[Editor’s Note: All screencaps courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]
The Nancy Drew games have been revolutionary in many ways, but regressive in others. While the developers have tried to evenly round out racial representation (overall — not counting individual games), feature a 50:50 ratio of men to women in the entire series, and include suspects who struggle with depression and/or anxiety, there is one particular aspect of diversity that these games have been sorely lacking in: queer diversity.
Her Interactive (HI) — the company behind the Nancy Drew games — has made a point of making their titles “family-friendly,” and extended this policy to their official message boards. The Golden Rule was to keep it G-rated. While the idea behind this approach is understandable because of the series’ original target demographic (pre-teen girls) and the personal responsibility HI felt to keep their official boards safe for minors, the execution fell short. This isn’t to say that the boards weren’t safe for minors, which they were by standard internet safety precautions, but the manner in which they were meant to be safe was built around heteronormative constructs of what constitutes as “family-friendly.”
To comply with the series’ consistent E rating, any romance or relationships in the games — implied or explicitly shown — had to be pair-ups between (presumably) heterosexual men and (presumably) heterosexual women. Because of an underlying assumption in the ESRB ratings that to be queer was to be hypersexual, abiding by the ESRB standards meant absolutely no explicit references to characters being even remotely queer at all (in the games or on the HI boards). As a result, queer fans of Nancy Drew were told to be silent and weren’t allowed to even speculate that a character was gay on the forums without risking a ban (a rule that was recently lifted a few years ago).
For a while, it seemed as if the Nancy Drew series would never be anything other than heteronormative in their relationships and characters; or that any characters who might be queer could only ever be expressed as such through queer-coding, and would never rise above anything other than subtext. And then one day, along came the latest (as of this typing) game in the series that bucked the trend entirely: Sea of Darkness. [Minor spoilers for SEA ahead.]
At the beginning of the game, Nancy gets a letter from a woman named Dagny Silva — a friend of a suspect from a past case — who has heard of Nancy’s legendary reputation and asks for her help in finding her missing treasure-hunting partner, Magnus. When Nancy arrives in Skipbrot, Iceland and meets her, Dagny is not a happy camper, partly because of the freezing cold weather of Iceland, but mostly because Magnus (who had promised a cut of the treasure with her) has disappeared.
At first glance, Dagny appears to fit the “grumpy suspect” archetype common in other games, but softens up a little bit towards Nancy as the game unfolds. Early on, she asks you to fix the outdoor heater she will stand under for the most of the game. While fixing it, Nancy attempts to make some small talk with Dagny, but Dagny is evasive and annoyed. Nancy nudges her and she reveals a little bit more about her past, but not much. In her words:
“I went to school, and then I had a job, and then I was married, and then I wasn’t, and now I have another job involving definitely-legal treasure hunting activities. That’s me.”
Later, Nancy gets the chance to snoop behind the counter of the local cultural center and learns that a few months prior to the game, a woman named Alicia DeSoto was in town visiting Dagny, purchased a gift for her, and then left. Right around this time, Dagny disappears from her usual spot, and Nancy takes advantage of this in order to snoop through her discarded cell phone. While going through her old messages, the player finds the following (image right).
Soren tells Dagny that he will put her into the festival donor’s section as “Mrs. Dagny Silva-DeSoto.”
One of the past guests to have stopped by to purchase a present for Dagny was “Alicia DeSoto.”
Dagny replies: “Turns out my ‘life partner’ wasn’t so life-y after all. Alicia’s returned to the States.” The exact term Dagny uses is “life partner” for a woman named Alicia.
Let’s repeat that: the Nancy Drew series finally featured its first canonical queer woman who was married to another woman.
I was legit shocked, which then dissipated into pure squuuueeeeee. This was also embarrassing because of my own heteronormative assumption that Dagny was married to a MAN. Silly me! But what comes of this revelation? Pretty much nothing in terms of the game’s story. Nancy doesn’t call up Ned in order to say, “ZOMG I THINK DAGNY WAS CHECKING OUT MY ASS THE WHOLE TIME.” She doesn’t casually go around town asking the other suspects about it. She doesn’t confront Dagny about this discovery, shame her for it, or even make a note of it in her journal. Instead, she simply moves on — because it’s not relevant to the rest of the case.
So, why bring it up at all? Because in the past, suspects have had past or current relationships define at least part of their character, and this influences the way they act in the present. Dagny is no exception. When Dagny talks about Alicia to Nancy, she doesn’t specifically mention the gender of the person whom she was married to; “and then I was married, and then I wasn’t” is the phrase she uses, which she places in the middle of her short life story to make it seem like a mundane detail. This suggests that Dagny doesn’t want to live in the closet, but doesn’t want to risk possible prejudice from strangers, either.
Soren is the one person who would have known about Dagny’s past marriage, because he’s partly in charge of organizing the event. He tries to console her after hearing how things fell apart, but while she tries to shrug it off, her tone and choice of words reveal more under the surface:
“It’s fine. I’ll survive. I always do. Just … leave me alone.”
“Always do.” Dagny has had relationships where she invested her heart and soul only for it to fall apart, and this one may have hit her especially hard, because it seemed like it would last. “My ‘life partner’ wasn’t so life-y after all.” There’s an underlying hurt to her words.
At one point, she jokes to Nancy that her way of handling a break-up is to move to another continent to avoid dealing with the emotional baggage, but in her text with Soren, Dagny reveals that Alicia had been the one to leave the continent first. It’s possible that she and Alicia could have divorced before this and that Alicia may have possibly come to Iceland to try to reconcile with Dagny, but given that Soren didn’t seem to know about their divorce until the last time he and Dagny spoke, it’s likely the break-up is recent enough to leave a fresh wound.
Dagny is a contradiction. She wants adventure, but not to get hurt. She wants friendship and romance, but not the emotional baggage. She can be intimidating and threatening when she thinks she’s being screwed out of a deal, but she’s also quiet about the more painful edges of her life — and all these edges are important to her. These form her identity.
Better representation and diversity goes beyond just sticking in a minority character and going “My job is done!” A much bigger part of that diversity involves creating an actual person with flaws and depth and personality — someone who the audience can relate to on a larger level. In this case, the queer section of Nancy Drew’s fanbase finally has that character in Dagny. More than all that, Dagny’s inclusion is particularly important because of the impact it had on the Nancy Drew fandom — both for better, and for worse, yet each tie into the other.
Earlier, I mentioned that Her Interactive made a point of creating a G-rated forum safe for minors. This may have been what attracted a certain portion of users. For some time, a good majority of users were conservative Christians, and most of them shared a militant Christians vs The World mindset. As one example of many, there was a huge signature war encouraging people to boycott the movie The Golden Compass when it came out. And for another boycott relating directly to the game series, any upcoming game with preview hints at the smallest drop of the supernatural was subject to extreme scrutiny as to whether or not it would be “Satanic” or “demonic,” despite the series itself having, or attempting, a scientific explanation for any supernatural events.
I’m Jewish and was raised in an interfaith home, so religious tolerance is important to me. I’d be fine if these users’ attitudes were simply ‘I’m not going to see The Golden Compass because I disagree with the source material’s message,” but it’s another thing entirely for them to go, “It’s morally wrong for anyone else to see The Golden Compass because atheism oppresses everything Christian by virtue of existing!” It was the latter attitude that made me leave.
With this in mind, HI was taking a huge risk by putting a canonically queer woman in one of their games. This could have caused the more conservative fans to step back and re-evaluate their beliefs, to realize a more compassionate Christianity, all because this one work opened up their minds. Instead, they reacted with barely-sugar-coated hostility and intolerance to the point of making queer users feel unsafe on the HI boards, then acted as if they were the ones under attack by having a queer character present, and swore off buying any more Nancy Drew games forever. This, by itself, is saddening and infuriating. Yet it’s both hilariously and tragically ironic because of SEA’s story, which is ultimately about the damaging effects of prejudice.
And not only that, but SEA also goes into what motivates an Us vs Them mindset, which the town of Skipbrot very much embodies. In this game’s case, the particular type of prejudice addressed is xenophobia, not homophobia. But the overall message in the end is that it’s wrong to treat people badly just because they don’t conform to what your community says is right, because at the end of the day, you’re not talking about a theoretical, objective concept — you’re talking about a real, living person who could be (and in the game’s case, was) scarred by this treatment. The epilogue provides a small note of hope that Skipbrot’s attitude towards outsiders might gradually change for the better.
Similarly, there is a ray of hope within the fandom, coming from the queer fans who are validated by Dagny. More and more fans coming out with various queer headcanons, happy and confident to see HI begin to take the smallest of steps towards better representation. What lasted for ten seconds has created a goldmine of opportunity and pride for many queer fans. And overall, the amount of people who feel validated by Dagny’s inclusion far outnumber those trying to push them out.
Dagny Silva’s depiction — while far from perfect or ideal — is a huge step in the right direction. Now queer fans can finally see themselves represented and have their identities validated in a multi-faceted queer character who’s witty and snarky and bold and human.
After all, in her words, “That’s me.”