Posted in children's books

International Day of the Girl: Reflections on Nancy Drew

Join me in celebrating the International Day of the Girl!  I share with you my essay on the iconic Nancy Drew, a symbol of American girlhood.  It’s a little nerdy, a little cool, and a tribute to girls, books, and childhood.



“She had character, and she had courage. Her blue roadster – my having a sports car became a life dream. And when I got in it, I just imagined myself being Nancy Drew.”

 — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

In 1920, American women got the vote. Less than ten years later, Nancy Drew arrived on the juvenile fiction scene. She is often portrayed as “emblematic of American girlhood” (Driscoll 5). Accomplished and famous women from Barbara Walters to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer have noted that she was an important role model to them in childhood.[1] The image of a teenage Nancy Drew zipping around in her blue roadster has persisted for almost a century. The series has always had the power to inspire. As Amy Boesky tells us, initial “sales of the Nancy Drew books eclipsed even the contemporary bestselling boys’ series” (Boesky 189). Since then, numerous generations of young people, especially girls, have devoured the series, admiring Nancy Drew’s remarkable skills and living vicariously through her often dangerous adventures. Now the iconic teen sleuth has entered the realm of computer games, particularly those known as Role Playing Games (RPGs), where the player takes on the role of Nancy Drew. Has this shift altered the character of Nancy Drew in any way? What happens narratologically when a player operates a fictional character?

Like books, computer games can be seen as elements of cultural production, and therefore upon examination, it is possible to glean something about the existing culture that produced them. Nancy Drew has emerged as part of girl’s culture, in particular. Cultural theorist Catherine Driscoll has pointed out the “…girl’s role as a marker of cultural identity” that also “installs her as representative of the coherence of an historical period” (Driscoll 15-16). If, as Driscoll also contends, the “category of feminine adolescence {is} specific to late modernity” then Nancy Drew, as one ideal of female adolescence, becomes an ideal subject of inquiry (18). Since the postmodern era has as one of its concerns, the transition from the printed word to the digital, an examination of what happens to a female character in a printed piece of fiction, when it is transferred to the digital medium, becomes a journey of discovery into the cultural underpinnings of such a transition.

Some critics, such as Markku Eskelinen, argue that games and literature are not the same, partially because in many RPGs the reader/viewer/player operates the character of narrator (Papazian 454). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to speculate on whether video games are a narrative form, I agree with Gretchen Papazian, who argues that “some video games – in particular, some RPGs – deploy narrative techniques” (452). As she points out, whether or not you accept narrative terminology as a valid lens for computer games, “it is clear that the player’s role in the…game is key” as they operate the fictional narrator, in this case Nancy Drew (455). I will be looking at the implications for the fictional Nancy Drew, once the player takes on her role, specifically in the HerInteractive Nancy Drew game, Labyrinth of Lies, which came out in September 2014. The game is rated for Everyone Ages 10+.

The original Nancy Drew, created by Edward Stratemeyer, was initially going to be called “Stella Strong” (Boesky 188). Her character has much to be admired. Throughout the series, Nancy’s “heroic qualities….such as independence, self-confidence, intelligence, and physical courage” shine through (Lundin 123-4). Her role as amateur detective also gives her a unique standing. Boesky writes about Nancy Drew as the defender of the established norm; always striving to restore balance, she is a dream adolescent, acting as a “secret agent of the adult world” who patrols “the dangerous line separating the worlds of respectability and evil…with full access to adult privilege” (Boesky 190). From the beginning there existed in Nancy a sense of agency and freedom within the wider world, which was unusual for young women in the earlier part of the 20th century. All these qualities have appealed to girls for over 80 years.

Of course some updating has been necessary. Simon & Schuster bought the syndicate in the late 1970’s and took over the publishing and re-branding of the series in the 1980’s, creating several different Nancy Drew lines designed for various age groups (Marshall 213). In 2004 they came out with the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series, for a target group of tween girls between the ages of eight and twelve. Nancy’s general look on these new covers were brought up to date, while outdated dialogue was replaced within the text to reflect more modern ways of speaking. There was also a significant editorial decision at this point to change the narrator’s voice to Nancy’s own, speaking to the reader in the first person (Marshall 213). This is a far cry from the perspective in The Bungalow Mystery from 1930, where a third-person narrator frequently refers to the teen as Nancy Drew: “Tired as she was, Nancy Drew knew that she could not rest until shore was reached” (The Bungalow Mystery 16). Giving the young detective a voice of her own creates an intimacy with the reader, along with a sense of engagement with the text.

In 2005, with the same age group in mind, the publisher licensed the series to come out as Papercutz graphic novels. These are often linked to Nancy Drew computer games, put out by the company HerInteractive. Since the Nancy Drew concept is already part of a series, it translates well to the gaming world, where Nancy’s mysteries can be played out one at a time, as readers become players.

Readers often use book covers to determine what a character looks like. The earlier Nancy Drew books show a neat and tidy young woman, always in a dress and heels, with a classic hairstyle, often holding on to some clue from the story. Later books show a more modern teenager, wearing jeans and hanging out with friends. The covers of the HerInteractive Nancy Drew computer games depict where the action takes place, with another character or object in the center. All that is left of Nancy Drew is her silhouette – a shadow. The silhouette could be anyone. It could be you. The player does not see Nancy, she sees as Nancy. Opening up a game, a voice whispers, “Dare to Play” and then “It’s up to you, as Nancy Drew.” It’s a clear invitation to step right in and engage with the character. As Nancy tells players on the pamphlet accompanying the DVD of the game, “Without you there would be no reason to create more mysteries, and I would be just a girl without adventure, mystery, intrigue…and a clue.” The same could be said of characters within written texts and their readers, but in this case, since the reader/player actually becomes the character, at least for part of the time, the implications are more complex. Without the player, the silhouette would remain as unrealized potential.

The player usually has two or three choices at any given turn, and these choices set the game in motion. In Labyrinth of Lies Nancy travels to Greece to help curate a new exhibition at a museum of antiquities. Artifacts from the exhibit are disappearing, and Nancy has to figure out what is behind the thefts. As Nancy, there are tasks for the player to accomplish, such as “check in with the museum front office,” “arrange tickets for opening night,” and “explore backstage.” The player uses arrows to navigate, as she explores the virtual world in search of clues. As she goes, she meets up with characters and has a chance to talk to them.   The text is pre-set; the player has a choice of three conversation starters, and this determines the dialogue that then runs, and the information that the player gets. While the text is printed in a box on the screen, the player can watch the person she is talking to, like a movie, and hear the conversation being spoken, at the same time. The player can also choose to call up the Hardy Boys or the director of the museum on the telephone, for help. Just as in the chats with characters from the game, the telephone call is set up with three prompts for opening up the conversation.   Each time the player makes a choice, the fictional character of Nancy Drew takes over and the player transforms back into a reader/watcher for the time being.

There are several other instances where written text is integrated into the game, giving the player access to the fictional character. Clicking on the Diary option at any given time, for example, opens Nancy’s personal journal, which is pre-written text, and explains what is going on in her thoughts, including any observations made or questions to be pondered. This serves to fill out the background of the story, and helps the player focus on essential elements needed to solve the mystery. Of course the player has to pretend that she has written the diary herself.

In another such space, museum director Melina Rosi has left a written note for the player-as-Nancy to find, greeting her and leaving some instructions. It also provides more background information about the exhibit and the upcoming performance, as well as giving a list of tasks to complete. Nancy then hands over some of her agency, in a sense, to the player, who must complete the tasks. In this way she becomes a mentor to the player navigating the virtual world of the game, or at the very least, a partner. This is a major change for the teen detective. As Amy Boesky describes the traditional character of Nancy Drew, “…her’s is the point of view where all answers consolidate; often she works alone, culling information that only she can access” (Boesky 190). In her gaming world, she must share information with the child player who inhabits her character, who then will make further choices and discoveries along the way to solving the mystery.

While Nancy ultimately has the information needed to move the game forward, regardless of the choices made by the player, being given the freedom to move about the virtual world; being able to make calls, take photos, choose whom and when to talk, and putting clues together in order to solve the mystery, gives the child player a tangible sense of accomplishment. In order to become Nancy Drew, the player has to exhibit the characteristics that the teen detective has shown throughout the series. These qualities have not disappeared; they are now shared.

While her character has remained stable, it has also been made accessible, like a country that has opened its borders. Whereas the iconic heroism of the teen sleuth inspired girls for generations, now it has become a collaborative project in character-building. Digital games, especially Rated for Everyone Role Playing Games, offer a cultural paradigm of choice. Papazian refers to the “digital child” who is “granted intelligence, logic, and possibility” (451). The Nancy Drew games are part of this aspect of American girlhood, representing perhaps a trend in the current culture, one that leans towards the figure of a girl full of agency and choice. Within that landscape the digitized character of Nancy Drew has not vanished into the shadows. Her silhouette remains, operational and full of potential, highlighted against the background of the 21st Century.   It serves as a marker of current shifts in the construction of childhood, and reflects her continued relevance to the postmodern child.



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