The new movie, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” based on the eponymous Judy Blume book, could not be better timed, given the growing censorship of books in school libraries across the country. And I can’t recommend it enough. Everyone opposed to book bannings should fight back by buying a ticket. It’s not propaganda; it’s simply a fabulous film.
The theme is menstruation. It describes how a clique of 11-year-old girls obsess about their approaching menarche and who will get their periods first. It is not, however, just for families with pre-teen girls, although it performs a real service for them. This quiet, funny, moving slice-of-life period piece tells a universal story — because menstruation and menarche are universal. It’s a touching, charming gem with flawless acting, script and directing. Go see it!
I’m ashamed I never read the book. My excuse is that I was 14 when it came out and it felt just a bit too young. Plus, I foolishly assumed from the title that it was religious. Far from it! I’m sorry that I missed a rare early story celebrating us “Nones” and describing parents like my own who were fiercely adamant that children should be allowed to grow up without indoctrination to decide about religion for themselves when old enough. Margaret’s talking to “God” is a device that reveals her inner thoughts. In the movie she eventually realizes, like John Lennon in his song “God,” that “I just believe in me.”
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” speaks in particular to one contemporary Dark Ages Florida bill that, among many other problems, bans even the mention of menstruation until the sixth grade. I first heard about the bill after reading an interview of Judy Blume a few weeks ago, and could hardly believe the bill was real. Blume’s book first came out in 1970, but didn’t really become the target of bans until the Reagan era. As Blume has said, “It’s worse than the ’80s, because of the way it’s coming from government. ”And what just passed in Florida is much, much worse than those 1980s book bans.
Even the private conversations Margaret and her club have about periods will be banned from taking place in Florida public schools. This parody of a bill has now passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature. It is sure to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has endorsed it. After all, DeSantis wears the “full armor of God,” and “God” is very anti-menstruation, as I’ll get to in a moment. The bill prohibits any instruction on human sexuality until the sixth grade, or anything else “inappropriate,” extending Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” classroom provisions from the third to the eighth grade. For good measure, it would force books like Judy Blume’s off shelves if they’re challenged, prior to any review.
Who are these dinosaurs who quail at the very mention of menstruation? They are largely male, as is the sponsor, state Rep. Stan McClain. Women still hold 40 percent of Senate and House seats in Florida, even though they are the majority in the state.
State Rep. Ashley Gantt valiantly challenged McClain’s bill on the Florida floor, saying, “Imagine a little girl in fourth grade, going to the bathroom and finding blood in her panties and thinking that she is dying. She doesn’t actually know what’s going on. And her teacher does not even have the ability to tell her that this is a part of life.”
She asked McClain: “So if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?”
McClain actually responded, “It would.”
The taboo of menstruation has its Western roots in the bible, which treats the female body as a hygienic horror and calls periods and those having them “unclean.” According to the “holy book” favored by DeSantis and McClain, a menstruous woman is unclean seven days and must be “put apart.” Whoever touches her is unclean, the bed is unclean, the furniture is unclean. (Leviticus 15:19-25)
But this bill goes beyond mere squeamishness. It’s a pathological denial of reality and an “othering” of girls and women. At least every other human being from an average age of 12 to 50 is menstruating once a month, or otherwise dealing with menstrual cycles. The average age of menarche in the United States is 12.4 years. Menarche is beginning at younger and younger ages, and can start as early as 9, as Gantt pointed out. The monthly shedding of an unfertilized egg and the lining of the uterus is a by-product of being able to conceive and have babies — something most fundamentalists and Christian nationalist legislators seem very keen that women do, whether they want to or not. Yet we dare not educate and properly prepare children about this natural function? The start of menstruation ought to be greeted with celebration, not shame. In fact, that’s one of the takeaways of the movie version of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
After watching the documentary, “Judy Blume Forever,” and reading and seeing countless interviews of Blume, who is now a youthful and spritely 85, I can only say that she is my new hero. Her goal was to tell truthful stories to children and teenagers. And uttering such truths has never been more needed in our polarized country. Thank you, Judy Blume, and thank you, Kelly Fremon Craig, for directing a movie of Blume’s classic that captures that truth.