Before the “Real Housewives” of every nouveau-riche subdivision in America began pridefully itemizing their latest shopping binges for a resentful and voyeuristic public, real housewife Phyllis Nefler paraded her prettified princesses through the retail wonderland of Rodeo Drive. Before there was Sex and the City, there was Troop Beverly Hills, which was for me and many of my rapidly aging generation the ur-text of conspicuous consumption. The grown-ups could shakes their heads in disapproval (or admiration) at the ruthless avarice of the original Wall Street, but for us, greed wasn’t good or bad. Greed wasn’t that abstract. All we knew was that we wanted swimming pools and outfits with matching scrunchies and a full-size balance beam in our home gymnastics center. We wanted a lot of these things, and we wanted them now.
Troop Beverly Hills came out when I was in fourth grade, which was also the first year the girls in my class started having regular slumber parties. Troop Beverly Hills,if you’re not familiar,is the story of Phyllis Nefler (Shelley Long), a spoiled Beverly Hills housewife in the middle of a difficult divorce, who becomes the unlikely leader of her preteen daughter Hannah’s Wilderness Girl (read: Girl Scout) troop. After a shaky start, she teaches the girls how to survive in “the wilds of Beverly Hills” but later must prove herself as a “real troop leader”; that is, a capable person of person of resilience and depth. A person with values instead of just valuations.
Troop Beverly Hills made me and my friends realize for the first time all the things we didn’t have. Omaha, where I grew up, may have been home to one of the world’s richest men, but he drove a 1984 Oldsmobile Station Wagon and ate steak and potatoes at Gorat’s, just like the rest of us. I was vaguely aware that some people’s houses were bigger than others, or that some people seemed to have nicer cars or go on more vacations, but wealth or influence on a Beverly Hills scale was unthinkable.
Just because we didn’t know anyone who arrived at school in a cream-colored, chauffeured Rolls Royce or had a mother who considered luxury shopping a palliative on par with chicken soup and children’s Dimetapp didn’t mean we didn’t want those things. When the girls in the movie pulled up to their campsite in a motorcade of stretch limos, or clustered importantly around the display case at Harry Winston, it was hard to be satisfied with a yellow bus and a J.C. Penney rotating shelf of earrings. Slowly but surely, words like château and Lamborghini began creeping into our conversations and games of MASH.
At those slumber parties, the parade of spectacular Miss Piggy couture worn by Phyllis Nefler had to be recounted and ranked: the bustled lavender basque, complete with flower-bedecked tricorn and purple satin opera gloves, that she had on when she bustled into Henri’s, begging him to do “something” about the wretched Wilderness Girls standard-issue uniform; the pastel ball gown, half Kim Basinger’s infamous 1990 Oscar dress, half Castle of Care-a-Lot, she wears when she falls into the Barnfell’s indoor wading pool a the penultimate cookie-drive gala.
I confess that my favorite of the Wilderness Girls was Tiffany Honigman, whose plastic surgeon father was constantly presenting her with $20 bills, as though he were a frightened primitive offering sacrificial appeasement to some vengeful harvest deity. I liked money and thought it might be nice to have some. I felt I deserved more, solely by virtue of being aware that more existed—a mix of entitlement and crippling insecurity I’m ashamed to say has never quite left me.
This is why, older and wiser and finally out of credit card debt, I expected to watch my former favorite movie through an unyielding prism of class-consciousness. The America of 2010 has become increasingly suspicious of wealth and the things people do to amass it. The world of Troop Beverly Hills, by contrast,is one in which the rich are well-meaning and adorable and the middle class are represented by the odious Red Feathers, a quasi-militaristic faction of hostile un-lovelies (including, in a deliciously ironic twist, a pre- 90210, pre-blond Tori Spelling). Also the wan Annie Herman (say it with me: “boi-oi-oing”) who can be coerced into violating all manner of legal civil liberties with four simple words: “K-Mart, Blue Light Special”
The last dying illusions of my childhood and I were pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. Troop Beverly Hills is not The Outsidersor Pretty in Pink.Class warfare as plot motivation is basically irrelevant. The villain of the piece, Velda Plendor, the hatchet-faced Wilderness Girls district leader with the human touch of Miss Hannigan and the collectivist principles of Kim Jong-il, is simply a force of evil; she’s trying to get the Beverly Hills troop disbanded before Florence Temple so much as reads Phyllis’ troop leader application (“Age: Not Applicable. Marital Status: Shaky). There is no back story about how, say, her early victimization by a cabal of hair-dryer wielding princesses forged her need for revenge on the forces of the fabulous. Any resentment of wealth and privilege is far outweighed by her genuine sadism.
On the other hand, Phyllis Nefler, while certainly prone to a fair number of irritating and entitled behaviors, is unfailingly kind to everyone: Rosa, the housekeeper; Annie “Are you related to Pee-Wee?” Herman; even her estranged husband, Fred, who is embroiled in the time-honored process of not realizing what he’s got till it’s gone. This is a trait she passes on to the girls in her charge, who willingly strap together their Giorgio Beverly Hills-branded backpacks and rescue the injured Velda after the Red Feathers (her own daughter’s troop!) have left her behind as dead weight in their race to the finish line at the annual Wilderness Girls Jamboree. In the wilderness, you reap what you sow.
But the generosity of the girls of TBH extends not just to their fallen enemies. Unusually, for many adolescent girls, they are also kind to their friends. Unlike the wealthy mean-girls of say, Gossip Girl,Troop Beverly Hills suffers no catfights, no gossip, no vying for male attention. Nobody comments snarkily on Chica Barnfell’s absent parents or makes fun of Tessa, the Daria-esque oddball. When Emily, the pretty daughter of an actor fallen on hard times, is distraught because she can’t come up with the required $7.50 for patches, not only does Tiffany Honigman give it to her, she does so discreetly and in private, and presumably never mentions it to anyone else.
Haltingly, I began to remember some of other things that went on at the slumber parties I recalled so fondly. How when Jamie’s underpants wound up in the freezer, we teased her about how big they were until she locked herself in the bathroom and cried. How my friend Alyssa had taken me aside to furtively whisper that since Nicole’s boobs were so much bigger than the rest of ours, she was sure to be a total slut in junior high. The time my “best friend” Holly informed me that I was disinvited from the sleepover that week, as the whole reason it had been convened was to “talk shit” about me.
“What did I do?” I gasped.
“Nothing. You’re just annoying and your jeans are too tight and none of us really like you that much,” she said cheerfully. “Some of them wanted to start a petition against you and pass it around in the cafeteria at lunch. But don’t worry, I said no. Because I’m your friend.”
Maybe, I thought, Troop Beverly Hills actually gave us something else to aspire to. Something that, unlike a Lamborghini or a Gucci shopping spree or a mother who could organize a fashion show with Robin Leach, that was heartbreakingly within our grasp. If only we’d wanted it.