On October 11, 2019, David Opie reviewed the premiere of the new CW Nancy Drew, arguing that the depiction of Nancy having casual sex with Ned is what, in large part, successfully updates the character for modern audiences, making her newly relevant and relatable. He even goes so far as to argue that any depiction of teenagers without sex is not realistic:
For far too long, the character of Nancy Drew has been impossible to decipher for modern audiences, much like some of the toughest mysteries she became famous for solving in the first place. Sex alone isn’t enough to update old-school characters and give them more depth, but it’s also unrealistic to portray a modern teen’s life without it.
When I think about the impact Nancy Drew has had on my life, and on the lives of other women I know, such an argument seems absurd. I admired (and still admire) Nancy, not because of her sex life (or lack thereof), but because of the qualities she exhibits: fearlessness, perseverance, intelligence, and kindness. Nancy was a hero to me because she seemed, somehow, like the perfect woman, always knowing how to act gracefully in social situations, always caring, but also able to confront the bad guys and solve the case, no matter the danger to herself. I wanted to be as smart and brave as Nancy. I certainly didn’t care about her sex life! After all, Nancy Drew was originally written for children–a fact Opie does not seem to consider.
Opie, I believe, misses the reason so many women have grown up loving Nancy Drew and so puts forth a deeply flawed premise that modern audiences can only relate to a teenage character if that teen is having sex. But not all teens are sexually active and not all teens want to be. There’s nothing wrong with Nancy representing the teens who aren’t sexually active. There’s nothing wrong with a show focusing simply on solving a mystery and putting romance on the side. I, personally, can easily watch a show and not find it odd if that show doesn’t include a bedroom scene. After all, sex just might not be the point of the show. And, in Nancy’s case, historically it has not been. The point has been that Nancy is good at solving mysteries others have failed to crack. The point is that Nancy is empowering.
Opie seems to be suggesting, however, that a modern Nancy can only be truly empowering if she has casual sex. He argues that the values Nancy Drew espouses simply do not resonate with modern audiences:
Recently, however, the traditional values she holds dear have gradually become less relevant, which is why Nancy Drew was long overdue an update of this nature.
I assume that Opie is referring to the classic yellow hardback stories, released in the 1950s. Of course, several iterations of Nancy Drew have been released since then, each showing different facets of Nancy. There’s the flirty Nancy I read in the Nancy Drew Files. Or the Nancy who drives a hybrid car in the comics. (Her friends Bess and George are updated, as well, showing a facility for technology, for instance.) There is also Nancy for younger readers in the Clue Crew books and in the Nancy Drew Diaries. The fact is, Simon and Schuster is constantly updating Nancy with more modern depictions and modern values, if modern values are what Opie desires. But, let us return to the classic yellow hardbacks, since it is presumably the domestic 1950s Nancy that modern audiences are to find so objectionable–the one who helps Hannah Gruen in the kitchen and spends an awful lot of time shopping.
First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with Nancy–or any woman–liking to cook or shop for clothing. You can be a feminist and also bake pies, wear dresses, and like going to parties. The fact that Nancy does these things does nothing to lessen the fact that she is intelligent, persistent, and brave. Secondly, it’s difficult to imagine what values Opie finds so outdated because he does not name any. And he probably does not name any for the very good reason that Nancy’s values have traditionally been, well, kind of vague. Which is probably why she has remained so popular over the years. Nancy does not go around explicitly stating any values, so even though she is made more domestic in the 1950s and less violent than in her 1930s incarnation, these things never come across as any sort of message to readers. The fact remains that Nancy is just really good at, well, everything, from household chores to tap dancing to scuba diving. And she’s incredibly brave, regardless of how effectively she manages to ward off any attackers. Her values could be summed up simply as, “Girls are capable and bold and independent. They are smart and clever. They can be kind and strong at the same time.” These values are hardly outdated.
Still, Opie goes on to argue that Nancy having casual sex is only natural and evidently the main reason modern viewers should relate to her:
In this updated story, Nancy is dealing with the loss of her mother, so it’s entirely natural that she would use sex to cope with this void that’s been left behind. Because of this, the new Nancy Drew is relateable in a way that more idealistic versions of the character could never be, and her sex-positive attitude can also inspire viewers in its own way too.
He even claims that Nancy will become obsolete without the sexy changes made by the CW:
After all, it’s only by making these characters more relevant that they’ll continue to survive. Yes, the new Nancy might seem unrecognisable at first, but if changes aren’t made, then soon it might only be grandparents left who still care about Drew’s adventures, and that would do her legacy a huge disservice.
The obvious rebuttal to the idea that Nancy Drew needs saving by adding sex to her story is that Nancy still sells very well. Molly Young wrote on October 9, 2019, that,
The original Nancy Drew books still sell more than 350,000 copies a year. And there are over 70 million of the books in print — a number that includes both the classics and their spinoffs.
And there have been numerous adaptations of Nancy over the years, not including all the series still published under Carolyn Keene’s name. From the 1970s show to the 2007 movie to the 2019 movie, Nancy has appeared onscreen many times since her creation. And video game company Her Interactive started successfully adapting Nancy for PC games in the 1990s; the latest game comes out in December. To suggest that the CW needs to save Nancy for future generations seems ludicrous when Nancy has never left pop culture.
Additionally, I think it’s rather reductionist to suggest that Nancy having sex with Ned is the one thing that really updates her and makes her relatable. When readers relate to characters, they typically do so because they see something in the character that reminds them of themselves. That could be just about anything, from a character’s socioeconomic background to their struggle with anxiety to their love of puns and small dogs. Maybe some readers will relate to Nancy having sex to cope with grief. But probably many more will relate to other aspects of her character. Why is Opie so focused on Nancy’s love life, of all things? It hardly seems empowering to me to suggest that a character’s feminist value lies primarily in what she does in the bedroom.
Ultimately, however, I think Opie’s premise is flawed because it supposes that Nancy Drew is supposed to be relatable. Nancy Drew is inspirational. She is aspirational. She is not necessarily relatable. As the girl who can ride horses, draw, tap out Morse code, discover secret passages, and restore long-lost rulers to their thrones, Nancy is more of a Mary Sue than the girl next door. She’s the girl others girls want to be, not the characters readers already see themselves in. And that’s precisely what has made her a feminist icon. It’s never been about her sex life. It’s her message that girls can do anything. And that message has never been irrelevant.