Nancy Drew, streaming on Voot Select, takes the business of a ‘gritty’ reimagining a little too seriously
The Gen Z Nancy Drew has palpable baggage and series star Kennedy McMann does a good job of playing the hot mess that the show’s writers clearly want her to be.
On December 4 last year, Hulu released the first season of The Hardy Boys, based on the eponymous mystery novel series (intended for children and teens) by Franklin W Dixon. A couple of weeks ago, The CW’s Nancy Drew (streaming in India on Voot Select, based on Carolyn Keene’s YA (young adult) detective fiction series, began its second season.
In many ways, these updates are doing what series updates do circa the Disney-led year of our Lord 2021— craft the young protagonists’ ‘tough’, ‘gritty’ coming-of-age journey around the death of a parent. Frank and Joe Hardy (16 and 12-years old, respectively) investigate a larger, town-wide conspiracy around their mother Laura’s mysterious death. 18-year-old Nancy Drew follows more of a monster-of-the-week vibe a la Buffy. But even her story eventually drifts towards her biological mother, whose ghost is said to haunt the town of Horseshoe Bay, Maine, where Nancy and her friends (‘the Drew Crew’) solve mysteries.
Almost a century has passed since these characters were created — the Hardy Boys began in 1927, Nancy Drew in 1930 — and as these latest onscreen adaptations show us, their market appeal remains formidable. Both these series were created by the American publisher, author and businessman Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930), the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. A prolific author in the late 19th and early 20th century American tradition of ‘dime novels’ (cheaply produced paperback editions of adventure and mystery narratives, generally), Stratemeyer realised that he could churn out a reliable supply of unique titles every year if he hired a team to work on several plot outlines simultaneously.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate began operations in 1905 in Newark, New Jersey with a team comprised mostly of journalists, who Stratemeyer paid a flat fee for each completed manuscript while retaining the copyright. During his dime novel days, Stratemeyer’s books would be sent for second and third print runs by publishers eager to cash in, but he saw no part of those revenue cycles; he was being paid a flat fee. Clearly, this harsh lesson sunk in. ‘Franklin W. Dixon’ and ‘Carolyn Keene’, then, were both pseudonyms used by the Syndicate to preserve the myth of a singular creator.
And although it was the success of The Hardy Boys that made Stratemeyer introduce Nancy Drew as a way of replicating that performance among young women, teenaged Nancy (16 in earlier iterations, changed to 18 later) would become the Syndicate’s more influential contribution to popular culture. Indeed, several prominent American women acknowledged the character’s role in their life; Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor and the late Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg among them. Indeed, Ginsburg was invited to make a guest appearance on The CW’s Nancy Drew in 2019 (it didn’t happen, eventually). Latter-day authors who created female sleuths of their own, like Sara Paretsky, have written about how Nancy Drew was a formative influence for their own work (Paretsky’s detective VI Warshawski has been closing cases of her own for decades now).
Following Stratemeyer’s death in 1930, his daughters Harriet and Edna controlled the Syndicate, with the former generally credited for continuing the Nancy Drew series. In 1984, Simon and Schuster bought the Stratemeyer Syndicate and since then they have reinvented the character in various avatars, the current iteration being Nancy Drew Diaries, published under S&S’s Aladdin imprint.
The ‘rough and tumble’, the WASP privilege
Like the trajectories followed by American comic book superheroes, the changes made to Nancy Drew down the years has been reflective of several different political developments. 23 out of the first 30 Nancy Drew novels were written by Mildred Benson (1905-2002), the first person to get a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Iowa.
Since the 1980s and 90s, long after she stopped writing these stories, Benson’s contributions to the Nancy Drew canon have been more widely recognised. She had her disagreements with both generations of Sratemeyers — Edward didn’t like the fact that Nancy wasn’t submissive and stereotypically feminine like the fictional heroines of the 1920s and 30s, while the Wellesley-educated Harriet introduced a lot of her own sense of refinement to Nancy, against Benson’s wishes. As Benson later said, “I was probably a rough and tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living, and I was out in the world. That was my type of Nancy.”
In the beginning, Nancy Drew was an exemplar of second-wave feminist ideals, an independent young woman who shines in a ‘man’s world’ ie police work. Moreover, Nancy has little to no parental interference in her life: her mother is no more and her father positively adores her. Her signature blue roadster (a convertible from the 70s onwards) symbolised the agency and the mobility that made her a hero for adolescents. From the 1950s onwards, after nearly 300,000 American young men lost their lives in World War II, mystery, adventure and feats of bravery in fiction once again became the sole preserve of boys. Mildred Benson’s early Nancy Drew novels were rewritten to conform to feminine ideals favoured by Republicans (in the 1950s, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won two presidential elections, both landslides) and the religious Right in America.
In her essay “From Paragraphs to Pages: The Writing and Development of the Stratemeyer Syndicate Series” (collected in the 1995 volume Rediscovering Nancy Drew, edited by Carolyn Dyer and Nancy Romalov), Deidre Johnson, who also wrote a biography of Stratemeyer, summarises these rewrites in a revelatory section. Less physical combat, reduced hijinks — and certainly no masturbation for a nice young lady like Nancy.
“Where Nancy drove policemen in her car, they now drive her. At camp, in the new versions, the girls are supervised by a chaperon. What Nancy once did for herself is done by her boyfriend Ned in the revised version, or else she is carried off by him to rest after combat.”
While acknowledging Nancy Drew’s privilege as a rich white girl as well as author Sara Paretsky’s critique of the racial attitudes reinforced by novels like The Secret of the Old Clock, Johnson defends Drew against some of the criticism from critics in the 80s and 90s — most of them, Johnson argued, were reading the regressive latter-day rewrites and not Mildred Benson’s 1930s second-wave feminist texts. Johnson also reminds us of the narrative value of Nancy being motherless, since the heroines of Charlotte Brontë et al benefitted greatly from not having a mother tell them how to behave, when to curtsy and which male excesses to tolerate in perpetuity.
“The roadster, the lack of a female trainer in patriarchy, and the sheer gutsiness are what make the original Nancy Drew a moment in feminist history. Her class and the fact of her ready money and upper-middle-class WASP assumptions are what make her an embarrassment today. The question is, should we therefore dismiss her as predominantly an embarrassment, a moment in the history of feminism of which we are now ashamed?” Johnson thinks the answer is ‘no’, not least because Drew, like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Wimsey, relied upon intuition and what Stephen Jay Gould called “integrative thinking” to solve crimes — a sort of pushback against the male-centric, deductive reasoning cult built by Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes fans.
Rewriting Nancy for Gen Z
“I don’t go searching in the dark anymore. Not after the darkness found me.” This line from the opening episode of The CW’s Nancy Drew sets the tone for the kind of ‘reimagining’ process the show aims for. Nancy says this at her mother’s funeral, hinting that she’ll stop being a detective (not for long, of course). The first time we see Nancy onscreen after her mother’s funeral, she’s having casual sex with Ned Nickerson (Nancy’s boyfriend in the original Mildred Benson run). Gone, too, is the charmed equation the canonical Nancy has with her dad — this Nancy is barely on talking terms with hers. This is a Nancy with palpable baggage and series star Kennedy McMann does a good job of playing the hot mess that the show’s writers clearly want her to be.
Racial diversity is one of the things the makers of Nancy Drew take seriously, especially since critiques along racial lines (like Sara Paretsky’s foreword to a reprint of The Secret of the Old Clock) have gained traction in recent years. Ned Nickerson is an African-American and a former felon. Georgina or “George”, the ‘mannish’ sidekick character from the original series, is re-imagined as an Asian-American woman named George Fan, who also happens to be Nancy’s boss (Nancy works as a waitress at the diner George manages).
There’s another reason why the “I don’t look for darkness, not since darkness found me” line is used to set the ball rolling for Nancy Drew. Broadly speaking, America’s young people are mad as hell and they won’t take it anymore. The last three decades have seen young people’s share of the total wealth in the country reduce from 30 percent to 19 percent. Federal minimum wage levels have been stagnant for over a decade. As the GameStop saga showed the world, America’s billionaires are the country’s pre-eminent super villains right now, bar none.
And therefore the ‘darkness’ in the story cannot come from within young Nancy or her Drew Crew; it has to be forced upon them by the cruel, monopolistic world ruled by their parents. Whatever the race or class-related missteps of the canonical Nancy in the past, a contemporary teen sleuth was always going to battle homegrown oligarchs, the unrealistically rich folks who believe they’re above the rules. Sure enough, the wealthy Hudson family is revealed as the show’s Big Bad by the end of season 1, and season 2 has now set about expanding on this theme.
Both Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, it could be argued in fact, take the business of a ‘gritty’ reimagining a little too seriously — the former has a straight-up ghost storyline that’s as sombre as it gets while the latter places its 12 and 16-year-old protagonists in psychologically scarring situations regularly. But for the most part, they’re good, clean, all-American fun with a side of well-intentioned instruction, the kind envisioned by Stratemeyer and company.
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