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How 'Valley of the Dolls' Turned Taking Drugs into a Feminist Act

Despite criticism from more "serious" male writers, Jacqueline Susann's trashy 1966 novel about drug addiction in show business soared to the top of the bestseller lists. Fifty years later, its alternative feminist message still rings true.

by Nathan Smith
May 2 2016, 3:01pm

Screengrab via IMDB

When Jacqueline Susann's novel Valley of the Dolls was released in 1966, critics panned it. "She doesn't write—she types!" quipped the writer Gore Vidal, echoing Truman Capote's similar critique of Jack Kerouac. Capote would later start a turf war with Susann, saying she looked like a "truck driver in drag" on The Tonight Show. Others would comment that she must have written her best-selling book on a "cash register." But Susann was unmoved: "Too many male writers are writing for the critics," she declared. "I write for the public."

This could not have been truer. Valley of the Dolls became one of the year's best-selling novels, selling 17 million copies by 1974 and edging out other iconic books released that year, like Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels and Capote's own In Cold Blood. Thanks to Susann's exhaustive publicity campaign and the ubiquitous word-of-mouth talk on her salacious potboiler, Susann became a household name pretty much overnight; by her death at the age of 53 in 1974, the book had made The Guinness Book of World Records for being, at the time, the best-selling novel ever.

Valley of the Dolls soon was synonymous with sin and substance abuse in show business. The book details the lives of three women working in Hollywood and New York and their destructive addiction to prescription pills, or "dolls"—a reference to how they cling to the drugs, the way a child might become inseparable from a cherished toy doll. The watershed work has since entered the popular lexicon, shorthand for the seemingly glamorous destruction of drug addiction.

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Since its publication 50 years ago, Valley of the Dolls has enjoyed a lasting cult appeal, conjuring up images of excess, salacious substance abuse, and the sultry Sharon Tate, who plays Jennifer North in the novel's bad-but-now-camp film adaption. What has mostly determined its literary and cultural legacy has been the book's lowbrow, "trashy" reputation—bad writing, glossy cover, scandalous content. Re-reading the book today, however, elicits a more feminist interpretation: The "dolls" seem less like destructive forces and more like symbols of the female protagonists' search for self-determination, in whatever limited forms it could take in the late 60s.

In many ways, after all, the decade was all about drugs. They numbed a country witnessing mass carnage in Vietnam, a grueling fight for civil rights, political assassinations, and a sexual awakening. The seeds of the second-wave feminist movement were being sewn, and disillusionment with the American cultural landscape grew. Some gravitated to the alternative realities of acid; others sourced numbness in the "deadening" lull of prescription "dolls"—mostly barbiturates and sleeping pills, though the weight-loss drug Dexedrine also makes an appearance—as the women of Susann's world did.

Screengrab via IMDB

But the illicit drugs of the 1960s were not all about an attempt to block out the world. In 1960, the FDA approved the contraceptive pill; the Supreme Court legalized it for married women across the country in 1965 and for unmarried women in 1972. The pill signified an unprecedented moment for women to take control over their bodies. Susann's "dolls" seem just as important to her protagonists; although drugs usually have a numbing effect, they also offered the women of Valley—who otherwise had their sexual, emotional, and psychological identities determined by their male partners or the patriarchal institutions they existed in—a certain amount of agency and control. For them, taking a pill was subversive, an act of both free will and risk, and one performed in a social milieu that otherwise attempted to control a woman's body, mind, and sexuality.

Susann's representation of drugs was unrepentant, insistent, and determined to demonstrate the ubiquity of drug taking for women at the time—from movie stars to housewives. But what makes the drug taking in Dolls still so transgressive is that it originates from an apparent benign form of medicalization, one used to supplement the stress and the exhaustion these women felt. The women's subsequent addiction, far beyond what their male doctors prescribed, proves to be a type of rebellion. By overmedicating themselves, the women of Valley enact a form of autonomy—albeit a bleary-eyed one—and allow Susann to point out the rampant pathologization women experienced during the era. They choose to reject the limits placed on their own drug-taking decisions, setting their own dosages in an important display of liberation.

For many women today, the novel still stands as a transformative work of feminist thinking. Over the years, the controversial writer and academic Camille Paglia has written numerous articles calling for the celebration of Susann's infamous work, calling the book "huge in [her] personal canon."

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"Valley of the Dolls is one of the great books of the postwar era," Paglia told Broadly over email. "There's a punchy, masculine, brazen quality to [Susann's] writing that I identify with as a reader. The kind of language that she uses and the kind of imagination she has are totally contemporary."

Other women—and especially younger women—also continue to connect with the frustration of the patriarchy, and with the respite drug use offered at the time.

"Valley of the Dolls is a very angry book," said Brooke Hauser, the author of a recent biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan and one of Susann's contemporaries. "It showed the ugly, seedy side of womanhood. It showed what happens when women age and lose their beauty and what kind of double standard exists in society.

"I think it is a feminist book, but I don't think the label really matters," Hauser continued. "I think the [point] is that [Susann] challenged the norm. In airing her grievances, she aired the grievances of an entire gender."