Nancy Drew and the Mystery of CBS’s Sad Sexism

Nancy Drew

As a young girl and a voracious reader I was obsessed with Nancy Drew. I could spend hours lost in the adventures of the 16-year-old high-school graduate and amateur detective who always managed to get herself in all kinds of trouble.

Living in fictional River Heights with her dad, attorney Carson Drew and their housekeeper, Hannah Gruen (Nancy’s mom had died when she was a child), Nancy would usually be accompanied and joined in her adventures by her friends Bess Marvin and George Fayne. Occasionally, Nancy’s boyfriend Ned Nickerson would make an appearance, but the central focus was Nancy. Always Nancy.

Self-assured, smart, confident, brilliant, kind, observant, and somehow blessed with an incredible amount of freedom, considering her young age and the social norms of the time, Nancy was my idol. Sure, she got into trouble and found herself thrown into a car trunk by the bad guys more times than I could count, but she always knew how to figure things out and solve the mystery.

She was her own hero, fixing her own car trouble, relying on her brains and savvy to figure things out and going all Martha Stewart on us and baking a pie in a girly dress when it was all over. Even when she declared that she was terrified, she would still go ahead and solve the case. She was brave that way… I would have given anything to live in River Heights and be her friend.

The Scarlet Slipper Mystery, The Hidden Staircase, The Mystery of Shadow Ranch, The Clue in the Diary, The Secret in the Old Attic, The Mystery of the 99 Steps…. The list goes on and on…. More than 60 books were ghost written by a variety of authors under the pen name of Caroline Keene from 1930 until well into 2003. I read the overwhelming majority of them as a child. When I ran out of Nancy Drew mysteries I seamlessly switched to reading The Hardy Boys series, similar tales of two brothers involved in solving mysteries, the way I’m sure many boys reading The Hardy Boys switched over to reading Nancy Drew.

My love affair with the Nancy Drew Mystery Series ended abruptly when my family moved to Greece when I was about nine and half years old, and I no longer had access to the books. More than a decade later when I moved back to Montreal for my studies, I would occasionally find old copies of Nancy Drew books in second-hand bookstores. I would always brush my fingers over their familiar titles, leaf through the pages with bittersweet nostalgia for a childhood that now seemed a lifetime ago, and occasionally bring home a well-preserved copy of an early edition (Jacqueline Farrell, I have your 1959 edition of The Hidden Staircase, if you’re reading).

When CBS announced that they were working on a reboot for Nancy Drew, the little girl inside the grown up rejoiced. Starring actress Sarah Shahi as Nancy — now in her 30s — a detective for the NYPD where she investigates and solves crimes (of course! What else would Nancy have become, if not a cop or a spy?), the nostalgia factor was high. I was certainly the target audience – a woman who had grown up reading the series and felt an immediate and strong connection to the heroine. I could even see a sudden resurgence of interest for the Nancy Drew books and the thought of a brand new generation of young girls reading the series made me happy.

And then last night, I suddenly found out that CBS had decided to nix the reboot. The reason that they gave? The pilot tested well but skewed “too female” for CBS.

“Too female”….

It would appear that in top-secret Hollywood boardrooms where well-heeled and well-connected TV executives make decisions about what trickles down as our ultimate viewing choices, “too female” is some seriously scary shit that elicits night sweats and panic.

Women comprise more than 50 percent of the human population and female viewers continue to rule broadcast primetime, but even when we’re the majority, being “too female” is still considered a liability by the decision makers. Because, according to their archaic reasoning, something skewing male automatically encompasses all of us, but if you skew female you are exclusionary and limiting in scope, alienating, and not representative of all (man)kind. You see, women can only represent themselves, but men – it would appear – do double duty and represent us all. Thanks for the heavy lifting, boys. Much obliged.

Masculine is the barometer, the Litmus test, the measuring stick with which everything is assessed, quantified, and found wanting, but feminine is just a niche market, a pink, estrogen-laden oddity that interests the few. Think of the disdain “chick lit” elicits in some people, or the way poor confused writer Gay Talese can’t think of a single female writer who inspires him.

To CBS skewing “too female” immediately means low ratings and low profits, because it’s a natural assumption that fewer than 50 percent of their viewing audience would be watching. I mean, there’s no way a man would watch a show that places Nancy Drew as a heroine, right? But women should be able to watch a male protagonist and be delighted. After all, maleness is the de facto norm.

Never mind that Jessica Jones was a smashing success on Netflix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a cult hit with both genders, and Mad Max: Fury Road’s real hero was actually Imperator Furiosa, CBS execs are afraid that anything too female-driven and female-focused might alienate the rest of the world (read: men), even though the rest of the world (read: women and anyone not identifying as male) has had to deal with male-driven plots since Cain killed Abel.

Because how odd that women should be anything other than sidekicks or damsels in distress. How strange that young boys might actually grow up to see female heroines as normal and half of the human race. God forbid anything not related to a Victoria’s Secret TV special or the front cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition skew too female. Heaven help us if grown men were subjected to a series that features a female hero and primarily satisfies women’s sensitivities. We can’t have that equal representation nonsense confusing the men in the audience who have never had to worry about anything skewing “too male” in their entire lives, can we now…

The Nancy Drew Mystery Series I read as a young girl has sold over 80 million copies around the world, the books have been translated into 45 languages, and have spawned TV shows, movies, and video games. Entertainment Weekly actually ranked Nancy Drew seventeenth on its list of “The Top 20 Heroes” ahead of Batman. Ahead of mother*cking Batman. Clearly skewing “too female” has done irreparable harm to the franchise. CBS executives were wise to put the kibosh on that certain-to-fail small-time market. I mean, girls… Bleh!

Almost 90 years after the Nancy Drew Mystery Series saw the light and delighted young readers, isn’t it high time we started reframing the boundaries of gender and stopped assuming that the average spectator is male? Your primary audience is not always male. Sometimes it’s going to be your secondary audience or your non-existent audience and who the hell cares? There’s still enough of us for you to make money off of, you dumb dumbs!

We need to evolve beyond the thinking that everything male is the norm and that the female is a derivation and therefore less important. The female experience, the female point of view, the female target audience is no less important than the male one. My childhood isn’t less important than some CBS executive’s childhood. His heroes are no more important than my own. Nancy Drew’s voice is no less important than [insert popular male hero] and I resent that a boardroom full of out-of-touch, profit-motivated men think that it is simply because it wasn’t part of their reality.

I hope Netflix or another network picks up Nancy Drew and I hope it rakes in all kinds of money for the people who do. I hope it teaches CBS executives that skewing “too female” is not a liability, a calculated risk, or a financial burden. That skewing “too female” can be financially smart because we need shows that represent and speak to us, and women are running out of patience for the ordinary sexism of business execs who don’t even consider us a market worth targeting to and catering to.

Here… I’ll even throw in a script idea, if you do. Peace out, CBS.

Zero Fucks