Harriet the Spy: A Lesson in Messages

The other day, I sat down and watched Harriet the Spy on Netflix. Now, I literally have not seen this movie since 1996, when I saw it in the theater. I vividly remember seeing it in theaters for two reasons: 1) I saw it with my grandparents, probably the first and only movie I ever saw in theaters with them, and 2) before the movie, they played an episode of Hey Arnold, which would be premiering soon (it was the one where Arnold hits Harold with a baseball accidentally and then Helga spends the rest of the day stalking him and yelling, “Six hours and twenty-one minutes until you die!”). Anyway, so I watched Harriet, almost 20 years after the first time.

What struck me the most was not the way the kids reacted to finding out her personal thoughts about them (their reaction is understandable and typical) but by how little the authority figures did to help her after the fact. Harriet’s parents never asked what the problem was or tried to help her. They got mad and took away her journals – the one thing that kept her sane. Her teacher ignored the other kids laughing at her and doing cruel things. She called Harriet out for embarrassing pat-downs in front of the whole class. I realize this is a movie and it’s done for drama’s sake, but what kind of lesson did this teach the kids watching? Or even the kids in the movie?

As a writer, part of what we do is teach lessons. We ferret out morals within our stories. Even indirectly, we tell readers what we think of authority figures, how to solve problems, who to ask for help and when. Of course, a lot of things we write aren’t meant to be taken literally, and it’s important to remember that characters are not you. You can have a mean, sexist character that doesn’t represent your beliefs. You can also have a really bubbly character that you want to toss off a cliff.

I’ve seen plenty of posts about what might have happened in a book if a character had reacted as a normal person would, and honestly, it would shorten most stories dramatically. If Elsa had simply told Anna about her power, none of the story would have happened. If the eagles had flown Frodo to Mordor, the book would have been 800 pages shorter. If Harry had listened to Hermione, well, I think I’ve made my point. Of course novels need drama. Without it, there’s no story to tell.

On the other hand, though, it’s important to take into consideration what kind of message we’re sending to the readers. In Harriet, she learns that she can’t trust authority figures, which is not what a kid should think at that age. This isn’t a YA dystopian novel. It’s a kid’s movie set in real life in real time. Take that into consideration. Separating fantasy from reality is much more difficult when it’s set in a real-world situation.

It’s just something to keep in mind, and I’m sure, the first time I watched it, I didn’t see any of that, but things become ingrained in you without even realizing. But watching it now, twenty years later, I see the problems with her parents, with her teacher. I wonder about the message it sent to seven year old me, whether I realized it or not.


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