There’s no time like Spring Break to remember that not all girls have gone Paris Hilton or Britney Spears wild. The release of Nancy Drew on DVD is a good occasion for celebrating good girls in pop culture.
An adaptation of the long-loved books, the movie stars Emma Roberts, niece of actress Julia Roberts. When it was released this summer, movie critic Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor sniffed, “Emma Roberts is squeaky-clean to a fault and so is the movie.” Some critics seem to live in the dark and prefer it that way.
The movie tries to update the tried-and-true formula of the more than 100 Nancy Drew books by engaging in some sly, but still friendly mockery of how Nancy looks a bit old-fashioned and goody-goody to other teens. Another film critic, Stina Chyn of the website Film Threat, doesn’t hate the movie, but warns instead about the character’s potential psychic troubles: “She is determined, a perfectionist, uber-organized, and efficient. Those qualities can be associated to geekdom, but they’re also symptoms of someone with a propensity for disordered eating or obsessive-compulsive disorder.” Add 17 tattoos and an abusive heroin-dealing boyfriend, and certain critics would sigh and say that film is much more refreshing and real.
Film critics want to impress readers with their eagle-eyed appreciation of high art. Often, however, they make the mistake of associating art with icon-smashing, goodness-trashing scripts. But who wants their child to have such a jaded perspective at the age of ten? Moreover, why must all characters be so delinquent? If film critics would be just a bit critical of their own cynical perspective, they might acknowledge that the real world includes good girls too — even if they find them dreadfully boring.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Frey described the film’s star, Emma Roberts, as just such a good girl. There is something comfortingly ordinary about the rising starlet whose makeup artists raved about how nice she is, and whose directors told of how she knew the names of all the crew and their kids. Additionally, her home life seems somewhat more stable than that of some of her peers; despite her budding wealth, her mother won’t let her have a car for her 16th birthday and bans her cell phone use when she acts up.
The whole story is reassuring, because the saddest thing about entertainment for children is the disorienting, often dysfunctional lives of child actors. Roberts was enthusiastic about how much she loved Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as she grew up, who made a pile of direct-to-video movies for girls to enjoy. But now that they’ve grown, only eating disorders — and poor Heath Ledger — get them in the celebrity magazines.
A cynic could easily suggest that reporters shouldn’t be too eager to find a wholesome teenage movie star because it might all crumble in good time. Look at Lindsay Lohan, the Disney movie princess now drawing headlines for party-girl excess. It’s too common for on-screen ingenues and pop-music teen-queens to go through that desperate revolt against a wholesome image. But former child actors — or any actors — who behave well often don’t draw the tabloid headlines. Hollywood bad girls aren’t the norm, but sadly, they are the ones everyone wants to hear about.
— Tim Graham is MRC’s Director of Media Analysis, and co-author of the book Whitewash: What the Media Won’t Tell You About Hillary Clinton, But Conservatives Will.