How ‘Nancy Drew’ Taught Me to Embrace My Differences

Movies

Do you recall the first time an adult told you something—a book, a toy, a movie, or TV series—was intended for the opposite sex and therefore, you had no right associating yourself with it? It’s an experience shared amongst people both straight and queer, but certainly more with the latter group. Thankfully, I was raised in an environment that was fairly tolerant: I got the Barbie I asked for at Christmas, and my parents had no problem putting me in afterschool theatre when it became clear sports were not my thing. But I find it’s the more subtle gendered gatekeeping of “boy things” versus “girl things” that grown queer people tend to remember. For me, it was how Nancy Drew was for girls, and the Hardy Boys were for boys.

Nancy Drew, who first appeared on the page in 1930, remains internationally popular with every new generation. Her book series has been translated into over 45 languages and has sold over 80 million copies worldwide. She’s made the leap from page to screen multiple times, and her popularity and influence have spawned countless spin-offs and inspired numerous other fictions featuring female detectives. But most interestingly, Nancy Drew serves as an intriguing look into how traditional gender roles surrounding masculinity, unlike the character’s timeless influence, have remained particularly stagnant. As Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of the series, once observed, “Almost as many girls write to me as boys and all say they like to read boys’ books, but it’s pretty hard to get a boy to read a girl’s book, I think.”

In June 2007, I was in my last week of third grade. As a treat, my mom took me to the theatre on a weeknight to see a movie: the new film adaptation of Nancy Drew, starring Emma Roberts. Being regular moviegoers, we had seen the preview a few months before, and I had immediately expressed my eager excitement. For months after that first screening, I was obsessed with Nancy Drew. I took one of my mom’s old purses and made my very own “sleuth kit,” complete with magnifying glasses and band-aids, and would act out mysteries in the backyard by myself when I thought nobody was watching. (Once again, in the words of Meg Stalter, “Hi, Gay!”) I wanted so badly to start reading the Nancy Drew mystery books, since I loved reading, but I had already internalized the gendered notion that Nancy Drew was strictly for girls. If I wanted to read mysteries, I should read the Hardy Boys.

Nobody ever specifically said these words to me—I had just inferred from others all the ways I should try to fit in. Nancy Drew was for girls—why on earth would I, a boy, want anything to do with her? As Liz Plank notes in For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, “If there was nothing wrong with femininity, no one would be worried about men exploring it. In other words, the reason why we as a culture are scared of men acting like women is because we diminish the feminine.” Perhaps it finally explained why the lyrics of “Reflection” from Mulan always resonated so strongly with me in childhood.

But what continues to make the 2007 adaptation of Nancy Drew so special to me was exactly what film critics at the time took issue with. In the original Nancy mysteries, the character was always the hero of her small town where her old-fashioned quips and antics were never out of style. But in order to bring that vision into the 21st century, Warner Bros. had Nancy and her father, Carson (Tate Donovan), move to present-day urban Los Angeles where, some critics believed, Nancy was dropped to be mocked and bullied for the parts of herself that always made her the hero in the classic mysteries. And something about that reads to me as an essential part of not only growing up queer in a straight world but the ways in which our differences eventually become our strengths.

When Nancy and Carson move to Los Angeles, she promises her father that she will stop sleuthing. “This is a very dangerous city; the world is not like River Heights,” he tells her, especially considering it doesn’t take much to paint their hometown as an episode of Lassie. But naturally, Nancy just can’t help herself: the house she rents for them in L.A. once belonged to Dehlia Draycott (Laura Harring), a Marilyn Monroe-esque film star who was found dead in the pool in 1981 with her killer never brought to justice.

The evidence and clues are so overwhelmingly right in front of her face, but still, Nancy vows to remain true to her promise. She has to stop sleuthing and “be normal.” But when her attempts at making friends at Nickelodeon Teen Star High School lead to a cruel public prank, Nancy realizes the sleuthing world—full of people who lived and died decades before her—is the only place she fits in. “I like old-fashioned things,” she informs Inga (Daniella Monet) and Trish (Kelly Vitz) when they question her choice of penny loafers. “Oh, we’ve noticed,” replies Inga.

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