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It was 1930 when Nancy Drew first drove her convertible expertly in to the minds and hearts of young American girls. It was 2001 when she drove in to mine. To me, the adoration was simple. Nancy was the hero I wanted to be- still want to be, in fact. She was good at everything under the sun.
Need someone to fly a plane?
It’s cool, Nancy’s got her license.
How about dance ballet?
No problem, Nancy has experience with ballet. In fact, she is so naturally athletic and talented that people have suggested she pursue it as a profession. But Nancy won't hear of it. Investigating is her real passion.
Of course, I’ve glossed over her knowledge of Morse code, first aid, wilderness survival, horseback riding, knots, sailing, and high-speed pursuit in a vehicle, to name a few, but I can’t continue, the list would go on all day. Most would say that a person with all that knowledge and skill would be a superhuman, but Nancy, with her characteristic modesty, would say she’s just well-rounded. That’s part of the reason I loved her.
She’s a problem solver who can do anything. She can tangle with even the most brutal criminals and come out unscathed (although she has been chloroformed an awful lot, which might have some effects as she grows in to old age- oh wait, she’s eternally young). Plus, she does this all in unique Nancy Drew style- calm, cool, collected and always, always confident.
But ever since 1930, the larger media and entertainment industry have been getting it wrong.
To begin with, they didn’t think that the girls literary market was even strong enough to support a female adventure heroine. But Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which also produced the Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins, knew better. He had two young daughters in the women’s lib movement and he understood that young girls were looking for stronger, smarter role models in their books. Ones that didn’t faint every few minutes.
He was absolutely right. The children’s literary community was taken aback when Nancy Drew rose to be the best seller Grosset & Dunlap had, far overpowering any of their boy’s adventure series.
And Nancy Drew continued to be their top seller, through bad economic times and good. Nancy Drew’s popularity was something they could always rely on.
Edward Stratemeyer passed away before he could see his greatest success bloom, unfortunately, but his legacy was in good hands with his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer, who took over the business, and ghost writer Mildred Wirt Benson, an adventuring journalist who loved to fly planes and travel. If only it could have stayed there.
Warner Bros. was the first to sully the name of the great Nancy Drew with it’s 1938 movie adaptation starring Bonita Granville as a ditzy, nervous Drew in a campy comedic film. They even changed “Ned” to “Ted.” Heresy! The movie failed to captivate audiences, and neither did the next three produced.
After rights disputes that lasted years, the next characterization to be produced was on the small screen. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries TV series ran from 1977-1979. It was short-lived and lackluster. Nancy Drew actress Pamela Sue Martin later appeared on the Playboy cover kitted out in detective duds, trying to shake the Nancy Drew “good girl” image. To my mind, more offensive than the Playboy appearance is the idea that Nancy Drew was a “good girl.”
That seems to be a major misconception about ND. She is not, in fact, a “good girl.” She is snoopy, she will break rules to solve cases and she’ll get in to situations that “good girls” don’t get in to, and then have cajones to get out of them, by herself. She is not a good girl. She is a bad ass.
But sorry to tell you folks, we’re entering a dark time in Nancy’s past. The 80s and 90s, when Simon and Schuster tried to add some ill-advised sexiness in to the mix. What resulted was unfortunate Nancy Drew cover camel toe, way too much romance and a whole series called Nancy Drew on Campus that didn’t even include mysteries but instead focused on Nancy navigating college life and at one point breaking up with Ned. Yeah, you heard me right. Because he was too controlling. If you’re like me, you’re welling up with anger tears. (But full disclosure, I cry all the time. Not very ND.)
Not to make too much of it, but Ned was the most perfect, least-controlling depiction of a boyfriend that I had ever read when I was a young girl. It was a very healthy relationship- the only type that Nancy Drew would allow. Because, holler if you know what I’m gonna say next, she was a bad ass.
The funny thing is, all these misguided representations of Nancy Drew failed utterly. No commercial case could be made for them. And yet it still seemed like no business man since Edward Stratemeyer could understand the appeal of Nancy Drew, and no business woman could sway the project in the correct direction.
Perhaps they had a case of the Joseph Campbells.
Let me explain: Joseph Campbell wrote about the monomyth, or hero’s journey, in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” It’s pretty cool. He shows the pattern of a hero’s journey, overlaying it on several classic examples like “The Odyssey” and “Finnegan’s Wake” to make clear the pattern.
Then a woman, Maureen Murdock, wrote “The Heroine’s Journey,” because Campbell’s book doesn’t necessarily work for female heroes (with the focus on goddess worship and all). She sent a copy to Campbell. Campbell responded: “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize she’s the place people are trying to get to.”
You’d think an intelligent literary scholar would understand that women aren’t objects, wouldn’t you? You’d think he’d understand that they are also people, each of them the heroine of their own journey, and that they too crave stories about heroic role models they can look up to. But he didn’t. So I suppose it’s not surprise that to this very day men have a hard time leaving behind objectification and picking up on the whole women-as-people thing.
Anyway, I’m glad to tell you that within the last decade or so, representations of Nancy Drew have been getting better. The 2007 movie with Emma Roberts held very little resemblance to any iteration of Nancy Drew series book, but at least they didn’t try to make Nancy Drew sexy. Where they failed, however, was making Nancy Drew desperately unsexy. She was too young, too uncool, and had a little boy sidekick instead of her friends Bess and George.
What I really refer to when I talk about better representation are the Nancy Drew mystery games produced by Her Interactive. Created under the leadership of Megan Gaiser in 1998, the games struggled to get in to stores due to the perception that the girls video game market was not strong enough. Sound familiar? Once again, Nancy Drew set that misconception on its ass and the games have cornered the market in point-and-click mysteries, loved by boys and girls alike.
Gaiser has now left the company to pursue some other women in video games project, but her influence remains in the smart, brave and confident young woman that is depicted in the games.
And even if Nancy Drew’s brand has been relentlessly hijacked by people who don’t understand her magic, her spirit lives on in all the little girls who she has inspired since 1930, which is a whole heck of a lot. Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barbara Walters and Sonia Sotomayor have all professed their love. They, and women like them, are the true representations of Nancy Drew. Leaders, thinkers, and innovators. The entertainment industry can reinvent Nancy however they want, her true work shines through in every real-life heroine who secretly thinks to herself ‘What would Nancy do?”