Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nancy Drew: Unbearable Lightness of being

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy rushes to the defense of her loyal postman, Ira Dixon, when his mailbag is stolen from her porch two days from his retirement.

In this time before Social Security, George, Nancy's boyish chum, is amazed that the mailman can retire! "Fancy a letter carrier retiring! I didn't know they were paid enough to save up a fortune!'

Nancy explains that the postman's perfect record has earned him a pension and, plus, he has received a small inheritance.

But when the mailbag is stolen, the mailman's pension is forfeited and Nancy goes with him to visit his superior to plead his case.

She holds her head high and walks into the postal supervisor's office fearlessly, a contrast to Dixon's frightened, bowed shoulders.

Nancy then confronts the angry supervisor, Mr. Cutter, who turns crimson, shouts and bangs his fist on his desk when he hears the news. He also blames Nancy.

Although her cheeks burn "with an angry flush" at Cutter's rudeness, she handles the encounter with hauteur and composure: "Really, you don't have to shout at me. I'm not deaf and I am aware of all you say."

Cutter, however, continues to blast her, castigating her, then jeering at her as "Miss Wise Lady from Know-it-All." Dixon, cowed by Cutter's intimidating tactics, puts up an arm as if to protect Nancy, "but Nancy was fully capable of taking her own part. She was not in the least ruffled by the postmaster's rudeness." She continues to try to get back to the rational point, which is to try to find the thief who stole the mail pouch.

When the police come in, Nancy bestows a "scornful glance" on Cutter before proceeding with her story.

The detectives realize it is THE Nancy Drew they are facing, the daughter of Carson Drew, the respected attorney, and the young woman who has bested them more than once in solving cases. They become more courteous but no less friendly, for "her youth and composure nettled them not a little."

Nancy doesn't care.

At the end of the conference, Nancy pointedly refuses Cutter's outstretched hand as he tries to make amends for having offended the daughter of Carson Drew. As she walks into the "thronged" corridor, clerks and carriers hastily move aside, watching, as Nancy passes "with the composure of a queen."

This remarkable scene reverses gender stereotypes. Here, Nancy stays calm, cool and rational while Cutter, the older male supervisor, reacts emotionally and irrationally to the news of the theft. Here, we meet a Nancy who can be fearless, haughty, relentlessly self-assured and icily angry. The only female in a scene thronged with males, she makes every one of them squirm. She reduces all of them to jellyfish, knows it and doesn't care. She refuses to do anything that might be expected to protect the male ego. She doesn't try to be nice or apologetic or vulnerable. She doesn't need any help. All of Cutter's tactics from shouting and threatening to attempted belittlement--typical male methods of intimidation--fail completely with Nancy. From beginning to end, she dominates.

No wonder girls and women love her. And no wonder she's too hot for Hollywood to handle. No wonder she has to be reduced to the wacky, zany screwball heroine of the 1930s flicks or the postmodern self-parody of the 2007 movie. Can you imagine filming the above scene in Mysterious Letter as written? It would be too blinding, too brilliant, too glaringly assertive for men to handle. Only the bitch to be humiliated could be given such a moment. But that's not Nancy! Nancy behaves as a fully actualized human AND triumphs! Oh we love her, we love her!

Beyond that, we know that it's injustice--glaring, harsh, cruel injustice or the kind of petty, irrational injustice perpetrated against Ira Dixon--that engenders this uncompromising ice goddess Nancy. We know --as the men in this scene do not--that this is not the totality of our heroine, who is also kind and gentle, laughing and fun loving, joyful and generous. With her chums, with us, if not with them. Again, stereotypes are reversed. Nancy is not all sweetness and light with men, savage with other women. Au contraire.

This Nancy stretches back to Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen's Emma and forward to the Donna Parker we saw yesterday, who flames with unbridled fury at being expected to diminish herself to build up a man. But does it stretch to today?

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