The Promising Case of a Non-White Nancy Drew

A new CBS series will have an actress of color play a grown-up version of the beloved teenage sleuth.

Grosset & Dunlap

When the teenage detective Nancy Drew was created in 1930, America was a very different place. The Great Depression had just begun, women had only recently won the right to vote, and racial and gender discrimination was still legal. But after 85 years of Nancy Drew books (created by the publisher Edward Stratemeyer and ghostwritten by several authors under the name Carolyn Keene), spinoff series, movie remakes, and TV shows, the latest effort to revive the classic character highlights just how much the country has changed since her debut in The Secret of the Old Clock.

Glenn Geller, the president of CBS Entertainment, told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday that the network is developing a new series starring Nancy Drew as a 30-something NYPD detective, with one major change to the strawberry-blonde, blue-eyed heroine: “She is diverse, that is the way she is written ... [She will] not [be] Caucasian. I’d be open to any ethnicity.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that brief, somewhat mysterious statement. For one thing, it’s the latest example of the TV industry taking concrete steps to put women and characters of color in major roles. For another—the awkward use of “diverse” aside—Geller implies that Nancy Drew’s ethnic background has already been written into her character and story somehow—and yet CBS hasn’t yet decided whether she’ll be black, Latina, Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander, or multiracial. (Whatever the network decides, the show will hopefully take care not to treat any of these identities as casually interchangeable.)

The announcement will do little to quell fears that the future of entertainment will primarily be reboots, sequels, origin stories, prequels, and remakes; dooming audiences to year after year of studios excavating material from the past and trying to make it all feel new again. But the prospect of a non-white Nancy Drew points to one possible upside to the reboot/remake/revival madness: It opens up the chance for old, beloved stories to be told again with more diverse characters in the spotlight. This was somewhat the case with The Force Awakens, but it’s especially meaningful when iconic characters long since cemented in the public’s imagination as white are reimagined as people of color.

Reboots, sequels, and the rest offer a way to retroactively diversify the largely white canon of Western films, shows, and books. Like when a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, was cast to play a grown-up Hermione Granger in the new Harry Potter play. Or when Lucy Liu took on the role of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes drama series Elementary (also, it should be noted, a CBS show). Or when Idris Elba played the Norse god Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor. (It’s long been proposed that Elba be the next James Bond.) Or when Laverne Cox plays Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show remake. If writers can find a way to weave race (or gender, or sexual orientation, or gender identity) into the new stories, so much the better.

Lining up actors of color to play roles originated by white performers isn’t the magical solution to Hollywood’s ongoing diversity problems. But if a Latina Nancy Drew, or a black Hermione Granger, or an Asian American Watson can help young people of color feel closer to the characters they love—to feel part of a cultural history that once excluded them—then it’s a not a bad place to start.