Nancy Drew has been one of the most loved and most well-recognized female characters since her initial appearance in 1930. Unlike most of the girl characters–and most of the books–on this list, Nancy is a character that has been written and re-written by various ghostwriters as part of an ongoing series. The series kind-of ended 10 years ago, in 2004, but was re-vamped to become Girl Detective; beginning in 1998, Her Interactive started publishing computer games based on the character.
Seventy-odd years of a character being written by different people and re-vamped a few times to shift with changing parts of culture makes her somewhat difficult to discuss, at least in a definable “this is what Nancy Drew is like” way. Certainly, her evolvement can be used to discuss changing American ideas of femininity (Nancy’s age shifts slightly over the years, and her appearance changes on the book covers to reflect updated ideas of fashion) and of race (in 1959, during one of the series’ biggest restructurings, much of the focus was on removing racial stereotypes—which was, arguably, partially successful).
Nancy is 16 (18 in the newer versions–this reflects the rising age of graduation in the States), and like many girl characters, she’s lost her mother. This of course allows her the agency to grow up early (prompted by her father, who like many fathers in girls’ literature, treats her like the woman of the home, almost like a surrogate wife)–and all of that is helped by their wealth.
Nancy has had chances to study psychology and to learn painting, French, boating, driving, shooting, swimming, sewing, cooking, riding, tennis and golf, dancing, first aid, and swimming. In short, she can do most anything…But with her mother at home, she would assuredly have been prevented from learning some of those things, and she would absolutely be prevented from doing some of those things, even if she’d been able to learn them (shooting, for instance, as well as golf, would probably fall by the wayside in favor of some household skill). Nancy is outspoken, more so in the initial run than later (an interesting change in itself), and she has a penchant for getting out of dangerous situations–a common trope in detective fiction.
But the biggest thing Nancy Drew gives us, aside from a long-running girl character who, though not without flaws, is strong and has served as role-model for generations of girls now, is a way of looking at cultural shifts in education, in class, in race, in style, and in femininity. Nancy is not just a character but a cultural icon, and as such she tells us about our culture.
And now, a short pictorial history, starting in the 1930’s and ending in the 1980’s/90’s era: