It’s International Women’s Day and I can’t stop thinking about A Wrinkle in Time.
Part of this is because Ava DuVernay’s new adaptation is being released tomorrow—a brilliant bit of timing on Disney’s part—but my fixation goes beyond that. It isn’t just about the fact that DuVernay’s version is wonderful (although it is), or the fact that I love International Women’s Day (although I do). It’s about the power of taking existing narratives and recreating them. It’s about how things that can’t or won’t change end up stagnating and eventually settling into obsolescence. It’s about my own complicity in not changing.
As a nerdy, awkward tween, A Wrinkle in Time was the first work of fiction that ever made me feel seen. If you’d asked me what my reading preferences were before that book found me, I probably would have told you that I liked books about boys. Boys in fiction generally had more fun, went on better adventures and made funnier jokes. And, even though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this when I was 12, on some level I understood that male protagonists were given space to be messy and complex in a way that girls were not. Female protagonists seemed to be labouring under a lot of expectations: they had to be smart (but not too smart), they had to be pretty (but not vain) and they had to have a deep sense of humility about their accomplishments. Mostly they ended up being boring.
A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murry was completely different. She was academically brilliant, but so impatient with arbitrary rules that she was failing school. She was outwardly brash and fought anyone who disparaged her family, but privately she longed to be as easygoing as her mother. She was constantly torn between wishing everyone could love her the way she was and wanting to transform into someone who was easier to love. To say that Meg Murry was a revelation to me would be an understatement.
But as much as A Wrinkle in Time expanded my worldview, I didn’t bother to return the favour. In my mind, Meg Murry remained exactly as author Madeleine L’Engle described her: a middle-class white girl mired in the social and political context of the 1960s. This probably says less about my lack of imagination than it does about the way our culture treats whiteness: as the baseline “normal” from which everything else is a variation. Like the boys who felt they had no need for “girl” books because they saw themselves reflected everywhere, I identified so much with Meg that it didn’t occur to me that anyone else might struggle to do so.
I’ve been guilty of making exactly the same mistake when it comes to International Women’s Day.
A brief history of International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day has its roots in the socialist labour agitation of the early 1900s. We have this persistent cultural fairy tale that women working outside of the home is a modern phenomenon; people get starry-eyed at the idea of this imagined past where all men were providers and all women were “homemakers,” but the truth is that many women throughout history have had to have jobs. And because women were in many ways not considered to be people—an English court ruling from 1876 stated that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges”—they’ve often been exploited as a cheap and expendable source of labour. So it makes sense that some of the earliest feminist activism was tied up in the worker’s rights movement.
In 1908, more than 15,000 women took to the streets of New York to demand better wages and shorter hours. A year later, the Socialist Party of America declared that the first National Women’s Day would be observed on February 28. In 1910, the second-ever International Women’s Conference—an event that welcomed 100 delegates from 17 countries—proposed the establishment of a day that highlighted the struggles and achievements of women worldwide. On March 19, 1911, more than one million turned out for strikes, marches and protests demanding equal rights and suffrage for women. In 1914, the date for International Women’s Day was set for March 8 and has stayed the same ever since.
Women have made incredible advancements socially and legally since the founding of International Women’s Day. Women in Canada can vote, hold public office and be considered persons in the eyes of the law—to name just a few of the most basic things we’ve gained. These are huge achievements, and I deeply admire the women who fought so that their daughters and granddaughters could have better lives than they did. Because of this, International Women’s Day is an important day in my calendar.
International Women’s Day needs to change to stay relevant
That being said, I know that it’s easy for me to feel this way, just like it was easy to see myself in Meg Murry. In spite of its radical roots, International Women’s Day celebrations often centre the experiences of white, cis, middle-class women like me. Of course all women experience some degree of gender-based discrimination, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that our society doesn’t privilege the rights of some women over others. Sometimes it feels like current iterations of International Women’s Day are little more than a celebration of institutional power in disguise.
But that’s not how it has to be.
When DuVernay signed on to direct Disney’s film version of A Wrinkle in Time, she took the framework that L’Engle had created and gave it a badly-needed update. In her version, DuVernay has relocated the Murry house from the book’s rural setting to a historic Black district in Los Angeles. She’s also transformed the previously all-white Murrys into a multiracial family, with the original casting call for Meg Murry asking for a “14-year-old mixed-race girl of African-American and Caucasian descent. This girls is questioning her life, her place in the world and her family… While troubled, she possesses untapped strength and intelligence which carries her through her search for truth.”
Wrinkle found its Meg in Storm Reid, whose previous work had included a small but moving role in 12 Years a Slave and several guest spots on TV. Reid spent months readying herself to play Meg (in fact, DuVernay told The New York Times Reid came to the set as prepared as David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in her 2014 film Selma), and Reid was very clear about wanting to create her own interpretation of the character, saying: “I wrote ideas down from the book, but I didn’t really want to copy that Meg. We’re the same, but we’re different, at the same time. I wanted to make myself Meg. I didn’t want to use somebody else or use a reference. The main things that people love and know about the book, I want to have those things, but I still want to have my own little quirks.”
DuVernay has made a movie that is not just more relatable to Black girls but more relevant in general. Given that Black women are incredibly underrepresented in STEM, Meg—a math genius who struggles to have her educators take her seriously—makes much more sense as a Black girl in 2018 than she does as a white girl. In a political climate where it’s controversial to say that Black Lives Matter, Meg is saving the world. With her version of A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay has created a mirror that lets Black girls see their brilliance reflected, rather than forcing them to squint to find themselves in a white face.
The same thing can be done—and has to be done—for International Women’s Day. The foundations exist, but they need a structure that is accessible to all women. The only way that is going to happen is if privileged women get out of the way and make space for women of colour and trans women and disabled women and queer women and women who are sex workers to build a future that centres them.
All girls deserve to be able to see themselves represented. All girls deserve a world that believes they have unlimited potential. All girls deserve the chance to be their wonderful selves. All girls deserve their own version of Meg Murry. And that’s exactly what International Women’s Day should be providing.
More from Anne Thériault:
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