Nancy Drew, Bess, and tiny queer subversions

Nancy Drew meant the world to me as a kid. The CW’s adaptation does some things—including queerness—even better.

I don’t remember the first time I picked up a Nancy Drew book. I wish I did because, as it turns out, that moment was about as pivotal as it gets for a little kid who was highly influenced by the fictional characters that surrounded her. I was young, maybe nine or ten, but from that moment I was hooked. I spent the next few years tearing through hundreds of installments. I emptied the collections of every library my parents were willing to drive me to and I bought or borrowed anything else I could find. I was obsessed. I had a new hero. But looking back there was always something missing; something I’m coming to find in a shocking place: The CW.

Nancy Drew premiered on the youth-oriented network in the fall of 2019. To say that I was worried about how the network that brought us the acid trip that is Riverdale was going to treat my childhood hero would be an understatement larger than Nancy’s literary history. There were so many ways it could go wrong, so many changes they were obviously making, and I am not always the best at accepting changes to personal icons. Icons aren’t perfect, though, and role models formed in middle school should grow and change with the mind that formed them. Thankfully, the folks behind the series seem to believe that too, with a little CW absurdity for flavor.

The CW’s version of Nancy Drew is not at all the version I grew up with. It’s set in the wrong place (Maine, not Illinois), Bess and George aren’t cousins, Nancy and Ned are barely ever a couple (though, let’s be honest, that relationship in the books lasted far too long), and while Nancy is still a teenage sleuth these days her cases are more akin to something out of Scooby Doo than River Heights. But the core of the characters and the series is still there. Nancy is still playing in a sandbox of dubious legality, she’s still obsessed with helping people who are being screwed over by someone more powerful, still putting herself into dangerous situations and nearly getting killed, and still working with her brilliant group of friends.

Nancy Drew Bess
Image courtesy: The CW

This Nancy Drew, though, has the added benefit of 90 years of U.S. history and cultural change. This Nancy has friends who aren’t all white and affluent and this version of her world has given me the one thing I’ve been hoping a modern adaptation would provide: Bess is gay.

Elizabeth “Bess” Marvin has been part of Nancy’s story almost as long as Nancy herself. She and George first appeared in The Secret of Shadow Ranch, the fifth book ever published in the series and from the jump Bess was perky and stylish and, perhaps above all else, she was boy crazy. Her preoccupation with boys and dating was as much a staple of her personality as Nancy’s intelligence or George’s tomboyishness. Despite the fact that Bess helped out on cases just as often as George or Ned, her girly behavior was always used to undercut her seriousness.

Making her gay doesn’t solve these problems, of course, and being interested in boys doesn’t make a girl less serious, but the decisions surrounding her character’s sexuality poke fun at some of the patriarchal nonsense that embedded itself in her characterization for almost a century. It’s also not the obvious choice. Her cousin, George, the tomboy who dated but did not share Bess’ preoccupation with boys, would have been, perhaps, an easier character to swing in a sapphic direction. It would also have been boring and played to its own patriarchal stereotypes about the traits associated with lesbians. Bess’ queerness, like so many other small reimaginings of her character, was like a little rebellion for fans of the series who loved the source material but wished it were a little less…of its time.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bess’ queerness, though, is that it is largely unremarkable in the context of the show. There’s no coming out storyline, no deep dark secret or unrequited love. Bess just meets a cute young driver working for her long lost family (secretly a police officer in disguise, obviously), they brush their hands against each other while fixing an engine and the show just carries on with the flirting and the kissing like it does with any of its straight romances. Sure, it might be a little depressing that passive queerness is such a refreshing addition to a show—especially when the queerness itself is such a deviation from the source material—refreshing it is.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bess’ queerness, though, is that it is largely unremarkable in the context of the show.

The subversions also extend to some of the show’s main conflicts, placing queerness once again in opposition to patriarchy. At the end of the first season and start of the second, the Drew Crew is up against a malevolent spirit called the Aglaeca. When learning how to defeat the Aglaeca, the team discovers that she didn’t start out malevolent, but was instead born of a tragic murder. A group of men kidnapped and murdered her in an attempt to steal her fortune, then lied about who she was and how she died. In the centuries since her death she was known as the wife of the ship’s captain who drowned in an accident when, in reality, she was in love with an Englishwoman named Mary.

Misogyny and patriarchy may have led to her demise, and anger at the rich white men may have destroyed her and turned her into a sea witch, but love for a woman is what would eventually set her free and save countless lives. When the group discovers the love letters Oddette (the Aglaeca’s real name) exchanged with her love, they figure out that what will really stop her is reminding her of her humanity, her love. It isn’t uncommon for the ambitions of men to destroy the world, but it is so rare that queer love saves it, and this time it did. Or, if not the world, at least the lives of a group of friends in Maine.

Nancy Drew doesn’t make any bold statements about queerness or queer identity. It has a different political agenda in mind, rooted more in blanket misogyny and the role rumor can play when wielded by powerful people, but queerness still exists as a core component of its storytelling. It’s not busting down the walls of queer representation but in the near century-long canon of Nancy Drew Mysteries, the tiny subversions of its own characters and storytelling build and expand on a world in need of a little variety, even while staying true to its essence. And really, when it comes to queer representation, bold statements aren’t always the order of the day. Sometimes — most times — all we want is to be included in the story. If that inclusion can stick it to 90 years of patriarchy … even better. 

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