The Perils of Our Girl Detectives…Or Their Mothers, At Least

I am a huge sucker for a girl detective. Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars, Kami Glass, even Emily Thorne, who breaks the mold slightly by being an older woman, but still shares much in common with her younger cohort. I grew up on a regular diet of Nancy Drew and I haven’t stopped being fascinated by girl detectives ever since, not least because they represent one of the earlier iterations of the strong female character in the 20th century. These no-nonsense, savvy girls didn’t need boys to get by, had girlfriends to help out, and demonstrated problem solving skills, creativity, and strength of character. Early gender warriors like Nancy Drew[1. Though it’s worth noting that Nancy Drew had, and continues to have, some serious problems; particularly some blatant racism in the early years.] appealed to a generation of young women who were starting to agitate for change, and the 21st century iteration is still exploring a lot of the same themes.

One thing I do find very…interesting…about girl detectives is that many are separated from their mothers; their narratives focus on their relationship with their fathers. Nancy Drew loses her mother at age 10 (or three, depending on which version of the series you read), with a housekeeper as a mother figure. Veronica Mars’ mother is missing, and when she shows up, it’s only to wreak havoc on the family, leaving Veronica feeling betrayed and shattered. Emily Thorne’s mother reappears after making her daughter think she was dead for two decades, and then fails to recognise her daughter.

Only Kami Glass gets to have a mother, showing how Rees Brennan has taken the female detective in a deeper and more interesting direction where it’s possible to have an intact family unit and still be an interesting and complex female character. Kami doesn’t need to lose her mother, or be betrayed by her, to have a personality and to develop an interest in digging into her past. Instead, she’s allowed to have a complex (and not always perfect) relationship with her mother, instead of just having her swept aside as a footnote or someone who’s introduced momentarily to add tension to the plot, not as an actual human being.

I grew up with a single dad. And I love reading about the relationship between kids and their fathers, because it’s an interesting dynamic, but I also think it gets explored a lot in fiction, and it’s notable that it comes up so much in this type of fiction specifically. It would seem that in order to be a card-carrying girl detective, your mother needs to be dead, missing, or evil. Evidently it’s not possible for you to develop as a character without that, or maybe your father would be too emotionally distant with your mother still in the picture and you wouldn’t be able to bond over your mutual loss.

It’s not just that mothers are strangely missing, but that fathers often take a very relaxed attitude to parenting; they pair a strange sense of mentoring with not really seeming to care what their daughters were doing. While my father definitely mentored and encouraged me while maintaining a very loose sense of discipline, I’m aware that’s not normal, and that in addition to not being believable to readers, it kind of sets up a fantasy and wish fullfillment situation. Notable indeed that Nancy Drew was developed by a man attempting to cater to the market of girl readers, and that he conceived of the basic character and storyline; perhaps he wanted to indulge the idea of being a somewhat absent parent who still manages to turn out great kids?

Your kids kind of need to be intrinsically awesome to turn out in a situation like that, and that’s just not going to happen very often. When I see girl detectives over and over again appearing in the same basic story, it makes me start to feel like apparently there’s no other way to be an intrepid detective and researcher, perhaps to eventually go into investigation as a career. Evidently it’s not possible to have, say, a mother who’s an attorney or a police detective or investigative journalist or private eye who might mentor her daughter while she develops skills and learns more about the trade. And it’s not possible to have both parents contributing different skills to the mix of raising a daughter who’s creative, powerful, and balanced.

It’s almost like mothers are bad, isn’t it?

That seems to be what’s implied here, in the whisking away of inconvenient mothers from texts in order to get in some cheap character development while also creating a stronger bond between fathers and daughters. And I find it very troubling that this trope comes up again and again, underscoring itself repeatedly; if you want to be a girl detective (or related girl reporter), you had better hope you don’t have a mother or that she can be conveniently pushed off a balcony or something, because otherwise, the old gal is going to hold you back.

She’ll be too much of a stick in the mud, refusing to let you find yourself and pursue your own investigations; look at how Joyce on Buffy is constantly getting in the way until, whoops, she dies. Or your mother can’t possibly serve as a good mentor because everyone knows adult women don’t really do anything or have any particular skills, other than cooking and cleaning. For that matter, she’ll interfere with the bond between you and your father, because it’s impossible for multiple complex relationships to exist at the same time. It’s either a whole family unit and a quiet life for you, or no mum and adventures past bedtime, bucko.

Intriguing that these are the choices we are left with, and that one of the things absent from a lot of conversations about ‘strong female characters’ is, well, their mothers. Because these ladies have to come from somewhere, right?