I have been thinking about it quite a lot lately: It was 1982, in central New Jersey, and I was in fourth grade, probably wearing corduroy pants and braces. A brave boy named Scott strode to the front of the class to present his book report. “The name of my book is ‘Are you There God? It’s me, Margaret.’” In my memory, the girls in the room let out a collective gasp. Was he really going to talk about that book? “It’s about a girl waiting to get her period,” Scott continued.
“What’s a period?” one of the other boys called out. I felt smug for knowing. Like most of the girls, I had already read the book, but I remember feeling scandalized that a boy would read it, let alone talk about it in front of the whole class.
Flash forward to 2023. This book, which I had not thought about in years, is back in the news now that a film version has finally been released. In a fit of nostalgia, I desperately wanted to see the movie when it opened. I sent out a group text, but no one from my core group of friends was available for a “girl’s night.” Bummer. Maybe I would go by myself. Maybe — and the idea seemed more right the more I thought about it — maybe I would bring my husband and my two sons, now aged 10 and 14. Actually, they were exactly who I wanted to watch the movie with.
I love being a mom of boys. In a house bursting with male energy, I try hard to include books and movies with female leads and perspectives. Story time favorites have included picture books about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Emma Lazarus (thank you, PJ Library!). While the boys have been obsessed at various times in their childhood with Fireman Sam, Spider-man and Captain Underpants, I also introduced Alice in Wonderland and Katniss Everdeen. I took them to see “Captain Marvel” with Brie Larson and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” with the incredible Angela Bassett. I want my boys to see women as smart and capable, as agents of their own destinies, as deserving stories that center around their ambitions and desires.
Still, despite my efforts, I know that most of the media my family consumes (myself included) is largely from the point of view of men. I worry that even when my kids watch the narratives of girls and women (much of which is on YouTube and TikTok), they are largely being presented for the male gaze and approval.
“Are You There God?” is different. The movie is based on a book written by Judy Blume, a woman, with a screenplay written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, a woman, and acted by a fabulous cast of women including tween girls who look like tween girls (no obvious makeup, and no over-sexualization, even if they are talking about their burgeoning sexuality). This is a movie that is true to the female experience, with all the raw emotions, growing pains and yes, the bloody details. I love that the book and the movie explore a preteen girl’s dreams and fears as serious concerns. I want my boys to know that girls’ and women’s thoughts and feelings matter, and that they are not so different from their own. I can watch “Spider-man” and imagine the thrill of swinging on a web along a city’s rooftops. Surely my boys can watch girls in a suburban bedroom and relate to their concerns about their changing bodies, conflicts with parents and even spirituality. Like Margaret, my boys have parents who were raised in two different faiths, and I’m sure they have questions.
Most importantly, I was proud to sit unflinchingly next to my sons in the theater watching girls trying on a training bra and examining a sanitary napkin. Maybe it’s because I am a doctor, or because I grew up in a house where we didn’t talk openly about such things, but it is so important to me that my boys feel comfortable with their bodies and with the basic facts of biology. They have known about menstruation since they were toddlers asking about my hygiene products that they noticed in the bathroom. I believe strongly in unabashed communication about such things. In my years of medical practice, I have seen adults who don’t know the real names for their body parts, or who delayed essential medical care due to embarrassment. I want my boys to be able to ask questions or advocate for their peers who may not be able to. Bringing my boys to this movie is a message — to them, to whoever tabulates movie revenues — that human reproduction is not shameful. It is something we can and should talk about with our kids.
In 2023, when sex ed is once again being banned, where religious doctrine is stifling our public schools, and where children’s questions about their changing bodies are more important than ever, I feel that Judy Blume’s story has lessons for all of us — adults and kids of all genders. I wish that every fourth grade boy would have the opportunity to spend some time with Margaret.