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Feminist Classics: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

11th Feb 2014

★★★★
valley of the dolls cover
In a series of revisited Feminist Classics, Jacqueline Susann’s second novel, Valley of the Dolls, seems a good place to start. A combined call-to-arms, a plea for change, and an intricately-plotted cautionary tale, the novel is somewhat depressingly as, if not more, relevant in 2014 than on its first publication in 1966.

Following the lives of Anne, Jennifer and Neely, and narrated alternately through the viewpoints and experiences of each, Dolls spans a period of twenty years.

Post-war New York is a busy, thrumming city, a character in its own right, filled with cheerful sailors and soldiers. It’s ready to imprint itself on the three young hopefuls who have all, for different reasons, found a home there.

Anne – the beautiful, virginal central protagonist – works in a talent agency, and later as the face of a cosmetics chain. Of the three women, hers is the fate least negatively impacted upon by the business of selling oneself: Neely and Jennifer, both actresses, are constantly petted, prodded, diminished by the bullying men with whom they’re forced to surround themselves.

Anne feels that she’s “climbing Mount Everest, and the air was invigorating and wonderful” – but of course whatever goes up must come down again.

The eponymous ‘dolls’ are the pills, as rainbow-coloured and exciting as children’s toys, in which each heroine slowly finds solace amidst the endless curtain-calls, late-night dinners, dancing, phones ringing off the hook, lines to be learnt: the constant threat of ‘headshrinkers’.

The eponymous ‘dolls’ are the pills, as rainbow-coloured and exciting as children’s toys, in which each heroine slowly finds solace amidst the endless curtain-calls, late-night dinners, dancing, phones ringing off the hook, lines to be learnt: the constant threat of ‘headshrinkers’.Behind every woman, says Susann, is a man with a chequebook and a thin, wry smile that won’t meet his eyes: “I discovered her!” becomes the constant refrain, as though a particularly wrinkly lizard has uncovered a stone to find a diamond beneath it. Behind every twenty-something body on a big screen is the trudge of age, of facelifts and tucks and a wardrobe designed to hide the inevitable.

Neely’s story is particularly cyclical: she recognises her problems, she attempts to come clean, she relapses. And, crucially, it’s not only the men who wait, greedily in the wings, to find out whether their star has risen or plunged back to earth: other women become complicit in the endless cycles of addiction.

At one point, Anne spends thousands on Neely’s treatment in a high-end clinic, only to have her friend repay her with the ultimate betrayal. A

t another, Jennifer’s body may be permanently scarred through potentially life-changing surgery: her final decision reflects not only her attitude to the men in her life, but her own understanding of herself as a mirror: reflecting a shiny surface with little beneath it.

Women’s relationships are therefore rendered much more complicated than those between the sexes: they support, live, love and fight with one other, allowing their individual paths to intersect and bounce apart again.

It’s generally accepted that the character of Neely was inspired by Judy Garland who, in a bizarre twist of coincidence, was chosen to play another leading role in the film adaptation, but was later fired: a constantly-recurring scenario in Valley of the Dolls.

Similarities between the fictional characters and Hollywood stars Ethel Merman, Frances Farmer and Carole Landis have also been identified: tapping into the novel’s prefatory poem warning that “it’s a brutal climb to reach that peak/ which so few have seen.”

Much of the material for Valley of the Dolls came from Susann herself: working as an actress in 1940s Hollywood, she experienced first hand the dangers of striving so constantly for perfection, for attention and recognition.

So how did it enter cult circles, and why include it here? The novel never once mentions feminism, or suggests an alternative to the lives into which these women are cajoled: nor do they expect to receive acclaim for anything besides vocal, visual or sexual accomplishments.

And yet it’s the understated, warrior-like ability of these women to thrive as best they can that makes the text inspirational: climbing to an ever-greasy pole of their own personal aspiration.

As Neely ages, gains two stone and emerges to rapturous applause from fickle audiences and a slathering press, she appreciates the lot of a mid-twentieth century women as one of stubborn survival: “Guys will leave you,” she cries, “your looks will go, your kids will grow up and leave you and everything you thought was great will go sour; all you can really count on is yourself and your talent.”

Guest post by Zoe Apostolides

Got a suggestion for a Feminist Classic you’d like to see revisited? Let us know in the comments!