The Importance of ‘Nancy Drew’

The Nancy Drew franchise has lasted decades. There have been countless books in a variety of different series, including a spinoff series about her as a kid. There’s been movies and video games and a TV show. Nancy is an icon, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss why that is.

I know a lot of girls who had a Nancy Drew phase. I didn’t exactly have that, because I kind of skipped over the children’s book section. I read a lot as a kid. I’ve always been a fast reader, and when I was younger, I had a lot more time to do it. I recall being given a boxed set of the books – I think 1 through 55, or something like that – and I blew through them in a week or two. I’d maybe read another on occasion, but for the most part, my “phase” lasted all of about two weeks. I never had a period of time where that was all I was obsessed with. That’s not the kind of book Nancy Drew is. The series doesn’t lend itself to an obsession. Maybe in the, rush to get every book you can get sense, but not in the need to gush with someone about them way. They don’t have interesting and well developed characters. They don’t have deeply emotional scenes. They aren’t where you go if you’re looking for well crafted prose. They’re formulaic. They’re essentially airport novels for kids.

People love series – you don’t have to think about what to read next, you just go down the list. Nancy Drew is one of those long runners people read to take up time, not necessarily because they’re good – even though it does have many devoted readers. But they stuck with me all the same, and that’s because of Nancy and what she represents.

The series resonated and appealed to girls since its conception because it was aspirational. Nancy was eighteen and never had to answer to anybody. She was a female character getting to have adventures with the romantic aspect of it barely even an afterthought. Ned – and the random other guys from when Ned wasn’t around – was her sidekick. Nancy casually dated throughout the series and that was never portrayed as something she shouldn’t do. She and Ned went out a lot, but there wasn’t any kind of commitment. The books were all about her and what she wanted to do.

She always seemed much older when I was reading the books. How could she not? Nancy at eighteen had fewer responsibilities and more freedom than I do now. She was out of school. She was independent, with a level of independence and autonomy kids dream adulthood will bring. Maybe it didn’t make much sense. She was a high school graduate and an amateur detective that never went to college or got a job or even got paid for the cases she solved. We never saw her learning a lot of the skills she had, but she always conveniently could solve every problem. She never cooked or cleaned or paid bills. Her housekeeper did the first two and her father the third. She seemed to just live off her father’s money.

When you read a Nancy Drew book, what you see is what you get. No matter how many times you read it, you won’t find new layers. They’re tailored for children and in a way that means you won’t get much – if anything – new out of it as an adult. Nancy Drew is a character that people grow up past. That’s not necessarily bad – the books have a specific purpose and they fill a specific niche – it just is. She’s a static character. The Nancy in the last book of the original run is the exact same as that in the first. That’s why people always outgrow her. But despite that, you’re not going to find many women out there that say, “oh, Nancy Drew is stupid and childish, kids should be reading better books” the same way people do about a lot of kids’ books. That’s because Nancy isn’t a character so much as she is a cultural icon.

She was a smart, tough woman that rescued herself, and maybe the versions of the books updated in the 50s or 60s washed some of that out and rendered her a more sweet, polite, milquetoast sort of person, they couldn’t erase it completely, because the very premise of the series is a competent woman that can solve crimes better than all the police detectives around. She has a place in history. Generations of girls have read about her and been inspired by her. She’s probably not a character that got many people into reading in the first place. She certainly wasn’t that for me. But at the time of her creation, she was revolutionary. She’s no longer unique, which is great. Modern children’s fiction has a lot more capable and independent female protagonists, many of whom are better written than Nancy ever was. But Nancy was a crucial step in the development of strong female characters in popular fiction, and one of the reasons we can now so easily criticize the idea of a Strong Female CharacterTM by pointing out that being able to do stuff isn’t the same as being a good character – partially because of Nancy, we now have an abundance of capable women, and now the goal is to make them more interesting. She’s not as necessary as she once was, but forgetting her would be like forgetting Anne Shirley, Jo March, or Hester Prynne.

There’s a lot of discussion to be had about the original versions vs the updated, the first run vs the later books and series, like how the original versions of the books were filled with unfortunate stereotypes about people of colour, and the updated versions “fixed” that by just removing all PoC completely, or the previously mentioned shift into sweeter, more accommodating, and less independent territory,  or how Bess and George are usually just portrayed as complete stereotypes rather than characters in their own right. None of that changes the fact that Nancy still matters. Maybe her books aren’t what we want now, and she isn’t the heroine that interests us, but for a long time, she was what we needed.

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