What A Girl Wants #2: extended disco remix

Here’s what I said in response to Colleen’s What A Girl Wants question about whether we still need to care about the girl detective (and I strongly recommend reading the whole post with everyone else’s responses as well):


“Why aren’t we friends any more?” “When did everyone else stop wearing this brand of jeans, and why didn’t anyone tell me?” “Are anyone else’s parents like mine?” “He asked what I got for question five, does that mean he likes me?” “I’m tongue-tied and I can’t stop looking, does that mean I like her?” Girls, or at least the sort of girl I was in junior high, are trying to simultaneously construct their own identities and decode everyone else’s around them. They are endlessly engaged in largely futile attempts to solve the mysteries of their own lives. Enter the girl detective, focusing her analytical skills on deducing who stole the jewels, rather than on why the necklace she got from The Limited failed to bestow popularity. Though honestly, I read and loved girl detective books well before my teens. By junior high, I was much more a fan of Agatha Christie. By then, I didn’t require my detectives to be girls, but I needed them to tie up all loose ends by the last page. I did not want ambiguity. I wanted resolution. I liked thinking that there was an answer to be found and that the detective was capable of finding it.

What do we lose when we lose the girl detective? Most importantly, we lose that sense of a girl using her intelligence to solve problems outside the realms of romance, family, and her place in the social hierarchy.

But I think the place of the girl detective may be taken by the girl spy. Exchange detection for espionage, and your clear (and reductionist) solutions and straightforward good versus evil framework are replaced by a world of ever-shifting motives and allegiances, with the constant possibility that you’re being double-crossed. It’s a less immediately comforting narrative frame, but a girl spy can have some of the same admirable characteristics as a girl detective: intellect, action, independence. And perhaps the moral greyness of spying more accurately reflects our times — not to mention junior high and high school.


…So I kinda derailed the comment thread on that post by talking about The Wire. Those of you who know me in real life (and/or who are longtime readers of this site) will not be surprised that I could not restrain myself. In my own defense, I can only say that it was relevant in context. We were talking about whether it would be possible to create a “girl detective” type of character who would operate credibly in a contemporary high-crime, gang-affected neighborhood — and by extension, whether it’s possible to write a YA mystery in the sort of setting that, in real life, presents significant threats to its residents. Zetta Elliott said, “I don’t want to insert teenage girls into grim scenarios where they already figure as the victim.” I brought up the show because I wanted to highlight what a fine job the writers did (not to mention the actors, the directors, the set designers, etc.) showing the incredibly limited options kids have in those kinds of neighborhoods. It would be a huge challenge to create a girl detective who could live past her first investigation — but the idea of such a character (Laurel Snyder immediately and memorably christened her “Hope Jones”) is really compelling.

But in my next response, I’ll try to keep in mind where I’m posting, and talk about a few more YA books! I have a feeling each of my responses will be longer than the previous one, and perhaps after the next post (which will be up in early July) I’ll do a summary rather than a remix.

Of course, this post and the other one I did haven’t really, technically, been remixes either. I’m using that phrase the way some friends and I used to, to refer to any longish discussion that followed up on a previously raised subject. Which was most of our discussions, come to think of it.

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  • Laura
    July 3, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    I LOVE girl detectives. Like most girls of my generation, I compulsively read Nancy Drew. In junior high, while browsing a used bookstore, I discovered Helen McInnes, who wrote female protagonist espionage novels from 1941- the 70’s.

    I devoured them. There aren’t enough good female spies/detectives in novels.

  • Sara
    July 4, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Laura, thanks for the Helen McInnes recommendation! I’ve heard of her stuff but haven’t read any.

    And who knows? The What A Girl Wants discussion may spawn some new characters…