Revisiting Nancy Drew from a Modern (and Disabled and Queer) Perspective, a guest post by Katryn Bury
When I was first given a Nancy Drew mystery, I was already in trouble. Even aside from a frequently debilitating chronic illness, I was lonely, shy, and suffered from extreme social anxiety. This, along with being fat, made me an easy target for bullies. The worst thing about the years of abuse wasn’t just the words—it was a sense that I was being beaten into a mold. The message was clear: fall in line and start being “normal,” or pay dearly for it.
The minute my mother introduced me to Nancy Drew, I realized that “normal” wasn’t and shouldn’t be what I was aiming for. Nancy herself was brave, adventurous, and whip smart—solving mysteries so fast that she left grown men (detectives, the local police chief, and more) in the proverbial dust. Her friends didn’t fit the “perfect girl” category either. Bess was fat, and pursued adventures despite her fear. George was a refreshingly non-gender conforming character who knew Judo and could stop any enemy in their tracks. If these three girls were breaking the mold, so could I.
Of course, even back in the eighties, I knew that Nancy Drew books weren’t perfect. I frequently found myself cringing at the outdated expressions and unchecked misogyny, along with both veiled and overt racism. The thing that first stood out to me was the unforgivable fatphobia—likely because I have white privilege, and because fat shaming was something I was suffering myself. Still, I was so immersed in a world where that attitude was normalized that I took the hits. Even though Bess was frequently a butt of jokes and the target of truly awful fat representation, I saw her as a heroine. She was fat (like I was), loved clothes (also like me), and was always afraid (like me, times three!). Although she wasn’t sick, Bess still made me believe something: if she could have adventures, I could too.
Nancy and her friends made me believe in a better world. Because, if she could show everyone how wrong they were in a time when it was illegal for women to get credit cards, anything was possible. If she could face danger on the reg, and be the hero who saves cis dudes rather than a damsel in distress, maybe things would get better for people who didn’t “fit.”
As I grew up, I kept collecting Nancy Drew Mysteries—keeping up with the paperback releases, the spin-off books, and even the newest series: The Nancy Drew Diaries. This last series is my favorite, because I rarely have those cringe moments when prejudice and stereotyping take center stage. The more Nancy Drew books that came out without the fatphobia, ableism, racism, and white savior narratives, the more I devoured them. Now, Bess Marvin eats what she likes and gets the guys. She’s also an amazing mechanical engineer, by the way! I do wish she were described in words other than “curvy,” but we can’t have it all. George Fayne is tech-obsessed and openly says no to dresses and long hair. Nancy is refreshingly imperfect—often forgetting to gas up her blue Prius, charge her phone, or keep dates because she has mysteries on the brain 24/7.
Revisiting the books as a queer adult, I was both pleased and horrified. The older books (especially the reprints) were even more problematic than I remembered. The racism was way worse. The fatphobia was even more biting as it came from George and Nancy themselves. And the ableist tropes actually made me want to hide. But Nancy, Bess, and George themselves remained barrier breakers. Because they were revolutionary for their time. I gave each book an honest review, because yes, we can love things while pointing out their problematic elements at the same time. In spite of all the warts of the original series, these characters paved the way for today’s Nancy Bess, and George. And these characters should be ever changing in order to be revolutionary in today’s world.
The thing is, a lot of people want Nancy Drew to stay arrested in a 1950’s definition of revolutionary. One recent Nancy Drew Diaries volume, The Vanishing Statue, was a favorite of mine. For one, the story has a secondary antagonist so epically annoying that he puts Mortimer Bartescue to shame (old school fans, you know.) But, more importantly, George Fayne unapologetically dresses in a tuxedo and escorts Nancy to a fancy ball. Conservative reviewers lost their minds. “I strongly object to turning George (one of Nancy Drew’s best friends) into a cross dresser,” one reader wrote. This person referred to themselves as a “TRADITIONAL” (that’s right, all caps) Nancy Drew fan. Reading this, I had to laugh. What has this person been reading all these years? George was always non-gender conforming. Although I was often mad at George for her treatment of Bess, she also made me feel seen as a queer woman.
One of the reasons that the word “queer” has always felt like home to me is that I find that both definitions apply. I was born the original definition (strange, odd) as well as the reclaimed slur. Queerness, in a way, is centered in each Nancy Drew character. All three girls don’t quite meet the standards of their time, and I think that’s why I’ve always loved them. If they hadn’t adapted over the years, I don’t think I’d be quite the avid fan and collector I am today. I am left wishing that disability was better represented in the series, but I took my own advice on that note. Still, I don’t think I would have ever had the confidence to write a queer and apple-shaped and anxious and chronically ill tween detective if it weren’t for those three misfits from the Nancy Drew mysteries. In that way, I will be forever grateful that I had a girl detective’s shoulders to stand on.
Meet the author
Katryn Bury is the author of the Drew Leclair mysteries. By day, she works with middle grade readers as a youth library technician. By night, she writes the books she needed to read as a kid. A lifelong true crime nerd, Katryn has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology. She lives in Oakland, California with her family and a vast collection of Nancy Drew mysteries.
About Drew Leclair Crushes the Case
Fan-favorite detective Drew Leclair returns to crack the case of a sneaky locker thief in this heartfelt sequel to the critically acclaimed middle grade mystery series that’s been called “the perfect story for readers ready to progress from Nancy Drew.” (SLJ, starred review).
After breaking school rules the last time she solved a mystery, Drew Leclair has a new mission: get good grades, stay under the radar, and do not get suspended.
But when Drew finds out that there’s a thief breaking into the P.E. lockers and leaving behind cryptic ransom notes, it’s hard to resist cracking a new case. Especially when one of the victims is her best friend Shrey’s crush, and he’s practically begging her to get involved.
Can Drew catch the thief red-handed while staying out of trouble? And what does it mean when everyone around Drew is obsessing over crushes and the upcoming Wonderland dance, and Drew would rather work on her latest crime board?
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/18/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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