It was bad enough when snobby Taffy Sinclair was just a pretty face. But now, she’s gone an developed you-know-whats…
I read this one as a pre-teen, and remember not being able to relate to it because the protagonists are such jerks and they never get their comeuppance. This time around I was completely distracted by the fact that it is such a blatant rip-off of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret without any of the emotional honesty that Judy Blume brought to that work.
The Plot: A brief perusal of the reviews on Amazon tell me that I’m not the only one thinking that this concept wouldn’t fly today: five fifth-grade girls form a club specifically to torment and gossip about a classmate that they deem stuck-up.
Told from the point of view of Jana Morgan, the other members include Beth, who is basically indistinguishable from Jana, personality-wise; Melanie, the fat one; Christie, the smart one; and Katie, the strident feminist. When Beth calls to put the club on red alert when Taffy returns from summer vacation sporting a set of “you-know-whats”, Katie is typically combative:
“Do you mean breasts?” Katie asked, sounding really disgusted.
“Yeah,” I answered awkwardly.
“Then say breasts!” she shrieked. “That’s what’s the matter with women today. They can’t face reality. They’re not ‘you-know-whats.’ They’re breasts.”
“Okay. Okay. Taffy Sinclair has… breasts. Are you satisfied?”
“So who needs them? Men only point them out as a sign of our inferiority.”
While the club has already instituted a system of collecting dues so they can anonymously send Taffy hate mail and Kotex samples, Beth now wants them to donate their allowances to save up $19.95 to send away for something called the Milo Venus Developer, which she found in the back of her mother’s Redbook.
“The purpose of the secret order,” Beth went on “is to increase our bustlines faster than Taffy.”
(I know, I know, I’m cringing too.)
The girls also institute a program of exercises (more shades of Margaret) the exact mechanics of which were a mystery to me until I saw Valley of The Dolls some years later.
School starts the following week, and the Against-ers all develop a crush on their hunky 5th grade teacher Mr. Neal (eww) who they can TELL that Taffy is clearly trying to seduce (infinity eww).
Compared to the other characters, the reader gets a lot of backstory on Jana, which I assume is supposed to make her sympathetic, but doesn’t. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she hasn’t seen her father since. He sends both letters and the child support checks irregularly.
He also had also written promising to take Jana on vacation over the summer, before promptly going incommunicado again. Which Jana is forced to deal with when Mr. Neal assigns a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay.
This is the catalyst for Jana to start “acting out”, including writing an essay that is largely plagiarized from Nancy Drew books (complications ensue when Mr. Neal enthusiastically submits it for publication in the school newspaper); Jana sending a letter to her father telling him off; and finally sneaking out one night and spray painting TAFFY SINCLAIR HAS HER PERIOD on the sidewalk in front of the school.
Jana is at least somewhat wracked with guilt over that last act (the school custodian saves the day by arriving early and removing it).
Jana finally realizes that she has to cool it when she loses her Against Taffy Sinclair Club notebook, and it falls into the hands of Taffy’s mother. While Mrs. Sinclair’s outrage at a club that was designed to bully and humiliate her daughter seems, y’know, a reasonable reaction, she is portrayed as a monster, and Jana’s mother finesses the situation, leaving Jana and Taffy alone to work things out. Jana somewhat reforms and she and her friends agree to form a self-improvement club
“That way we can can work on ways to develop into the types of young women that are needed in this changing society. And raise money to buy books about the women’s movement.”
Haynes would follow up with a half-dozen more “Taffy Sinclair” sequels (she would go back to being The Enemy pretty quickly) as well as the long-running The Fabulous Five series, which follows the girls into Junior High school.
As I mentioned, I’m not alone in finding the behavior of the girls downright vicious, and it is unclear what the reader is supposed to take away from the book. While Jana “reforms” and decides to stop being such a creep at the end of the book, none of the others suffer consequences of any kind (and Christie is the daughter of the school principal!) Neither the writing nor the characterizations are sophisticated enough to presume that they are supposed to be anti-heroines, and the half-hearted ending doesn’t seem to suggest a Blubber-like “sometimes people are terrible and get away with being terrible” message.
In fact, a lot of terrible behavior on the part of a lot of the characters is dismissed as NBD, including Jana’s absent and deadbeat father, whom her mother insists is really a great guy and they divorced because they just weren’t compatible!
(In response to Jana’s epistolary telling-off, her father sends her a box of candy, which she leaves uneaten and growing dusty on the coffee table, a detail that still tries my suspension of disbelief: no matter how much you hate the sender, you don’t let a Whitman’s Sampler go to waste, Jana!)
Still, there is one mystery that remains as unsolved now as it did the first time I read it: how do you think that Milo Venus Developer works?
It was almost time for Mom to come home, but I decided that before I threw the bust developer away I had to at least see what it looked like. I tore the paper off and opened the box.
There was a tube of cream and a book of instructions, but most of the box was taken up by a funny cone-shaped thing. I was glad that I had decided to throw it away, because I didn’t like the looks of that crazy contraption.
Sign It Was Written in 1970 Department:
Everyone was there except Katie Shannon, who had to stay home and help get things ready for her mother’s encounter-group meeting. Katie is the radical feminist of our group. Don’t get me wrong. We’re all deep into the women’s movement, but Katie is in really deep.
Meta! Department: Jana’s favorite book is Cowslip, which *also* happens to be written by Betsy Haynes.