Last week I had coffee with a friend. This is a really sophisticated, smart friend of mine with great taste. The kind of friend I usually call up if I have two tickets for experimental theatre or a night of political debate or the like. I’m telling you this in order to set you up for the surprise I felt when she confessed to me over coffee that she has a guilty pleasure: She likes to watch reruns of Little House on the Praire. A lot. And even the really bad episodes.
I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me. It’s so great to find out that it’s not just me who has guilty pleasures, even level-headed people have them. And incidentally LHotP is a guilty pleasure of mine, too. And yes, even the really bad episodes. I’ve always enjoyed it. If I had to make an estimation, I would say that it’s 10% sentimentality (sunny fields! Happy little girls running down those fields!) and 90% snark.
Because the snark is a constant and natural companion to this series, between Michael Landon’s glorified portrait of Charles Ingalls (who would always, always take off his shirt, thus uncovering a wax-like, bronze and toned torzo) and the unreasonably high number of children adopted by the already poor Ingalls family. And then there are the story lines. Oh, those story lines. I mean, it’s not like nothing happened in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. And yet Michael Landon has seen fit to come up with a number of outrageous and sometimes completely bizarre stories for his television adaptation. Take Mary for instance. In the books Mary went blind and that was pretty much it. In the series, Mary 1) goes blind 2) gets married to a blind guy 3) has a miscarriage 4) has a healthy baby boy who 5) perishes in the flames in a fire at the school for the blind that she and her blind husband has started. Crazy! Like, did Mary Ingalls really need any more angst, Michael Landon? There’s also an entire episode dedicated to a raccoon that may or may not have rabies, and an episode featuring Caroline Ingalls angsting about her meno-pause. Despite the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder never did mention her mother’s menstrual cycles in her books.
And then there are those episodes of the series that are just completely insane and awful, and one of those is the two-parter “Sylvia”. This episode, in which a 14-year-old girl is stalked and raped by a Walnut Grove local, is notorious among Little House fans and has even lend its name to the snarky thread in the Drama section of the Television Without Pity forums (titled “LHOTP – Pa, Ma, and that Mime that Raped Sylvia”).
I rewatched the two episodes the other day on youtube, and I thought that it might be interesting to do an analysis of the episode here.
Now, perhaps I should start with a brief summary of the episodes for those of my readers who are unfamiliar with them. The story is this: Sylvia is a buxom school girl in Walnut Grove who has blossomed somewhat early, a fact that has prompted her weird, widowed father to make her “bind herself up”: that is, to use gauze to bind up her woman attributes, because he’s paranoid and weird and thinks that being buxom and attractive means being a whore.
Even so, a creepy Walnut Grove resident has got his eyes on Sylvia. He starts stalking her and one day, as Sylvia is walking home from school, he attacks and rapes her. He’s dressed up as a mime, wearing a mask and tight black clothes (an outfit he got where exactly by the way? At the Walnut Grove Mercantile? Maybe the mercantile had a section of varieté costumes right next to their supply of beans and flour?), so Sylvia doesn’t know who he is. Devastated, Sylvia makes it home to her father who is appalled to hear of her loss of virtue. He tells her not to reveal her story to anyone.
Sylvia’s schoolmate Albert Ingalls (one of the adopted Ingalls kids that never actually existed) senses that Sylvia is upset and tries to console her, and the two youngsters fall in love. Soon, however, Sylvia starts fainting randomly, and it turns out that she is pregnant. When Albert finds out about Sylvia’s pregnancy, he is sympathetic towards her, unlike her father who isn’t convinced that Sylvia didn’t somehow lead her rapist on, and he forbids Sylvia to see Albert, and arranges for himself and Sylvia to go away to another city where noone knows of her shame. This prompts Albert to propose to Sylvia.
The engagement doesn’t please Charles and Caroline Ingalls who think that Albert is too young to be getting married, so Albert and Sylvia decide to elope. However, as Sylvia is waiting for Albert in the outskirts of the city, the mime rapist stalks her down again, and tries to attack her once more. Sylvia takes a bad fall trying to escape him, and dies from her injuries. The mime rapist turns out to be the town black smith.
I’ve seen the episode plot cited sometimes as a remarkably controversial subject matter for Little House on the Prairie, but that’s not how I see it. Quite the opposite in fact. Because one thing that really struck me upon rewatching the episodes is how entirely orthodox and reactionary the dramaturgy of those two episodes are, especially when it comes to the depiction of its main character, Sylvia, the rape victim.
In the article “Women as Children, Women as Childkillers” by Susanne Kord (an article on infanticide in German Sturm-and-Stress Literature which I read part of the research for my latest university project), Kord notices a common trait in late 18th-Century male writers’ depictions of the seduced woman: They all tend to depict the seduced woman as innocent to a degree that makes her seem child-like, in order to make the woman seem more pitiful and thus to evoke sympathy at her “fall” and subsequent misery, and so as to ensure that her character does not become a threat to the patriarchal society that she is a victim of. That’s all very well for Storm-and-Stress literature, and some brilliant literature did come out of it: Goethe’s Gretchen in Faust is among the child-like seduced women mentioned in the text.
Disturbingly, however, Michael Landon’s “Sylvia” two-parter from 1981 has a lot in common with these 18th-Century child-like seductees. The casting of Sylvia alone bears witness to this: actress Olivia Barash is the perfect mix of a child and a woman. She’s womanly buxom, but apart from this she’s presented with an very child-like personality: Cute-looking broad face, bangs cut across her forehead, small nose, and then a remarkably child-like lisp, rather like that of Cindy Brady. Add to this the fact that Olivia Barash had a career as a semi-famous child actress, and the fact that I just want to hug her, and cook her a warm meal and tug her in every time she’s on screen. Pity, sympathy and maternal instinct is what she evokes.
All this might be dismissed, I suppose, as basically irrelevant observations about how the actress portraying Sylvia happened to look, talk etc. If not for the fact that the child-like depiction of Sylvia is even more visible in the composition of the episode, especially in the point-of-view of the story.
Because, and this is my main problem with the Sylvia two-parter, the story is so much of a man’s story, it’s ridiculous. Here we have the story of a young girl who is raped and impregnated by a stranger, estranged by her father and seperated from her lover, all at the tender age of 14. And yet, as a poster on TWoP remarked once in the LHOTP thread, right from the outset of her story, all we get is a man’s point of view. Sylvia is constantly discussed throughout the episodes, and most often she’s not herself present when the discussion takes place, or even aware that she is discussed. When Dr. Baker has examined Sylvia and found out that she is pregnant, he tells Albert and we get Albert’s shocked reaction while Sylvia, who’s just learned that she’s carrying her rapist’s baby, remains dutifully off-screen. Disturbed by the news, Albert is off, not to talk to Sylvia and give her a chance to explain what happened to her, but to have a man-to-man talk with Charles Ingalls. Charles Ingalls suggests that Sylvia’s pregnancy “could have happened to her against her will” which is about the closest we ever get to someone actually saying the word “rape” in the episode. The character of Sylvia is never allowed to fully articulate to anyone what happened to her. The two times she attempts to (to her father, and later to Albert) she is overcome by tears before being able to finish the sentence.
In a discussion with Albert, (where Sylvia is of course not present) Caroline Ingalls does raise the rather interesting question: How does Sylvia feel about the fact that she’s carrying her rapist’s child? Has Albert even asked Sylvia that? Alas, the question remains unanswered as not one scene offers us an insight into Sylvia’s no doubt conflicted emotions concerning her condition.
And then the most gruelling part is the last scene of the two episodes, in which we find Sylvia dying from her injuries in her house. Sylvia’s father, Charles Ingalls, and Albert are all assembled and apparently all acutely aware that Sylvia is dying. Even so, when Albert goes to see Sylvia one last time, he lies his ass off and tells her that she is going to be fine, and in fact they’ll be getting married soon. Sylvia dies believing him, without knowing that she’s dying, and while we get to see Albert tear up several times, we never get to see Sylvia’s reaction as she becomes aware of her own tragic fate.
The irony is of course that I’m sure Michael Landon wanted this to be woman’s story, a controversial story about rape. His depiction of Sylvia’s father who is so intimidated by his daughter’s sexuality that he has her binding up her breasts is certainly an unsympathetic one. And yet the episode does nothing to challenge a patriarchal idea of woman as a weak, helpless creature unable to take control of her own destiny. It shines through even in the photography of the episodes: It’s always about the male gaze seeking out Sylvia and taking her by surprise, be it Albert and his no-good friends peeking at Sylvia through her window at the beginning of the episode, the mime staring at her from the bushes, or Dr. Baker looking up her wazoo and finding that she’s pregnant (a fact she is of course oblivious to until he tells her). We rarely see as much as one frame from Sylvia’s perspective.
My point with this entry? Well, I’m not sure I have one. Other than to say that seeing as this show is still regularly re-run and still has a devoted young audience, I think it’s important to challenge and discuss the message that an episode like this sends. As they say at Televison Without Pity: Spare the snark – spoil the networks.
And then also to send the message to young girls to say no to mimes, I suppose.
PS: As I was researching for this entry, I came across a rather funny blog named WTF Little House on the Praire by one Rube Goldberg who describes his own blog as follows: “A 21st Century look at a 20th Century interpretation of life in the 19th Century. The goal is to answer the following question: Seriously?”
Check it out!