judy blume intv vpx
Judy Blume: Puberty is such a dirty word to some people
06:52 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Parents, beware: A terrifying new threat is invading movie theaters across the country this weekend. It’s not the one with gore-vomiting mommy demons, or the latest chapter in a franchise with the unofficial motto, “Guns. Lots of guns.” No, it’s so much more upsetting than that: In this movie, an 11-year-old girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) talks about wanting to get her period.

Sara Stewart

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” a film adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved 1970 novel, is getting rave reviews, with a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. The classic young adult book has been translated by director Kelly Fremon Craig into an oh-so-slightly modernized movie, still set in 1970, chronicling a year in the life of pre-teen Margaret. It’s a big year, too: Margaret’s parents move the family from Manhattan to suburban New Jersey; she’s growing anxious about the onset of puberty and whether she’s developing quickly enough to be “normal”; and she’s grappling with big questions about religion, as her nonreligious parents have told her she can choose her own faith when she’s old enough.

The movie’s arrival makes for a darkly absurdist cultural moment. It’s National Library Week, the time of the year when the American Library Association comes out with its annual list of the top 10 most challenged books. Says the ALA: “Libraries in every state faced another year of unprecedented attempts to ban books. In 2022, ALA tracked the highest number of censorship reports since the association began compiling data about library censorship more than 20 years ago.” They report a 38% increase in challenged titles from 2021 to 2022, and noted that most of the titles are by or about LGBTQIA+ people and people of color.

This occasion dovetails perfectly with “Margaret,” one of the most-challenged titles of Blume’s alongside her teenage romance “Forever”. “Margaret” is a favorite target of book banning advocates because of its discussions of puberty, specifically menstruation, and because it contains a character questioning the validity of religion and encountering a pair of cruel antisemites in her avidly Christian maternal grandparents, who have disowned Margaret’s mother for marrying a Jewish man.

Any sane person will recognize that both of these objections are asinine — not that that ever stopped a book-banning campaign. But I think there’s a bigger reason why the GOP might consider “Margaret” a dangerous movie: It takes a wholly realistic view of toxic people and how to deal with them. Blume has an unmatched ability to dive into the messy complexity of human relationships in her young adult books. In “Margaret,” one of the most interesting plotlines is the title character’s social circle, starting with her domineering neighbor Nancy Wheeler (played with great aplomb by Elle Graham). She’s bossy, she’s insensitive, she’s capable of being cruel to easy targets… and she’s a lot of fun.

Blume rendered this portrayal of frenemy-hood long before that was a word; it may still be set 50 years ago, but it feels as fresh as ever. (A parallel storyline, which I believe has been added to the film, follows her mom’s more cautious relationship to Nancy’s alpha-mom character.) Then, of course, there are Margaret’s antisemitic grandparents, who show up hoping she’ll come into the Christian fold and – spoiler alert – are sent packing. If kids come away from the movie, or book, better prepared to navigate relationships with a-holes, maybe they’ll also be better prepared to push back against the bigots trying to take away their rights and their education.

Get Our Free Weekly Newsletter

There’s even a plot point in “Margaret” that functions as a direct response – albeit a coincidental one – to the latest piece of backwards GOP legislation. In the film, Margaret’s much-anticipated trip to Florida to see her grandmother (Kathy Bates) has to be scrapped. And that’s just as well, because in our present-day reality, Florida Republicans think students in fifth grade or younger shouldn’t be educated about, or allowed to talk openly about, their period or anyone else’s. In March, Florida Rep. Stan McClain introduced legislation that would ban any discussion of menstruation in schools before middle school (which starts at a later age than many girls get their first periods). The bill, currently in the Florida Senate, is cruel, offensive, misogynist and completely of a piece with the GOP’s relentless campaign of censorship.

Thankfully, one of Blume’s greatest strengths is never, ever talking down to her young readers. She takes them and their problems very seriously, even when writing the comedic parts. And it is condescending in the extreme to tell today’s embattled kids they aren’t allowed to read books that make them feel understood.

For better and worse, the GOP isn’t trying to ban movies – yet. So I truly hope this one makes a killing at the box office, and that every single kid who wants to see it gets to. For one of the most lovely, gentle, good-hearted movies I’ve seen in years, “Margaret” makes for a hell of a battle cry.