Nellie Oleson: A Troublemaking Bitch

Right now, I’m reading Alison Arngrim’s memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. I randomly came across it on my public library e-catalog and decided it might be fun to read. It came out 2 summers ago, around the same time that another Little House memoir I want to read was published: The Wilder Life. It’s fun to read some of the behind-the-scenes details about mean-girl Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) or Alison Arngrim’s BFF, Melissa Gilbert. But, what really struck me about the book was how Arngrim used it to not only humanize Nellie, but to argue for the value of being a bitch. In reflecting on why she came to love Nellie, she writes:

She transformed me from a shy, abused little girl afraid of her own shadow to the in-your-face, outspoken, world-traveling, politically active, big-mouthed bitch I am today. She taught me to fight back, to be bold, daring, and determined, and, yes, to be down-right sneaky when I needed to be.

Her valuing of bitchiness might be partly a gimmick for selling books, but I was surprised to see how it was informed by her experiences of being bullied and abused (by her brother) and by a critique of gender conformity (she repeatedly discusses her disdain for strict gender rules/roles and mentions her awareness of/connections to transgender folks, like Christine Jorgensen).

Reading this book makes me want to rethink my assessment of half-pint as the only virtuous troublemaker on Little House. Is there room to imagine Nellie Oleson as a troublemaker who challenges the system? Hmmm….maybe if we imagine her role as excessive parody (not sure if I buy it). Now, I want to go back and watch the troublemaker episode again and view it from the anti-hero’s (Nellie’s) perspective.

Half-pint, the troublemaker

gilbert_lA week or so ago I mentioned that I had stumbled across a Little House on the Prairie episode called Troublemaker. Laura Ingalls (aka Half-pint) is wrongly accused of being a juvenile delinquent and is, gasp, expelled. Well, I just got it in the mail (from Netflix, of course) on Saturday and am planning to watch it today.

While I did read (and loved) all of the Little House books and I did watch the television series (well, not the last season or so when Mrs. Oleson lost her money and they all had to move away from the town. Am I remembering that right?), I was never as big of a fan of The Ingalls family as I was of the Brady Bunch. It is true that “Pa, I can’t see!” is a regular part of my lexicon and Albert and his brush with morphine addiction comes up sometimes in my conversations with STA. But, when I think back on my years (and I mean years) of intense television viewing as a kid/teenager/college student, Little House was never a big deal. Mabye it should have been.

When I came across “Troublemaker” I was immediately intrigued. Of course, Laura is the tomboy who is not afraid to speak her mind and who resists the feminine rules/regulations that are imposed on her. She is also the instigator who fights against the capitalist machinery (aka Nellie Oleson). And, she is someone who is curious about the world–a little scholar-in-training. All of these things indicate that she makes trouble and is in for some trouble. She refuses to accept her assigned status and she is willing to challenge those with power and privilege (her nemesis fluctuates between Nellie Oleson and her mom Mrs. Oleson, part of the richest and most powerful family in town). Therefore, she must be punished–occasionally or frequently–by being ridiculed, ostracized, shamed and dismissed as nothing but trouble. Looks like this episode will focus on Half-pint as the juvenile delinquent (more on this once I watch the episode).

little_house_big_woodsThis episode is not the only reason that I am intrigued by Little House on the Prairie. Last night, when I was randomly browsing some online journals (yes, I do that and I am proud of it!), I stumbled across an article in Frontiers entitled “Civilization and her Discontents: The Unsettling Nature of Ma in Little House in the Big Woods.” Who knew that there was so much to say about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her troubling relationship with Ma? Who knew that all of this could be connected to the tension between wilderness and progress/domestication and industrialization and the destabilizing of the frontier/Manifest Destiny ethos in late 1800s/early 1900s U.S? Who knew that so many feminists had written about this series of books? Well, maybe I should have known….

imagesAnd, to top it all off, Little House on the Prairie, The Musical (starring Melissa Gilbert as Ma!) is coming to the Ordway here in St. Paul this fall. The universe is trying to tell me something–I must watch (and perhaps embrace?) Little House on the Prairie! And I must reread the books series! It looks like I must also never, ever sleep again. Sigh…I mean, yawn.