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Are You There, Social Justice? It's Me, Judy

5 years ago
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"If only Judy Blume had written a book about a tall Jewish girl who had crushes on other girls."
Thus did emcee comedian and gay author Judy Gold kick off the recent National Coalition Against Censorship's 35th anniversary gala last month at the City Winery in New York City, which feted as its honoree Judy Blume, an author whose name is synonymous with teen angst over menstruation, masturbation and copulation.

Blume is one of those authors who generate a fission-like level of possessiveness in her readers, who universally see their own stories in hers (see above), despite the fact that Blume's stories themselves are wonderfully specific. (My favorites, to give you an idea of their ability to transcend mundane details like age, station or gender, are "Wifey," in which a dissatisfied housewife winds up sleeping with her brother-in-law, and "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," in which the entire plot revolves around the fact that a young boy moves from Jersey City to Long Island and begins to get erections.)

So . . . how does one honor a writer who everyone already feels is telling his or her own story? For this event -- A Night of Comedy With Judy Blume & Friends -- an array of performers stepped up and gave their best Rorschachs. Whoopie Goldberg, via satellite, exhorted her studio audience to applaud. (They obliged.) Blogger and comedian Lizz Winstead told the story of her high school abortion. A Yale freshman who normally performs naked donned a sedate peasant shirt and dirndl to sing about censorship. Another gave a reading from "My Little Red Book," a collection of first-period stories from everywhere, involving a girl mistaking a tampon for a hot dog. (At the close of this, a man's voice rose in querulous hiss: "But what does this have to do with Judy?" His wife paused and hazarded, "It's her book.")

To drive home the point, each performance was bracketed by clips of Judy Blume mentions in popular culture --cue "Lost's" Sawyer, squinting at a Blume favorite through taped-together specs -- as well as video testimonials from Mary Louise Parker, Joan Rivers, and Chelsea Handler, author of "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea," whose title echoes that of Blume's seminal 1970 classic, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."

Unsurprisingly, male performers at the event, lacking a background in sanitary pad comparison or bust enhancement principles, floundered. A spoken-word poet in large black glasses, twitting and twirling in inscrutable birdlike exertions, prompted the query from a seatmate, "Are you familiar with this gentleman?" "No." "Oh, good! I thought I was missing something." Richard Belzer, of black garb and "Law & Order" fame, strolled on stage, in Shakespearean fashion, followed by a dog, then proceeded to read his own interminable, as-yet-unpublished manuscript involving energetic references to bodkins. He launched his performance with, "They said I didn't have to read something by Judy." (At this, the honoree barely covered her distress.) Closing out the set, comedian Paul Moody warmed up with a few stock we-blacks-have-taken-over-sports digs ("All you white people have left is swimming!") before finally settling, seemingly to his own surprise, on a relevant point: "I've never seen people hate a white woman the way they hate Judy."

But it was Martha Plimpton, resplendent in a Mad-Men-esque sheath, coral lipstick and naughty half-smile, and Rachel Dratch, practically vibrating with intensity, who truly paid the author just homage. In a bit I could have watched all night, Dratch, Plimpton and various other actresses recited juicy sections from Judy's oeuvre while writers such as Amy Sohn and a visibly tickled Junot Diaz responded with snippets from her fan and hate mail ("Shame, shame, shame," read one).

Judy was famously first banned by the principal of her children's own elementary school and has inspired astonishingly virulent bad will since. (I want a recording of Plimpton intoning, "Why are you so bad?" for my personal collection.) But the most striking comment was a fan letter from a girl, who wrote to ask Blume, "How did you find out about this?" I don't remember whether the fan was talking about periods, sex, scoliosis, brother-in-law sex, best friends, death, or another of the million areas of anxiety Judy fearlessly, and generously, covered. But anyone asking her readers that question would have had an easy answer. We found out because of Judy.

Judy Gold's woeful remark about under-represented tall Jewish girls who favored other girls came before the Maine vote to ban gay marriage last week, but in light of the measure's failure, the fan's question has taken on a new significance.

A not-insignificant portion of my career has been dedicated to writing about Blume's skillful prose and cultural insight, but the celebration reminded me of not only how groundbreaking Blume's work was, but how influential it continues to be. Blume's books, like the best literature, talk about the things everyone thinks about but no one likes to talk about. Blume writes about the kind of casual cultural repression -- about sex, puberty, marriage, one's body, one's family -- that can ruin lives. Because of her work, a generation of adolescent girls knew about periods and were happy about getting them. Because of Blume, a generation of teens knew what you should ask of marriage. Of childhood. Of friendship. Of growing up. Of staying happy. Her controversy wasn't based on her attention to the illicit. It was based on her attention to the ordinary.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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