It’s no mystery why Nancy Drew, that Titian-haired, flashlight-wielding teen detective, is still so popular after all these years.
She’s resourceful and spirited, whip-smart and determined. She has great friends (Bess and George), a nice boyfriend (Ned), and a busy lawyer father. Oh, and she drives a cool car.
But most of all, Nancy and her world are flexible.
“Nancy has always been intrepid, eminently capable, and she has a lot of autonomy,” said Mary Jeanette Moran, children’s literature expert with Illinois State University's English Department. “She’s able to exert control over her life in a way that many girls and women throughout the 20th century and into the 21st feel that they can’t.”
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Nancy Drew. She originally sprang to life from the printed pages of books published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1930. Ghostwritten under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, the mysteries bucked the accepted notion that a woman’s place is in the home, and gave the independent sleuth free reign to roam, flashlight in hand, trying to find vital clues to mysteries involving secret staircases and old diaries. Nancy Drew was a role model who was instantly popular and has stayed that way for the past nine decades.
“She’s been updated over and over and over again,” Moran explained. “So, she retains those essential qualities, but different artists and different writers have figured out different ways to make her relevant for different time periods, as well.”
The success of the Nancy Drew books led to other mystery series for young readers.
“Part of it was the way the Stratemeyer Syndicate worked. They took this model and they just replayed it over and over again with other mystery series like Cherry Ames, who was a nurse, and Vicky Barr, who was a flight attendant. Nancy certainly had influence there.”
“And you still see her influence in teen girl sleuths to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. The TV show, 'Veronica Mars,' is often seen as a storyline that comes out of the tradition of the girl sleuth.”
But after 90 years, Nancy has acquired a bit of baggage.
“Nancy, despite all of her positive images, also plays into ideas of privilege,” Moran said. “Nancy is popular because she challenges a lot of gender stereotypes, but at the same time reinforces racial stereotypes and stereotypes regarding economic privilege.”
“In the books from the 1930’s, they’re filled with racist stereotypes. People of color only appear as villains or as suspicious characters in some way. In the 1950’s, they were updated, partly to remove those stereotypes, and they did that just by taking out all the characters of color and just making the characters all white.”
But the intrepid Nancy has changed yet again.
“The very newest iteration of Nancy Drew is a TV show on the CW Network,” said Moran, "which updates the series in a number of ways, one of which is to intentionally diversify the cast.”
“If you look at the representation issues, between the show’s image of Nancy Drew and the one from the 30’s and from the 50’s, they are good anchors to show how the books are responding to and thinking about ideas about race in each of those times.”
Even with all the changes Nancy has gone through during her 90-year career, one thing has been a constant, said Moran: Nancy Drew can be viewed as a feminist.
“I don’t know if the authors would have described her in that way, I don’t know if Nancy Drew, the character, would describe herself that way, but in terms of someone who has expanded our ideas of what women are capable of, even within a patriarchal society, I would say absolutely – Nancy
Drew is a feminist!”
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.