Nancy Drew, now and forever

The girl detective may have influenced Sonia Sotomayor, but her impact reaches a broader -- and younger -- audience

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 20, 2009 4:21PM (EDT)

Perhaps the unlikeliest beneficiary of Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination has been a motherless Midwestern teenager. Nancy Drew, the fictional girl detective who's pushing 80 but still doesn't look a day over 16, has been riding a career boost following the revelation that Sotomayor was an avid fan. Ever since, other female achievers who owe a debt to Drew have come forward, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor. A New York Times story on Sunday featured such luminaries as Nancy Pelosi and crime writer Sarah Peretsky weighing in on the influence of the titian-haired sleuth. It's all well and good to pay nostalgic boomer homage, but what's been largely missing from the spate of Drewmania has been Nancy's relevance to younger women. It's not as if she stopped being important to girls somewhere around the early era of second-wave feminism.

Gen Xers like me (and Broadsheet contributor Amy Benfer, who's also written on Nancy Drew) grew up on the '70s-era incarnation of Nancy, supplemented by the addictively glamorous, wildly popular television series. In the '80s Nancy evolved into a tween paperback heroine. Today, she's still going strong, with a continuing series of traditional and graphic novels. She may drive a hybrid, and carry a cellphone, but she's the same infinitely clever, down-to-earth girl other girls long to be.

She's an icon to my 9-year-old daughter, who carries a small spiral "detective" notebook around in a purse emblazoned with a vintage Nancy Drew cover. When I asked her recently why she likes Nancy, she replied casually, "She's smart. She follows her hunches. And she's not superstitious, which is good."

My child is in a demographic that's relentlessly encouraged to "Diss and Make Up," a generation hard-pressed for real or fictional role models who are neither pop stars nor top models. I'm of a generation still being advised on national television that no one's going to want you if you don't know how to "stand down and let a man be a man."

Somewhere in America there's a little girl who will one day sit on the United States Supreme Court. There's a future CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And there are millions of others who are happy right now just knowing that your value doesn't stem from being a vixen or a brat or a princess. For all of them, there's a girl who brims with curiosity, who asks questions, who boldly and bravely pursues a life of adventure. She has a boyfriend, but she doesn't live her life wondering how to mold herself to please him. She's not a relic; she's a revolutionary. She's Sonia Sotomayor's Nancy. She's mine. And she's my daughter's.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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