Are You There, God? It’s Me, Nostalgia

Film adaptation of classic Judy Blume novel finds itself stuck in that awkward age between 1970 and the present day

What made Judy Blume’s notorious middle-grade novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret an enduring classic? Not the titular characters theological explorations. Ask any female whose pre-adolescence predates the Internet.

The periods are what left the indelible mark on our young brains, with a compassionate, frank side order of everything else having to do with female puberty.

Periods, body hair, deodorant, and boys were all taboo topics as far as my mom was concerned. Judy Blume was the only reliable source I, and lots of other girls, had. Too bad she wasn’t around to buy me pads when the time came…

Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig, Judy Blume
Starring: Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Benny Safdie
Running time: 111 min

Things are different now. Streaming services and social media ensure that even the most vanilla of only children are conversant in queer identities, consent, body positivity, slut shaming and a host of other former hot potatoes Judy could’ve helped us navigate, back in the day.

The film adaptation is a period piece in more ways than one. Rather than furnishing Margaret with a midriff top, a smartphone, and a trans BFF, screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig, who also directs, keeps the story in 1970, the year Blume published the book.

The feel good soundtrack and goofy, period-accurate costumes are crowdpleasers and patriarchy smashers can maybe tolerate Margaret’s retrograde secret girl’s club, given that the first issue of Ms magazine is still two years away.

As any modern eleven-year-old knows, social media can be a bitch, but so is Margaret’s frenemy, Nancy, the queen bee policing that the club’s ironclad mandates concerning bras and boys will be observed.

The period setting–god, I love typing that in this context–should also help young viewers outside major urban settings wrap their heads around the idea that Margaret’s parents’ interfaith marriage could be both unusual and fraught, at least in the eyes of her surviving grandparents.

As in the book, Margaret accompanies friends and her Manhattan-dwelling grandma (Kathy Bates, in a a role that screams for Judith Light) to various worship services, eager for the sense of belonging a spiritual community could confer.

The filmmakers’ understandable decision to make Margaret’s world a more racially diverse one affords them the opportunity to include a few bars of an uplifting gospel number, but by leaving other story elements untouched, they smear some Vaseline on the lens of history, a disservice to those who lived through it, as well as those who didn’t.

I recognize and support the push toward inclusivity and opportunities in the arts.

I’m also hoping young viewers will smell a rat when the bottle starts spinning in a suburban New Jersey basement.

Furtive kissing games like Two Minutes in the Closet were plenty fraught without introducing the possibility that your randomly selected partner might be someone of another color. With the  presumed exception of Margarets groovy Manhattanites-in-exile mom or dad, Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie, it’s a safe bet that the other parent characters would’ve freaked, or at the very least frowned strongly, at the notion of transracial groping, preteen or otherwise.

John Waters managed to hold himself accountable in this department, confronting implicit bias head on in Hairspray, back in 1988. Of course, that was an original script.

Rather than attempting to follow Blume’s narrative, Craig might’ve done better to send Margaret to the sidelines, and refocus the story on her Black friend, Janie. Think Peter Pan told from Tiger Lilys perspective or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

Excuse Me, Jesus? All My Friends Are White and Got Their Periods Before Me.

Now that’s a film I’d pay to see!

I’ve got another beef with this adaptation of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, on behalf of me and every other girl, who paged through it, desperate for information we couldn’t find anywhere else:

In an age when Cocaine Bear gleefully sends torrents of hemoglobin cascading from a human torso in a tree, and people on YouTube are thoughtfully compiling and ranking the Saw series’s goriest moments, how can the filmmakers be so coy about blood?

Seriously? Not even a dime-sized dot on a virginal cotton crotch?

In my experience, that’s how pretty much everyone, including three of the girls in Margaret’s club, finds out she’s “become a woman”–to invoke the language of another age.

You don’t peer into an off-screen toilet, as Rachel McAdams, summoned for confirmation by Margaret, does for a perplexingly long time. (You do that when you’re trying to determine if you’ve lost your mucous plug. Save it for the sequel!)

Judy Blume, who has a beatific cameo as a happy suburbanite walking her dog, has graciously stated that she thinks the movie is better than the book.

Without a normalizing shot of the telltale undies from–SPOILER–Margaret’s POV, I’m afraid there’s no way I can agree.


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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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