In Defense of Bess Marvin

As I’ve said many times before, I was a huge Nancy Drew fan when I was a middle-school reader. Nancy had it all and could do it all. This summer, since I own the first 55 of the originals, I re-read this precious and well-loved series.

And I came away disappointed. Not so much because of Nancy, although she can be a bit cloying to my adult sensibilities, but because of a character I have absolutely come to loathe: George Fayne. George, often touted by modern feminist writers for her traditional boys’ name and her bravery and athleticism, is, in short, a mean and horrible person. And she’s especially a mean and horrible person to her cousin, Bess Marvin.

So let’s talk about Bess for a bit. Bess is the girly-girl femme friend of the intrepid sleuth. She’s the one who is slightly plump, not as athletic as the others, and much more cautious. Let’s look at each of these traits, as they are depicted in the stories.

Bess is cautious. She’s also usually right about the danger. And yet her loving cousin, George, scorns her, scoffs at her, sneers at her, and shames her into doing things she doesn’t think are safe (and they usually aren’t.) If they’d just listen to Bess once in a while, they’d solve the mystery with a lot less danger.

Bess isn’t as athletic as George the Jock and Nancy the Exceptional at Everything, either. But you know what? Whenever they go swimming, or boating, or skiing, or horseback riding, or playing tennis, Bess is right there with them, keeping up. Does she live for it with the same competitive spirit the other two do? No. But she’s quite a competent athlete in her own right, if the story lines are anything to go by.

And, finally and most importantly, Bess is slightly overweight. The books always state that she’s trying to “lose a few pounds.” Get that: a FEW. Three? Five? The illustrations in the books show her to be just as slender as Nancy and George, so it can’t be more than that. But so what? What if it were fifty? Would that in any way justify the cruel teasing and fat-shaming her “loving” cousin inflicts upon her? I don’t think so.

Let’s take the 44th book of the series, The Clue in the Crossword Cipher, by way of an egregious example. On page 41, Bess remarks that she’s so very excited about their being in South America that she could burst. George, predictably, gets her dig in with this non sequitur: “Well, my dear fat cousin, that might be one way to lose some weight!” Again, towards the middle of the story, when the girls are sharing a meal with a Quechua elder, George admonishes her cousin, in front of others, not to eat so much in the thin mountain air, and according to story, gives her a “withering look.” Why not just a friendly reminder to the group in general? No, George intentionally shames Bess.

The worst, though, happens on page 57. The girls are out sleuthing and stop at a hotel for a lunch that includes slices of homemade bread. That’s when this happens:

As Bess reached for her third piece, George grabbed her cousin’s arm. “No, you don’t,” she said. Meekly, Bess put the slice of the bread back into the basket and finished her salad. (Emphasis mine.)

Honestly, that’s the point at which I wished Bess had taken her free hand, punched George right in the face, and said, “Shut it, jerkface. I’ll eat what I want, and you’ll have nothing whatsoever so say about it, or there’s more where that came from. Got it? Good. Now pass me the damn bread.” Alas, it never happens.

So here’s to Bess Marvin, the concerned, loyal, and kind friend of Nancy Drew. She doesn’t get enough credit for being capable and competent in her own right, and it’s all because her cousin George belittles her and treats her like dirt. Jerkface.

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