Why Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is as relevant today as ever
When Judy Blume first published her tween young fiction novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, there was an outcry. People were shocked at its open discussion of periods and puberty. Not only that, but also its assertion that a child should be allowed to decide for themselves which religion to belong to, if at all.
The 1970 Nixon-era book follows 11-year-old Margaret, who moves with her mother and father from New York City to the ‘burbs of New Jersey. It’s a tricky transition not just for Margaret but also for her mother and paternal grandmother as Margaret and her mother, Barbara, attempt to navigate the change in lifestyle, fit in, and try to make friends. Meanwhile, Margaret’s Jewish grandmother struggles with the distance from her beloved granddaughter following the move, and feelings of loneliness.
The film adaptation is a faithful translation of the novel. It builds out elements such as the mother’s role, which makes the story not only more cinematic but also more easy to read universally for women of all ages. It helps that the three central women in the story are portrayed with rounded, sensitive, accomplished, and nuanced performances by Abby Ryder Fortson as young Margaret Simon, Rachel McAdams as her mom, Barbara, and Kathy Bates as grandma Sylvia.
But isn’t it outdated?
There’s never before been a screen adaptation of Blume’s book – which is surprising when you consider its impact. Most stories with this kind of popularity have been snapped up and adapted long ago. But not Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It isn’t for want of trying.
Blume herself has been particularly choosy over how her work is treated. But when writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig wanted to adapt her story – so utterly precious to a generation of women – Blume finally felt the pieces slot into place. Blume had seen the director’s Edge of Seventeen, and loved it. As Blume told Entertainment Weekly, “Kelly came with credentials. I don’t think anyone else had ever come to me with that kind of credential.”
And so here we are, with the first ever movie adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal work. If you’re scratching your head about the prospect – in 2023 – of a 1970s-set period piece about girls growing up, you’re not alone. In the wake of releases such as Pixar’s Turning Red, and Disney+ MCU series Ms Marvel covering similar ground in an arguably more 2023 way – and in a movie landscape where only big, loud, action-packed CGI-heavy blockbusters seem to do the business at the box office – AYTGIMM might seem outdated. But Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is actually just as relevant – and powerful – as ever. Here’s why.
Addressing body image
Women and girls have long been subjected to pressures around what their bodies should look like. In the 1970s, magazines and movies showcased women with certain body types and held them up as desirable. Thousands of years ago, art did the same, celebrating curvaceousness. Today, you can argue that the pressure to look a certain way is more insidious and prevalent than ever. It’s increasingly permeating new and existing parts of our culture (and extending more to men, too) as the ever-present shadow of social media delivers “ideal” body types to our eyeballs countless times a day.
In Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Margaret and her friends desperately want to be ‘womanly’ and desirable. In the movie, they thumb the pages of Margaret’s dad’s Playboy magazine to marvel at the women’s forms. They compare their bodies to the models who line the pages. They perform exercises designed to increase the size of their breasts (“We must, we must, we must increase our bust”) while making a rule that they all must wear bras, even if they don’t need them, before comparing sizes.
Margaret’s friends both admire and judge one particularly developed girl in their class. They see her desired by boys at school, and want some of that. Jealousy, and fear, causes them to label her and ostracise her. Conforming to a certain body type ultimately means acceptance, and success. Once Margaret gets to know the girl in question, of course, she finds a human being also desperate to fit in and find acceptance.
These issues are as pressing today as they were in the 1970s. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret addresses them in a simple way, removed from some of the complications of life in the 21st century, that resonates.
The rush to grow up
Even in the 1970s, kids were in a rush to grow up. Margaret and her sixth-grade friends are all at that in-between stage where they are beginning to put aside childish things and wanting to explore more adult feelings and interests.
It can feel as though children are losing their innocence earlier and earlier. A TikTok video posted just this morning featured a mom perturbed by the fact she’d overheard boys as young as 8 or 9 talking about girls in offensively sexual terms.
We’re influenced by the things we see and hear, and it can seem harder than ever to protect impressionable children from things meant for adult eyes and ears. While Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is recognising that children want to be both independent (it’s so annoying being told what to do whatever your age!) and embrace what they consider grown-up, it also celebrates the joy of being young. The story subtly reminds its young audience to not be in a rush to grow into adulthood.
The film makes otherwise hackneyed scenes like singing into a hairbrush microphone in your bedroom or prancing under a sprinkler un-self consciously with your friend wearing a swimsuit feel like real moments. The type of moments that should be preserved for as long as possible through childhood and young adulthood.
A reminder there’s life beyond social media
Childhood today is marked by the ever-present smartphone. Smartphones and social media mean that kids have a far wider sphere of influence than they have ever had in the past. TikTok and Instagram provide daily messaging as powerful as kids’ physical peers – telling them what to wear, what to say, what to like, and how to be. They’re also open to bullying and negative influences – and online dangers – today around the clock.
Regional slang expressions are dying out in favour of universal sayings, just as is, it seems, discovering individuality and activities away from a screen, or those endorsed by what’s shown on a screen. In Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, there are no smartphones. The childhoods depicted are marked by worries and troubles, sure, but they’re also characterised by innocence and fun and character-building encounters and experiences.
One of the film’s strengths, in releasing in 2023, is in reminding not just its young audience but also the rest of us that there are special experiences to discover away from social media. Put down your handset, and experience life.
Women’s roles under the spotlight
One of the most powerful aspects of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is Barbara Simon’s subplot. She’s an artist, but the move to the suburbs sees her trying to fulfill a more traditional wife and mother role. She’s volunteering for the PTA, she’s trying to raise her daughter ‘right’, and she’s doing the school run.
But you can see a progressive woman in there, fighting not to be boxed in. Once Barbara re-embraces her art in the film, and asserts herself in front of her own parents with whom she’s attempted a reconciliation following a falling out, Barbara becomes truly herself.
But she’s not the only woman in the film struggling against societal pressure. Margaret is too, and ultimately, after trying to fit in with both the pressures put on her by new friend Nancy and the group she creates, and by extension society’s ideas of what a woman should be, she is able to make a breakthrough. She eventually establishes her own ideas of who she is and builds a personal connection with God and faith that isn’t dictated by external forces.
It’s partly down to a mother, and father, who prioritise autonomy for their daughter. From the moment Barbara warns Margaret of the pitfalls of not wearing socks but lets her do it anyway, you know that Barbara is a wonderful mother. In an age when women are still fighting against the limits and expectations put on them by society, as well as misogyny and even bodily autonomy, never has this message been more important.
An antidote to superhero fatigue
There’s been talk about superhero movie fatigue for a while now. In 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began ushering in a whole new cinematic era with its release of Iron Man. That film became the building blocks for a franchise that is at the time of writing 31-movies strong. The 32nd is just days away. And that’s not to mention the associated streaming series. With other studios following suit and attempting to build their own cinematic universes and multi-instalment franchises, the box office has been dominated in recent years by big-budget, action and CGI-heavy blockbusters.
As critics and audiences alike begin to turn on this steady diet of bombastic fare, there’s never been a better time for quieter, more meditative stories on the big screen, alongside truly family-orientated options.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie smashed box office records recently, and it did so partly because of a lack of family film options. Yes, it’s a formulaic crowd-pleaser, but it proved that the audiences are there, post-pandemic, for something that’s not the typical fare we’ve been served. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret couldn’t come at a better time to fill that gap and offer a true alternative to the MCU and its contemporaries.
May Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret kickstart more variety at the top of the Box Office charts. If you were in any doubt, the film is Judy Blume-ing marvellous.