Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret: Deep Dive
These Books Made Me is proud to welcome guest writer Aya Martin to highlight the topics explored in our Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret episode.
If you listen to the stories girls grow up into either monsters, women, or both. Nowhere is this more evident than horror movies like Carrie, where the onset of puberty is also the onset of Carrie’s telekinesis or Gingersnaps where becoming a woman means becoming a werewolf. It’s less obvious but still present in books like Are You There God it’s Me Margaret? where girls long for and celebrate their bodies changes but something lurks in the frame. It’s true that when Margaret first menstruates she isn’t, like Carrie, pelted with tampons but becoming a woman is still complicated, even if Margaret seems insulated from it, and we can tell because of the character of Laura Denker.
To be really clear: I stan Laura Denker: it isn’t her fault she has breasts at a young age and it isn’t her fault everyone gossips about her. If you haven’t read Are You There God It’s Me Margaret? Laura’s main character trait is her chest and her plot is the way people mistreat her because of it. My favorite/least favorite moment involving Laura is when Margaret finds out they’ve both been invited to a party and says she can’t imagine Laura at a party: ““Do you think she’ll come?” I asked, trying to picture Laura at a party.” Picturing Laura shouldn’t be hard: she’s in Margaret’s class and they even work on a school project together, but Margaret has so othered and alienated Laura she can’t imagine her doing basic things like being in a room which, you know, is something Laura Denker has been doing in front of Margaret daily since school started. But Laura is too different, too alien, perhaps too monstrous to imagine doing everyday things.
When we hear from Laura we hear how difficult it is to be a girl in the process of becoming a woman: “Think about how you’d feel” Laura says “if you had to wear a bra in the fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys called you dirty names just because of how you looked.” Laura has become the monster the other girls long to be — and she doesn’t recommend the experience. I was shocked to realize that what Laura is describing, through the Judy Blume-ness of it all, is body horror.
According to writer Julia Armfield body horror is “a trope that springs from primal fears — from the knowledge of oneself as a physical object” Margaret and her friends seem to turn body-horror on its head, longing for the transformation of their bodies into physical objects but maybe while they beg god for their periods they forget about the element of transformation that will make them horrific: they aren’t just becoming bodies they are becoming women. Consider Laura’s clear disgust at her body: her anger at having to wear a bra so young, her attempts to cover her breasts with her arms. From her perspective, this is a horrific transformation and she isn’t the only one to connect women’s bodies and horror.
“Monstrousness is somehow the human woman’s natural condition,” writes Jess Zimmerman in Women and Other Monsters, where she explores the connections between women and monsters using figures from Greek Mythology like Medusa, Sirens, and Circe. Zimmerman uses the classics to show the way monstrous women are held up to coerce women into policing their behavior and smoothing over anything unruly or rebellious about themselves. In other words, Zimmerman exposes one of the pillars of the patriarchy. I won’t say Judy Blume’s classic young adult novel is completely about body horror and the patriarchy but it provides a little keyhole we can peer through to capture these girls in a moment in time: Margaret and her friends are just learning what the water they are swimming in is made of — but they know enough to ostracize Laura.
This is one of the true complexities of the book. Blume manages, in under 200 pages and without using complex vocabulary, to show a nuanced portrayal of misogyny. Zimmerman writes mostly from the perspective of someone following how society and culture turn women into monsters but in Are You There God it’s Me Margaret? Readers get to see women becoming monsters (Margaret growing up into a woman deemed suspect by the patriarchy) and see them turning other girls into monsters (Margaret shaming Laura).
There’s another, more recent, example of Body Horror in Pixar’s 2022 film Turning Red about a girl named Meilin, who turns into a giant red panda when she has strong emotions. Mei thinks of her panda as a hideous, smelly secret until her friends and classmates convince her how adorable, fluffy, and hilarious she is. Her panda, which some critics and viewers have read as an allegory for puberty, helps bring out a new side of Mei, one that helps her confront how her parents’ expectations sometimes crush her growing personality. The “monster” lets the girl out.
Turning Red doesn’t examine misogyny among Mei’s peers; instead it focuses on the intergenerational aspects of the curse that Mei’s mother has passed down to her. Mei’s mother wants her to contain and control the panda and fears the damage and destruction she caused when she went through her own transformation. Mei’s mother must learn to accept her own inner monsters through her daughter’s quest for freedom and funky panda time. And overall it’s a charming, heartwarming journey to watch them take together. Ultimately what keeps Mei from turning into a panda isn’t her family or her shame but her love and sense of safety with her friends.
Whether it’s Pixar or Judy Blume the secret to surviving the monstrosity of growing up is friends. Which is why it’s so important that Margaret sticks up for Laura at the end of the book: even if she sticks up to the wrong person. Being a grown up is complex! But the answer is never to turn other girls into monsters — unless that monster happens to be an adorable fluffy red panda!
This blog is created by Hannah and Ella in conjunction with the These Books Made Me podcast, a Prince George’s County Memorial Library System production. Check out the corresponding episode, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts. Or you can simply click on the link to the episode to listen.