Valley Of The Dolls Hits The Big 5-0, & Frankly, It Has Aged Badly

Image: Courtesy of Grove Press.
There is a long list of narrative constructs from Jacqueline Susann's 1966 novel, Valley of the Dolls, that have aged badly. Among them: abject sexism, including outlandish assumptions about the female brain and body; and the idea that a 30-year-old woman — hell, a 25-year-old woman — is pretty much past her prime. Also, the concept of a "prime." Seriously. What the fuck?

So if you have not yet read the novel, which turns 50 this month (positively ancient by its own standards) here is a thought: Maybe don't.

In a nutshell, Valley of the Dolls is a story about three young women who come to New York City seeking fame, validation, and love — in varying orders of importance. Over the course of nearly 500 pages, they rise through the ranks of the Hollywood's Golden Age, achieving success and acclaim through a cocktail of beauty, talent, scheming, and being in the right place at the right time.

But as they get older, their hard-won successes begin to unravel. The men they love literally leave them for younger models. As the main characters reach the end of their 20s, each wonders what value they still hold. Even when one of the three gets everything she ever wanted, she ultimately finds up that having it all isn't all its cracked up to be, especially when your beloved husband comes with an adultery caveat and your best friend is first in line to stab you in the back.

Less so now, but still: Women routinely receive signals that we are not enough.

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Here is where the title comes in: To cope with this mess which is living in their world while female, the women turn to dolls — not the ones that sit, smiling blankly on shelves, though that's a fair mental leap, but the ones that hide out in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Dolls are pills: amphetamines, barbiturates, appetite suppressants; pills to put you to sleep and wake you up and help melt away unwanted weight. (Although, in the world that Susann has created, as in the one where we live in, it often seems that there's no other kind of weight.) Eventually, the women seem to be running on dolls, gulping them down with Scotch and using them to smooth over the jagged edges of existence. They all wind up in the valley, at different depths, and there is an undeniable darkness to the nature of their individual addictions.

Make no mistake, though. Valley of the Dolls is no allegorical social critique or thinly veiled commentary about the mass drugging of American women. It is neither a coming-of-age postscript to Age of Innocence nor a precursor to Prozac Nation. It was crafted to be salacious, to first and foremost fly off shelves, and to help catapult Susann into a circle of fame that she always strived to belong to.

The real genius of this book was mostly in its marketing and in the unpredictable way that its reputation has snowballed toward cult-classic status over the last half-century. I won't deny that it's an entertaining read or that it hasn't earned its status in pop culture — if there was ever a book that embodied the quintessence of "beach read," this is it. It's just that, personally, I believe that life is too short to spend time on middling literature. So, perhaps go another route: Choose something truly great, instead.

Nevertheless, while I won't make the case that you must read Valley of the Dolls, that doesn't negate the fact that — intentionally or otherwise (and let's be honest, it wasn't intentional) — there are lessons to be gleaned from the contents of this otherwise frivolous novel about what happens when a bar is set too high to reach.

Less so now, but still: Women routinely receive signals that we are not enough. The messages come from glossy magazines, porn, media critiques of aging celebrity faces, and advertisements that insist that there are flaws to be fixed and anecdotes for aging; that age itself is something to treat. Sometimes, it seems impossible to keep up — and that's where the dolls come in, in one form or another: dolls to make you sleep, dolls to wake you up, dolls to keep you thin. But in life, as in Valley of the Dolls, the real problem with the dolls, the pills, is that they never cure the real problem festering under the surface. They only mask the symptoms.
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