Girl Detective

Hey, you know what we haven’t had around here in a while?  One of my semi annual long rambly feminist rants. About time, I think.

A little while back, Emily posted this in response to my musings on enjoying the things we don’t have to do.

I think something else that’s going on, at least in Anne and the other L.M. Montgomery books, is that they really valorize a particular kind of intellectually dreamy yet physically adventurous, almost tomboy-ish girl, and that type of girl (as portrayed) is unlikely to enjoy a quiet, non-narrative activity like sewing. I find that in many novels about girls there is this idea that the main character is interesting because she’s different from other girls – and sewing/knitting is often the shorthand indicator for boring feminine normalcy. So often the “dull” girls are content sitting still and sewing, whereas you can tell the “interesting” girls because they like to read and to be outside, roaming over the prairie/dale/moor (Callie Woodlawn, Scout Finch, and Jane Eyre also leap to mind). Which is interesting and problematic, in terms of discounting the traditionally feminine & claiming that girls are only interesting if they’re more like traditional boys.

Good points, all, and they stayed in my brain and affected my interpretation of my recent reading choices.

Some years back I wrote the very, very messy first draft of a novel, and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to edit it ever since.  Recently, it occurred to me that what my novel most needed was a good dose of noir and mystery.  There is a mystery central to the plot, but the writing about it was so unfocused that it never became cohesive.  Reading the works of masters of detective fiction has become a major project for me of late.

So after reviewing Hammett for a while and moving on to Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, it hit me that I had never read a Nancy Drew book.  Nancy Drew was the commercial creation of Edward Stratemeyer, the successful publisher of the popular Hardy Boys mystery books.  Stratemeyer was a decided anti-feminist, but he was an even more decided capitalist, and when he realized that girls were purchasing the Hardy Boys books, he saw an opportunity to make money in the person of a girl detective.  Thus was Nancy Drew born.

Since Nancy Drew was entirely a commercial enterprise, her incarnations have changed somewhat over the years to suit the vagaries of different times and attitudes.  The byline Carolyn Keene is as much a fiction as Nancy herself; all books were ghostwritten.  In 1959, the earliest Nancy Drew books were reworked to suit changing cultural attitudes toward race.  It has been written that much of Nancy’s personality was stripped out at this time as well, but since my library only had the rewritten novels, I can’t personally confirm or deny this.  I can tell you that the solution to the racial insensitivies seems to have been to strip all references to non white characters from the books entirely.

Nancy presents an interesting counter and confirmation to the issue brought up by Emily.  Nancy has all the feminine accomplishments suitable to a young lady of her times, and what’s more, she enjoys them.  In one of the books I read, Nancy arranged a bouquet of flowers that she had grown herself and then, much to her surprise of course, won first prize at a local garden show with her arrangement.  She sews, she has fabulous fashion sense, she probably knits, though she didn’t in either of the books I read. Nancy is independent, confident, capable, and wholesome.

And she’s an absolute bore.  The character is more static than any I’ve read in a long, long time.  Already practically perfect, there’s no real need for Nancy to grow.  She exhibits none of the endearingly human foibles that the rest of us experience.  Anne Shirley, though also practically perfect in her own way, shows temper and makes mistakes repeatedly.  Nancy has no time for mistakes.  She must solve the mystery, at her own expense, without reward, and on her own initiative, because she is just that amazingly perfect and wonderful all the freaking time.

It was easy to see what about Nancy appealed to young women, though.  Nancy manages to straddle the uncomfortable line between left and right in the United States, and she does so with aplomb.  Nancy is independent, confident, trusted by the men in her life, and while she shows consideration for others, she is also very much whole in herself, so much so that her faithful boyfriend, Ned, seems rather limp and dependent in comparison.  At the same time, she has the traditionally feminine qualities already mentioned, and the respect she shows others, as well as the individual charity, tends to appeal to the politically conservative.  Nancy’s role is traditional and feminist at the same time, making her a fairly unique figure in children’s literature.

I’d rather read Hammett, but there’s something to be said about this wooden archetype who inspired Supreme Court justices and First Ladies. In an odd way, Nancy is closer to my particular brand of feminism than the heroines I’ve enjoyed and admired more.  I’m an ardent feminist who lives a fairly conservative life.  I’ve been a stay at home mother to three kids for a good long time now.  While I currently attend school and work, most of my adult life has been wrapped up in traditionally feminine pursuits.  It has been occasionally asked of me how I, a stay at home mom who loves to cook and knit, who has spent many occasions literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, can call myself a feminist.

I suppose we all must decide for ourselves.  If someone wishes to think me a bad feminist for living my life this way, that is his or her prerogative.  To me, though, feminism is not about disparaging the traditionally feminine.  It is about upholding the rights of women to make choices for themselves.  It is not just about those choices.  We can make choices that are decidedly unfeminist and antifeminist, but the right to make those choices for ourselves is a feminist cause.  I believe in the rights of women to determine their own courses, to have as level a playing field as is possible in a world where we all differ in talent, ability, and inheritance.  I don’t believe in allowing other women to decide for me based on what they believe is best for women, whether that view is one of women in traditionally feminine roles or women in traditionally masculine roles.  Ideally, we carve out our own place based on our own needs, and yes, our own desires.

Nancy Drew, girl detective, practically perfect in every way, is not a perfect symbol of feminism, but in some ways, she comes close, and for that, she has my interest.

4 Responses to “Girl Detective”

  1. CanarySanctuary Says:

    I think people get confused/mussed/irritated and arguments start because there is this idea that feminism is a monolithic “ism” with only one viewpoint. Unfortunately, the boogey-feminist is a stereotype and persistent prejudice in our society, so much so that when I had a hefty “feminist theory” book in my arms one day, a friend exclaimed to me “oh no – that makes me shudder!” I, of course, thought she was referring to the size of the book itself, and the hours one would need to spend in digesting all the challenging theory. No. Instead, she was “shuddering” at the mere word FEMINISM.
    I’m glad you posted this. It’s encouraging to know that feminism is not dead. Thank you.

  2. Emily Says:

    Ooh, good post! I’m mildly obsessed with the history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and with the lasting appeal of their comically wooden serial creations. For some reason it’s really intriguing to me that books would be produced in such a rigidly and blatantly formulaic way (e.g., ghostwriters were under contract to mention Nancy’s physical attributes in the first three pages, bring up her previous book in the second chapter, bring up her upcoming book in the last chapter, only knock her out once per book, etc.) It’s so 1984! I’m repelled, yet simultaneously fascinated. While reading about the Syndicate, I developed a real admiration for Mildred Wirt Benson, the first and primary ghost-writer on the Nancy Drew books. She strikes me as an even more satisfying feminist role model than Nancy: career journalist, caretaker for a time to an ill husband, stood up for herself in court against Harriet Stratemeyer & the wrath of the publishing industry, and (if I’m remembering correctly) took up flying planes at an advanced age.

    Also, have you read Mabel Maney’s queer parodies of the Nancy Drew & Cherry Ames books? Hee-larious. She really skewers the “unconsciously perfect and privileged” aspect of Nancy’s character. Might be a pleasant lightweight break from your novel researches – on which good luck, by the way!

  3. theLady Says:

    Yeah, hear hear! The feminazis have got it all wrong – the equality of women with men, lies for me, in women being able to have the choice to do what they wish, and if they choose to work in the workplace, the ability to be as respected and as well paid in their fields as their male counterparts. You can be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen and be a feminist, or an anti-feminist. It just depends if the door of the mind is open or closed. I wish that people would stop trying to repress and stifle each other.

  4. Jessica Says:

    Nancy does knit. She carries her knitting on the plane to Arizona in The Secret of Shadow Ranch. That’s in the rewritten version, not the original one. (I’m semi-ashamed I know this.) Actually, there are few leisure activities that Nancy does not partake in and excel at. She grows prize-winning flowers, skis, dives, rides horses, plays golf, repairs cars, ballet-dances, boats, swims well enough to save lives, shoots, performs in the circus…

    Of course, this is why she is such an irritating/engaging character. She is utterly wooden, utterly unrealistic, and yet chameleonic. She was never a developed character, but in ways she was a strong model for girls. She was smarter than the men around her. She did things girls were not supposed to do without ever seeming masculinized. She was brave. She was hard to daunt.

    The early books were interesting and I’d suggest reading them if you can ever obtain copies. Nancy broke more laws in the early books. She doesn’t hesitate to break and enter and she carries a handgun at times. There is a fair amount of racist and classist language. Even in the later books, Nancy’s primary concern is to preserve the distinctions of the upper class and upper-middle class. Poor and worthy characters usually turn out to have been displaced from one of the upper classes, and vulgar characters usually turn out to be criminals who are trying to pass as upper class individuals.

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