In 1970, kid-lit icon Judy Blume published a novel that rocked young adult literature – so much so that, as recently as 2009, it was one of the most frequently challenged or banned books in schools and libraries in the US. Regardless, Blume’s tour de force book, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, has been loved by girls worldwide for more than 50 years. Its down-to-earth, raw discussions of adolescence still resonate, despite advancing technology and changing cultural conversations about women’s bodies. So when the long-awaited film adaptation was released last week, I was first in line to see it. Many of its first reviews focused on Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), her fascination with her changing body, and the story’s still-radical portrayal of puberty – but I was more impressed by the story’s portrayal of the other titular character: God.
Judy Blume’s Margaret
For those who didn’t grow up with the book, a quick synopsis:
It’s 1970, and 11-year-old Margaret Simon’s parents decide to move from New York City to suburban New Jersey. In response, Margaret utters a prayer from which the book gets its title. This act alone is particularly unusual for her as the daughter of a Jewish father (Benny Safdie) and a Christian mother (Rachel McAdams) who have decided to let her choose a faith tradition when she’s older.
When her new teacher, Mr. Benedict, learns that she “hates” religious holidays because her family doesn’t celebrate them, he suggests that she explore religion for her sixth-grade research project. Though Margaret’s spiritual life doesn’t at all resemble how her family and friends imagine faith, God is her safe space, the one to whom she pours out all of her thoughts about new friends, boys, and above all – her overwhelming desire to grow breasts and get her period.
Margaret’s Struggles in Her Spiritual Search
In the book, Margaret’s lack of religious identity sends shockwaves through her classmates and other adults. But in 2023, her situation is much more common: According to 2021 Pew Research Center data, 3 in 10 US adults are “nones,” meaning that they identify with no particular faith tradition.
In the film, it’s Margaret’s spiritual seeking that itself causes a stir. When her parents become angry that her paternal grandmother (Kathy Bates) took her to a Shabbat service, Margaret insists that it was her own idea and that she wants to go to a Christian church, too. The dialogue hints at her parents’ own unhealed religious trauma: Her mother’s parents disowned her for marrying a Jewish man, and her father quips that going to temple turned him off to going to temple. But Margaret keeps searching for answers, telling God, “I won’t make any decisions without asking you first. I think it’s time for me to decide what to be.”
At the heart of each person’s spiritual journey is a search for identity: Who am I and why am I here? These questions, explicitly or not, are even more overwhelming during adolescence, when we’re confronted with conflicting opinions about who we are and what we should be.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Margaret’s Christian grandparents, Jewish grandmother, and interfaith parents get into a heated argument about which religion Margaret should belong to. Margaret finally stands up and screams at them to stop fighting, saying that she doesn’t believe in God anyway, and she later concludes in her research paper for Mr. Benedict that all religion does is cause conflict.
This is the culmination of Margaret’s “dark night of the soul.” We know that she doesn’t really want to believe that God doesn’t exist, but she’s frustrated that she can’t find Him, especially in people who claim to follow Him. In another scene, where she stumbles into a confessional, she laments, “I’ve been looking for you, God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all. Not the way I do when I talk to you at night. Why God? Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?”
Margaret Teaches Us to Be Honest with God in Our Prayers
It’s been 20 years since I first read Blume’s book. As I watched the film as an adult, I was struck by how honest Margaret is with God in her prayers. She doesn’t filter anything as “too inappropriate for church”; she says what’s on her mind and doesn’t apologize for it. It reminds me of how someone once described Eucharistic adoration to St. John Vianney: “I look at him, and he looks at me.” Blume shows the reader that God isn’t afraid of Margaret’s big feelings and hard questions, even when the adults in her life are.
There is no come to Jesus (or Yahweh) moment in the story; Margaret doesn’t pick a side at the end. But, as the film’s ending shows, she doesn’t need to. She just turned 12. She has a lifetime of growing and learning to do, even if she feels so grown up at the same time. She doesn’t know which religion is “right” yet, but she knows that God is real, and that’s enough for now.
In the final scene, Margaret finally gets what she’s longed for all year: her period. Her closing prayer gives a glimmer of the continuation of her spiritual growth, and it’s one that anyone, no matter where they are on their walk of faith, can pray: “Are you still there God? It’s me, Margaret. I know you’re there, God. I know you wouldn’t have missed this for anything! Thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot…”