear: in a world where the popular girls are all monsters, you’re nothing without monstrosity. In fact, Melody’s experience at Merston High seems to suggest that the monsters are just as superficial, cliquey and bitchy as the girls she has left behind in Beverly Hills – only the criteria for acceptance have changed.

But what of the werewolf (since Clawdeen/Claudine was the creature that sparked my interest in the first place)?

The first description of Claudine reads as follows:
Two attractive alternative girls, consumed by their own conversation, tried to squeeze past them. The Shakira-looking one, who had auburn curls and a tray stacked with Kobe beef sliders, made it by Jackson. […] ‘Untrue!’ barked the girl with the sliders. […] The barker wore purple leggings and a black bomber jacket lined in fur the same color as her hair. (pp. 54-5)

The second:
Claudine turned away from the window. “Hey,” she said, tearing open a bag of organic turkey jerky. Her looks – yellowish-brown eyes, a mess of auburn curls, long manicured fingernails painted bronze – were just as striking as Cleo’s but in a more wild, feral way. Her style, however, seemed tamer: all-American with a touch of old-world Hollywood glamour. (p. 83)

It should be remembered, at this point, that Harrison has not actually revealed that Claudine is a werewolf. In fact, apart from Frankie, we’re not yet sure that any of the other characters are ‘RADs’. However, there are a good few clues as to Claudine’s nature here. She is often seen eating meat, unlike the rest of the characters who are remarkably picky about food (Lala is a vegan, and the school cafeteria is divided up into coloured ‘zones’ for people with restricted diets). Not only that, but she eats larger quantities of meat, and eats them impatiently: her tray is ‘stacked’ with beef sliders and she tears into the bag of jerky. Perhaps a bigger giveaway is her fur, which she is always seen wearing, and which is the same colour as her hair. Later on, it is revealed that this is because it is her hair. Notice as well that Claudine has a ‘mess’ of curls and ‘wild, feral’ eyes. Compared with the Elizabeth Taylor –esque look of Cleo and the pale Goth-look of vampire Lala, and it’s not difficult to play spot-the-werewolf.

In my previous post on Mattel’s Clawdeen Wolf doll, I commented on the focus on her sexual identity. The character’s profile on the official website, for instance, refers to one of her hobbies as ‘flirting’. This is not as evident in the novel, as all the female characters are obsessed with either attracting males or with punishing other females who have attracted the males they were after. What is introduced in Harrison’s novel, however, is that other mainstay of recent female werewolf fiction – the pack. Apart from Frankie’s creators/parents, Claudine’s family is the only monster family introduced in any detail. She has a large group of overprotective brothers, who are leery, hairy and generally hyper-masculine (in a frat-boy kind of way). Claudine is both resentful of their protectiveness and mindful of the need to stay loyal to them, which is fairly typical of the way the ‘pack’ is presented in much recent fiction.

What is interesting, perhaps, in the Monster High book and toy range (and I’ve only read the first book in a series, so I don’t know if this comes up later on) is that any question of transformation is avoided. Claudine/Clawdeen appears to be more a hybrid half-wolf, half-woman than a woman who transforms into a wolf. She has a pelt while clearly in ‘human’ form, which allows her to hide her lycanthropy by getting body waxes at an exclusive spa (where mermaids can take salt baths and mummies can get massages). At no point is it suggested that she, or her brothers, will undergo a complete bodily transformation, nor that she will pose any particular threat to human beings should this happen. Indeed, the only monster who causes harm to humans is the (bizarrely male) gorgon, Deuce, who accidentally drops his sunglasses and turns an innocent bystander to stone (which is dismissed rather callously by the narrator).

Sweet Valley High

How, then, does this compare to a tween novel of nearly twenty years ago? In many ways, the world of Sweet Valley High and Monster High are scarily similar. High school cliques, ‘girl politics’ and the need to attract good-looking males are consistent themes of both series. The materialistic world of these teenagers is also similar in both series. The characters of Monster High are so obsessed with designer clothes and labels, it is difficult to read some passages due to the sheer number of brand names. Even the supposedly ‘alternative’ Melody, who is explicitly described as rejecting her contemporaries’ obsession with fashion, doesn’t wear trainers, but ‘Converse’, and is attracted to a young man when she notices that he also wears this brand of shoe.

This is not a million miles away from the world of Sweet Valley High, where Jessica Wakefield’s focus on appearances is often held up as a contrast to Elizabeth’s studious and serious persona (studious and serious while dressed in expensive clothes, of course). At one point in A Date With a Werewolf, Jessica is musing on a series of gruesome murderers which may have been perpetrated by her boyfriend (who may also be a werewolf); her reaction to this, and to the discovery of a mutilated body in her own bed, is to go to Harrods. After all, she thinks, ‘If shopping wouldn’t cheer her up, nothing would.’ (p. 131).

If the reference to Harrods threw you there, I should probably give some summary of the plot of A Date With a Werewolf. This is the second book in the Horror in London mini-series (I’m afraid I haven’t kept, or maybe never read, the other two). Elizabeth and (implausibly) Jessica have won prestigious internships with the London Journal, and are spending the summer in England. Jessica has caught the eye of Lord Robert Pembroke, a member of the aristocracy, and Elizabeth is sort of cheating on her long-time boyfriend with ‘sensitive’ poet Luke. Meanwhile, a series of brutal murders are occurring in London, and are being covered up by the papers. Luke has persuaded Elizabeth that these murders are the work of a werewolf, and, worse, that the lycanthrope is none other than Robert Pembroke. Believing her sister to be in danger, Elizabeth investigates further…

I could dwell on the ludicrousness of this storyline, but I won’t. Suffice to say, the version of lycanthropy in Sweet Valley High is quite different to that presented in Monster High. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the werewolf is a vicious killer. Within the opening pages of this book, Elizabeth finds a dead woman: ‘And her throat had been ripped open… as if by a wild beast.’ (p. 2) In case we didn’t get the beast reference, we are then told: ‘And as if to add credence to the werewolf theory, some of the Pembrokes’ sheep had been found with their throats ripped open – just hours before Joy’s murder.’ (p. 3)

As the story progresses, it’s clear that we’re in ‘Wolfman’ territory (in fact, the sequel to this book was called Beware the Wolfman). The werewolf is a lone predator, possibly an aristocratic male transformed by some sort of curse, who is changed from human form to wolf, and is consumed by an uncontrollable blood lust. To underline this, the book contains a veritable encyclopaedia of lycanthropy, including warnings from gypsies, a silver talisman with a pentagram on it, wolfsbane, full moons, ‘wolf imagery in Native-American rites and rituals’ (p. 37), silver bullets and ‘medieval werewolf trials’ (p. 90). The book owes much of its presentation of werewolfism to The Wolfman, particularly in the presentation of the alleged werewolf’s father, who seeks to both protect his son and understand his curse. Weirdly, the book seems almost prescient, as its presentation of Lord Pembroke Sr. seems to point forwards to the recent remake of The Wolfman more than the original.

Obviously, with the books being set in London, there are nods to An American Werewolf in London, particularly the fact that Luke takes Elizabeth to drink in a pub called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’. I can only assume that this pub is a little different to its famous namesake, as it is in central London and apparently serves coffee.

The London setting of the book is not very convincing, to say the least. This version of London is a couple of miles away from Stonehenge, has large country estates (with sheep) close by and has a royal family who all live cosily in Buckingham Palace. One of the subplots features the ‘youngest daughter of the Queen of England’, who has escapes from Buckingham Palace, pretends to be a ‘working-class girl from Liverpool’ and helps her boyfriend to set up ‘free medical care for the poor’ (clearly, all that time locked up in Buckingham Palace means she hasn’t heard of the NHS).

This inaccurate and romanticized version of ‘London’ has a direct impact on the version of lycanthropy in A Date With a Werewolf. We are in the Victorian Gothic world of the tortured, but killer, werewolf, rather than the North American world of the wolf pack. The London that Elizabeth and Jessica visit is the home of Jack the Ripper, and an ‘eerie werewolf exhibit at the wax museum’ (p. 16). It is a world in which a member of the aristocracy can murder his servants with impunity, as his father has ultimate control of the press. There is even a secret door that opens from a wood-panelled library, activated by removing a first edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Gothicism of this fictional London is what allows for suspension of disbelief, both on the part of the implied readers and on the part of Elizabeth, the supposedly ‘level-headed’ heroine. This is noted clearly in the book, when it is stated that: ‘…ideas that would have sounded ridiculous to Elizabeth under the bright California sun somehow seemed more reasonable when voiced through an English fog’ (p. 4). (I’m sure it goes without saying that, for the entire duration of the girls’ trip, London appears to be engulfed by an inexplicably nineteenth-century fog).

So, what have we learned from this? Anything?

The differences in the werewolves in these books points to diverging traditions of lycanthropy. A Date With a Werewolf is the older, Western European tradition (which was dominant from the late Middle Ages onwards, and was refracted through the lens of late Victorian Gothic), in which the werewolf is a tortured, yet brutal and animalistic, loner, whose human form disguises the beast within. Monster High belongs to a newer pattern of presenting werewolves – particularly female werewolves – that is rapidly superseding the older type. I call this the ‘American’ tradition, as it is more common in countries with native wolves. These werewolves are not loners, but rather members of a hierarchical (and often patriarchal) pack structure, which is constructed as both a source of support and constraint. That the earlier book takes place in a foggy and Victorian-esque London, the later in a small town in Oregon, highlights this.

While the werewolves may be different, the modes of femininity presented in tween fiction have sadly not changed much over the past two decades. Materialistic, narcissistic and obsessed with attracting the most popular and best-looking boys (despite occasional nods to ‘sisterhood’ and ‘friendship’), the girls at Monster High are little different to those of Sweet Valley High. Sadly, the only lesson I can really take from my comparison of these two books is that this particular construction of the vain and shallow teenage girl clearly transcends species.

It's enough to make you howl, really.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who's from Salem, Oregon I find this both amusing and slightly insulting. And really, Merston High? Salem only has six main high schools and you make up your own? Especially when you could have hilarious matchups if they went to different schools (each with their own warrior themed sports teams). Like the gorgon (or other Greek monsters) going to Sprague (Home of the Olympians!) or West (the Titans). Missing out on so much!

    Sorry, that just really bugs me for some reason.