Hello, everyone! A few years ago, I wrote an analytical essay for one of my college classes about Lisi Harrison’s book series The Clique. I read the series as an impressionable seventh grader, and even though many of the name drops and luxury brand references went over my head at the time, I remember being struck by the attitude of the main characters, mainly how privileged, snobby, and entitled they seemed, and how far removed they were from the type of thirteen-year-old girls I knew in real life. Set in ritzy Westchester, NY, the series follows the travails of five tween girls as they navigate middle school, friendship, and boy problems, all against the backdrop of unimaginable wealth and luxury. As alien as the series was to a middle-class girl living in the suburbs, tween me was still enamored with the portrait of luxury presented in these novels, and spent a few years thinking that the reality presented in The Clique series was close to the reality awaiting me in middle school. Reading these books as an adult through an analytical lens provided me the opportunity to see these novels as they really are: consumerist brainwashing to young girls disguised as a typical YA coming-of-age series. If you’re interested in reading the full paper, I’ve posted it below.
What is femininity? Or the better question, what is femininity in capitalist America? In Lisi Harrison’s tween chick-lit novel Boys R Us, the 12th novel in The Clique series, adolescent femininity is composed of a shopping list of products that aim to keep the protagonists in the titular “Clique” pretty, popular, and precociously addicted to consumerism. Aimed at readers aged eight to twelve, Boys R Us revolves around Massie Block, a snarky filthy rich Westchesterian and self-proclaimed “alpha” of the Pretty Committee, as she and her clique navigate boy troubles and bad-sushi days at their private school. Although Harrison has stated that her books satirize American overconsumption, her relish for brand-names and her not-so-subtle support of harmful teen beauty standards make it difficult to interpret her work as completely satirical (Moran and Ghadishah). For older readers, the satire behind her witticisms are clear, but it is a stretch to say that her tween demographic can just as easily understand the critique behind the extravagant materialism. Harrison’s novel Boys R Us indoctrinates its young readers into believing that ideal femininity is accessible only through over-consumption and a slavish devotion to brands. Despite its satirical intent, the work still promotes a consumption-centered world in which every problem of adolescence can be solved through the buying of stuff, where there is no higher aspiration for tween girls than wealth and popularity, and where the mean girls always win.
With just the title, Harrison ushers the reader into a capitalist dream. Boys R Us, a play on the name of the now-bankrupt Toys R Us, doesn’t signify anything besides a cheap allegiance to a recognizable brand. Unlike other Clique novels, the book has little to do with boys, but the misleading title nevertheless serves its purpose, “hailing,” in Althusser’s words, the target audience of tween girls who were not so long ago Toys R Us’s own demographic (Althusser 40). It’s the first example of Harrison’s name-dropping technique, where she uses the reader’s pre-existing connotations of a brand to convey her intended meaning. In this way, the title functions much like a celebrity testimonial, luring in the reader with the promising familiarity of a trusted name.
The name-dropping is rampant in Boys R Us. In the first chapter alone there are more than 34 brand references, including brands like Blistex, Drakkar Noir, Balenciaga, Chloe, and Pledge. Harrison’s utilization of brand names differs depending on context, but mostly splits into two categories: illustration and comparison. For Massie’s first appearance in the novel, Harrison describes her holding a “red YSL Raspail tote” and a “tags-on metallic Balenciaga scarf” with a “four-digit number on the crips white price tag” (6). The jaw-dropping display of materialism is meant to convey that Massie is at her peak alpha status, despite being dumped by her clique in the previous book.
This trend continues throughout the novel; rarely is the inner state of these characters described in any terms other than the materialistic. Chapter Three shows us a Massie whose “conscious decision to wear only structured fabrics announced to the world that she had zero interest in incorporating elastic into her waistbands or her friendships” (32) and in Chapter Eleven, Massie displays her “edgy and uncompromising” mood through her application of the “true black” of her “Onyx Stila Kajal liquid eyeliner” (106). Much of this reads like it was ripped straight from ad copy. Rather than simply name-dropping products, Harrison furthers the book’s advertising function with her own brand editorializing. Her similes become equations, characterization derived from an expression of protagonist and brand names. She depicts a joyful Massie with the imagery of her “face slowly beg[inning] to light up, like she’d just applied a fresh dusting of MAC Belightful highlighting powder” (11), and describes Massie’s crush on the character Dempsey as being “more comforting than her 1500 thread count violet Frette sheets” (30).
In this way, Harrison gifts brands like MAC and Frette with a captive and impressionable audience and imparts more brand recognition in a few words than what these brands could achieve with millions of dollars in advertising. More insidiously, Harrison performs this process, which critic Stuart Hall named “encoding,” under the guise of young adult fiction. She encodes the emotion of happiness in a make-up powder and the comfort of an adolescent crush in a brand of sheets. When her young audience reads these phrases, they won’t have the savvy to determine whether it’s appropriate to use branded products to represent complex emotions. They’ll take Harrison’s ad-copy prose at face-value. By correlating emotions with products, Harrison pushes her readers towards the first step of capitalism: buying products to create feeling.
Apart from her glowing ad-copy, Harrison also uses products to distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable, often in classist ways. Massie’s friend Claire worries that Massie will forget about her old friends like “last season’s resort wear” (13), clique member Dylan is described as “rubbing her love in Massie’s face like… cheap moisturizer” (35) and Massie tells Claire that “she dresses like the less fortunate” because she wears Keds (6). One could claim that such blatantly outlandish statements are satirical, especially coming from the perspective of uber-snob Massie Block. However, that claim holds less water when similar classist thoughts are uttered from other characters in the book, like Claire, who’s lower middle class, or Kristen, who’s a scholarship student. Instead of being classified as satire, these statements read more as the author’s own editorial voice dismissing products and attitudes that she considers to be inferior. In an interview with ABC News, Harrison said the Clique novels were “aspirational” and compared the fantasy of living like filthy rich tweens to the dream of becoming a wizard in Harry Potter (Moran and Ghadishah). If Harrison is claiming that her loving description of pricey products is meant to be aspirational, then it’s hypocritical for her to play off her derogatory attitude towards a lower-class lifestyle as satirical. She avidly promotes the habits of the 1 % while denigrating the choices of the other 99 % and pretends like it’s incisive commentary on American consumerism.
Harrison can cry satire like the boy who cried wolf, but the one aspect of her novel she can’t explain away is her fixation with toxic Western beauty standards. Her novel borders on absurdity. Despite being 13 years old, the characters in Massie’s “Pretty Committee” ascribe to the expensive luxury beauty routines of their parents. As opposed to the other middle schoolers, with their “slumped shoulders, glossless lips, and dull hair” (127), Massie’s crew start every day with a fresh face of makeup, rate each other’s clothing on a 1-10 scale (Massie wouldn’t be caught dead in an outfit below a 9), and spend their free-time shopping or pampering themselves in expensive day-spas. To make the link between materialistic beauty and desirability even more clear, Harrison never fails to connect the character’s feelings of power and inner wellness to the products they’re wearing, such as when a triumphant Massie “applies a generous coat of Mango MaGawd Glossip Girl and grins, feeling like her old self again” (126).
In order to really hammer home her point, however, Harrison always returns to her strategy of negative comparison. Wielding the notion of undesirability like a weapon, Harrison grooms her readers into fearing the natural awkwardness of tween puberty and preferring an ideal of beauty that they can only obtain by buying. Her first tool is fat-shaming, which she indulges in when describing the eating habits of her tween characters. In one scene, Massie declares Claire’s boyfriend Cam to be as unwanted as “a fattening Girl Scout cookie,” (14) and in another, Massie deems Lilah to be a worthy member of her new clique because “she counts eating in public as one of the seven deadly sins” (113). Pretty Committee member Alicia even stocks up on fro-yo samples before her group date at a yogurt shop so that her crush won’t have to see her eat (168). Harrison doesn’t necessarily advertise diet pills or explicitly advocate for self-imposed starvation, but her message is clear nonetheless. For a demographic as vulnerable as tween girls, there is no acceptable way to fob off her cutting remarks about eating as satirical. Even if her readers have enough worldly experience to understand that thin-ness is not essential to beauty, Harrison peppers in her fat-shaming messages so relentlessly that her readers have little chance of finishing the book unscathed.
Her second tool in her undesirability arsenal is the character Layne Abeley. Layne has “anemic” skin and bad hair, wears cheap Hello Kitty lip gloss, and is usually found eating a bag of Corn Nuts. Or, in Massie’s eyes, Layne is a “glitter headband-wearing, thrift store junkie with barbecue breath” (80). Despite the fact the Layne attends the same snobby private school as Massie and her parents are just as rich, Massie eternally dismisses “Layme” as cheap and classless because she doesn’t believe in the same commercialized beauty ideals as Massie and her crew. Layne is often the voice of wisdom in this book, pointing out the superficiality of Massie and her clique, but Massie never absorbs the truth in Layne’s words nor shows any sign of shifting her rigid standards of beauty. When searching for a new clique, Massie’s only concern is the presentability of her new friends. The fact that the other girls at her school have “mascara boogers, mismatched fabrics, [and] unbleached teeth” (78) make them ineligible to become Massie’s friends. And yet in her interview with ABC News, Harrison said that the moral of the Clique “is to accept yourself for who you are” (Moran and Ghadishah). How confusing it must be for her readers to sift out that message from the rubble of fat-jokes and superficiality.
According to one fan, the appeal in the Clique books lies in the idea that no matter “how bratty they are sometimes” the Pretty Committee “always stays friends, no matter what” (Moran and Ghadishah). On the surface, the theme of girl-power and friendship does seem to be true. The main problem in Boys R Us is that Massie, after having been ejected from her clique for being too controlling, must find a new friend group or risk becoming an LBR, a.k.a a Loser Beyond Repair. After rejecting her fellow students, Massie teams up with Layne, who is also out for revenge against the Pretty Committee, to buy Massie a group of actors who will pretend to be her friends. The obvious theme: you can’t buy friends. Predictably, Massie’s scheme backfires and she realizes the value of her original friend group and agrees to be less controlling. Friendship takes the day, but only if you look past the fact the very “friendship” that holds the Pretty Committee together is their shared love of materialism.
Every interaction, shared emotion, and act of support between members of the Pretty Committee involves buying or receiving. Alicia and the rest of the ex-Pretty Committee bond with each other over presents, a trip to the spa, or a group date at the fro-yo place. In her attempt to imitate Massie’s “alpha” behavior, she buys customized snacks for her friends as a show of love and arranges a paparazzi-themed dinner so that they can all show off their best couture. There is not a moment of friendship in this novel that is not tainted with commercialism. Even when Massie reminisces about her time with the Pretty Committee, she can only think of friendship as a transaction in which she’d given “everything to the Pretty Committee: fashion advice, crush advice, clothing, and every second of her free time” (43). She treats her actor friends the same way, cursing the fact that even though “she’d supplied makeup, killer clothes, and money, the MAC girls were approaching their kick-butt jobbies like it was McDonalds and she was forcing them to ask, Would you like fries with that?” (162).
It’s clear that Harrison intends to satirize Massie’s tendency of commoditizing friendships through her experience with her purchased pals, but that intention is undercut by Harrison’s inability to portray tween friendship as anything other than a transaction. The Pretty Committee itself is structured like a corporation, with the “alpha” at the top and the rest of the clique below. Harrison’s ideal “alpha” is cut-throat and Trumpian, with key qualifications including “being more in charge than a Visa” (26) and the understanding that ” ‘I’m sorry’ [is] just another way to say ‘I’m a beta’ ” (70). Although the plot of Boys R Us involves Massie realizing that friendships are not an employee-employer relationship, her reunion with the Pretty Committee doesn’t alter the underlying basis of their friendship, which is still based on fashion, popularity, and expensive beauty products.
Boys R Us centers itself around the dramas of tween friendships, but it never allows them the complexity of real life, instead distilling them down to business deals. Nor does it ever allow these girls to be real human beings. Every complex emotion experienced by these characters exists only in relation to products. To describe the bitter-sweet nostalgia that comes from remembering a lost friendship, Harrison relates it to “having all the Ralph Lauren clothes in the world, only three sizes too small” (119). When telling Massie about her illicit crush on Dempsey, Kristen can only explain her feelings of guilt and elation by using lyrics from songs by Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. Whenever a character has to deal with an unwanted problem, they avoid it by claiming a “bad-sushi” day. And to describe Massie’s crushing sense of loss after being rejected from the Pretty Committee, Harrison compares it to “Angelina without the babies…[and] Paris without her random BFFs” (30). Whenever the novel attempts to deal with the problems of adolescence, be it friendship, crushes, or identity, it always relates them to products or pop-culture. Essentially, Harrison makes it so that these problems exist only in relation to products and can only be soothed, fixed, or conveyed through these products. It is this strategy that is the most damning part of the book, a strategy that cannot be dismissed as satirical. Harrison is promoting one of capitalism’s main aims: to equate emotion with consumption, to advertise and sell products in the name of personal fulfillment. When you take into account all of the brand promotion, descriptive ad-copy, toxic beauty standards, and materialism-based friendship, it all becomes a way of selling products. Perhaps the girls reading these books won’t recognize brand names like Chanel or YSL, but they will recognize the desirability of a Chanel-clothed Massie Block. The point is not necessarily to entice tween readers to buy these brands (unlike Massie, they’re unlikely to have access to their parents’ AmEx), but to familiarize them with the idea that beauty, popularity, and even friendship is a construct of consumerism.
By aspiring to the Pretty Committee’s lifestyle, these girls must accept the idea that the existence they idolize is based on products, and that rejecting the materialism of Massie Block is a sure way to end up as an LBR like Layne. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether Boys R Us is satirical or whether, as Harrison claims, her readers “get” that her novel isn’t actually promoting the ideals of Massie and her clique (Moran and Ghadishah). Her encoding efforts matter far less than how her readers decode her messages about consumption. Whether Harrison realizes it or not, her Clique books are not about popularity, but about the relationship between product consumption and an ideal lifestyle. Even if her readers may understand that popularity is less important than true friendship, the true friendship that Harrison writes about is tangled in her promotion of consumerism. Massie may not be able to buy friends, but she can buy products to make herself beautiful and stylish enough to attract them to her side. In the case of Boys R Us, femininity and girlhood is distilled into an eyeliner, a purse, or a beaded scarf. Beauty is a product. And friendship is only a credit-card swipe away.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Monthly Review Press, 1971.
Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During,
Routledge, pp. 90-101.
Harrison, Lisi. Boys R Us. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Moran, Terry and Arash Ghadisha. ” ‘The Clique’: Chick-Lit for Teens and Tweens.” ABC News,
16 Sep. 2008, https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=5814933&page=1,
Accessed 14 Dec. 2018.