Margaret was there. God was there. We've all been there.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Maybe this is just me, but when I glimpse a pack of preteens in the wild I have this visceral reaction. I’ll be watching them jostle shoppers at the mall or order whip-topped frappes at Starbucks, and an unbidden phrase will enter my mind: ThankGodthankGodthankGodthankGod.
As in, Thank God I’m safely ensconced in my twenties. Thank God I’m no longer trapped in that hellscape which we call ‘puberty.’
I was there, though. We’ve all been there, because the only path from childhood to adulthood is across a rickety bridge boobytrapped with mood swings and pimples and hair in strange places and cliques and crushes and general awkwardness.
So, I’ll amend my earlier statement. Thank God I’m no longer thirteen, but, also, thank God that when I was thirteen, I had Judy Blume.
Blume (a.k.a. the Queen of the Preteen Experience) has enjoyed a real Hollywood Renaissance lately. The documentary Judy Blume Forever hit streaming services early this year, and the film adaptation of her beloved novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (hereafter AYTGIMM) was released on April 28.
AYTGIMM – the novel – is tremendously compassionate and honest. Blume has a talent for tackling topics preteens loathe talking about. Periods and training bras seem just as mundane as growing an inch or buying a new toothbrush under her skillful pen.
The book was published in 1970, an astonishing fifty-plus years ago. I say astonishing, because the story feels just as current now as it did in the Disco Decade. Its 2023 film adaptation sports a groovy 70s aesthetic, but the topics it addresses are painfully relevant. Case in point – fifty years later, I swear some folks are still reluctant to discuss periods above a whisper.
When I arrived at my small-town theater’s evening showing of AYTGIMM, it had been a good decade, at least, since I’d read AYTGIMM. I still remembered bits and pieces, though – Margaret’s friend Nancy lying about getting her period, for example, and the unforgettable refrain, “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” (If you know, you know.)
I’m happy to report that revisiting the story as an adult gave me a new perspective on AYTGIMM. Margaret may be the titular character, but at the ripe old age of 27 I can see that Blume intentionally surrounded her with strong, female characters whom I overlooked as a child. What can I say? When I was ten, I thought adults were boring.
At its core, AYTGIMM is about navigating change. It’s easy to see how Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), with her changing body, beliefs, and identity, fits that theme. However, Margaret Simon is the youngest of three generations of Simon women who remind us that everyone has to navigate change sometimes, no matter how old they are.
Margaret’s mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) is an artist-turned-homemaker who is struggling to reconcile what she really wants with the tedious expectations of her new community of suburban housewives. Margaret’s grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates) is a blunt but loving figure, devoted to her granddaughter and attempting to chart a new chapter of her life after her immediate family moves away.
Margaret’s exploits are at the forefront of the story, and we commiserate with her as she buys pads from a male cashier at the drugstore (cringe), gets a pinch to grow an inch – you know where – from a heinous boy at school (BOO) and is measured for a ‘grow bra’ smack-dab in the middle of a department store (why?!).
However, Margaret’s mother and grandmother remind us that you don’t get to grow out of change. Neither Barbara nor Sylvia are free from it. We also watch as change attempts to force Barbara and Sylvia – and Margaret – into ‘molds’ which don’t quite fit their identities. Society wants a woman who is a mother, a grandmother, or a twelve-year-old girl to ‘be’ a certain thing, but Barbara, Sylvia and Margaret don’t always find the transition to be a graceful one.
Sylvia is initially fitted for the ‘solitary old lady’ mold, left all by her lonesome when her family moves away. Barbara quits a job she loves and tries out the ‘housewife’ mold, which leaves her muddling through daily housekeeping chores she hates.
Margaret fumbles with many molds, but the one concerning her religious identity is arguably the most interesting. Her father’s family is Jewish while her mother’s family are devout Christians, and she finds herself pulled in opposite directions as each set of grandparents vies for her ideological allegiance.
(As an aside, the only gripe I have with AYTGIMM (the movie) is how it resolves this issue. In the novel, Margaret decides to embrace both sides of her identity – the Christian side and the Jewish side. In the film, after a stormy scene in which Margaret decides she may not believe in God at all, the only resolution we get is when Margaret offers God a generic ‘Thanks an awful lot’ after she finally gets her period. I’m not suggesting Margaret has to pick a religion to be happy and fulfilled, but I was looking for a little more closure on this.)
Anyway, Margaret breaks the mold when she refuses to choose just one religion (in the book), and Sylvia proves you’re never too old to remake your life when she jets off to Florida to enjoy the attentions of an eligible bachelor named Mr. Binamin (it rhymes with cinnamon). Barbara – you bad-ass lady, you – turns down a PTA committee assignment with the best line ever:
“I’d love to. But, um, I don’t want to.”
(Did anyone else think of Phoebe just now? No? Just me?)
So, to sum up, don’t be fooled by AYTGIMM’s packaging. It presents as a colorful tween flick – and in some ways it is – but it is also a deeply empathetic examination, and celebration, of womanhood in its many forms, challenges, and joys.