- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2007

It’s the post-feminist age, but you might not know it from a look around your local toy and book stores.

From Bratz to Barbie, stereotypes reign. The favorite heroines of young girls are most interested in fashion, and their loftiest goal is to snag Prince Charming. Those passive Disney princesses have had remarkable staying power — the first appeared in 1937’s “Snow White,” but they have survived second- and third-wave feminism to remain as popular as ever.

Thankfully, in the midst of the tarted-up dolls and royalty-obsessed storybooks, there’s one character who could serve as a feminist icon. Never mind that she was created in 1930, years before the word even was used.

If you’re looking for a role model who’s intelligent and independent, Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, is your man — er, girl.

The film “Nancy Drew,” opening today with Nickelodeon star Emma Roberts as the titular titian-haired detective, is a modern update. It doesn’t hew exactly to the books in detail — Nancy’s about 15 rather than 18 — but it mostly does in spirit. The smart, spunky sleuth many of us remember from our girlhoods is back — but then, she never left.

The Nancy Drew books, with more than 200 million sold worldwide, have been in print continuously since 1930. They underwent some revisions starting in the 1950s, but Nancy’s been the same go-getter for generations.

Young girls just graduated from high school at Nancy’s time didn’t have much to do besides awaiting suitors. Nancy made an opportunity for herself, in detective work, a hard-boiled arena not known for being open to women (Miss Marple notwithstanding).

Nancy didn’t need a man to be fulfilled. She clearly liked Ned Nickerson, but she always put him off — to his frustration — until after her work was done. (Maybe she was chaste, or maybe she found more intellectual stimulation in solving mysteries. Ned never was as smart as Nancy.)

You couldn’t pull me away from a Nancy Drew book when I was a girl. I read lots of mysteries, but there was only one series starring a young female detective to whom I could relate.

Nancy even offered a taste of rebellion. Father Carson and housekeeper Hannah often warned Nancy to stop sleuthing when it became too dangerous. Nancy never listened. (She also could drive her blue roadster at excitingly unsafe speeds.)

She was one of the fictional sleuths that inspired me to become a detective of sorts. I developed my own “sleuth exam” (What are the first things you do when you come upon a crime scene?” “What are some good strategies for questioning witnesses and suspects?”) and started a detective club at school. Nancy made me feel I would have no problem presiding over the group of boys who joined.

I’m only one of millions of girls infected with a can-do spirit by that redhead. Perhaps Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one. The Supreme Court Justice is quoted in Melanie Rehak’s excellent history “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her”: “I liked Nancy Drew, yes. She was adventuresome, daring, and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was.”

Even the four movies made in the 1930s, which were released this week on two discs as “The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection,” inspired girls long before Take Your Daughter to Work Day. “I didn’t know you were planning to be a lawyer, Nancy,” one character says. “Oh, I think every intelligent woman should have a career,” responds Nancy, played by the feisty Bonita Granville.

Amazingly, this icon of female empowerment was dreamt up by a man.

Children’s book author Edward Stratemeyer founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate, responsible for such series as the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys mysteries. Although the books in these series were written by various ghostwriters, they were all published under a single pseudonym. In Nancy’s case, it was the now-legendary name of Carolyn Keene.

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