Recently, there was a post in the BSC Snark livejournal community where a member had just seen Sixteen Candles for the first time and had the same reaction I did all those years ago, when I first saw that movie: how the hell is this Mary Anne’s favorite movie? It includes such topics as underage drinking, date rape, and people paying money to see a girl’s underwear.
Obviously, it was just a movie that was popular at the time the book was written–I believe it’s in The Ghost at Dawn’s House–and Ann was like, “Oh, family forgets sixteen-year-old’s birthday, but she ends up with the school hottie! Perfect for Mary Anne!” Actually, this is really strange, but I just tried looking up Sixteen Candles in the Complete Guide and it’s NOT THERE. Obviously, someone at Scholastic realized that this wasn’t an appropriate movie for their target audience to want to watch. Luckily, we do NOT censor the wiki and it’s in there.
It’s not uncommon for authors to stick a bit of themselves and their interests into the things they write. Sometimes, this works out fine. I am a huge fan of Meg Cabot, and Mia, in The Princess Diaries, is a character who has obviously inherited a lot of Meg’s interests. Mia sits around watching Buffy and Lifetime movies and makes references to topical pop culture events all the time. If you read Meg’s blog, as I do, you’d know that these are things that Meg is really into as well. And that’s ok, because these interests are pretty believable for a teenage girl. (I would personally LOVE to sit around and discuss TV and celebrities with Meg!)
Ann, however, as all fans of the BSC know well, is into, well, I Love Lucy and Wizard of OZ. Now, I would say it would be OK for one or two of the characters to be into these things. When I was a teenager, I watched a lot of old tv–I was even weirdly obsessed with this programming block on GSN they showed at like, 3 in the morning that was game shows from the 50s and 60s. I’ve Got a Secret/What’s My Line/To Tell the Truth, etc. But I was a weirdo who had few friends! EVERYONE in Stoneybrook, it seems, is well-acquinated with the plot of every Lucy episode and has seen OZ too many times to count. When Ann does try to insert references to current trends, like with Mary Anne loving Sixteen Candles, it often is a strange choice or inappropriate because Ann truly does not to get out much. Recall, if you will, Ann’s biography, where she recalled a “wild night with the girls” in college–EATING A TON OF ICE CREAM. Which is totally fine! There is not wrong with being pop culture illiterate, or a homebody. I think that in Main Street, where Ann makes zero pop culture references and writes about a bunch of kind-of-nerdy girls, plays to her strengths well, and uses her hobbies and interests in a way that doesn’t seem anachronistic for the age she is writing about.
This is one of the things that actually IMPROVED with the ghostwriters, I think. I trust Peter Lerangis to be pretty up on pop culture–I got into a twitter discussion with him a while ago about SOPA, and he knew who Louis CK was. (So do my parents, I guess–both my mom and my dad love his show. But still. I don’t think Ann would be familiar.) But anyway, once you get past the books where Ann was the actual author and no one was thanked for their help with the manuscript, you start getting references to things that were popular at the time, like 90210 and grunge and Hanson. There is a little less Lucy and a little more “I’ve been told I look like Jason Priestley.”
There is a downside to this, however. Like how many references in The Princess Diaries will be totally confusing to kids in ten years or so (Who is Jason Alexander and why did Britney Spears marry him?, they will ask), the references in the later BSC books very firmly place them in their years of publication. Whereas the endless old-stuff references just seem a little strange in the early books, but I don’t see that many things that really clearly mark them as late 80s/early 90s the way the later books are so clearly 90s.
So, you know, often I think the best thing is to just make up your own pop culture. Let U4Me go on tour with Spider and the Insects.