The Mystery of the Girl Who Didn’t Care

I raised three daughters who spent their childhoods reading Harry Potter. So I had never encountered the Nancy Drew mysteries until Malcolm, my seven-year-old son, received a copy of one in a bookstore earlier this year. Apparently, Nancy Drew wasn’t selling, so to spark interest the store was giving away The Secret of the Old Clock, the first book in the series, with purchase of any two children’s books. The story, to me, was rather predictable, and Nancy Drew, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a well-to-do attorney, was so wholesome as to be unbelievable. But my son loved the book.

Malcolm got hooked on Nancy Drew mysteries; before two months passed he had burned through five of them and was begging for number six. Now any time we go to a library or bookstore, he bolts for the Nancy Drew section, which is easy to locate: The original fifty-six titles, with their bright yellow spines, blaze a four-foot stripe across the shelves of the children’s section. But even though the series has been in print continuously since 1930, having sold more than eighty million volumes worldwide, these days the once popular collection’s bright hue has been dulled by the dust of disinterest.

According to Carol Dosse, a children’s librarian at the Minneapolis Central Library, girls—the books’ primary readership—are no longer captivated by the teen sleuth. “Girls are savvier now than when Nancy Drew was written, and they’re looking for something more contemporary to their world.”

Nancy Drew was the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, a book publisher who originally conceived the series to appeal to young adult readers. But as years passed, children apparently became more sophisticated; today, seven-year-olds like Malcolm can easily consume the 180-some-page novels. It’s not surprising, then, that teenage girls have lost interest in Nancy Drew.
What’s popular today is R-rated fiction like the Gossip Girls series, by Cecily von Ziegesar, which Dosse said is “big with girls as young as fifth grade.” Gossip Girls are affluent teens who “live in gorgeous apartments, go to exclusive private schools, and make Manhattan their own personal playground,” as the jacket copy says. Here’s a taste from the opening pages of You Know You Love Me: A Gossip Girl Novel.

 

“To my Blair Bear,” Mr. Harold Waldorf, Esq. said, raising his glass of champagne to clink it against Blair’s. “You’re still my little girl even though you wear leather pants and have a hunky boyfriend.” He flashed a suntanned smile at Nate Archibald, who was seated beside Blair at the small restaurant table … Blair Waldorf reached under the tablecloth and squeezed Nate’s knee. The candlelight was making her horny. If only Daddy knew what we’re planning to do after this, she thought giddily. She clinked glasses with her father and took a giant gulp of champagne.

 

What does it say about girl culture today that young women are shunning the long-popular Nancy Drew and pushing sales of books like Gossip Girls through the roof?

 

Julie Schumacher has cracked the bindings on her teenaged daughters’ books and, given the choice, would prefer them to read fiction with “unsexualized” characters like Nancy Drew. A creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of three young adult novels, Schumacher believes that pop culture is feeding a particularly insidious message to girls: “‘I can act like an idiot, I can dress like a slut, but I can still have self-worth and be an admirable person,’” as she sums it up. “It’s a recipe that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Andrew Fleming agrees—which is, in large part, why the screenwriter and director’s latest movie is a new adaptation of a Nancy Drew tale (in theaters June 15). “I’m troubled by the princess culture I see among girls,” he says. “There’s this idea that if you put on a provocative outfit then you’re entitled to act like a diva. There’s a lack of politeness, kindness, and consideration. I don’t think girls are given credit for being smart, brave, and strong. Nancy Drew was all of these.”

When Fleming criticizes the way girls behave in 2007, he is also criticizing himself. In the early ’90s, he wrote and directed The Craft, a film about four teen social outcasts who realize their innate feminine power through the practice of witchcraft. While using both magic and sexuality to manipulate their schoolmates and drive boys insane with desire, they also transform their wardrobes, from Catholic school uniforms to miniskirts, thigh-highs, and see-through blouses.

For Fleming, those characters were a way to liberate girls who, at the time, he says “were being kept in a cultural box and told, ‘This is the way you’re supposed to behave.’” Eleven years after The Craft, Fleming sees some of the worst aspects of his characters playing out in the mainstream, and he’s resurrected Nancy Drew to confront them. Rather than reinvent the young sleuth for twenty-first-century moviegoers, Fleming opted to pluck the original version out of the 1930s and plunk her down in modern-day Los Angeles.

“What if Nancy Drew existed in the present? How would she fit in? Because she dresses demurely, and she’s organized, polite, and an achiever, she would seem like a freak. I think it’s time to reconsider how girls—and boys, really—have no rules anymore. Ultimately, there’s such a focus on style, how you roll, and what you wear—Nancy doesn’t really care about that stuff. She’s focused on helping people and getting to the bottom of the mystery,” Fleming said.

 


Andrew Fleming describes Nancy Drew

 

Once I started reading Nancy Drew to my son I began noticing her everywhere: a new computer game on the shelves at Target; Nancy Drew websites; collectors posting on eBay for rare editions of the books; a trailer for the new movie on the internet. Somehow, for an archaic character, she remains very popular. But having read more than a handful of Nancy Drew mysteries, something in the trailer disturbed me about the way she was portrayed by actress Emma Roberts: This Nancy Drew seemed uncertain, unintelligent, and boy-crazy—qualities opposite to those the original Nancy Drew possessed.

According to Fleming, the trailer for his movie is deceiving. If Nancy appeared ditzy and boy-crazy, he said, it was due to clever editing by the studio’s marketing department. Fleming said he met with “every girl in Hollywood” and chose Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’s niece), because she “is very intelligent, and Nancy is very intelligent, and you can’t fake that.” Even so, Fleming’s studio bosses felt that girls would be more attracted to a movie with a stupid, sexualized Nancy Drew than a smart, modest one.

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