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Reviewed by:
  • American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture
  • Benjamin Lefebvre (bio)
American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture. By Ilana Nash. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006.

Intersecting the fields of youth studies and popular culture, Ilana Nash's study of the female adolescent in American film and its derivatives considers the complexities of a figure who is simultaneously objectified by her sexuality and made ignorant by her youth, and thus stuck within systems of representation of "fantasies of the impossibly good and the impossibly bad" (3). The bulk of her study centers on narrative cycles that circulated in American mass media between 1930 and 1965, with Nancy Drew, Judy Graves, Corliss Archer, and Gidget as central representatives of the larger trend. (The back cover claims that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Britney Spears are among the book's focal points, but they are mentioned only in passing.) In this figure Nash locates a repository for larger cultural anxieties about youth, patriarchy, the future, and what she terms "personhood"—a discourse of agency that is analogous to, but not necessarily synonymous with, the major objectives of second-wave feminism. Nash is adequately self-conscious about the absence of nonwhite protagonists in her study, suggesting that the omission of nonwhite girls in the popular narratives of the period "bespeaks the ideologies at stake in celebrations of whiteness." She implies that the "ideal of innocence, loveliness, and purity" (9) proscribed in and by these texts [End Page 113] is encoded within discourses of race, class, and sexuality, as is the notion of the "average" girl and the "average" American family. Perhaps more surprisingly, the proscriptive function of this figure is not only for the benefit of a young, specifically female audience, but rather to provide adult men with a form of female objectification that reassuringly keeps male privilege intact.

For instance, in her discussion of Nancy Drew books and their transformation into a series of B-films from Warner Bros. (which takes up two of the book's four major chapters), Nash skillfully draws on a range of archival sources to piece together the process of adapting The Password of Larkspur Lane (1933), book ten in Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, into Nancy Drew—Detective (1938), the first of four films starring Bonita Granville (all of which were released in one DVD collection earlier in 2007). Given the relative scarcity of materials on the early Nancy Drew films, I found Nash's close comparative reading of the two incarnations of the text to be quite fascinating, particularly her emphasis on elements in the book that showcase Nancy's agency and ingenuity and that are transferred to the film's supporting male characters in order to highlight Nancy's lack of agency and ingenuity. Nash places these four films within the larger context of the popular film in this era and draws on rare archival materials to demonstrate some of the ways in which they were shaped to fit the producers' perception of this shifting demographic, thus highlighting the mimetic function of the popular film of this period.

That said, the originality of Nash's argument and research is not always as central as it could be. Her overview of the creation and initial reception of Nancy Drew—the contested authorship and ownership of Edward Stratemeyer, Mildred A. Wirt, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams; the addition of Ned Nickerson to ensure Nancy's heterosexuality without making romance a central tenet of the series; the use of Bess and George as representatives of opposite extremes of femininity to make Nancy seem more balanced and normative; the quasi-incestuous undertones in the relationship between Nancy and her father; the revision of the first thirty-four titles to remove racist language and stereotypes, which led to the removal of all people of color—is already quite familiar, and many of the claims made (for instance, that Nancy frequently reaches "hasty conclusions" about the guilt of nonwhite villains [61]) could benefit from concrete examples from the original texts. Returning to this history is no doubt necessary to stage Nash's argument, but I would have liked to see clearer acknowledgement of the book's...


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pp. 113-115
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