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The Nancy mystique
Question of the Day
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.
Perhaps having two daughters led Stratemeyer to create a female-centered series. He wrote outlines for the first four Nancy Drew books but died the year the first was published.
A man thought her up, but two extraordinary women gave Nancy that before-her-time personality.
Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took over the syndicate after her father's death. She recalled, "He thought I should stay home and keep house." Instead, this mother of four with no business experience succesfully ran her late father's empire until her death. She outlined most of the rest of the mysteries, edited them and eventually became the primary ghostwriter.
The woman who wrote most of the first 25 books was also a tough cookie. Mildred Wirt Benson was one of the first women to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. She described herself as "a rough and tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living." She earned her pilot's license at 59 and survived the Mexican jungle at 62, writing about it all.
These women were pioneers before feminism coalesced. "I wasn't thinking about women's liberation when I wrote the books," Mrs. Adams once said. "I've never thought of myself as a women's libber, but I do believe that women have brains."
Perhaps that's why the girl detective has endured while other attempts to create good role models have failed. Nancy wasn't invented to make a point.
Try to dilute that pre-feminist moxie, however, and girls won't be as interested. Simon & Schuster created the "Nancy Drew Files" in 1986. In this later series, Nancy cares more about boys and clothes than the mysteries. It lasted just 10 years — nothing compared to the 77 and counting of the original series.
("The Nancy Drew Notebooks," aimed at girls 5 to 8, have none of that nonsense.)
Girls are still reading the classic tales, but now Nancy is inspiring them in a new medium. A series of computer games for girls using Nancy Drew has been pioneered by Her Interactive. The White Wolf of Icicle Creek, the 16th of the well-regarded Nancy Drew games, appeared on shelves this week.
Nancy is undercover as a hotel maid, so players have to face such typical female tasks as making beds and salads — but they also ride a snowmobile in the Alberta tundra. That's something I've done. Perhaps I wouldn't have been so brave if I hadn't grown up with that audacious heroine, Nancy Drew.
By Steve King
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