The Secrets of Nancy Drew: Having Their Cake and Eating It Too
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The Secrets of Nancy Drew:
Having Their Cake and Eating It Too

By 1975, the character of Nancy Drew had all the trappings of a cultural icon. Books featuring Nancy's adventures had been lining the shelves of retail stores and girls' bedrooms for 45 years. Literally millions of copies had been sold. Nancy had been the subject of four feature films. She had starred in her own Parker Brothers "Mystery Game." She had her own cookbook. She had appeared as a prestigious "Madame Alexander" doll. She was also beginning to be the subject of scholarly consideration. In 1975, the first extended feminist examination of Nancy Drew, Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, appeared.

Like many feminist critics of the 1970s, Mason perceptively explored the issue of the "role model" and detailed the cultural lessons about female behavior that Nancy's character inculcated. Although she praised Nancy's original independence and adventurous spirit, Mason also criticized what Nancy had become. She is "just too straight," wrote Mason. "She no longer does the outrageous, but the obvious and the expected. And the message in her stories is the same as it always was: to give little girls the illusion that they could have their cake and eat it, too" (138). As part of her study, Mason issued a challenge to the Nancy Drew of the future:

Nancy Drew had liberated readers from that tyranny [of "giggling girl" heroines], but who is to liberate new readers from the established complacency of the Nancy Drew series? If Nancy is to live up to her image as a superheroine, she must step beyond the old limits of her role and again advance into forbidden territory.

(137)

Interestingly, Mason had delivered her challenge at the very time that Nancy Drew was about to be offered several new chances to meet it. Within two years after Mason's book, a Nancy Drew television series had [End Page 1] not only refocused Nancy through the prism of Hollywood but had also expanded the scope of her influence through a burst of merchandising. There were Nancy Drew lunch boxes and jigsaw puzzles, Halloween costumes and greeting card kits, secret code books, mystery mazes, crossword puzzles, and even a "Private Eye Diary" complete with lock and key. By the mid-1980s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created Nancy, had been sold and its principals had died or moved on. The new publisher and owner, Simon & Schuster, has more than doubled the number of titles in the original series and has created new, "spin-off" series such as the Nancy Drew Files and River Heights.1 If Nancy Drew were indeed to "step beyond the old limits of her role," as Mason asked, she has had plenty of opportunity.

For the most part, however, she has not taken this opportunity. My examination of recent Nancy Drew titles shows that the character continues to teach conflicting lessons about gender and retains the essential "straightness" and "complacency" that were present even in the fairly radical early volumes of the series. Yet the books' continuing popularity2 suggests that young readers do not feel the need to be "liberated" from Nancy's "established complacency." Nancy Drew remains an adolescent superheroine despite contradictions in her character and despite a fundamental conservatism that at first seems surprising given her independent, adventurous reputation.

Why? If Nancy Drew has, in fact, fossilized over time (she has, to an extent) and if her books present disturbing pictures of class and gender (they did and do), then why has her popularity remained? The answer lies, at least in part, in the very contradictions and paradoxes that Bobbie Ann Mason cites. As Mason writes, "Nancy gave us the conventional and the revolutionary in one compact image" (138). But to Mason, the suggestion that a girl can have her cake and eat it too is an illusion, one that should be replaced with a reality that presumably would demonstrate to readers that one cannot attain independence while remaining Daddy's dependent or become personally liberated while remaining enslaved to gender and class stereotypes. Yet, to dispel the illusions or "improve" the lessons would destroy the...