Please, Leave Nancy Drew Alone!

Let’s leave the infamous girl detective where she belongs: firmly in the past

Katherine Singh

New Year, New Drew!

Nancy Drew, the badass, literary teen detective who solved mysteries and took down bad guys, is set to be revamped for the tween set in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. The newest iteration of the infamous teen sleuth, produced by talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and set to hit theatres on March 15, finds Nancy—played by 16-year-old actor Sophia Lillis—up to her old tricks: solving mysteries and being sassy AF, this time with some very Gen Z tweaks. She’s traded in her roadster for a skateboard, her prim dresses for ripped jeans and flannel and her trademark blonde locks for a red pixie cut.

But the updates end there. Besides those very on-trend changes to Nancy’s aesthetic, many of the tropes from the book series are present in the trailer—as do some of the books’ inherent flaws.  And in an era of adaptations, be it live action (with the recent announcement that Disney will remake The Hunchback of Notre Dame), plastic (with Barbie set to come to the big screen via real life Barbie Margot Robbie) or IRL (with the Spice Girls allegedly looking to add a fifth, non-Posh member to their tour), this newest one just seems unnecessary. As journalist Kate Taylor noted in a June 2007 article for The Globe and Mail: “Nancy, her critics point out, is too privileged, too polite, too asexual and too white.” This adaptation doesn’t seem to address, or even learn from, long-held critiques of the teen sleuth’s narrative, so we have to ask: What’s the point?

Representation is still an issue

The Nancy Drew novels are often considered feminist because of their plucky heroine, but they’re also pretty racist. One specific interaction between Nancy and a Black caretaker in the first novel shockingly highlights the books’ problematic view of race: While following up on a clue, Nancy interrupts a burglary in process at a lakeside bungalow and is thrown into a closet by one of the thieves. The heroine, usually resourceful on her own, is freed by an African-American man named Jeff Tucker, the bungalow’s caretaker. But, instead of teaming up to become a fun, crime-fighting duo (a movie we’d love to see), Tucker is infantilized and portrayed as uneducated and drunk—he was fooled into intoxication by the robbers and hds to hose himself off to sober up. Instead of thanking him, Nancy scolds him for abandoning his post. Later, when she and Tucker go to the police station to report the robbery, Tucker is ignored by the officers (they listen to Nancy attentively), and is then “gently” pushed back from the car and left behind at the station while Nancy and the police go off to apprehend the robbers.

As Andrea Ruggirello points out in her essay “The Not-So-Hidden Racism of Nancy Drew,” this interaction between Tucker and Nancy, and the subsequent white-washing of the revised 1959 novels (in which Tucker is a white man, and coincidentally, not portrayed as drunk), erases readers of colour completely from the narrative, while failing to acknowledge the damage the old scenes may have had on readers at the time.

Since the 1930s, subsequent iterations of the Nancy Drew series, in print and on-screen, have made attempts to better represent people of colour and the LGBTQ community—to varying degrees of success. In June 2018, Dynamite Entertainment released Nancy Drewa graphic novel re-imagining of our titular heroine, with more overt feminism and queer characters, a great step for the LGBTQ community. But a 2016 CBS pilot that featured Iranian-American actress Sarah Shahi as Nancy—albeit in her 30s and a NYPD officer—was cancelled, after “skew[ing] too female” for network execs, according to Deadline.

Later in her essay, Ruggirello asks when—or if—we’ll see a Black Nancy Drew. Well, it seems like it *won’t* be in 2019. As much as this new Nancy Drew appears to scream woke millennialism, it isn’t really all that inclusive. A look at the cast list on IMBD makes it very apparent that the film is sticking with tradition, with very few actors of colour involved in the film (there are two, to be exact). And while the film has made *slight* strides, casting African-American actress Zoe Renee as George Fayne—one of Nancy’s besties and partners in (solving) crime—it seriously isn’t enough. Because not only is this *very* limited representation, it’s a continuation of a tried and true practice that sees women of colour relegated to the role of sidekick both on-screen and IRL, supporting characters meant to enhance the inevitably mediocre white woman at the centre of the film. It’s not true representation and TBH it’s just lazy.

Nancy’s privilege appears to be very much intact

While we don’t have any info on the new Nancy’s bank statement, and the downgrade from roadster to skateboard *may* indicate a decline in socio-economic status, the 2019 version of the character seems just as privileged as 1950s Nancy. And we’re not just talking about money. In the trailer, we see Nancy running around town skateboard in hand, the clear leader of her group of friends and largely able to do as she pleases. But as Ruggirello points out, a lot of Nancy’s privilege historically came from the fact that she is a white woman, and that continues in the remake.

While 2019 Nancy is labelled as an “outsider” trying to fit in with her small town, the only true differentiating factor between her and the rest of the townspeople is that she wears flannel, rides a skateboard and is supposed to be outspoken—about what, we’re not sure. Having a protagonist that doesn’t have the same white/economic/heterosexual privilege as Lillis’ Nancy would not only broaden the character’s audience, it would also add nuance to the character, allowing readers—and Nancy herself—to explore and grapple with issues of race, class, sexuality and, ultimately, power.   

The character doesn’t need an update—Nancy Drew should be left in her time

As much as we shouldn’t excuse the books’ missteps as being a product of their time, we should acknowledge that Nancy Drew became influential and iconic largely because of the time she was created. Many aspects of her character may have been unrealistic—seriously, did she ever have homework?—and sexist, with the 1959 rewrites making Nancy even more prim, proper and polite than before. But for many young women who grew up reading the series, part of the allure was the way she asserted her independence despite these barriers. She was a badass in a time when women weren’t able to speak up or be autonomous. Sure, that autonomy may have been due, in large part, to her privilege. But it was there, and it was inspiring.  And in some ways that can’t be replicated.

And TBH, it shouldn’t be replicated, because if we’ve learned anything from the onslaught of remakes, adaptations and revamps we’ve seen in the last few years in the movie industry, it’s that we need new stories. Specifically, we need new *inclusive* stories. To see Ellen DeGeneres, who has a lot of power and influence, throw her support behind a tired and frankly not inventive remake, instead of supporting new voices, ideas and possibly new classics (à la Brad Pitt) is seriously disappointing.

We *are* moving in the right direction. In January 2018, it was announced that actress Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani are set to star as love interests in Paramount’s rom-com The Lovebirds. The film, which also features a murder mystery, is already making headlines for its casting, and the portrayal of an interracial relationship that doesn’t centre whiteness. And back in September 2018, it was announced that Crazy Rich Asians actor Henry Golding would star opposite Emilia Clarke in a holiday-themed rom-com, not only cementing Golding’s status as a hunky leading man, but further breaking down the truly harmful stereotype that Asian men can’t be objects of sexual desire.

But while we’re glad to see more inclusive rom-coms, we’re completely ready to see the trend take off in other genres, too. Because we don’t need a Black Nancy Drew. Minority communities, regardless of colour, religion or sexuality, deserve more than recycled material. They deserve to see their own unique stories and experiences represented on screen, not tweaked to fit in to an already existing narrative. Giving Nancy the newest iPhone isn’t going to change that.

All we have to say is:

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