Friday, May 26, 2023

A Review of the Film Are You There God? It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume by an 18 Year Old Male Student: Why He Says This Movie is a Timely as Ever and Needs to be Seen

By Ashton Samson

On Friday, April 28th 2023, an eighteen-year old guy and his mother walked into a movie theater to watch a feature film adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal and timeless novel, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. The young adult and his mother entered the moderately crowded theater, filled to the brim with older women and teenage girls. The only men in the theater were two older men who were seated with their wives. 

And then there was the eighteen year old male. 

Hopefully you’ve caught on by now that that person was me. At first, when I sat down, a feeling of embarrassment fell over me. As a young man, I felt that I was intruding on the lives of these women who wanted to attend what seemed to have been a rite of passage for over fifty years. In some shape or form, many females get exposed to the writing of Judy Blume and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret seems to be at the top of the list of novels that females relate to and adore.

Despite this, as soon as the film commenced, I realized that there was nothing to be embarrassed about. The film is not only an enlightening, informative one that males would benefit from watching, but a rewarding examination of individual spirituality versus organized religion and body positivity that anyone can relate to and take away lessons from in any era.  
My interest in Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret developed when I learned that the novel was one of many literary works that has been consistently banned in schools all over the U.S. It has been my experience that any novel that gets banned is worth reading, perhaps more so than novels that aren’t. And why is this?

Because novels that get banned often do so because there is a theme or overall plot present that to an intellectual, well-informed person, is very rewarding and affirming. Banned novels get banned either because the work challenges authority and conformity in some way (such as another famous banned book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), is in some way excessively violent or vulgar in nature (Lord of the Flies), or as is the case with Blume’s novel, is honest in its discussion of sexuality and puberty, as well as in critiquing organized religion. 

When it comes to the content of the film and the novel, I was utterly horrified to discover that it had been banned at all. Now, let’s talk about the content and why such themes should not be met with derision, but embraced and taught everywhere as accepted facts.

First and foremost, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret is both praised and (ludicrously so) critiqued for its honest, accurate exploration of a girl going through puberty and learning to deal with her changing body. In a seemingly perpetual list of films that treat puberty quite awkwardly, the story’s exploration of Margaret’s and other character’s journeys into puberty is refreshing and satisfying. 

In the film, characters go through the trials and tribulations of growing breasts, having their periods and putting pads in their underwear. Abby Ryder Fortson, a rising teen star who plays Margaret brilliantly in one of the most heartfelt, charismatic and sympathetic young performances on the big screen, makes the scene a standout as she hops around her bedroom trying to get the pad on just right.

And of course, in the now frequently enacted and quoted scenes where Margaret and her friends chant “I must, I must, I must increase my bust,” the young actors are hilarious and believable. These are facts of life that every woman goes through and yet, a woman having her period for the first time and putting a pad on has never been explored on film to the degree that it is in this film or in Blume’s novel. It is the pinnacle of revolutionary scenes in a film and novel that are already famous for being exactly that. 

There was this feeling beforehand, in both the world of literature and film, that describing or showing such a thing was not accepted; it was taboo. In fact, when the novel was first released in 1970, there was an exceptional lack of knowledge and access to resources for females when it came to puberty and growing up. Now, it is even more important that we champion films such as this that give females who are on the cusp of puberty and who are ready to learn a means by which to gain knowledge as well as to feel seen and heard. 

As Judy Blume recently stated in an article published by The New York Times, “I’m worried that if we’re just complacent and laugh about it—like, that’s ridiculous, you can’t stop young girls from standing around in elementary school talking about periods. And it is laughable, and it would be great if it was just a joke. But it’s not.”

The film is opening up a dialogue with a new generation regarding the importance of learning about one’s body and having conversations that will make us all feel less alone. Not only does the film discuss puberty in such an honest light, it also serves as a thorough examination of the importance of body positivity and the hellishness of what comes before that acceptance–humiliation about looking different from how society wants you to look. 

Throughout most of the film, Margaret, a girl who again, has next to nothing in the way of knowledge pertaining to what puberty really is, simply follows a group of three other girls, Nancy Wheeler, played by a hilarious and scene-stealing Elle Graham, with supporting roles going to Gretchen Potter played by Katharine Mallen Kupferer and Janie Loomis played by Amari Alexis Price. Margaret, Gretchen and Janie, who are portrayed by the respective actors as being timid and more lacking in knowledge and confidence in contrast to Nancy, who Graham plays as a perfect encapsulation of the know-it-all group leader, simply follow what she says. Your breasts have to get bigger, you have to get your period early, otherwise you’re a freak and so on. 

The film clearly is critiquing this kind of behavior and ultimately dispels any notions that you have to look one way or another. Margaret eventually gets her period and so does Nancy, Gretchen and Janie, but in their own time. They learn that there is nothing wrong with their bodies for growing slower and at different times. They also learn that just because a classmate of theirs, Laura, is the furthest along in puberty, doesn’t mean she’s easy. 

The film charts an honest progression for women’s reactions to puberty, commencing with the feeling that girls will make fun of themselves and others for their different bodies, and ending with the acceptance that everyone looks different. Thus, the film seems to say in emotional, but fantastic conclusory scenes, that we should dispel the notion that there is only one acceptable female body type. The film also says we should stop scorning those who have already grown and terminate the stereotypes associated with them. These are facts of life.

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, by admission through Blume’s title, is an exploration of religion. The story is one that ultimately speaks to the importance of individuality. Whether it is to one's body and puberty, or one’s spirituality, the story argues that everyone has their own path to chart on a philosophical and corporeal level, and we must each learn to respect the individual’s journey in life. 

Margaret spends the whole movie bound to what her friends define puberty to be and what her parents and grandparents define religion to be, which creates conflict. The film, on a structural level, brilliantly and concisely explores the struggles of being held to the standards of someone else–a testament to truly exceptional screenwriting is how the audience, like Margaret, feels the piling on of one conflict to the next, in a monotonous, seemingly perpetual cycle. 

Her life in these two hours is one immense crucible, a test of her ability to handle crises of the body and of the soul, which in the filmmaking world, is exactly what you want. Film is drama and all drama is conflict. Anyway, ultimately, Margaret learns agency and autonomy. She stops hanging out with Nancy for a while, awaits puberty the right way, befriends Laura and apologizes to her for assuming she was "easy" like her friends did. 

In a revelatory and dramatic high for the film, Margaret tells her grandparents on both sides (one side is Jewish, the other Catholic) as well as her parents that she rejects organized religion and says she doesn’t even believe in God. She chooses her own interests and desires in a moment that is immensely satisfying and one I’m sure that many teens have wanted to replicate over the years. It will never not be satisfying to see someone fight against conforming to what everyone else believes is right, especially when it involves topics such as puberty and religion, which are both flawed and can tear apart one’s family unit.

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret is a truly extraordinary film that adapts its source with reverence and care. It’s an empathetic story for the ages, that everyone should flock to see for its insight into the power of individuality, on both a spiritual and corporeal level. The novel never should have been banned in the first place, but instead universally revered for its essential truths. Women and girls, men and boys alike should go see it, because the themes presented transcend gender and transcend age. 

We should all learn to be like Margaret, powerful in her agency and aware of her individual truths. In the final scene of this momentous film, Margaret while in her bedroom, alone, speaks to her God. She doesn’t speak to a God that is defined by a flawed organized religious group, nor is she speaking to God at all perhaps, but the universe. Who cares who or what she’s talking to? She says “Thanks. Thanks an awful lot,” in response to getting her period. 

Margaret, our young and bright hero in shining armor who we should all strive to be, has finally defeated puberty and religion in one fell swoop. I left the theater with a large smile plastered to my face, feeling that I should thank Margaret and by default, the woman who willed her into existence, so I’ll do that here. Thank you Judy. Thanks an awful lot.

Images Courtesy of Are You There God? It's Me Margaret