Through the Looking Glass: Nancy Drew Then and Now

Stack of Nancy Drew books, with Nancy's image enlarged with a magnifying glass. Text: Something for Sunday; November 17, 2019; Through the Magnifying GlassLike every woman I know, I grew up reading Nancy Drew books. Mine were the 1960s versions with the bright yellow spines. I devoured these stories about the intelligent, generous, loyal, and fearless girl detective. She reinforced my conviction that I could be anything I wanted in my life, if I just had the nerve to do it.

I was reminded about this teenage obsession when several things came together recently:

  • A few months ago I read an interesting history of the creation of this venerable franchise, focusing on the two women most responsible for “Carolyn Keene,” the name given to its author: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak. I enjoyed learning about these two strong, capable women and their fruitful, if sometimes testy, relationship.
  • A new Nancy Drew TV show launched in October that features a very different sort of heroine. The Nancy I grew up with was chaste and upright, for all her spunk. This show opens with a sex scene, and which point I turned it off. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this show, it just doesn’t align much with how I remember Nancy Drew, so it’s too unsettling for me.
  • Last night I rewatched an old episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Choices,” first broadcast 1999). In it, the young witch Willow has been captured, but gets out of the room she’s held in. Elsewhere in the building she finds the Books of Ascension detailing the mayor’s evil plan and sits down to read them, wanting to solve a mystery more than she wants to escape. When Faith, the Slayer who’s turned to the dark side, finds her, she says, “You just can’t stop Nancy Drew-ing, can you?”

That last event was the third time charm that triggered this blog post, looking at Nancy Drew then and now. (I’m drawing some information from two great sources: an article by Olivia Rutigliano in Crimereads.com, and a Master’s thesis by Jennifer Shaw on how the books addressed issues of gender roles, race, and authority.)

Nancy Drew Then. The original Nancy Drew was born in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Although financial hardship never touched her, her family, or her friends, she embodied the cultural expectations of the era of independence and grit. Women in the US had only been able to vote for a decade, and were reveling in their hard-won power. By the 1950s she had morphed into a more sedate, rule-following post-war woman, while still supporting the ideals of female empowerment. This was my Nancy: a “good girl” who was a respected member of her community, one who fought for what was right. She emphasized keeping a cool head and solving problems, not being swayed by fear or worrying what others think. As she never did anything wrong, everyone always thought she was wonderful, except for the bad guys she thwarted. Mainly, she was the preeminent example of a young woman who used her brains and her courage to help others. There was no other cultural icon for young women representing that ideal at that time, or at least not one so widely known.

Nancy Drew Now. One thing Nancy Drew did was start a trend toward media representations of feisty, clever, capable young women. Here is a very scattered, incomplete list of TV shows featuring such characters, based only on my own viewing and interests:

  • The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018) This show had two main characters, but Scully, the woman FBI agent, more than held her own, demonstrating intelligence and courage in facing both paranormal threats and government coverups. She is an adult, obviously, not a teen, but represents the independence of thought young women could strive for.
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001) This series in the long-running franchise featured a woman in command of a starship. Captain Janeway, another adult, embodied many of the virtues of Nancy Drew: brave, loyal, clever, a respecter of rules but more interested in doing what’s right.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) Though Buffy was not a detective, and never claimed to be clever, she was obviously tough, loyal, and brave. She fought to protect the defenseless and do the right thing.
  • Veronica Mars (2004-2007; 2019) Veronica is the clearest follower of Nancy Drew, since she’s a detective who started out while still in high school, working to solve cases alongside her extremely supportive widowed father (a detective himself, instead of the Nancy’s lawyer father, but still very close).

The modern Nancy Drew is different from the original because she has to be to compete. The ecological niche for smart, brave, and loyal girls has gotten rather crowded, and the cultural mindset of teens and young adults today has clearly progressed in 60 years. The beauty of Nancy Drew is that she is able to be whatever girls look up to as they map out how to become the women they choose to be.

Thank you, Nancy.


ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. For the rest of the year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations, and I’ve disabled subscriptions to Word Wacker. Starting in January 2020 I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!