“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.”
Valley of the Dolls is 50 years old this year. It’s being republished by Virago Press, the imprint well known for championing women’s writing; they publish, among others, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Margaret Atwood. So there’s an obvious question, one that springs immediately to mind, regarding this reprint: is Valley of the Dolls a feminist book?
The short answer is: hell nope. The long answer is: sort of, maybe.
If you don’t know the plot already (and I didn’t, having neither previously read it nor seen the film, released in 1967 and starring Sharon Tate), it revolves around three young women in New York City just after WWII. There’s Anne Welles, a refugee from emotionally frigid New England small-town life, devastatingly beautiful and seeking an existence as an employed woman on her own terms. There’s her roommate, Neely O’Hara, a seventeen-year-old who’s already been a professional performer for a decade, and who finally gets her big break through Anne’s friendship. And there’s Jennifer North, an actress who cheerfully admits to having no talent, but whose body is her primary asset.
Over the course of twenty years, Anne, Neely, and Jennifer get comprehensively screwed. Anne falls in love with Lyon Burke, a theatrical agent who works for her boss; they eventually marry, but he has copious affairs. Neely becomes wildly successful as a Hollywood film actress, but becomes hooked on drugs, ends up in a psychiatric hospital, and begins an affair with Lyon upon release. Jennifer’s story is the worst of all: aborting a pregnancy in New York because the father of the child has a congenital neurological seizure disorder, she moves to France and becomes hooked on sleeping pills. Upon her return to the States, she meets and falls in love with a Republican Senator, who doesn’t want children but is obsessed with the perfection of her body (mostly her breasts). Just before her wedding, she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and is told she must have a mastectomy. Instead, she commits suicide.
So: here we have mental health and substance abuse issues of the highest order. We have women deeply, terribly damaged by the disregard of society–mostly of men–for their worth as individuals. We have relationship breakdown. We have Anne’s (at least initial) determination to be financially independent. We have extramarital sex, demanding parents, the fear of provincial oblivion. You can see why Valley of the Dolls is cited as a direct cultural forebear of Sex and the City.
The problem I have with calling it feminist is mostly this: feminism has moved on since 1966. All of the things I mention above probably did make it a feminist book (or at least feminism-flavoured) when it was first published. Sure, women had sex and breakdowns, but literature didn’t chronicle it very much, let alone validate that suffering. We like Anne; we feel sorry for Jennifer; we’re forced to admire Neely’s grit even if we find her behaviour shocking. These women are hustling for themselves, and there’s a lot of rage in their experiences. Helen Lawson, an aging stage actress, “crucifies” a younger actress, Terry King, who threatens her primacy in a show. She does it because she’s terrified. Throughout this book, women compete with and attempt to destroy one another because they are so goddamn scared: of the future, of aging, of the power of the men in their lives. The women are the artists and performers, but the men are the lawyers, the agents, the directors. The women sign the contracts, but the men draw them up.
Even the most determined of the women in this book are aiming, really, at one thing: marriage. Anne’s refusal to marry Allen Cooper at the beginning of the novel is admirable (she doesn’t love him and tells him so; he literally informs her that she will eventually; she shakes him off after a few months, but only by falling in love with someone else). But there is so much pressure to bag a man: Jennifer’s mother tells her on the phone, “In five years you’ll be thirty. I was twenty-nine when your father got tired of me.” Even Neely, at seventeen, doesn’t understand why anyone would want anything else. And when Anne falls for Lyon Burke, she demands to know when he’s marrying her… after four days of dating. Intersectionality, meanwhile, is hardly present: Jews and gay men are subject to depressingly off-hand nastiness, while women of colour don’t exist at all in this book’s universe, and working-class women are only ever ashamed of their origins. For me to even raise the issue, of course, is sort of pointless, insofar as Susann wasn’t writing during an age of intersectional feminism. She’s of the Gloria Steinem generation; their breakthrough was to get the world to notice that white, middle-class women cannot be expected to cope with constant domestic and professional misogyny.
The problem now is that we have realized that’s not enough. When you read about the terrible things that happened to women in the early years of film and stage celebrity–the stories of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland spring to mind–you can’t help but be horrified, especially by the way in which contemporary culture fetishizes those same women. A similar phenomenon contributed to the legends, and the early deaths, of Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. What we expect of public women is awful, and was awful. This is all true. But it’s also true that white, middle-class women have a long history of ignoring and erasing others who should be equal partners in the struggle for rights: women of colour, gay men, gay women, transgender women, poor women, fat women, disabled women. My generation does not venerate Gloria Steinem except for as a reminder of how far we’ve come. We’re looking to poets like Warsan Shire; to writers like Juno Dawson and Roxane Gay; to musicians like Anohni; to commentators like Jack Monroe.
So is Valley of the Dolls valuable? Certainly: as an artifact, a signpost, something historically significant. But if I worked for Virago, I would be a tiny bit concerned–privately, quietly, but nonetheless–about reissuing it. We are not these women anymore, or at least, we don’t have to be. Why are we looking back?