"It was like, 'Gather round and see her folks, the world's most incredibly naive girl–humiliated before your own eyes!' How will I ever be able to show my face in school again, Liz!"
- p. 121
Despite the fact that I am a grown-ass-woman, sometimes the tiniest little stray line from a book or a magazine can put me into a bit of a panic. There I am, innocently watching old sitcoms on Netflix, and suddenly Ted Mosby makes a generalization about women that feels like he’s set some standard I could never meet, and I have a moment of crisis – “Is that how people really think?” The bitches on Sex and the City judge each other’s personal grooming habits and I start to worry that I’m doing something terribly wrong, and I’m the only woman who doesn’t know how we’re all supposed to be doing this life thing. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the world from TV, movies, novels, and stand-up comics. But as I get older, I realize more and more that much of it was mislearned. As in, some of these people have serious problems and I shouldn’t have trusted a word they said on any subject.
I think about that sometimes when I read the Sweet Valley novels. Because when I was 12 or 13, I was busy learning a lot from TV, movies, stand-up comics, and novels, and I was taking this info down with very few grains of salt.
I imagine these preteen girls of the late '80s gradually devouring the complete works of Francine Pascal under flowered bed spreads and wonder if the standards and double standards of Sweet Valley High weren’t so much reflecting the social dynamics of these girls' own schools as shaping their concepts of what it meant to be a “normal” American teenager.
OK. Hold up, hold up. This is getting heavy. And we’re talking about Sweet Valley, California, where nothing is EVER heavy. Except for Robin Wilson, before she lost half her body weight and finally became a valuable member of SVH society…You see my point here, right? Sometimes these books set some potentially harmful social standards and treat them as totally acceptable.
Honestly, this is kind of an odd book to send me up onto this soapbox. Compared to some other volumes in the Sweet Valley saga, Troublemaker’s sins are pretty minor. Its star/cover model is musically gifted auxiliary player Julie Porter. Pretty and talented, Julie nevertheless lacks the pizazz (read: bitchy sex appeal) to be one of Sweet Valley’s first-string players. But hey, it’s been 47 books. Our ghostwriters have to branch out a little.
My favorite part of this book is the reason WHY Julie has entered the Wakefield Zone: it’s because Elizabeth is learning to play the recorder. Clearly, the one element missing form Liz’s goody-two-shoes package was a dorky musical instrument, and it doesn’t get much dorkier than the recorder (with apologies to my father, who is an excellent recorder player; he used to accompany the church choir when a flautist was unavailable). Elizabeth discovered her new recorder lying abandoned on Jessica’s bed in book 46 and was instantly drawn to it. Naturally, her next move was to seek out a skilled accompanist for classical duets. Enter Julie Porter. Hope Julie’s ready for Elizabeth to go a-meddlin’ in her life (accidentally, and with the best of intentions, of course)!
If you’re thinking that this Julie doesn’t sound like much of a “TROUBLEMAKER” you’re right. She’s not the titular troubler, nor is her old friend and neighbor, Josh Bowen. Josh is currently following in his brother’s footsteps and pledging SVH’s fraternity, Phi Epsilon. But this year the hazing has gotten out of control – not, like, “roofied and assaulted” out-of-control, but still, it’s pretty bad for Sweet Valley. Guys are getting stuffed in lockers, force-fed ice cream, made to act like waiters in in the cafeteria…ROUGH STUFF. I’m inclined to blame this increased hazing on the total lack of adult supervision – the only teacher who makes an appearance in this book is the drama teacher who, over in the B-story, is directing a play in which Jessica hopes to star. But the prevailing wisdom at Sweet Valley High blames the uptick in frat-pledge humiliation on Bruce Patman who, rumor has it, has been attempting to earn back his total-dickwad persona now that Regina is out of the picture. Messed up, right? There’s your troublemaker right there.
Julie, for some reason, has a crush on Bruce.
Julie has a feeling that there's a good person somewhere under Bruce's showboat exterior, a notion that EVERYONE is eager to disabuse her of. Elizabeth bizarrely defers to Jessica regarding what a shit Bruce can be (he and Jess dated briefly), never mentioning or even pondering that Bruce nearly tricked Liz herself into sleeping with him after her coma. What kind of soap opera is this, anyway? NEVER FORGET.
But people aren’t just warning Julie away from Bruce because he sucks. They’re also suggesting that Bruce would never look twice in Julie’s direction. The continued insistence that Bruce would not or could not go for a girl like Julie was the aspect of this book that started to make me worry about its damaging effects on the tweens who read it.
"I don't know, Julie," Elizabeth said..."I don't want to tell you you're wrong or anything, but you've never seen his other, less considerate side. You should be careful around him, that's all."
Julie smiled at Elizabeth's solemn, earnest face. "Oh, I know. I guess I just have this thing about guys that wouldn't even
dream of looking at me...I guess I'll just have to stick with my dreams. Anyway, Liz, I don't think you need to worry about me. A guy like Bruce Patman wouldn't notice me if I jumped up and bit him on the nose."
Elizabeth smiled. Looking at Julie's sweet face, her simple hairstyle, and her conservative clothes, she had to admit Julie was right.
– p. 23-24
Try as she could, Elizabeth was unable to imagine why Bruce would ask Julie to the party. If he wanted to make his ex-girlfriend, Amy Sutton, jealous, he would have asked someone truly stunning. Something strange is going on, Elizabeth thought.
– p. 56
When Bruce eventually DOES ask Julie to be his date to this book’s party-of-the-week, the big Phi Epsilon bash at his family’s mansion, the warnings get even stronger. Everyone seems sure that he must have some ulterior motive.
To restate, Julie’s “flaws” as a sexy girl are:
- Dresses conservatively
- Is quiet.
END OF LIST.
Julie, to her credit, handles these warnings with a great attitude.
"And he's going to use me and then spit me out, right? He's going to humiliate me and break my heart the way he's broken scores of other hearts before mine...You know, I'm not as naive as I look. Everyone thinks I'm so helpless. Well, it's not true. I'm a fairly good judge of character and I'm also pretty smart. I can figure out why Bruce has such a bad reputation...And if you're afraid that he's only interested in seeing me for this one date, at least I'll have a fun time at the party! I mean, you were the one who told me I spent too much time at home practicing."
– Julie to Liz, p. 57
There are rumors floating around that Bruce has another date to the party. Josh heard about this from Liz, who heard from Jessica, who heard from Lila. So obviously Josh and Liz decide it’s their duty as friends to tell Julie about the rumors. They can’t just let her look forward to a nice night and enjoy it, because that would be unfair. “Great, here we go…” I thought to myself upon reading their plan. I was sure Julie would flip out, accuse them of not being real friends, of being so caught up in their disbelief and negative feelings about Bruce that they let it go to their heads.
Instead, Julie very reasonably says, “Thanks for the warning, I’ll take my chances.”
As far as I’m concerned, Julie’s main flaw is that she’s so damn REASONABLE. The least reasonable thing about her in the whole book is the very fact that she’s crushing on a jackass like Bruce Patman. And even there, her reasoning - that she sees his jackassery as an act masking a sensitive soul (after all, he dated Regina, RIP) – is something even the most reasonable among us has argued about some crushworthy asshole at some point in our lives. (BTW, Have your read Sweet Valley Confidential? If yes…way to call the kettle black, Liz.)
Anyway, reasonable, low-expectations, just-in-it-for-an-enjoyable-evening Julie goes to the Phi Ep party, getting a ride from Liz and Jeffrey (FYI: I’m so over Jeffrey! Bring back Todd!) because Bruce has to help set up for the party and thus won’t be free to pick Julie up himself. A red flag? Perhaps, but the party IS at Patman Manor, and IS being thrown by the fraternity that Bruce likes to pretend he’s the boss of.
Fraternity hazing update: when Julie, Liz, and Jeffrey arrive at the party, Josh (who, incidentally, looks like a less-sexy version of Bruce) answers the door dressed in drag.
It was Josh, wearing a ludicrous long blond wig.
"They didn't tell me they were going to import beautiful girls for this party," Jeffrey said. "I would have left Liz at home."
Elizabeth gave Jeffrey a good-natured kick. "I'm sorry, Josh," she said, "But you are about the ugliest woman I've ever seen!"
- p. 102
Julie enjoys the party, dancing with Bruce a bit. Bruce showers her with compliments and, when he’s not too busy, attention. He even gives her a tour of his house – which ends, of course, in his bedroom Julie is a little scared but also excited at the prospect of getting physical with Bruce. But don’t cue the Olivia Newton John just yet.
They leave the bedroom and, after an intimate slow dance, Bruce leads Julie to a dark, somewhat secluded corner. He tells her that he thinks redheads are sexy. She’s a redhead so, understandably, she takes this as a come-on. It sure looks like a makeout session is on the horizon, but Bruce says he wants everything to be perfect. So he goes to “change the CD.” Keep in mind, it’s 1988, so mentioning that you even own a CD player is a VERY slick, rich-and-cool-dude move. He puts on her favorite pop song – the only pop song Julie even likes, in fact, because it’s vaguely classical sounding. Julie (reasonably!) interprets the fact that Bruce picked the perfect song as further proof that whatever is happening between them is real. Bruce reapproaches in the dim light. She closes her eyes. They kiss!
AND THEN THE LIGHTS ALL COME ON AND EVERYONE SEES THAT JULIE’S NOT KISSING BRUCE, SHE’S KISSING JOSH! THE WHOLE DATE WAS AN ELABORATE PRANK!!!!
Bruce did have another date – a tall, blonde ballerina invented to help along both the A- and B-storylines of Troublemaker. Bruce and this prettier girl laugh and laugh at poor Julie, and so does everyone else…except for Josh, who’d been told he was going to kiss some random chick as a part of some kind of kissing competition and didn’t even realize he’d been kissing Julie until the lights went on. Apparently it was VERY dark in that corner.
The fact that this is one of the dumbest, most needlessly elaborate pranks imaginable doesn’t keep Julie from freaking out and running away. Who wouldn’t? Suddenly she looks like the very thing she didn’t want to be seen as: an idiot/fool/naive girl. Poor Julie! God damn Bruce.
Julie is furious at Josh too. At first she’s sure he was in on the joke, but even if he were just as embarrassed about the whole thing as she was (Liz eventually convinces her that this is the case), she wonders…why is he still pledging this awful frat? It’s a fair question, and one Josh has been asking himself as well. The answer seems to be a cocktail of “I’d look like a pussy,” “it would mean all the hazing was for nothing,” and “I want to make the frat great again.” But in the end, it’s Liz (isn’t it always) whose innocent suggestion creates a change of heart in Josh. He’s begun to think of Julie as more than just a friend, and he realizes that as long as he continues to pledge Phi Ep, he’s essentially saying through action that he cares more about the frat than he does about her feelings. So he says fuck it and, as a parting gift, he dumps a tray of rainbow-colored jello on Bruce’s crisp, clean chinos. What better way to cheer up the girl you love?
The moral of this book should probably be that your priorities need to be kept in check, that sometimes you have to take a step back and consider why you’re making certain choices and if they’re really worth what you’re sacrificing by choosing them. But that’s Josh’s moral. It might be great for the tens of future frat bros who read this book, but this series isn’t for them, and this book isn’t about Josh.
For Julie, I’m afraid the moral is “you should have known better.” It’s “a boy like that would never go for you, aim lower, and while you’re at it, DO judge a book by it’s cover instead of trying to see the good in someone.” I don’t approve of this moral.
Then again, this is BRUCE PATMAN we’re talking about. Everybody knows that guy sucks.