Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Romancing Beverly Cleary

During a recent discussion with some friends, we somehow got onto the topic of our kids and dating. Someone wondered how kids knew if a pair of teenagers was a couple. "You know because the boy gives the girl his ID bracelet," I said as a joke. Some of my friends didn't know what an ID bracelet was, never mind that it could be given as a token to say "we're going steady." So I had to explain how I knew this piece of 1950s trivia: from my reading of Beverly Cleary's 1956 teen romance, Fifteen.

With all the publicity surrounding Cleary's one hundredth birthday last week (April 12th), I couldn't help but recall that conversation, and my memories of reading Fifteen when I was an adolescent. Did I still have that old Dell Laurel-Leaf paperback that I'd bought when I was myself fifteen?

Turns out that I did. So this weekend, I took a stroll down memory lane, rereading the story of fifteen-year-old California teenager Jane Purdy and her introduction to dating, 1950's style. And I realized that it wasn't only lowbrow Harlequins that had first introduced me to the conventions of genre romance, but also the books of one of the most critically lauded children's writers of the 20th century.

My 1980 edition: "Having a
boyfriend isn't the answer!"
Though the tagline on my paperback, published during the height of second-wave feminism, reads "Having a boyfriend isn't the answer!" Jane's story opens by wishing for quite the opposite: "Today I'm going to meet a boy, Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her baby-sitting job. Today I'm going to meet a boy" (5). Jane's reasons for wanting to meet a boy don't have anything to do with sex, and only a little bit with romance; in fact, they seem far more about the social capital having a boyfriend can give a girl:

He would be at least sixteen—old enough to have a driver's license—and he would have crinkles around his eyes that showed he had a sense of humor, and he would be tall, the kind of boy all the other girls would like to date. (6)

When fellow student and "cashmere-sweater type" Marcy smiles and waves at Jane from the car in which she is riding (which of course belongs to popular Greg Donahoe, president of Woodmont High School's junior class), Jane feels that "Marcy belonged. Jane did not" (7). In part, belonging is about social class: Marcy "wore her cashmere sweaters as if they were of no importance at all," while Jane "had one cashmere sweater, which she took off the minute she got home from school" (7). But it is also about who your friends are, and who you date: "Marcy had many dates with the most popular boys in school and spent a lot of time with the crowd at Nibley's" Confectionary and Soda Fountain, while Jane "had an occasional date with an old family friend named George, who was an inch shorter than she was and carried his money in a change purse instead of loose in his pocket and took her straight home from the movies" (7).

The original 1956 edition:
telephones and cars at the center
of 1950s' teen life
Jane hopes that by meeting, then dating, a boy, one who meets all of her "would be" criteria, she'll be magically transformed into someone popular, someone who belongs. But even Jane realizes her dream is more fantasy than possibility: "And if I were in Marcy's place right now, Jane thought wistfully, I wouldn't even know what to say. I would probably just sit there beside Greg with my hands all clammy, because I would be so nervous and excited" (7). While the story that follows fulfills the wish Jane gives voice to in the book's opening lines—she and new-to-Woodmont Stan Crandall "meets cute" during Jane's babysitting job—the book's explicit message is one about claiming one's self-confidence. My feminist-packaged 1980 edition uses Jane's moment of realization as the interior sell copy:

From now on, Jane resolved, she would be Jane Purdy and no one else. When she saw Stan, she would act glad to see him, because no matter what had happened that was the way Jane Purdy felt. After all, Stan had liked her when she was baby-sitting with Sandra and when she walked through Chinatown with him, and she had been herself both times. Maybe if she continued to be herself, Stan would like her again. And if he didn't there was nothing she could do about it.

But there are other, less empowering messages that ride in on the coattails of this lesson in self-confidence. Messages that can easily be found in many a romance published for teens and adults in the years since 1956.

For a romance heroine, "being yourself" means being decidedly ordinary

"Is Jane ready for her first boyfriend?"
When Jane worries that her behavior has alienated Stan, she wonders "what she would do about Stan if she were some other girl." But then she realizes that she

was not any of these girls. She was Jane Purdy, an ordinary girl who was no type at all. She was neither earnest nor intellectual, and she certainly wasn't the kind of girl the boys flocked around. She was just a girl who liked to have a good time, who made reasonably good grades at school, and who still liked a boy who had once liked her. There was nothing wrong with that. (152)

On the one hand, such a message is reassuring to readers who do not have any particular talents or interests, who think of themselves as "no type at all." But on the other, Jane's insight suggests that girls who do stand out, who are intellectual or well-off or popular, are somehow less deserving than the "ordinary" girl.

"You're different from most girls"

Even though Jane is "ordinary," "no type at all," Stan still declares that she is "different" from "most girls." The "you're different" line shows up in almost every other romance novel I've read. Somehow, the romance heroine must be ordinary, while at the same time being judged "different" by the hero of their potential romance.

1992 edition: "Jane Purdy is fifteen,
shy, and in desperate need
of a boyfriend"
Sometimes this "difference" is only in the mind of the hero. But other times, it is tied to how the heroine treats the hero, as opposed to how other girls/women treat him. Stan's declaration of Jane's "difference" comes after Jane acted without teasing and without complaint when Stan arrives for a big triple date driving not his father's car, but the truck from his job at the "Doggie Diner." Unlike Marcy, who made fun of the truck, or unspecified "most girls," who "would have made me feel I'd spoiled their evening, because riding to the city in a Doggie Diner truck was beneath their dignity or something" (98), Jane "was filled with sudden sympathy" at the sight of Stan's "eyes, [which] were pleading with her not to mind, to be a good sport about riding in the truck" (81). Jane knows she has to "stifle her own feelings" of disappointment in order to be a good girlfriend. In order to present Jane as "different," then, Stan has to position "most girls" as not kind, not nice. Which leads us to point #3:

Other girls are your competition for the attention of boys. 

At the start of the book, Marcy, tooling around in Greg Donohoe's car, appears to be the embodiment of Jane's dearest desires. But she also becomes Jane's competition, at least in Jane's mind. During Jane's first date with Stan, while they are awkwardly starting to talk over ice cream at Nibley's, Marcy and Greg crash their booth, and Marcy proceeds to monopolizes the conversation. Jane grows jealous, and feels inferior, as she does on another, later date, when she and Stan and two other couples drive into the "city" to eat in Chinatown. Later, when Jane is expecting Stan to ask her to the first school dance, but then discovers that he is going to take another girl, Jane asks her friend Julie to find out who the unknown girl is (she fears it is Marcy, of course). Turns out it's a girl from the "city" where he used to live, a girl whom both Julie and Jane talk over with no little "cattiness" (125, 126).

2008 edition: "Jane's falling in love
for the first time"
Though Jane is "wistful" after seeing Marcy in Greg's car in the opening scene, she herself takes pleasure in instilling the same feeling in other girls after she and Stan begin dating:

Once inside [Nibley's], Jane could not decide whether it would be better to sit in a booth in the back, where she would be sure to have Stan all to herself, or whether it would be better to sit toward the front, where she could show him off to the rest of the crowd. She nodded and spoke to a boy who had been in her history class, a girl from her gym class, and two more from her registration room, and hoped she was behaving as casually as if she were used to walking into Nibley's with a good-looking boy. The girls spoke to Jane, but they looked at Stan. Jane noticed wistfulness, envy, or just curiosity on their faces—depending, Jane decided, on whether they were with other girls, boys they didn't like much, or dates they really liked. It was, Jane felt, a very satisfactory experience. (53)

And she enjoys sharing that same pleasure of lording it over the non-dating with her best friend, Julie:

"I've simply got to find time to wash my hair before we go to the city for dinner with Stan and Buzz," remarked Julie, in a voice that was not exactly loud but nicely calculated to carry to the crowd around them.
     "I wish I had a yellow blouse," said Jane, as if she were completely unaware of the interest others were taking in their conversation. "Stan always likes me in yellow."
     The faces reflected in the mirror behind the milkshake machines revealed that the girls around them were wishing they had dates for dinner in the city, too, and that they were sure to spread the news to every girl in Woodmont. Jane and Julie left Nibley's feeling that they had enjoyed an unusually pleasant afternoon. (78-79).

1991 edition: "Could Jane really
believe that a boy like Stand would
be interested in her?"
"That's how men are"

Jane's frustrated when Stan doesn't ask her about going to the first school dance during a Saturday date the week before. But she chalks up his behavior as due to his gender: "He was unusually talkative... but he did not mention the dance. Oh, well, thought Jane, that's how men are. He's probably taking it for granted. She found it very pleasant to be taken for granted by Stan" (103). On Tuesday, she uses the same excuse: "He had just forgotten—men were so absentminded about such things—and had been carrying the tickets in his wallet all the time" (106). While Jane is rewarded for taking Stan's feelings into account during the Chinese dinner date, Jane uses the gender card to excuse Stan for not taking similar regard of her feelings.

Since the novel is told entirely from Jane's point of view, we don't hear any "women/girls are like that" thoughts from any male characters. But in many a later romance, gender-based comments about feelings and behavior are often brought up by characters of both sexes, to explain or excuse behavior that often baffles them about their romantic partners. Such comments often function as humor, but they also simultaneously set forth the often sexist standards and boundaries about what counts as acceptable "masculine" and "feminine" behavior.

1977 UK edition
Lack of communication throws monkey-wrenches into romantic relationships

Jane and Stan experience several misunderstandings during their early dating days, misunderstandings that stem from their fears of telling each other the truth and hurting each other's feelings. Stan does not talk to Jane about already having a date for the first school dance, which leads Jane to having to tell him she's been asked by someone else, and feeling humiliated when he appears relieved rather than upset or jealous. Jane does not admit to Stan (or even to herself) that she's still angry with Stan after he comes by to apologize, and ends up responding to Stan's friend Buzz's joking offer to pay Stan fifty cents if Stan will let Buzz kiss his girl by offering her lips. Though Jane initially thinks her response was due to trying to act like Marcy, after she sees how hurt Stan is, she realizes the real reason she let Buzz kiss her: "She wanted Stan to feel some of the hurt she had felt" (138).

With Jane and Stan, who are new to the dating game, such problems of communication are easy to understand. No romance novel can't exist without a few conflicts, plot moments that keep the protagonists from achieving their HEA, or HFN, though, so the lack of communication conflicts pop up in romances for all ages. Even to the extent that readers just want to grab the characters and give them a good shake for being so emotionally stupid.

A girl's most important life goal is finding a boy

Jane's parents married right after graduation (she tells us that her father has been out of college for sixteen years [45]). While Jane anticipates having a career afterward she finishes her own degree ("Just what career, she did not know—an airline stewardess or a writer of advertising copy for a big department store, or perhaps a job at the American embassy in Paris—something like the girls in the pages of Mademoiselle, who always managed to be clever about clothes and to be seen in interesting places with men who had crew cuts" [140]), she also knows that "in the shadowy future" she will be married. And that being a wife is the most important role she will take on.

Fifteen opens with Jane's hope of meeting a boy. And it ends with Jane's hope realized: ID bracelet around her wrist and Stan's first kiss, a "tender, clumsy" affair, on her lips. Though that first kiss is comically interrupted by the family cat and Jane's father's praise of its hunting skills, Jane's thoughts post-kiss, which serve as the final lines of the book, confirm Jane's priorities: "She was Stan's girl. That was all that really mattered" (190).

Fifteen was originally published when my own mother turned fourteen. Reading it in 1980, at fifteen myself, made me feel both as if I were gaining a window onto my mother's adolescence and into the possibilities of my own future dating life (late bloomer, me). Before I reread it today, in 2016, when my own daughter is seventeen, I thought that it would feel entirely dated, a work of historical fiction.

And it does. But surprisingly, it also feels quite familiar, at least to a reader of romance. Because so many of the central ideological truths of the genre of romance remain the same, even at the start of the twenty-first century.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this post. I think about this book so often.