Anne Shirley was a Feminist Without Moira Walley-Beckett

Anne didn’t need to be modernized in order to be a forward-thinking woman

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Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Fans of the widely popular show Anne with an E (or just Anne in Canada) were out in droves yesterday tweeting at Netflix to save the show after it had been canceled earlier this year. It’s been 6 months, and they’re still at it.

I’ve stated my opinions many-a-time about this show, which, if you don’t know, is an “adaptation” of Anne of Green Gables (note the use of quotation marks), and I can’t seem to help myself when I’m reminded of what this show did to one of my absolute favourite books and book heroines.

Anne Shirley, not “Anne Shirley-Cuthbert”, was always and continues to be a feminist icon. Even before MWB decided she needed to be 21st-century feminist for some reason.

The entire story was changed and twisted and mangled to make room for a forcibly modern view of what some people think rural Victorian Price Edward Island was like. The claim is that it’s more “historically accurate,” but from whose point of view?

It seemed to be like the writers had their own set idea of what Victorian era rural Prince Edward Island was like without backing it up with much research. L.M. Montgomery wrote prolifically in her journals about her life growing up in P.E.I., though it seems none of that was taken into consideration and instead replaced by a dark edgy tone that is so popular in mainstream media today.

The interpretation I get from how the townsfolk are portrayed is that everyone is a backward numpty unless your name is Anne.

Anne Shirley-Cuthbert is PEI’s modern feminist angel sent to right all the wrongs in Avonlea. She saves a burning building; she teaches her friends and adoptive family to stop being racist and homophobic; etc., etc.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with these messages, especially in our political and cultural climate. The diversity in this show is astounding — which is kind of sad, to be honest — though, at moments a little contrived. Hollywood could do for more diverse shows that talk about modern social issues. But, not ones that take place in an apparently historically accurate 19th-century rural Canada.

Anne Shirley (not Cuthbert) didn’t need to do any of those things in order to be a feminist icon. MWB perhaps felt like the original Anne wasn’t enough for modern audiences, but I do.

There’s a scene in the show where the minister of the church, who is evil, of course, and clearly a misogynist (because why wouldn’t a Christian minister be anything but), tells Marilla to stop sending Anne to school and to start preparing her to become a wife and mother. This is just wrong.

Of course, we’re supposed to think it’s wrong. As the audience gasps in horror and clutches their pearls, we know that it’s sexist and terrible and old-fashioned. Except it’s not.

Not only is it not accurate to the book, but it also shows the writers didn’t bother to do their research on the importance placed on education in Victorian-era PEI.

Many British settlers who colonized Price Edward Island were from Scottland and were predominantly Presbyterian (a protestant branch of Christianity). This church community saw the education of children as a high priority and being a well-read individual was a sign of moral goodness. While there always was the idea of young women marrying and having a family, she was fully entitled to a full education before doing so — schooling finished around 14/15 or even 16/17.

In the books, Anne admits she didn’t have much schooling before arriving at Green Gables, which says more about the treatment of orphans than about ideas around education, but there would be no reason to think anyone in Avonlea wouldn’t have wanted their child to be a well-educated and well-read individual.

I can’t help but wonder if MWB read what Mrs. Barry says to Marilla about Diana when Anne and her first meet and ran with it a little too much:

“[…]She reads entirely too much — “ this to Marilla as the little girls went out — “and I can’t prevent her, for her father aids and abets her. She’s always poring over a book. I’m glad she has the prospect of a playmate — perhaps it will take her more out-of-doors.”

This, I suspect, refers to the Victorian ideals of the outdoors being a healthful environment rather than Mrs. Barry thinking her child should be illiterate.

Anne succeeds at school with flying colours — oddly left out of the show — and is the top of her class even going into Queen’s Academy. She even wins a scholarship to university! Why wouldn’t the showrunners want to see Anne doing so well in school? Perhaps it’s not feminist enough. Anne is incredibly academic, even to the point she goes and earns a BA at university; not something often done during that time.

And why is Anne Shirley-Cuthbert the only forward-thinking character in the show? At least, that’s how she’s made out to be.

In the books, Anne is surrounded by intelligent, compassionate, and strong women from all different walks of life. They encourage her to be a good student, to be a good person, and to aspire to greatness. That sounds pretty feminist to me.

So why does almost every woman in the show not do this? They even went so far as to remove Mrs. Allan entirely — the wife of the evil minister, who was not evil at all by the way. Why are the other women, who whisper the word “feminism” at sewing circle in awed tones, often viewed as unfeminist because they are wives and mothers?

My idea of feminism springs forth from the idea of choice. Women — all women — should have the right to choose all aspects of their lives. Of course, women haven’t always had so much freedom, but in the Victorian era becoming a mother and raising a family was what you did because unmarried women were sometimes seen as a financial burden on their families.

If we want to talk about choice and feminism, look no further than our unmarried Marilla.

She chose not to be married, but the show almost paints her as someone who regrets not doing more with her life. You mean, not doing more than subverting societal expectations? Isn’t that what this show is about?

But I digress. Maybe Marilla needs her own feminist article.

My point is, Anne Shirley (not Cuthbert) is a deep and complex person who is strong-willed, ambitious, studious, while also being traditionally feminine. She achieves so much in her life. When options for women besides teaching and motherhood were limited, Anne does both. She becomes a first-class teacher — in only one year when it would usually take two — earns her BA, becomes the principal at a school, then settles down with her true love and raises a clan of wonderful and imaginative and intelligent children.

While it may not be the “dismantle the patriarchy” sort of feminism of today, I’d say that’s pretty feminist for the time Anne would’ve been alive.

But, that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s where Anne with an E gets it so wrong. The show wants it all but not in a way that contextually makes sense. They want these Victorian-era people to embrace modern sensibilities about things that just weren’t talked about.

Josephine Barry would’ve never thrown lavish and horrendously obviously queer parties as she did in the show. While there’s room for the idea of “romantic friendships” (see: Anne and Diana), there were literal laws against displays of homosexuality which Ms. Barry would’ve been acutely aware of. So, have these plotlines. But at least have them make sense within the context of the time period.

Like this one, most of the other plotlines and characters were also forcefully filtered through a 21st-century lens. These modern ideas on racism, sexism, and homophobia often overshadow any plot that we actually get, and anything from the actual novel is erased completely.

More often than not, these social issues are shoved to the forefront of the story in ways that seem contrived and completely unnuanced or not written with any hint of subtly. Anne is often the white knight in situations that are almost baffling in the context of the time period.

The big moments in the book were skewed and changed to fit this baffling plot. Gilbert and Anne’s slate incident was changed to forward the Mean Girls-esque plot between Anne and the other girls at school. The word “dibs” is too modern and colloquial to have ever been used by schoolchildren.

Anne’s romanticism and imaginative escapades are often pushed aside to make room for her to single-handedly battle racism and sexism in her small town.

Now, I want to make this perfectly clear, I’m not saying there wasn’t room for that in the show, but the fact that Anne’s personality was fundamentally changed to make this happen bugs me. Anne Shirley (not Cuthbert) would never question the value of her imagination, nor be so self-absorbed, angry, and almost downright bratty the way she is portrayed.

Some aspects I enjoyed most about the show are ironically the completely fabricated characters — mainly Cole, Mary, and Sebastian. Though, I sometimes felt like they were being used as plot devices for Anne’s “wokeness.”

I wish I could’ve enjoyed the characters without being smacked in the face by RACISM IS BAD or DON’T BE HOMOPHOBIC messages. The characters should’ve been characters in their own right, not simply to show how progressive Anne is compared to others in Avonlea.

I admire MWB for making such a diverse and positive show, but Anne Shirley (not Cuthbert) was plenty feminist before she came along and dubbed Anne “not feminist enough.” Maybe she isn’t within the context of the 21st-century, but Anne wasn’t written in 2017.

You can’t claim something is historically accurate and, in turn, make it historically inaccurate by forcing modern views on the characters. Perhaps this adaptation would’ve been more meaningful as a modern retelling, rather than a historical one. Despite the claims of many fans, who use this argument as a defense as to why everything is dark and moody and melodramatic, this show is not historically accurate.

MWB should’ve left Anne alone. She clearly didn’t respect the source material enough to let it stand on its own, or she should’ve had the nerve to not call it Anne at all.

Anne Shirley didn’t need MWB to make her a feminist. She already was one.

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