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The Benefits and Pitfalls of Painting History in Pink and Rainbows

'Anne With an E' Review

For those who don’t know, Anne with an E is a Netflix series based—rather loosely—on the beloved Canadian children’s classic Anne of Green Gables about a precocious red-headed orphan who gets adopted by an aging brother and sister and goes to live on a farm on the idyllic Prince Edward Island. The book is very whimsical and quite innocent. 

The main conflicts mostly consist of free-spirited Anne getting into fairly harmless scrapes and butting heads with some of the more conservative characters. It does however give some good insights into human relationships, the hardships of coming of age and what it was like living on a Canadian farm in the late 19th century (which is where the novel is set).

Now, the new Netflix show, like so many things these days, has decided that this isn’t enough and we need to make the story edgier, more current and more politically charged. I don’t have an issue with this on principle. I like new takes on things and seeing stories from another era through the prism of our time is interesting. 

However, when you overdo your political messages you can end up with a product which is sometimes more ridiculous or unintentionally hilarious than deep and meaningful. The show’s second season was recently released on Netflix and while I enjoyed it enough to watch, it’s very difficult not to comment on some of its absurdities. 

My reaction as I watch this show is nearly always the same: Anne with an E, you are trying way too hard. Fair warning, from here on out, there will be some spoilers although I won't go into details about too many things.

I can just about swallow the mostly needless insertion of the fight for gay rights, women’s rights, black rights and just about every other type of political battle known to modern society. I can excuse the display of attitudes towards all of these things that are wildly historically improbable, at least from the characters in question. I can even give the show credit for occasionally stumbling upon a touching scene or two. 

But the trouble comes when you decide to hammer a certain message in with, say, a ridiculously over-the-top house party at Aunt Jo’s where every conceivable LGBTQ and feminist stereotype makes an appearance in order to impart some wisdom. 

And then when your 19th century protagonist upon hearing her gay classmate come out to her seems to be reading her lines from a 21st century manual on how to be a good social justice warrior (unfortunately this term has become overly charged these days), your show starts veering away from being progressive and thought-provoking and into being a gratuitous fantasy.

On the plus side, I guess little kids will still take away the "it's okay to be gay/black/female" massage and that's not a bad message, regardless of the delivery. But, frankly? 

I find this particular injection of modern life into a tale from a different era a bit conceited and self-centered. It's not all about you, 21st century. The original Anne had plenty to deal with—things that were experienced by her author in real life, things that were heartbreaking and difficult. 

As I said earlier, I'm usually in favour of new interpretations, even if they differ completely from the original, but this feels more like ticking boxes. God forbid today's children attempt to relate to people who are not an exact reflection of their own society. God forbid they have to attempt to understand the way the world was back then or the people who lived in it, even if those people weren't progressive enough by current standards. God forbid a beloved heroine lived her life surrounded by white heterosexuals without ever sparing a thought about the rights of the marginalised groups we are most familiar with today and still managed to be a decent role model. 

God forbid we have to comprehend the notion that a kind-hearted and free-spirited girl from the late 19th century may not have had very modern ideas about certain things. 

Because Anne of Green Gables simply isn't good enough or relevant enough if she wasn't sexually abused, if she doesn't pointedly talk about feminism, if she doesn't serve as a mouthpiece to deliver a "love is love" message, however shoehorned in. 

I mean, really, there are three gay characters in the second season of this show and they are all somehow part of the life of this young girl living on a farm. How? Is there something in the water of Prince Edward Island that turns people gay so there’s such a high percentage? 

It feels like this just might be the wrong show for this amount of diversity if you want me to take you seriously within the historical context and, honestly, story-wise there's no reason for it.

I may be too harsh on the show but it does feel a little bit like we're ironically trying to teach children to relate to other people by throwing every narrative they come into contact with into the socially acceptable mould of the day. 

Representation is great, but not when you paint by numbers.

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