Sunday Reflections: The Curious Case of the Death of Nancy Drew
Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse and the abuse and killing of women are mentioned in this post
Nancy Drew has been on my mind a lot lately. Recently, Thing 2 found and started watching the new Nancy Drew series on the CW. So when we went to an amazing used book store on Monday, she was excited to find row upon row of Nancy Drew books. “Can I buy one?”, she asked. She walked out with two.
Anytime my child with dyslexia who hates to read asks for a book, I feel like saying no is the wrong answer. So we bought them. They sit on the top of her TBR pile, waiting to be devoured by this kid who was excited to find a female sleuth to inspire her. Ninety years later and Nancy Drew is still inspiring little girls everywhere. This matters.
Which brings us to Friday, where I stumbled across the news that for the 90th anniversary of Nancy Drew comic book writers decided to . . . kill her? And have the Hardy Boys investigate her death? So for the 90th year celebration of Nancy Drew, we are going to learn more about Nancy Drew by killing her off and letting two male characters investigate her death? I’m going to give this a no. And yes, I understand how comic books work.
Don’t get me wrong, although both of my kids love mysteries and thrillers, I live in the world of science fiction and fantasy where no one stays dead. So I get that this is just a device to sell books and tell a story. It’s just not an approach that I personally like and I would like to explain why.
Several weekends ago the girls and I sat down and tried to find a new mystery thriller to binge watch. We started three and only watched about the first 15 minutes because they all started the same. Scene: a woman is running nude and barefoot (through a forest, on a beach, down a dark street, the setting doesn’t matter) and she is bleeding and in peril. The police – more often than not a man – begin investigating her death. As a woman raising daughters, I can’t help but notice that most crimes in our media revolve around the sexual assault and murder of women. Women see a lot of female peril in the media and we live our real lives in a lot of fear of being stalked, assaulted, raped and attacked. We are most likely to be killed by a man we know, love and trust. We get it, we know that we are in peril. We don’t need the constant reminders from the media. It’s exhausting.
It feels like no one knows how to write a mystery or a story about women without involving their abuse and murder. We kill women so much in fiction – and yes, I know this is a sad reflection of real life – that I doubt anyone thought twice about killing Nancy Drew. But they should have.
Nancy Drew debuted as a fictional character in 1930. Women had only had the right to vote for 10 years at this point. And here when I say women I mean white women, women of color still wouldn’t have the right to vote until decades later. Submission and traditional feminine roles were still considered the law of the land. The core cannon of literature was (and one can argue still is) dominated by old, white men. And yet here was a teenage girl going around and investigating mysteries. It was, is and will always be revolutionary. The character of Nancy Drew matters.
Nancy Drew is an important part of the feminist movement. The fact that her stories exist is profoundly important to generations of women. And she continues to be important to all the little girls who are still finding her.
It’s also interesting to note that this newest book in which Nancy Drew dies so that the Hardy Boys can investigate her death is written by . . . men. I learned this the same week that I learned that for the past several decades the V C Andrews books were written by a man as is the completion of the most recent Jane Austen novel. There are a lot of men writing these properties that were started by and revolutionary for women.
When I talked about how upset I was about this recent development on Twitter, I got some DMS and replies that said things like, “Now you know how the Star Wars fans feel.” They were pointing out the fact that Rey dominates the recent Star Wars films and takes over the role of savior originally given to Luke Skywalker. Except if you look closely at the new Star Wars films, Rey is one character in a main cast that also involves Kylo Ren, Poe and Finn. So out of the 4 main characters of this franchise, there is one woman. Rose Tico, a woman of color, was completely sidelined in the later films. There is no lack of men in the new Star Wars universe.
What about Doctor Who being rebooted as a woman? Well, I’m a Doctor Who fan and I’m not going to lie, my girls and I love the new Doctor. We also loved all the other Doctors. There are 50 years of episodes of Doctor Who starring a male lead as a supposedly male character. Though for the record, the Doctor is in fact an alien so traditional gender conventions probably don’t apply. However, the current main cast consists of the Doctor and her 3 companions, 2 of whom are male. So when you’re looking at the male to female ratio, you have a pretty even split. But the new Doctor was introduced by killing off a black woman and the first series of Whittaker’s arc focuses more on the two men grieving their loss then it does on any of the two female leads. So in many ways, last season of Doctor Who was still prominently male focused and it started by killing off a woman to give the two male leads a story.
A lot of women have to die to give male leads backstory or motivation in our media. This is called fridging. ” A male hero’s grief in the aftermath of shocking violence against a woman is a tried-and-true element of storytelling.” (Source: https://www.vox.com/2018/5/24/17384064/deadpool-vanessa-fridging-women-refrigerators-comics-trope ) Killing Nancy Drew in her 90th anniversary issue so that the Hardy Boys can investigate her death has the potential to become an issue of fridging. And I’m tired of being in the refrigerator. And I certainly want something different for one of the most important and iconic female teens from literature.
But those comparisons talk about movies. So what about books? In comparison, Agatha Christie wrote her first novel in 1920. She is arguably one of the best and most prolific writers of mystery novels. But even if you look at her oeuvre, you’ll note that she often wrote about a male lead. You will recall one Hercule Poirot. She also wrote the iconic Miss Marple, though Poirot appears in more novels because it was the early 1900s and sexism was (and still is) a thing. So when you start looking at Nancy Drew contemporaries in the early 1900s, you get a better perspective on just how important Nancy Drew is.
A quick look at Wikipedia tells us that there are more than 500 Nancy Drew books. Mildred A. Wirt wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew novels under the pen name Carolyn Keene. The mere act that this girl would go out, investigate and solve mysteries, and often save the men in her life, was revolutionary. She was the female answer to and counterpoint to the Hardy Boys. So handing her anniversary story over to the Hardy Boys feels like a giant step backwards and a weird way to celebrate the Nancy Drew brand. I don’t celebrate my children and their significance to me or the culture by killing them and the idea of it would horrify you. It’s an extreme comparison, I know.
So my girls and I are going to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Nancy Drew the best way we know how. We’re going to read these inspiring books where a female teen fiercely goes out and solves mysteries. We’re going to binge watch the show on the CW. We’re going to watch the movies that have already been made. We’re going to be inspired by and celebrate a living, breathing Nancy Drew that centers her in her own narrative. And we’re going to reject more media that insists the only way to tell a good story is to kill a woman.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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