The Case of the Shifting Ideals: Gender in the Nancy Drew Mysteries

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Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature


Mara Faulkner, English


From 1930 to the present Nancy Drew has tracked criminals, solved baffling mysteries, escaped from certain death, and delighted generations of young girls. This mystery series, written by multiple ghostwriters under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, has become a cultural icon. Always, though, Nancy Drew's main audience has been girls at the age when a character's traits and attitudes become ideals to imitate. My project is a comparative study of messages about the ideal woman included in three generations of Nancy Drew mysteries: the original books from the 1930s, the substantial revisions and newly written mysteries of the 1960s, and books written in the present (1991, 1996, and 2001). The 1930s mysteries, influenced primarily by ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson, idealize capable, self-reliant independent women in a female-centered but unlimited world. Middle period mysteries, in contrast, present a limited world where women are dependent on males for protection, authority, and assistance. They support and promote the 1950s domestic ideology. Today's mysteries emphasize a coed, peer-driven culture obsessed with appearance, image, popularity, and consumerism. These images reinforce messages found in the popular media, much of which is owned by Viacom, the parent company of Nancy Drew's publisher Simon & Schuster.