academia | advice | alcohol | American Indians | architecture | art | artificial intelligence | Barnard | best | biography | bitcoin | blogging | broken umbrellas | candide | censorship | children's books | Columbia | comics | consciousness | cooking | crime | criticism | dance | data analysis | design | dishonesty | economics | education | energy | epistemology | error correction | essays | family | fashion | finance | food | foreign policy | futurism | games | gender | Georgia | health | history | inspiration | intellectual property | Israel | journalism | Judaism | labor | language | law | leadership | letters | literature | management | marketing | memoir | movies | music | mystery | mythology | New Mexico | New York | parenting | philosophy | photography | podcast | poetry | politics | prediction | product | productivity | programming | psychology | public transportation | publishing | puzzles | race | reading | recommendation | religion | reputation | review | RSI | Russia | sci-fi | science | sex | short stories | social justice | social media | sports | startups | statistics | teaching | technology | Texas | theater | translation | travel | trivia | tv | typography | unreliable narrators | video | video games | violence | war | weather | wordplay | writing

Monday, June 25, 2007

Nancy Drew nostalgia

I know Nancy Drew can solve any mystery, but she also has the bizarre ability to inflict nostalgia on any woman, regardless of age. Lately I've read lots of (similar-sounding) articles about how everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to, oddly enough, Mariane Pearl looks up to the Stratemeyer Syndicate heroine. I guess I'd count myself among her fans. I taught myself how to speed-read on Nancy Drew novels when I was little--I'd read a couple each night and sometimes refused to come to dinner until I finished one--so Nancy taught me more about patterned reading than she did about examining every last detail. (This habit will have come back to haunt me by the end of the post.)

I ended up sitting in front of a row of 13-year-old girls at a recent matinee screening of the new Nancy Drew movie. They were adorably self-conscious about their own nostalgia, as each advertisement and preview brought on another giggled chorus of memories. "I went to Build-a-Bear for my eleventh birthday, but I'm too old for it now," one of them said about the advertisement for the stuffed animal store. She added, "They're so cute, though!" They sang along to every lyric in the Hairspray! movie preview--itself a mishmash of all sorts of nostalgia for the 1960s, John Waters and the '80s nostalgia for the '60s, and, apparently, last spring's trip to Broadway for someone's twelfth birthday party. When the preview for the new Harry Potter movie appeared, one of them exclaimed that she wished she could go back to the time when there were still more Harry Potters to look forward to.

I caught my breath at the first shot of the movie, a picture of all the blue and yellow spines of the first series of Nancy Drew books (the first 56 in the series). I still have some of my old Nancy Drew books, although I bought most of them used. As such, Nancy has a fierce-looking anarchy tattoo on the cover of the The Secret of the Old Clock. The movie isn't very good because it can't decide what it wants to do--be a teen movie or a straight-faced Nancy Drew story. The detective story isn't compelling, and the teen movie stuff is stale and forced. I'm not sure that the lurches in tone and style can be called post-modernist (as this reviewer does), but the movie ends up thematizing itself in all that self-conscious nostalgia for old movie stars, old girls' detective novels, and fantastic vintage clothing. I desperately want the polka-dot and stripes dress she wears to her birthday party.

I laughed at Anthony Lane's review of the film in the New Yorker, which takes the form of a dialogue between Julia Roberts and her niece, Emma, who plays Nancy in the film. It's written like the old Nancy Drew stories:
“It was splendid,” replied Emma, pausing to adjust the headband on her fine reddish hair. “The story begins in River Heights, a town full of delightful white people. I am motherless and my father is a lawyer, so both of us are rather sad! For a treat we move to Los Angeles, where the girls at my new school say I remind them of Martha Stewart. They are so ‘right on,’ it really is a joy!”
“And what happens next?” asked Emma’s aunt, her excitement mounting.
“Well, the house the Drews are renting once belonged to a movie star—you know, one of the super-old ones.”
“Like Lana Turner?”
“Skip it. Who plays the part of the actress?”
“The beautiful Miss Laura Elena Harring. After some ace detective work, I discovered that she was in a film called ‘Mulholland Drive,’ which dealt with similar material. Isn’t that coincidence just a little too suspicious? And the plot leads Nancy to a resort by the name of Twin Palms. Another clue! To sum up, a friend of mine said the film was like Lynch without the lesbians or the dwarves. What are lesbians, Aunt? Are they friends of Snow White’s, too?”
“More than you will ever know, dear.”

That note about David Lynch reminded me of my own mortified nostalgia--that's one of the driving forces of Mulholland Drive, right?--at re-encountering Nancy Drew when I was eighteen years old. One day at school I saw a girl holding a book with the title The Good-for-Nothing Girlfriend. Ever humorless and vigilant about addressing problematic gender roles, I pursed my lips and asked if I could see the book. The cover illustration of a 1950s titian-haired ingenue looked like a Nancy Drew cover, but the cover said it was a Nancy Clue book. Who was perverting the feminist legacy of Nancy Drew?! I took up the case with equal parts puzzlement and self-righteousness. The girl said she had gotten it from the library, so I stalked up to the front desk and asked the librarians why they had ordered such a sexist book. Were there more of these inappropriate knock-offs in the library? They gave me the call number for The Not-So-Nice Nurse. I flounced to the stacks to get it.

I took the book from the shelf, sighed dramatically at the confines of the gender role in the title, and began to turn the pages angrily. The first few pages read like an alternate universe of the books I had grown up reading: Nancy Drew was named Nancy Clue; the housekeeper Hannah Gruen was Hannah Gruel; and River Heights was named River Depths. I stopped speed-reading for sexism and started to pause at the sexual innuendoes in the book. I turned the book over to look for clues in the mysterious volume.

It was a lesbian satire of Nancy Drew. The two books by Mabel Maney are really funny send-ups of the old books. Nancy Clue is a drunken flirt who needs Cherry Aimless (a joke from the old Nurse Cherry Ames books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate) to bail her out. River Heights changes location from state to state in each chapter (like Springfield on The Simpsons).

I told this story when I was at Barnard and laughed about all that flouncing and pursed lips about problematic gender roles; I realized I'd become a more low-key and thoughtful feminist since high school. Much to everyone's relief. So, thanks for making me a better feminist close reader, Nancy Drew (and Nancy Clue).


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Wed Jun 27, 12:24:00 PM:
Great post.

When I was five and six I obsessively read those Nancy Drew books--in fact I can close my eyes and visualize the particular shelf on which they sat in the public library we went to in Wilmington, Delaware--we moved to Philadelphia the summer I turned seven, and I think I was pretty much done with Nancy Drew after that, but I still think fondly of the whole ridiculous strawberry-colored hair thing & the other charming formulaic features--I think even a quite small child can pick up on the absurdity of how much all the books are like each other!