The mystery of a feminist icon

Nancy Drew taught me everything I needed to know about being a tough, independent woman. Too bad today's girls don't have the same role model.


The mystery of a feminist icon

When I was a kid, my mother would take me every Saturday to the Borders in our neighborhood. I would go straight to the children’s section in the back of the store and pull down three Nancy Drew mysteries — the maximum I could afford on my weekly allowance. Though I tried every week to ration them, I would invariably have finished the last book by Sunday night, and the rest of the week was an agony of waiting until the following weekend.

The addiction lasted between the ages of 7 and 10, and it probably would have gone on a bit longer if I hadn’t outpaced the publisher. I graduated from the yellow-spined hardback original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories to the digest-size paperback versions, to the spinoff aimed at teen readers, the Nancy Drew Files, which carried higher-stake mysteries and romantic side plots. Eventually I had to box up my collection and make room on my bookshelf for other, more grown-up characters. But even as Nancy Drew moldered in my parents’ basement, the teen sleuth still lived in the center of my heart, and became, ultimately, the most forceful role model in my life.

This year, Nancy Drew turns 75. Since the publication of “The Secret of the Old Clock” in 1930, more than 200 million Nancy Drew mysteries have been sold. Nancy has, through successive rewriting, transformed from a 16-year-old girl with a roadster to an 18-year-old with a Mustang. But no matter how often the details changed, Nancy remained more or less the same: a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood.

But like all good things, Nancy Drew, it seems, has come to an end — or at least the Nancy I grew up with. In her latest incarnation in Nancy Drew Girl Detective, Nancy gets a car (a gas/electric hybrid), lingo and fashion sense befitting a new-millennium sleuth. But the Simon & Schuster series also tweaks her character. For the first time, Nancy narrates in first person, makes mistakes, worries about love, and succumbs to emotions; she is, in other words, a perfectly normal teenager. Supposedly, the changes are in service of making Nancy a more likable, real girl, someone to whom 21st century kids can relate. The Nancy of old wasn’t at all normal. She was a distant ideal, with no interior life and an inability to fail at anything. But that is exactly what made her so appealing.

Nancy Drew, and her author, Carolyn Keene, were born out of two movements colliding: the rise of children’s fiction and feminism. She was the last creation of Edward Stratemeyer — the founder of the syndicate that produced the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, along with dozens of other child heroes — and has been by far the most popular of the bunch. Mildred Wirt, a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement, ghost-wrote the first volumes, and she injected Nancy with smarts, pluck and independence. Nancy was slim and pretty, titian-haired and sapphire of eye, and she existed perennially in the matrix of time between high school and college. With nothing else to divert her attention, Nancy devoted herself to sleuthing, and while her friends occupied themselves with school and jobs and marriage, Nancy was there to save them from the sinister plots to overthrow their good lives.

Nancy has maintained most of her basic characteristics in her newest makeover — she’s still smart, independent and pretty — and it’s true that much of what feels lacking in the new books might have more to do with my own nostalgia than anything else. In her old incarnation, Nancy was prone to proclamations like, “There is no such thing as an impossible crime!” and “Perhaps I’ve stumbled on a clue!” Such quaintness of language would, of course, sound hopelessly retro to today’s girls (it was antique enough 20 years ago, when I was reading the books), no matter how sweet I find it now. So I shouldn’t mind too much when, upon entering her new neighbor’s house, today’s Nancy says, “You have a lot of cool stuff,” where the old Nancy would have exclaimed, “How charming!” But Nancy’s new turns of phrase still feel wrong to me, like they belong to the latest teen-aimed Disney movie rather than a 75-year-old reading tradition.

The new Nancy is generally more likable, too. Because she narrates in first person, we get closer to her. She is funnier and a little less kind to the world; the new Nancy even has an arch-rival named Dierdre Shannon, of whom Nancy says, “She has a temper like an overcaffeinated Chihuahua.”

With the old Nancy, her charm was less apparent, though we were told in no uncertain terms that she was the most popular girl around. Nancy “possessed an intangible appealing quality which people never forgot,” we were gently reminded in the seventh book in the original series, “The Clue in the Diary,” and her “abilities of leadership were welcome and depended upon in any group.” We’re told this as Nancy is picnicking at a carnival with her two best friends, but rather than wit or cleverness or any other such modern indications of an agreeable personality, the most immediate thing to recommend her is her generosity. Spying a poor mother with a small child standing outside the carnival entrance, Nancy pays their admission and takes them on several rides: a wonderful gesture, but hardly one that indicates her likability to a reader. Good deeds, after all, do not in themselves make a companion fun to be with.

The old Nancy also had a sheen of perfection that has opened her to accusations of coldness. “Nancy was a moralizer and her displays of modesty a bit too showy,” wrote Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times a few years ago, on the occasion of Mildred Wirt’s death. Going a little further last year in a Times Op-Ed, former Salon editor Amy Benfer declared, “However much I loved the novels, I’ve always hated Nancy Drew herself. In the third person, she came off as a prissy automaton of perfection.” The conflict between love for Nancy and a slight distaste for her angst-less life is what the new series tries to resolve, both with the switch to first person as well as some well-placed character faults.

So what makes the old Nancy better than the new one? The most immediate attraction for me was the comfort that Nancy’s insipid perfection offered. We spend most of our waking lives trapped in the angst-fueled chatter of our own heads; Nancy’s impassivity and lack of interior conflict was restful in its contrast. Her narration in first person may make her funnier and more lively, but it yanks away the opacity that was Nancy’s greatest gift.

More than likability, the old Nancy was good for us, too. Rereading my old books now, the tacit suggestion of her character — and the reason, I suspect, she has endured for so long as a role model — is that she was a modern woman who figured out how to have it all. Nancy successfully juggled social life, romance and the problems of the world, and she looked pretty doing it. She could cook (and even had her own recipe book), and her pumps always matched her stylish dress. But she also climbed fences, wriggled through air ducts, and performed other hair-mussing feats in order to escape the bad guys. She could, in short, do everything a boy could and still maintain her femininity.

The Nancy in “Without a Trace,” the first Nancy Drew Girl Detective book, is far more self-conscious. She forgets things, even clues, and relies heavily on help from her friends to solve cases. Whereas the Nancy of “The Clue in the Diary” wears a dress and heels — even while she digs at a house foundation, conducts a stakeout and chases down the villain — without a thought to the awkwardness of such clothing, the new Nancy finds herself continually hampered by her attire. When, at a house party, she sees a shadowy figure in the next yard, she says, “I had my hands on the porch railing and was ready to vault over when I remembered that I was wearing a skirt,” and opts to take the stairs instead.

This Nancy might be easier to live up to, but it’s hard to imagine that she’ll ever stand for something in the lives of the girls reading her now. As Meghan O’Rourke pointed out in a New Yorker essay last November, “children’s-book publishing has become more sensitive to psychological ‘issues,’ and Nancy’s quick-footed efficiency is now thought to be intimidating for young readers.” But the fact that she has lasted in the hearts of women for so long poses the question of why that should be. Maybe we can’t be everything — a well-dressed professional, master cook, ultimate girlfriend, independent woman — but do we really want to give up trying?

Nancy’s feminist example to all us little girls was most powerful in her relationship with Ned Nickerson, her handsome but somewhat clueless boyfriend. Ned worshiped his girl, and he took her out for romantic dinners to stare soulfully into her sparkling blue eyes with his twinkling brown ones. But it was Nancy’s life that took center stage. Ned would steal a kiss when he could, but any more was out of the question; Nancy, after all, had to get back on the case. When Ned joined her efforts to foil a foe, he invariably ended up in the enemy’s hands and Nancy had to save him. On the occasions when he did “rescue” her, it was usually after she, still tied to a chair, had already dispatched with the murderous villain, and Ned showed up just in time to loosen the bonds. For Nancy, the secret to happiness was loving the people you cared for, but not needing them too much.

Impossibly mature in matters of the heart, Nancy possessed so much self-respect that she made others believe in her as much as she did. She never worried about her looks quite as much as one of her two best friends, Bess Marvin, but she always turned the most heads in a room. In fact, Bess’ boy-craziness invariably landed her in the arms of the wrong guy, while Nancy’s refusal to let the opposite sex interfere in her happiness kept a steady stream of admirers heading her way. In one of the old digest-size paperbacks, “The Bluebeard Room,” an international rock star catches Nancy’s interest, though she refuses to dance with him, because he arrogantly assumes she’ll be flattered by the invitation. She’s not playing hard to get; she just knows that she’s worth more than he’s offering. Of course, he sees the error of his behavior and falls in love with her. In real life, when you and your boyfriend decide to date other people for a while, jealous fretting ensues; when Nancy and Ned do the same, she flies to England, where both the rock star and a young reporter vie for her attention, all while she saves her friend in Cornwall from certain death.

The new Nancy is far more awkward and would probably faint if a rock star ever fell in love with her. In “Without a Trace,” when her neighbor’s friend from Paris calls her “lovely,” Nancy blushes furiously: “While I’m not exactly a wallflower,” she confesses, “I’m also not accustomed to charming, handsome Frenchmen showering me with compliments.”

Compared to this modest, more human Nancy, the old overconfident teen sleuth seems patently ridiculous. After all, who could ever move through life with such equanimity? And yet, equanimity is what I strive for every day as an adult. Admitting that Nancy Drew presents an impossible ideal doesn’t mean I don’t still aspire to her particular balance of warmth and detachment, her sense of personal fulfillment. If only we could all handle romantic disappointments the way the old Nancy did, when she thought the rock star was engaged to another girl: “She felt like flinging herself on the bed and sobbing. But Nancy had never been one to indulge in self-pity. Instead, she concentrated on filing her nails, until her feelings calmed down. Then she dashed off a letter to [her housekeeper] Hannah Gruen and prepared to shower.”

The old Nancy Drew was too perfect, and she never would have thrived in the real world, whether it be the 1930s or 2005. But she made us hope for a utopian life of professional challenges and fulfilling personal relationships, and she provided a vision for what that life might look like. It’s perfectly fine that other children’s characters offer us the chance to empathize and feel that we’re not alone in our childhood traumas, but that was never Nancy’s function, and it shouldn’t be now. She doesn’t say, “It’s OK you’re a mess”; she says, “You can be better.” And without her to urge this next generation of girls toward the ideals of feminism, we are certainly the poorer.

When I have a daughter of my own, I’ll be glad I have my boxes of old Nancy Drews to pass on.

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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