The Highbrow

Sleuth at Work

The strange case of Nancy Drew’s self-confidence.

This summer’s Nancy Drew is a teenage goody-goody adrift in contemporary Los Angeles. She’s just the latest version of the titian-haired sleuth, following close on the heels of the Nancy Drew Simon & Schuster reintroduced in 2004 in a series called “Nancy Drew: Girl Detective.” The publisher made the new Nancy more inward-looking and doubt-stricken than her former can-do self. Gone were the days when Nancy’s interior life seemed to consist only of curiosity about the mysterious-looking fellow with a dark mustache lingering by the bank. The acutely self-aware new Nancy related her adventures in the first person and had questions about her ability.

This was a stark contrast to the original Nancy Drew. When the sleuth was invented in 1930, she was supposed to reflect the adventurous spirit of that era’s “New Woman.” She had spunk, a lot of good hunches, and zero introspection. The series was an instant hit: In 1933, amid the Depression, Macy’s sold an astonishing 6,000 titles during the Christmas season. As the books grew more popular, Nancy was tailored to fit each successive era, and by the late 1950s, she had set aside her flapper garb to become a sweater-set-wearing 18-year-old who drove a blue roadster. It’s this Nancy whose exploits I remember devouring, following along as the irrepressible sleuth confronted a ring of dangerous smugglers who threatened to disrupt the orderly peace of River Heights, her idealized hometown. This Nancy was the epitome of self-confidence—not  that she would ever have used that word herself. She lived in a world without psychology, a world of little self-reflection.

Nancy might have gone the way of most former fads, were it not that her fearless dedication to solving crimes still makes her seem like a strikingly progressive model of female go-getter-ism. So, it’s hardly a surprise that this summer Nancy has been revived by Hollywood—armed with a BlackBerry rather than bobby socks—or that the film has drawn a mostly female audience. But the transformation didn’t take. In its first weekend, the movie made only $7 million dollars, and it received mediocre reviews. Some commentators complained that the new Nancy has little spunk. Others have suggested that the trouble is that Nancy Drew just doesn’t have much to offer ‘tween girls now surrounded by a plethora of powerful, cutting-edge role models.

But the real trouble seems to be that Nancy’s particular brand of self-confidence is no longer fashionable. Go back to the original series and what you discover is how surprising it is to encounter a capable girl who is not painfully self-aware of her own strengths and weaknesses.

The old Nancy’s world is startlingly absent of the type of therapeutic aids that surround girls today. As her fans will remember, Nancy’s mother is dead. Her lawyer father is encouraging, in a clueless, fond way—far be it from him to suggest that her obsessive sleuthing might be a way of coping with the early loss of her mother. Nancy rarely worries that her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, might feel neglected when she ditches him to help a needy victim. “Phew! That was a close call!” is about as inward-looking as she gets. She has two good friends—the plump Bess and the tomboyish George—but she hardly relies on them, and there’s no discussion of “support networks.” Nor are there any mean-girl dynamics at work, either. Bess and George are present to be awed—”There you go again!” they marvel—and to jump happily in their cars at the drop of a hat and pursue Nancy. It’s off to the Maharajah’s house, to the spooky ski lodge! When plump, girlish Bess does on occasion grumble, Nancy has just the trick: a stop for some delicious cakes at the hotel up the road. No one brings up body-image issues.

By contrast, today’s 12-year-old girls have already learned that adults view their self-confidence as all too precarious—a trait that social pressures might eradicate at any moment. Wanting to give girls the strength to preserve their “voices,” concerned parents and school counselors implicitly, and explicitly, convey a strangely fragile sense of female identity. Today, Nancy’s father would be found reading Seven Strategies for Raising a Strong, Spirited Daughter and sitting her down to talk earnestly about how speaking up in math class makes her feel. Nancy, like contemporary 18-year-olds, would have weathered the Reviving Ophelia moment—warned to beware of finding herself “squeezed” into what therapist Mary Pipher, the book’s author, called the “small, crowded spaces” of “female impersonation.” Whatever the very real virtues of the girl-empowerment ethos, one of its paradoxical side effects has been to make female self-confidence something everyone is now self-conscious about.

In a curious way, the Nancy Drew of the new series has grown less liberated even as the world around her has grown more liberated. But maybe that’s the price you have to pay for hard-won equalities: You always worry you might lose track of them, like the family heirlooms Nancy was always digging up in her adventures. With her pearl necklace and her skirt suits, Nancy does look awfully old-fashioned compared with the scores of contemporary role models available to girls. But what makes her anachronistic is also what makes her unexpectedly pertinent. The old Nancy serves up a bracing reminder that there is such a thing as blissfully unaware self-confidence. And that might be just the thing some young readers would find novel.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.