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21 April 2023

How Judy Blume became a lightning rod in the culture wars 

The frank explorations of puberty and sexuality that made her books radical in the 1970s are newly controversial in the US – but her readership defiantly endures.

By Sophie McBain

For decades, Judy Blume declined all requests to adapt her 1970 breakout novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for cinema. She wanted to wait until she could hand it to filmmakers who had encountered her book the way most of her readers do, as children on the cusp of adolescence and trying, like Margaret, to make sense of their changing bodies and determine their place in the world. The film is finally out in the UK next month. Blume promises that it’s even better than her book. More adaptations of her bestsellers are in the works: Disney Plus is adapting Superfudge and Netflix is working on Forever, the book Blume wrote in 1975 at the request of her teenage daughter, who wanted to read a story “where two nice kids fall in love and they do it and no one has to die”. On 21 April, Amazon released a documentaryJudy Blume Forever, that explores how a bored, suburban stay-at-home mother came to write books that would help generations of children navigate the uncertainty and everyday horrors of adolescence – and became a lightning rod in America’s culture wars.  

Blume is now 85 and told the documentary makers that she has stopped writing so that she can spend her final years not behind a desk but “out in the world”. Once again, she’s everywhere. One reason for this resurgence is generational: adults who grew up with Blume want to pass on this love to their children. But it’s also political. The same things that made her books radical when they were written in the Seventies and Eighties – the frank and honest explorations of puberty and sexuality – are newly controversial in the US, where conservatives are once again imposing book bans and restricting sex education. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Blume’s home state of Florida, last year passed the “don’t say gay” bill, which bans schools from teaching about sexuality and gender identity. Hundreds of books have been banned in the state’s schools – but inside Books & Books in Key West, the bookshop Blume opened with her third husband, the retired law professor George Cooper, she has pasted a sticker that says: “I sell banned books.”

Blume remains unafraid of controversy. In a recent conversation with Hadley Freeman for the Times, she said that she was “behind [JK Rowling] 100 per cent”. The Times used this quote as its headline, and Blume issued a statement saying that her words had been “taken out of context”: she was expressing empathy for the Harry Potter writer because of the abuse and harassment she receives, not condoning her views on trans rights. I “vehemently disagree with anyone who does not fully support equality and acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people. Anything to the contrary is total bullshit,” the statement said. But in her fiction, Blume rarely sets out to make political statements.

[See also: Britain’s original culture wars]

In 2015, an audience at Manhattan’s 92Y venue asked whether Blume would ever write a book about a character who is struggling with her gender identity. “I don’t do issue writing, I do character writing,” Blume replied. 

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And yet, her commitment to the faithful portrayal of teenagers’ experiences makes Blume’s work unavoidably political. My memories of reading Blume, in the mid-Nineties, during my last two years of primary school, are emotionally rich but vague on detail. I mostly remember the thrill of reading about things you felt grown-ups didn’t want you to know. I was surprised, when recently rereading Are You There God? that much of the book is about Margaret negotiating her relationship to religion – in my mind it was all boobs, periods and preteen crushes. Lots of people misremember the book this way: these were the details that shocked (though in retrospect it’s bizarre that reading about periods seemed so risqué). 

Then there was Forever, which for children of the pre-internet era was an eye-opener, and exhilaratingly explicit. This was a book that was passed around classrooms, the corners of the sex pages folded down, and confiscated by teachers. In Forever, the paramour Michael introduces Katherine, our protagonist, to “Ralph”, his penis. “In books penises are always described as hot and throbbing but Ralph felt like ordinary skin. Just the shape was different… I don’t know why I’d been so nervous about touching Michael,” Blume writes. The tone is typical of Blume, matter of fact, reassuring and slyly instructive. She understood that readers wouldn’t just want to know the mechanics of sex, but also what it might feel like. Even the edgier teen magazines of the Eighties and Nineties, such as Mizz and Just Seventeen, weren’t as unflinching. 

[See also: Beneath the culture wars, we are not nearly so binary]

Blume has described herself as a “good girl with a bad girl lurking just inside”. She grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where her father worked as a dentist and her mother kept home, and she did what was expected of a well-raised Jewish girl, studying education at New York University before marrying a fellow student, John Blume, young. She didn’t join the women’s marches in 1970 because she was at home in the suburbs with two small children. “I could be fearless in my writing in a way I couldn’t always be in my life,” she says in the documentary Judy Blume Forever. She wrote about the personal in a way that was profoundly, if covertly, political. Self-knowledge is, after all, foundational to empowerment and Blume presented female pleasure and sexuality as natural and normal, in a culture that even now often treats it as suspect.

As a young woman writing about sex and masturbation it must have helped that she was soft-spoken, beautiful and immaculately dressed. She could not have looked any less threatening. And yet she was steel. During the height of Reagan-era reactionism, when right-wing groups banned her books in schools and libraries, she once received 700 death threats in a day. She nonetheless went on TV opposite the conservative broadcaster Pat Buchanan, who so riled her that she asked him, her voice like honey, “are you hung up on masturbation?”, leaving him spluttering.   

Now that she is in her eighties – still beautiful and well-dressed, with fine features, model cheekbones and the same broad, big-toothed smile – her no-nonsense, zero hang-ups approach to sex is newly radical. “Hands up if you masturbate,” she asked the audience at the 92Y in 2015, thrusting her own arm into the air and chuckling to herself (“Oh, Judy!”). Her books are once again being banned, and she has told journalists that the political climate in America is worse than in the Eighties, because this time the censorship is being driven by state governments, rather than outside groups, and teachers and librarians are being criminalised for discussing banned subjects.

One reason for Blume’s enduring appeal is that hers are not books-as-medicine, written to make readers think in a certain way. They remain relevant, even as they start to feel dated (as Forever does), precisely because they are not issue-driven. And they resonate because all of her writing recognises that even the smallest life – by which I mean the kind of life that most of us lead, a life that will not be written about in history books – is an entire universe. Margaret isn’t especially talented or beautiful or destined for greatness, and her problems aren’t dramatic – she wants her period, and to grow some boobs, and to figure out her religion – but they were still book-worthy. Blume understands what it means as a child to feel both overwhelmed by the strength of your feelings and by their irrelevance: what hurts isn’t only that you’re being bullied, or that your parents don’t accept you for you, or that the boy doesn’t fancy you back, it’s the sense that none of this even matters, that nobody would care about a kid like you.  

But Blume cared. During the Eighties, she received more than 2,000 letters from young readers a month. Sometimes, these letters sparked a decades-long correspondence. Blume attended the university graduation of one long-term letter-writer, Lorrie Kim, in place of her parents. Kim began writing to Blume as a lonely, bullied nine-year-old, describing her problems in the old-fashioned prose of someone who has spent considerably more time reading Victorian literature than talking to her peers. (In the documentary, Kim giggles while reading out loud an addendum to a heartfelt early letter: “PS, if you know some good sex books can you take the trouble to give me the title, author et cetera of the book.”) Another long-term correspondent began writing to her when she was 12 after her elder brother killed himself. Blume was the first person she told that this brother had been sexually abusing her for years. “I didn’t have anyone growing up who gave me permission to tell my story,” she tells the documentary makers.

Ultimately politics, like literature, is about storytelling – which stories matter and who is allowed to tell them? This is the political promise, and the political threat, that Blume’s books pose: she reaches people still waiting to become adults, still waiting to feel like their opinions are heard and valued, and tells them: your story matters, too.

[See also: Why culture wars are an elite device]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age