Friday, July 15, 2011

Elizabeth and Jessica: The Lost Years

It's been a while since I slagged on hipsters, because I've sort of given up caring. Who gives a shit about your love of New Order, your glasses frames, your parents' divorce, or your recipe for organic muesli? It's been a Real World sort of month in the Kochany household - not the show, or the Klostermanian ironic love of the show, but the actual living experience - and it's been a little tough to focus on the vagaries of urban mid-twenties neurotics.

My friend Jess was in town the other day, and we were wandering around upper-class Yorkville, looking at the over-tanned and -blonded citizens of that neighbourhood. As we walked through the perfectly maintained throngs of women, I realized the "why" of the hipster. It was like a vision, only more annoying.

If you're like me, you probably spent some time in middle school reading YA fiction and Sweet Valley High books. The SVH books are generally inoffensive rot, but they set up a dichotomy in my young, impressionable brain that there are two kinds of people in the world: the Wakefields and their friends, who were fit, blonde, wore lavalier necklaces (whatever the hell those were), had money, drove convertibles, were sexy without having actual sex, and were basically hugely desirable on all fronts...and then there was everyone else. Because they were twins, one could be street-smart, while the other was book smart. One was slightly nerdy, but they never strayed too far into the realm of actual dorkiness - they were too pretty for that.

Their world was populated by jocks, fashion fiends, plus a B-team of frizzy-haired friends, smart boys, and girls who were quietly eating disordered. The books and characters were, by their nature, one-dimensional, but the world was complete unto itself: they had after-school hangouts, disastrous house parties, and newspaper internships. Archetypes who were deemed uninteresting simply weren't written in to the books: there were precious few characters of colour, and all the girls were contractually required to either have a boyfriend or be pining over a dude who didn't want them. Riot grrls would have given Jessica Wakefield hives. Ostensibly, the twins and their friends might have been "strong female characters," but as junior romance novels tend to be, the spotlight was often tightly focused on what made women desirable to men - prettiness, an ability to hide talents or interests that might put a guy off, or, if a girl was pursuing her own interests, she would be saddled with a dud like journalist Elizabeth's dullard boyfriend Todd.

The decline of the Wakefield twins actually dovetailed with the rise of hipster culture. Oh, I'm sorry - "culture." As the blonde twins lost their juggernaut grip on the hearts and minds of middle-schoolers, there was a spike in indie culture and the DIY aesthetic. Suddenly, it wasn't just the pretty kids who were interesting. If you knew about music, or had an encyclopedic knowledge of a cool TV show like The Simpson, or had picked up a couple issues of Sassy, you could see a way out of having to be pretty to be impressive. In high school, this would translate into 'zines and mixtapes and vintage clothing sourced from the local Sally Ann, not to mention terrible bands and hideous poetry. Girl-punk and indie rock style, and the media storm it inspired, was the anti-Wakefield. I remember the Sassy cover with Courtney and Kurt, sloppily all over each other, and something in me was both repulsed and fascinated. Everything that had been bottled up in Sweet Valley came roaring to the surface.

Fifteen years later, that messiness has largely disappeared from the hipster scene, and it's as codified and antiseptic as the Wakefield's world was. Interestingly, there's a sequel of sorts to the SVH books out now: a grown-up novel set in the twin's late twenties, dealing with their sordid but I'm sure exceedingly fashionable lives. It'll be interesting to see what kind of of fan reaction the book gets, because I think most of the girls who grew up reading (and coveting) the Wakefield scene have moved on.

To wit: the gift the post-SVH hipsters have given to women and girls is that it's okay to be a little "ugly." After all, if it's a radical act to not be blonde, fit and have a heart-shaped face, almost any other beauty paradigm will do. Girls with glasses, or who wear '70s housedresses or band tee-shirts. Girls who have ardently defended their position on 1980s radio-rock. Girls who are open with their sexuality, whether they're slutty, kinky, or virginal. Women who eat meat. People who write, play in a band, or do movie recaps, or make pitchers of sangria for picnics. Girls who are mouthy and smart, and who cultivate their intellect the way Jessica Wakefield would have curated her closet. Women who know what their beauty is, and who aren't going to let a pair sixteen-year-old twins with effing lavaliere necklaces tell them what to do.

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