Research Notes on Nancy Drew

The Secret of the Old Clock (1930)

I’m in the middle of drafting my paper on Nancy Drew and the War on Terror. Honestly, I’m excited but also having trouble framing my argument without it turning into show and tell: “Look Professor! I know a boat-load about the history of Nancy Drew and even more about girlie culture! Pat me on the head now!” So, I’m going to take a moment to share some free writing about some things that may or may not be making it into the paper.

First, I think the harshest criticism lobbed at Nancy Drew is that she polices the boundaries of middle-class American identity in a way that allows her, and vicariously her readers, to enjoy white middle-class privilege without having to accept any of the guilt-by-complicity that comes with that.

For over 60 years, the Nancy Drew series has told readers that they can have the benefits of both dependence and independence without the drawbacks, that they can help the disadvantaged and remain successful capitalists, that they can be both elitist and democratic, that they can be both child and adult, and that they can be both ‘liberated’ women and ‘Daddy’s little girls.’ (Chamberlain 3)

To me, this point really stands out because I never noticed the classist elements of the stories. I assume this is either because 1) I was 9 or 2) I am a white middle-class Daddy’s girl. You got me there.

The Secret of the Old Clock (1960s)

Next, the biggest issue I’m having with thinking about the series generally is that throughout the different iterations of the character some problematic areas improve while others get worse. I’m left wondering which version of Nancy I like best. The 1930’s books had occasionally racist ideas and certainly presented the poor as “others” infringing on middle-class security, but Nancy is much more independent and interesting. I think 1930’s Nancy is the most well-written version of the character. She’s the version I imagine fans of the series including Hillary Clinton, Barbara Walters, Condi Rice, and NOW presidents past reading. In 1959, the original books were revised, shortened, and, I think, softened. The racial stereotypes were eliminated (read: updated to 1960s stereotypes instead), but Nancy was older, prissier, and more interested in respecting male authorities. The third version I’m looking at in my paper is the 2003-? update of Nancy, and I think the worst by a mile. Not only is Nancy a weaker character, undoing a lot of evolution over the 1980’s and 90’s, the series is also showing an emergence of post-9/11 xenophobia through gratuitous interest in minor characters’ ethnic and/or national origins (Fisher).

There’s also the 2007 Nancy Drew movie to consider, but it’s not making it into my paper. Frankly, I loved the movie. Unlike the contemporary books, the movie dropped the 1960’s-era Nancy into 2007 L.A. in a way that made the retro girl look smarter, more liberated, and braver than “modern girls.” While Nancy runs around in her loafers, the mall-rats trying to giver her a makeover end up looking shallow and conceited. Nancy’s sort of prissy, but she can also defuse a bomb. That’s pretty true to the character from the start of the series. Emma Roberts was adorable in the role. What I find particularly interesting, however, is the nostalgia it demonstrates. It’s as if at a time when the economy was starting to fall apart and the War on Terror was underway and starting to receive major criticism, bringing back Nancy Drew as we remembered her from our childhoods offered comfort, hope, and _____ (I’m not sure what). It seems so strange to me that Simon & Scheuster ended the original series in 2003, giving Nancy a makeover, and just a few years later this movie comes out so totally celebrating Nancy and her old-school wholesomeness. Take that alongside many other examples of nostalgia for the 1950’s/60’s in contemporary culture and there was definitely something afoot.  I’m dealing with that, in a way that I haven’t totally figured out yet, in my paper.

But Nancy, though wholesome, was always sort of subversive because she presented a “super-girl” who could solve cases better than law enforcement, run her dad’s house, drive her roadster through any mishap, and so on. That’s what the new Nancy Drew books are lacking–subversion to go along with the girlieness. Nancy’s no longer a prissy feminist icon, she’s just safe and bland.

Finally, if you like Nancy Drew, you should probably watch Veronica Mars, if you’re not already. There’s a great chapter about 21st century girl detectives, which discusses how teen girls’ subjectivity is negotiated these days through detective stories (Harris). It’s pretty awesome. I still can’t decide if Veronica is the anti-Nancy or just a more badass/troubled version of her.

Selected works you should read:

Chamberlain, Kathleen. “The Secrets of Nancy Drew: Having Their Cake and Eating it Too.” The Lion and the Unicorn. 18(1994). 1-12.

Fisher, Leona W. “Race and Xenophobia in the Nancy Drew Novels: ‘What kind of society…?’” Ed. Michael G. Cornelius and Melanie E. Gregg. Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths: Essays on the Fiction of Girl Detectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2008. Print.

Harris, Marla. “Not Nancy Drew but Not Clueless: Embodying the Teen Girl Sleuth in the Twenty-first Century.” Ed. Michael G. Cornelius and Melanie E. Gregg. Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths: Essays on the Fiction of Girl Detectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2008. Print.

Inness, Sherrie A. Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls’ Series. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1997. Print.

Marshall, Elizabeth. “Red, White, and Drew: The All-American Girl and the Case of Gendered Childhood.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. 27:4, 2003. 203-211.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. The Girl Sleuth. Athens: University of Georgia, 1995. Print.

Rehak, Melanie. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005. Print.

Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline and Claudia Mitchell. “The Case of the Whistle-Blowing Girls: Nancy Drew and Her Readers.” TSC 13/14.

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3 thoughts on “Research Notes on Nancy Drew

  1. I don’t know if you’ve seen David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive, but as Ben and I were watching it the other day (it was my third time and I finally felt like I was getting it; it’s one of those kinds of movies) I was thinking about how it could be interesting for you to look at because it features the girl detective trope self-consciously as a trope (it’s kind of an analysis/critique of Hollywood). You should maybe check it out sometime when you don’t have other things to do. Forewarning: It’s weird and hard to follow.

  2. Pingback: Books and Happy Times « Hope as an Anchor

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