Much has been written about the joint CBC-Netflix show Anne with an E, with many reviewers feeling as though the series has ruined the magic of the book. (Magic that was in contrast, encapsulated by the 1985 movie). Like many young girls growing up in Canada, Anne holds a special place in my heart and I was sceptical about the iteration of her story. (I did not watch the American version starring Martin Sheen or the BBC Version). This deep-seeded love of the free-spirited Anne is the reason there was so much backlash against the grittier story Director Niki Caro decided to bring us. I however, don’t mind a darker Anne.
From the opening credits set to The Tragically Hip’s Ahead by a Century I had tears in my eyes. This was going to be a Canadian-driven production and it would be true to the story. I fell in love with Amybeth McNulty and the casting of R.H. Thompson and Geraldine James as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert respectively was likewise on point. The sweeping picturesque scenes filled me with a warm appreciation for my country and I was totally engrossed in the story. Even Anne’s flashbacks, which signal a dramatic departure from the original tone of the book and 1985 movie, moved me. It’s realistic for Anne to have suffered from PTSD as being an orphan in the Maritimes at the dawn of the century would not have been easy. I was willing to accept this artistic choice, but then they changed some fundamental things.
My one main problem with the new series is that the creators lack a full understanding (as I see it) of what made Anne so inspiring. As a young girl I wasn’t outright bullied with name calling or threatened with physical violence, but I was a social outcast. I knew I was different from the other girls in my class because I loved to read and I loved to learn. I was an awkward looking girl with little interest in boys, or at least they had little interest in me. For me, my sense of who I was came, and still does come, from my academic achievements. Characters like Anne, Matilda, and Hermione got me through my rougher years in grade school and taught me that things get better; smart girls can rule the world.
In the new series, Anne isn’t the brightly shining student she is in previous incarnations. Yes, she loves to read, but when it comes to math she seems to fall behind. She even drops out of school for a while due to unrelenting bullying, something unheard of for the Anne Shirley I know and love. I understand trying to make Anne a more sympathetic character, someone other kids being bullied can identify with, but this series weakens her, especially in her relationship with Gilbert Blythe.
In the book, and 1985 movie, the entire relationship between Anne and Gilbert is founded on an intense academic rivalry. He is a charming blowhard who Anne has no romantic interest in until much later on in their lives. In the Netflix series, Gilbert initially meets Anne in a forest after he rescues her from a bully threatening to harm her. The series rewrites their relationship turning Gilbert into an sensitive brooding boy who can bond with Anne over their shared orphan-ness. The series turns Anne into a damsel in distress which is an interesting choice, given that the rest of the time the series seems hell-bent on convincing the viewer she is a feminist icon.
The thing is, Anne already was a feminist icon. Not because she is inspired to “be her own woman” by Aunt Josephine, or because she bests a bully telling her to literally “get back in the kitchen.” She was a feminist icon because she took school seriously at a time when women weren’t supposed too. The need to “better than the boys,” that innate feeling, is one that will resonate with many young girls whether is be competing with men at school, with sports, or at work. I could write at length about how hard it is for women and girls in higher education and the workplace because young girls are taught to be nice while boys are taught to be brave but I won’t do that here. (Reshma Saujani did an amazing TED Talk on this subject).
The competition appears mid-way through the series but doesn’t feel authentic to me. It’s forced and is simply a means to the end: The two are a romantic pair from the start and Gilbert is later removed entirely from this academic setting. The two trade barbs but do so cautiously in a way that highlights a different connection between the two, one based on an emotions rather than on one of intellect.
Previous versions of Anne never let anything hold her back, she knew she was smart and went for it even though she was constantly having to prove herself as a woman. She’s a feminist icon because she’s a fighter. She fights to stay at Green Gables; she fights for herself in school and repeatedly ends up at the top of her class gaining a scholarship and attending university despite all the societal pressures working against her. When she ultimately ends up with Gilbert it is only after years of academic rivalry out of which grew a deep mutual respect for one another.
The series overall isn’t bad. It’s worth it for the artistic shots of Ontario and PEI alone, and puffed sleeves and raspberry cordial still play prominent roles. For anyone watching for the first time however, I urge you to go back and either read the books or watch the 1985 film version. I am interested to see if they do another season and if any of these aspects of Anne are reclaimed. I recognize that this is my own personal bias but she was an idol for me, someone I looked up to and wanted to be. Girls, and boys, being introduced to Anne today deserve to have her as their role model too. To ignore Anne’s intelligence is to do her a complete and total injustice.