German diarist Anne Frank (1929 - 1945) writes at her desk prior to her and her family going into hiding during World War II, Amsterdam, Netherlands, early 1940s. Photo: Anne Frank Fonds - Basel/Anne Fr
There’s no snappy way to put this week’s most infuriating news story: a mother in Northville, Michigan filed a complaint to the school board because her 7th grade daughter’s class was reading Anne Frank: Diary Of A Young Girl (the newer unabridged edition of what you probably read under the title The Diary Of Anne Frank). Specifically, that the book contained a passage - where Frank describes exploring her own body - that the mother considered to be “pornographic”.
Here’s the paragraph in question: “Until I was eleven or twelve, I didn’t realize there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn’t see them. What’s even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris…When you’re standing up, all you see from the front is hair. Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside. They separate when you sit down and they’re very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.”
Sounds pretty standard for the twilight years of young girlhood, and is sure to strike a chord with anyone who ever borrowed/stole a copy Judy Blume’s Forever between the ages of 8 and 15, but apparently it was too much to bear in this particular instance. Gail Horek, the mother who made the complaint, was interviewed by local news, telling them she made the complaint after her daughter had raised the alarm. “I thought it was because of the depressing aspects,” she tells FOX2 in Northville, “but it was because they were talking graphically about Frank’s female... genitalia”.
(The fact that one-paragraph’s worth of musing about the vulva is apparently more disturbing to some people than the events of the Holocaust that are also detailed in the book doesn’t bear mentioning, I hope.)
It may seem ridiculous that such an innocently written passage could be considered “pornographic”, but then we live in an era of abstinence only sex education. Michigan is one of the States whose sex ed classes regularly stress abstinence only, indeed, $1.4m in funding was pledged to the programs in 2008 (I could find no mention of sex ed of any description on either of Northville’s middle schools’ web presences). If students aren’t being taught about reproductive organs and genitalia in school then it stands to reason that Frank’s description of her own might be a bit of a shock. It’s hard not to feel a sense of pity for a girl whose upbringing has left her so divorced from her body that Frank’s discovery of her own is worthy of a “red flag”.
More broadly, the reaction to the inclusion of this particular passage is just another edition in the ongoing saga that is “denying that tweens and teens have bodies and are interested in how they work”.
Nobody likes to admit that tweens and teenagers, particularly female ones, are interested in sex (indeed, it was Frank’s own father Otto who, under heavy suggestion from Contact Publishing, edited her diaries into the version most people will have read at school, removing any references to her emerging sexuality), but time and time again parents and educators fail to realise that if young people aren’t given the opportunity to formally learn about these things, they’ll seek it out anyway themselves.
I can say that from personal experience: since we didn’t have a copy of Where Did I Come From? or What’s Happening To Me? at my catholic primary school, I decided that the cover of Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love - which was in the family bookshelf - looked a bit sexy and was indeed rewarded with a number of (rather baffling) passages about sex. (It later became one of my favourite novels, so it was win/win for that spot of literary subterfuge). The rest of it was worked out by carefully studying a surfwear ad that featured a pashing couple really going at it (“So that’s what they mean by ‘tongue kissing’.”).
Frank’s discussion of her own body is just another example of this. As The Gloss’ Jamie Peck put it, “This passage is obviously inappropriate for preteens, because it alerts them to the existence of female genitals and even, dare I say it, the clitoris. That is supposed to be a secret! Before you know it, they’ll be exploring their own bodies and learning even more details about them, like the fact that it’s possible for human beings to gain pleasure from touching themselves in certain ways, or the fact that contraceptive use can be effective in preventing pregnancy and disease. Knowledge is dangerous!” Quite.
Funnily enough I think the fuss about the “pornographic” passage in Diary Of A Young Girl ties back in to the kerfuffle over Justin Bieber’s (admittedly hamfisted and ego-driven) assertion at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam that “hopefully she would have been a Belieber”.
Given her well documented interest in Hollywood stars (“Yesterday I put up some more film stars in my room but this time with photo corners so I can take them down again” - October 18, 1942), and the fact that she even wrote what we’d now call fanfic, it’s not a stretch to assume that - in a different time and reality - she probably would have been a Belieber (or a Tumblr user, or whatever hallmark you choose to define the millennial tween).
Look at the misguided outrage at Bieber’s statement, or think about that mother’s “pornographic” assessment of Frank’s writing, and again what’s at hand here is a determined effort to deny the fact that Frank was, despite the immense importance her writing would later take on, just an ordinary young girl in extraordinary circumstances.