The Mystery of the Girl Who Didn’t Care

A recent study backs up Fleming’s assessment of the “mean girls” phenomena (to borrow the title of another movie about girl culture), and the idea that Nancy Drew would find her teenaged peers in today’s L.A. much less empathetic and more egotistical than in her time. As part of the study—discussed in the newly published Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before—1.3 million teenagers participated in a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory; the resulting data showed that young people today are more self-centered than any previous generation. The researchers say students’ NPI scores have risen steadily since the test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, thirty percent more than in 1982.

The experience of Dr. Mary Ann VerSteeg Halbert, a Minneapolis-based psychologist, bears that out. “I’m seeing many more girls these days who cannot feel empathy; they cannot walk in somebody else’s shoes. People around them—teachers, parents, friends—feel as if they’re being sucked dry. These girls make poor friends because they demand all the attention.” Asked about a possible comeback for the once-popular girl detective, she added, “We need Nancy Drew as a model for girls in our society, if for no other reason than she has respect for others.”
It’s generally acknowledged in psychiatric literature that some three-quarters of narcissists are men; after all, we tend to accept self-centeredness as a normal masculine feature. But what happens to individuals and the larger community when more women—the traditional nurturers—become narcissistic?

Researchers offer a host of reasons for this rash of narcissism, including the sexualization of women in media, and both overly nurturing parenting (the self-esteem movement run amok), and neglectful parenting. VerSteeg Halbert sees another possible connection: “I think the mothers of today’s teenage girls, in their fight for equality, had to throw away some of their nurturing side and say—as we are used to hearing from men—that it’s all about me. I wonder if we took it too far?”

Jennifer Baumgardner was in her late twenties when she wrote the best-selling Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. She believes society expects too much of young women, and that it’s time to stop judging girls for “reveling in their youthful sexuality.” For example, she says Paris Hilton is much more than a narcissistic sex object. “[She] has built a global brand around her image, which means she’s a good businesswoman. Before people judge her they should keep in mind that she’s still in her twenties. It takes time to discover a larger purpose in life. Girls are judged all the time for being under-evolved.”

Still, even Baumgardner concedes that a “resurgence of Nancy Drew” would offer a positive alternative to the choices for role models. “She was so wholesome, so nonsexualized. She would be the kind of example that isn’t currently part of the cultural agenda. I think every girl would benefit from seeing this kind of representation.”

In ten years Malcolm will be old enough to attend prom, and I wonder what his evening could be like if his date is one of these newbie narcissists. Would he appreciate how his date revels in her youthful sexuality, or would he be stuck on the sidelines while she spends the night freaking on the dance floor to capture the attention of every other guy? Given this possibility, I have two hopes for my son’s romantic life: that he become a callous young man, or that he hook up with a girl like Nancy Drew.

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