Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gender Inequality in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Books

While reading the Hardy Boys Digest series, I realized that the modern Nancy Drew is constrained by her gender.  The Hardy Boys are allowed much more interesting adventures, since they are boys.  The Hardy Boys get to be truck drivers, volunteer firefighters, and tightrope walkers.  In one book, they even get to use machine guns and drive a tank.

Nancy Drew gets to investigate museum sabotage, fundraiser sabotage, zucchini smashing, any other lame sabotage that Simon and Schuster can create, and the occasional disappearance.  The Hardy Boys get lots of sabotage as well, but they also get all the more interesting types of sabotage stories.

This means that the modern Hardy Boys books have more varied adventures than the modern Nancy Drew books.  This is baffling, considering the trend in society towards gender equality.  For some inexplicable reason, Simon and Schuster is taking Nancy Drew in the opposite direction, choosing to keep Nancy Drew in a strict gender-defined role that limits her ability to sleuth while allowing the Hardy Boys to have exciting adventures.

In the early 1930s, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys received equal treatment.  In the early books, both series have the same kind of adventures.  The young people explore spooky places, are abducted, help those less fortunate than themselves, and bring criminals to justice.  The adventures are of the type that could be experienced by either gender.  The only difference is that the Hardy Boys' adventures are more physical, with them playing a few pranks and getting into some fights.  Otherwise, the early Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series are the same.

It's been said that Mildred Wirt Benson, author of the early Nancy Drew books, believed that the girls' series books published before the time of Nancy Drew were "namby-pamby." She wanted Nancy Drew to be better than that.  This resulted in Nancy Drew's adventures being almost just like the boys' series adventures of the time, which had previously not been the case with many girls' series books.  Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys had gender equality, or pretty close to it, during the 1930s.

Once the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were sold to Simon and Schuster during the 1980s, the premise of Nancy Drew began to shift, gradually becoming more tame. In the Nancy Drew Digest series, Nancy is no longer allowed to have as interesting of adventures as the Hardy Boys.  That trend has continued all the way into 2016, and it has worsened.

The trend with Nancy Drew has been the exact reverse of society.  The modern Nancy Drew is no Katniss Everdeen or Tris Prior.  In 2016, Nancy Drew is instead "namby-pamby," which is exactly what Mildred Wirt Benson said of the girls' books from before the creation of Nancy Drew.

In the Nancy Drew Diaries books, Nancy and her friends speak of Nancy's interest in solving cases like it's a joke.  Nancy is forgetful and doesn't understand the Internet. Her friends think she needs a chaperone to keep her out of trouble.  Most importantly, Nancy spends her time waiting for things to happen and remarking about how she needs to get serious about solving the case.  The old Nancy Drew was never like that.

Why has Simon and Schuster done this to Nancy Drew?

Many Nancy Drew fans were quite upset about the premise of Nancy Drew Girl Detective.  Simon and Schuster must have received a large number of complaints. Collectors of the baby boomer generation have extremely strong opinions about what Nancy Drew should be.  Those people strongly denounced the Girl Detective series. They couldn't believe how Nancy Drew had been made forgetful and how her first case involved smashed zucchini.  They insisted that Nancy Drew needed to be exactly like the original Nancy Drew of 1930.

I wonder if Simon and Schuster misunderstood.  Is it possible that the folks at Simon and Schuster have never read an original text Nancy Drew book and have no idea what the stories are like?  Could they possibly think that Nancy Drew of the 1930s has lame adventures like the lame early series books that Mildred Wirt Benson hated?  Did they think that Nancy Drew was held back by her gender in the 1930s?

Simon and Schuster might have tried to make Nancy Drew more like old times, not realizing what a strong character she has always been.  They have turned Nancy Drew into an insipid character with boring, unimaginative stories that have an undercurrent of silliness that was never present in the original series or in the Nancy Drew Digest series.

As I previously wrote, the Hardy Boys Adventures contain imaginative stories, and strangely, the Hardy Boys Adventures have little physical action, which means that a few name changes could have easily turned any of the stories into excellent Nancy Drew books.  Oddly, Simon and Schuster is giving all the creative plots to the Hardy Boys, and I can't figure out why, unless they want to destroy Nancy Drew.  Surely they don't, because that wouldn't make sense.

For whatever reason, Simon and Schuster is treating the two series in a sexist fashion and is slighting Nancy Drew as a result.  One striking example came to me as I began reading the latest Hardy Boys Adventures book that features hazing.  The Hardy Boys had already investigated at least two previous hazing cases in the Digest and Undercover Brothers series, and I wondered why Nancy Drew has never investigated hazing.  I thought sarcastically, girls never haze each other.  Or at least, the people at Simon and Schuster must not think girls ever haze each other or must think it would be wrong to depict girls hazing each other.

I then had a hunch as I continued reading the Hardy Boys book, since the text was scattered with clues.  I was gleeful about the irony of my previous thoughts about girls and hazing when one of the hazing culprits turns out to be a girl.  Oh!  So then why does Nancy Drew not investigate hazing when girls are capable of hazing in the Hardy Boys series?

None of this makes sense to me.  Why is Simon and Schuster doing this to Nancy Drew?

While I have many complaints about the Nancy Drew Diaries series, only two truly matter.  First, the stories are bland, and almost all of them feature boring sabotage plots.  Second, Nancy Drew herself is bland, and she struggles to find a way to motivate herself into solving each mystery.  Correct these two problems, and the series will improve greatly.

Nancy Drew has lost her way.  Can she be saved?  I am losing hope.


Unknown said...

You'd think it would be been the exact opposite with all girls/women being the heroes saving themselves and not waiting for guys (even saving THEM on occasion!) - both in TV and in books! This is a shame! Think it started with Harriett Adams and went downhill from there! Girls who read these 'new' adventures will definitely get disgusted at what this weak, absent minded Nancy and that will be the end! Too bad!!! Listen up publishers!!!!

CvilleTed said...

Once again, great observations. Nancy is no longer a strong role model. This would not be tolerated if Marvel or DC comics decided Batman or Superman is too perfect, and dumbed them down. I wish you could communicate your findings to the current editors at Simon and Schuster (their contact information is found at the Library of Congress site, search under author then the MARC information will give email and phone). I don't think they realize the cultural significance and the history of these "properties". There is a way to bring them up-to-date while maintaining the core characteristics and principles of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I too am enjoying the new Hardy Boys series. I've also given up on Nancy Drew and am hoping the replacement series is better (ND Diaries can't have a very long shelf life).

Claudia MB said...

Fascinating observations!

Kevin said...

There are a lot of things wrong about the current Nancy Drew Diaries and Hardy Boys Adventures series including, as you mentioned, the extraordinary number of stories that involve sabotage of some sort. A friend and I talk about each new book as it comes out and we've had a chance to read it. We both enjoyed the latest Hardy adventure, "Attack of the Bayport Beast," but have to wonder why the story was so short -- a novella totaling 106 pages -- when there were so many things in the book that could have been elaborated upon for a more interesting reading experience. I have to wonder also if Simon & Schuster believes they're fooling anyone with the difference in font size in the Hardy and Drew books. "Riverboat Roulette" is listed as being 176 pages (but that includes any front and back matter); however, based on the font size, which is probably 50% larger than the font used in the Hardy Boys Adventures, there is approximately 120 pages of story.

Know what else I wonder? Why people consider the first 56 Drews and 58 Hardys as the official canon, and the "classic" series, when the Stratemeyer Syndicate was responsible for volumes published under the Wanderer imprint of Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster? (An answer I've heard places the "blame" on the new ghostwriters hired to write the additional output, but regardless of her own press, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams did NOT write every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys adventure.) I wonder about the tonal shift in the Nancy Drew books after the original text of "Crumbling Wall." Was it just post-war optimism, or did Grosset & Dunlap ask for a gentler Nancy? There was, of course another tonal shift -- and an even more genteel Nancy -- with the change from 25-chapter to 20-chapter volumes after "The Hidden Window Mystery," but that was when HSA began writing the Nancy Drew series exclusively and Nancy became practically perfect in every way. I wonder why Frank and Joe's good friends, Chet, Biff, Tony, and the rest, haven't appeared much (if any) after the ending of the original Hardy Boys series, and why Burt and Dave disappeared from the Nancy Drew series in the '80s prior to the launch of the Nancy Drew Files and the continuation of the Nancy Drew digests. (A Dave Evans appeared in a couple of the Files but he wasn't a former boyfriend of Bess's.) I also wonder why I wonder about so much. :-)

Interesting blog, by the way.

ADF said...

This post is several years old, and I'll admit I haven't read the Nancy Drew Diaries or whatever they're called, but I do have my own suspicions as to what Simon & Schuster has been doing wrong with Nancy since the beginning of the century (at least).

The problem, I think, is that Simon & Schuster seems determined to make sure that Nancy is "relatable," i.e., a normal girl, which is exactly opposite what Nancy's appeal should be. Nancy Drew is not relatable; she's not a normal girl. I would argue that Nancy's original appeal, way back in the 30's and 40's, was that readers were supposed to want her to be her friend, or more specifically, have her as their friend. Nancy had the independence, the car, the money, that readers of the time didn't have. Later on, in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, readers began to self-insert themselves into the stories as Nancy. I argue that Harriett Adams was attempting to write Nancy as a role model of female perfection, a perfect paragon of proper young ladyship, but the actual effect on the readers was for them to see themselves as Nancy. She's an avatar, a heroine, someone who can do literally anything at any time.

Starting in the 80's, Nancy became a character, someone with clearly defined character traits and a sharply drawn personality. She became much more interested in boys. The latchkey generation of the 80's and 90's was in a hurry to grow up fast, so both Nancy and the Hardys acted much more like young adults than teenagers in these decades. Around 2000 or shortly thereafter our culture put the brakes on wanting our kids to grow up fast, and we've since entered a state of extended childhood. I believe the juvenile nature of Nancy Drew today reflects that.

Nancy's editors today seem to think that writing the character as she had been in the 30's through the 80's--i.e., an avatar, a role model, a heroine--would make her unpopular with readers, so they feel compelled to heap up flaws on her in order to make her relatable. The switch to first-person narration goes along with this. I believe the thought is that girls don't want to read a first-person narrator who's seen as "perfect," so it's important to make sure Nancy is humbled. The avatar nature of Nancy has been transferred to the video games, where she is an actual avatar for the player. Book-Nancy has been made someone that the readers aren't supposed to be jealous of.

That's my take on the situation. Again, though, I'll admit I haven't read much of the 21st century Nancy Drew output.