When I think of Los Angeles accents, I think of three things: Chicanos, surfers and Valley Girls. I’ve only been to Southern California once, so these have all come to me filtered through caricatures in movies, television and music. The exaggerated Chicano accent performed by Cheech Marin. The surfer/stoner accent performed by Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and by Keanu Reeves as Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The Valley Girls as parodied by Moon Unit Zappa, and as portrayed in movies and television set in the area like Clueless, Heathers and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
The surfer and Valley Girl stereotypes had a strong effect on my teenage years, not because I was directly affected by them, but because my classmates were. These characters had the glamour of sunshine, sex and disposable income. The San Fernando Valley took the country by storm in the 1980s, and teenagers everywhere were exclaiming “Dude!” and “Totally!” and fronting their high vowels like crazy to get in on the act. My high school was not immune.
This glamour engendered a tremendous backlash, one that started with the original “Valley Girl” song. The Valley Girls were desirable because they were well-groomed, high-class young women, and they derived a certain power from their desirability, their money and their family connections. But while stoner boys like Spicoli and Ted were well-meaning but clueless, the Valley Girls were a threat. The Valley Girls were judging you.
“Gag me with a spoon!” Judgmental, critical phrases recur over and over again in Moon Unit Zappa’s caricature of the Valley Girl. The Valley Girl may be high status, but she works hard to maintain that status by knocking down any potential competitors. The eponymous popular girls from Heathers embodied that ruthless competitiveness, as did the characters of Cordelia and Harmony on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The character of Buffy herself, as well as that of Cher in Clueless, were written against type, as a cheerleader and a spoiled rich girl whose compulsions to save others and openness to personal growth helped them to transcend Valley Girl judgmentalism.
The funny thing is that all this Valley Girl glamour did affect me to some extent. A blonde woman getting into a car with a fronted GOAT vowel will still turn my head to this day, even if I know she’s from Wappingers Falls. So it goes.