On Books: Valley of the Dolls

On Books: Susann, Jacqueline, Valley of the Dolls, Bantam Books: New York, 1967.

I decided to read this book after chancing across the movie version on television and realizing, to my surprise, that it was not a horror story, as I’d always thought it was. (I suspect that as a child I got it confused with a book written by V.C. Andrews, of whom my older sister was very fond.)

I’m not going to bore you with the plot points – it’s an engaging if overdone exploration of the high-pressure and sometimes cutthroat world of show business – but I do want to point out that it was hardly the first story of its kind, and certainly not the best. Think The Bad and the Beautiful, Sweet Smell of Success, and, of course, the masterful All About Eve. Indeed, when you look back on the number of motion pictures that revolved around the stresses of Hollywood ladder-climbing in the middle of the last century it makes you realize that this was actually a fairly new phenomenon at the time, wasn’t it? The big stars of Broadway or film experienced fame on an entirely different level than the entertainers of the nineteenth century or before. While it may be argued that, owing to technological advances and the invention of social media, modern performers are subject to even greater stresses, this is a quantitative rather than a qualitative change. And indeed, one only has to glance at the headlines to realize that the entertainers of today have just as many issues with drugs and backstabbing as those of Hollywood in its infancy.

In any case, plot aside, what was really striking about the novel is what jerks the men are, and what idiots the women are. In fact, the jerkier the men, the more idiotic the women become. No, strike that. The women are idiotic in their own right, too, independent of the men. And sometimes the women are jerks, and the men are idiots. Really, what man would ever go on about how he loves a woman for herself, and then in the next breath declare that he loves her for her breasts? What woman would ever decide to give up on having children because she’s reached the ripe old age of thirty? I mean, I know we’re talking about fifty years ago here, but biology hasn’t changed that much. And the attitude towards women, especially coming from a female writer, is just unbelievable. At one point one of the main characters gains a lot of weight, and everyone – men, women, and she herself – refer to her as a useless “sack of blubber.” To paraphrase, “He can’t be in love with her; she’s a pig!” Trust me, if you read the book, it’s clear that this was not ironically intended.

Finally, the sexuality that made the book so sensational at the time is horrible, just horrible. It makes you wonder if the author ever had a satisfying, or indeed, even a vaguely pleasant sexual experience in her life. The women hardly ever want or enjoy intercourse, but that’s okay, says the novel, because they get their satisfaction from “pleasing their man.” Ugh! If this is the kind of example of liberation that women were given back in the sixties, it gives me new respect for my mother’s generation. How heroically well-adjusted they were, it seems to me now.

It’s so offensive that it’s actually worth reading, if only to get a sense of the cultural context. I promise, you will be eternally grateful that these days you can get a wrinkle without wanting to kill yourself. That you can have enough self-respect not to have to lay down like a doormat to “hold on” to your man. And that men nowadays don’t expect you to.  

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