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  • Red, White, and Drew:The All-American Girl and the Case of Gendered Childhood
  • Elizabeth Marshall (bio)

First introduced in 1930, Nancy Drew remains one of America's most famous, and infamous, heroines. She has been interpreted in a variety of ways—from an adolescent Dana Scully of X-Files fame to, less flatteringly, a white supremacist and "Ball-Buster"(Jones, Zacharias). Similarly, articles about Nancy Drew have appeared in academic journals such as The Lion and the Unicorn and The Journal of Popular Culture, as well as more "mainstream" publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Playboy.1 One of the longest running children's series, the mysteries have been popular reading material for young girls (ages eight to eleven years old) since its inception.2 By 1993 over eighty-million copies of Nancy's adventures had sold, prompting one critic to conclude that "reading Nancy Drew was a pivotal childhood experience for millions of girls" (Dyer 2). To say that Nancy Drew is an intriguing character would be to understate her appeal as girlhood super-heroine. The long-lasting popularity of her mysteries, the recurrent appearance of Nancy Drew in different generations, as well as her appeal in popular culture and personal memory proffers the series as a compelling, if informal, American girlhood curriculum.

Nancy's character is periodically revamped, appearing in different guises in various time periods. For instance, in the 1950s the Stratemeyer Syndicate revised Nancy's character to fit more traditional notions of femininity; Pamela Sue Martin appeared in the televised version of the Nancy Drew mysteries in the mid-1970s; and, in the late '80s, a spin-off series written for an older audience appeared called "The Nancy Drew Files."3 More recently, Nancy Drew has solved mysteries in a CD Rom game developed by Her Interactive, and, on December 15,2001, was portrayed by Maggie Lawson in a pilot for a potential ABC series. The many incarnations of Nancy Drew suggest that she is less of a static heroine than a sort of cultural paper doll, who can be cloaked in a variety of lessons about gender and sexuality so that she might fit a particular historical moment and its ideas about girlhood and feminine adolescence.

This essay focuses on the lessons about gender and sexuality, the girlhood pedagogies, which inform the representation of Nancy Drew during the first five years of the series, from 1930-1935. The literary construction of Nancy during this time period relies on an assortment of puzzling lessons, a gendered curricula that attempts, and ultimately fails, to reduce the All-American girl to a slim, white, middle-class, and heterosexual body. In this essay, we spring into Nancy Drew's roadster for a trip through the paradoxical lessons that circulate around the invention of adolescent girlhood within the early years of the series. The road map in the glove compartment represents a partial itinerary that in no way covers the entire territory of girlhood, nor the numerous routes one might take to understand the Nancy Drew mysteries.


Seems to me I read all of them. It was escape. When you had some time to yourself you could curl up in a chair in a corner with Nancy Drew.

—Barbara Walters (qtd. in Bumiller D3)

Theorist Judith Butler argues that "sex" is less a natural fact than a category produced on the body through repeated performances of gendered behaviors. The guide-lines for these performances conceal themselves as "norms" that are enforced through the production of material effects. Butler argues that, under a particular "regime of power," subjects are compelled to identify with a set of cultural norms about gender that can at best only be approximated. Nancy Drew, for instance, represents the quintessential "All-American" girl, an unattainable but nonetheless persuasive exemplar of a girl. Drawing on Butler's work, Catherine Driscoll theorizes feminine adolescence, and writes that "puberty is no more a bodily change than an educational space where an already but incompletely gendered subject learns which gender norms are available for what kinds of citation and what body styles are acceptable or possible" (86). This theorization of gender as consistently under construction allows for...