Nancy Drew and the Curse of Perfection

I'm not ashamed of it. I'm a grown woman who might be mildly obsessed with a computer game marketed to preteens. I might consider it kind of juvenile, but it's Nancy Drew. So I can tell myself that this is no ordinary game. This is all part of a proud tradition. I always have and always will support Nancy Drew. 

 I don’t think anyone can argue that Nancy Drew is not an iconic woman. Many women in positions of power in politics, law-enforcement, and the justice system claim her as their earliest fictional role model and, for an eighty-three-year-old, she’s proven to have remarkable staying power for “girls” of all ages.


On a personal level, Nancy Drew was who I wanted to be. She had a single dad; I had a single dad. She was independent and always running off on her own to solve mysteries; I was a latchkey kid who was given a pretty long leash. I didn’t use my freedom to solve many cases, except the mystery of where all the dishes in the house were disappearing to (spoiler: under my brother’s bed). Yet my sister, who’s just a year older, never seemed to find much in my argument about why Nancy is “just like us and we should both be reading her, Omigod!” She never touched them, and I never touched her Sweet Valley High books when she tried to tell me the Wakefield sisters (bookish and boy-crazy respectively) were also just like us.


As a kid, I never thought about why I was drawn to my cool blue and green Nancy Drew books, while my sister came out clutching pink and white copies of Sweet Valley High. That’s not to say my sister’s taste was wrong and mine oh-so-right. We both thought the other had lame taste. Sometimes I think that, even then, I subconsciously appreciated something marketed to me, the adolescent girl, without being pink. There’s nothing that puts me off more than being told “this is what you should like.” Nancy Drew never patronized me in that way.


At least she didn’t for a while. Then her publishers tried new marketing techniques. In the eighties and nineties, Nancy Drew tried to gain ground with the Sweet Valley High fans of the world. There were the slightly edgier, sexier Nancy Drew Files in the eighties with more of a focus on Nancy’s love life, breaking her up with Ned to make Nancy’s adventures more romantic. They put her in more glamorous locales and in greater danger. Of course, they also described her clothes with painstaking detail.

Old School Nancy would get flirted with by the occasional guy, but she was never interested. That wasn’t so much fidelity to Ned (always waiting back home as she went on her travels), as it was that the girl had mysteries to solve and didn’t have the time for romance. New Nancy spent a lot more energy on these flirtations.


Anyway, the new stuff sold, even to purists like me. My sister even read a few, but I never connected to the “more relatable” Nancy. I much preferred the cool-headed Nancy who skirted danger easily and, though she had a steady boyfriend, her passion was for a good mystery. There’s also the Girl Detective series, which though it does update her relationship with technology, it also changes her personality to less cool-headed and more insecure and self-aware. The thing is that I didn’t need Nancy to be believably flawed and easily distracted or even “just like me” because we had Bess and George for that.


Bess was naïve, boy-crazy, emotional, and food-obsessed. George was tomboyish, sports-mad, sarcastic, and pragmatic to a fault. Then we had cerebral Nancy. She’d talk to her friends, father, and boyfriend when on the latest mystery, but her focus was always on the case. I never felt the need for a relatable Nancy as I preferred that the cast of characters round things out while Nancy showed equanimity. But they kept changing the formula because who can relate to a paragon that always knows just what to do?


Well, lots of girls and women because neither The Nancy Drew Files nor the Girl Detective series sold as well as the antiquated, out-of-date, too-perfect Nancy of old. I know always found myself going back to the old books for the girl I still, deep inside, want to be. So who could imagine that I’d find her not in the new Girl Detective series and definitely not in the lackluster 2007 movie, but in a series of PC and video games?

Stay tuned for Nancy Drew and the Girl Gamer Conspiracy…