Reading is a human right

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, the movie, joins a modern movement for lifelong sex ed

5 minute read
McAdams, with frosted feathery hair, stands by Fortson, with dark hair & a blue cardigan, looking uncomfy & embarrassed
More than one growing-up journey: Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson in ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ (Image courtesy of Dana Hawley/Lionsgate.)

The first time I picked up Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, my mom told me I wasn’t ready to read it. I was probably about 12 when I found the book on a shelf in the far upstairs corner of my grandparents’ house—the original 1970 edition whose cover had a girl with billowing yellow hair and an orange dress. It bore the scuffs and marks of many readers, including a curly mustache drawn onto Margaret in black pen. I couldn’t tell what it was about, but Mom gave me the sense that it was something very racy.

I finally read it as a young teenager, but not before I had survived my painful first period and studied the “three uses of the vagina” in my Christian anatomy class (the gateway for the procreative, married, heterosexual penis, and the exit for menstrual blood and babies). As Judy Blume Forever, an excellent new documentary on the iconic author reminds me, I was among the kids who needed Judy Blume the most.

From Fudge to Forever…

I loved the exploits of Fudge and, later, was shocked and fascinated by the implication of Forever…, in which a young woman enjoys sex with her boyfriend without suffering pregnancy, fatal disease, or social, emotional, and spiritual ruin.

Margaret is tame by comparison, following an 11-year-old girl as she and her friends survive first periods, first bras, first crushes, first research projects, and the first questions about who they really are, independent of their parents. Margaret’s dad is Jewish and her mom grew up Christian, and their determination to leave their daughter free to choose her own beliefs has unexpected consequences. Blume channels the elation, curiosity, and pain we all feel on the cusp of adolescence.

Margaret on screen

“Did you like the movie?” a stranger asked me and my friend as we left the showing of the new film based on Blume’s novel. The three of us quickly fell into an avid conversation. I enjoyed how faithful writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation is to the book, but my friend pointed out the spots that file the sharper edges—and Blume’s trademark lingering questions—off of Margaret’s journey. Our new friend likewise found the movie more sugary than the novel, and wished that it had dialed more into the pain.

There is plenty of angst, though. As Margaret Simon, a lucid and luminous Abby Ryder Fortson balances on the knife-edge between childhood and adolescence. Elle Graham, Margaret’s brash and bossy new bestie Nancy Wheeler, is as childlike as she is assertive: a gangly little sophisticate who still screams for Mom.

Facing 40 in America

But as I stare down my 40th birthday, the film really stands out for its sensitive attention to two other generations of women: Margaret’s mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and her paternal grandmother (an irresistible Kathy Bates). They emerge from Margaret’s orbit in the book as fully realized people on film, with life transitions that are just as raw, funny, confusing, and necessary as Margaret’s own.

It’s a great reminder that as much as we fixate on the turmoil of early youth (as if our hormones will be smooth sailing if we can just ride out puberty), life never really settles down. Traumas re-emerge, bodies change, roles evolve, and life always demands new boundaries and bridges.

Anyone who can become pregnant in America faces an excoriating landscape. Are You There, God? was first published three years before Roe v. Wade, and now, 53 years later, our world again looks more like Margaret’s (and her mom’s and grandma’s). Not content with stripping away our bodily autonomy, judges and legislators (and their pundit henchmen) are eager to crush contraceptive access and LGBTQ rights (and even, some are already worrying, our ability to get a divorce).

The sex-ed boom

But Blume’s book endures at a hopeful moment in at least one way for everyone born with a uterus (and those who love and rely on us). Many US youngsters increasingly lack the sex ed that would let them learn about their own periods, and people on the other edge of the reproductive spectrum aren’t much better off: menopause is often shrouded in as much confusion, shame, and misinformation as the onset of menstruation. But medical and sexual health educators like The Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto author Dr. Jen Gunter are now using their platforms to demystify and destigmatize menopause for the masses.

Many sexuality educators with large social-media platforms (including Ericka Hart, Dr. Uchenna Ossai, and Philly’s own Erica Smith, who has recently gone public about her own experience with perimenopause) are providing the kind of info millions like me glimpsed in Blume’s books—facts that would’ve changed my life if I had access to them as a teen mired in purity culture.

Judy Blume is a human right

Knowledge is power, which is why contemporary right-wingers are again frothing for book bans (even outpacing those of the 1980s, Blume recently noted), alongside educational policies that seem to posit periods won’t happen if we just don’t mention them—which is not, last I checked, how bodies work.

Access to the facts is a human right. Modern sexuality educators daily demonstrate that sex ed is an essential lifetime project, not a single embarrassing session for tweens. In reality, we never stop learning, feeling, and transitioning, just like the women of the Margaret movie.

People who pick up Judy Blume’s books today, and continue to fight for everyone’s access to diverse, meaningful stories, are standing up for education, empathy, and a better future. Because we must, we must, we must increase our trust in ourselves, and in each other.

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