To the Anne-loving tweens (and their parents) who, like me, eschewed Disney princess fare in favour of anime master Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films, it will in retrospect make perfect sense to discover that Ghibli's co-founders created their influential animation film studio shortly after spending several years crafting the 50-episode Japanese adaptation of Anne. She seems to have set the tone for most of their films, from Princess Mononoke and Academy Award-winning Spirited Away to the many others that follow Anne-like girls of integrity and strong character on adventures, no charming prince required. Anne is never simpering and lovestruck either: her relationship with Gilbert Blythe may eventually end in a wedding, but it is primarily about friendship and rather deliciously academic rivalry.
That 1979 Japanese miniseries was also the milestone that cemented Anne's popularity and gave rise to Prince Edward Island tourism's Anne Industrial Complex. A phenomenon not lost on Canadian children, I might add. The first time I experienced the Anne-dustry myself was as a tween in that mid-'80s boom, in the Maritimes when, over several summers, my extended family rented a cottage near Cavendish. No doubt fuelled by Kevin Sullivan's landmark 1985 television adaptation, I am among the thousands who have seen Anne of Green Gables: The Musical at the Charlottetown Festival each year (now the world's longest-running annual musical production, in production since 1965) and begged for souvenir straw hat, pinafore and braids.
The second, very different one came a decade later through the popular Charlottetown sketch show Annekenstein, which had a cult following for most of the 1990s. I was a Halifax university student at the time and, with my Islander then-boyfriend, saw it more than once. In Anne's birthplace, locals have a love-hate relationship with their most famous creation, simply because there is no escaping her. More than 125,000 people a year make the pilgrimage to the house that inspired Green Gables. There are few national heritage sites dedicated to a fictional character who blurs real and imaginary worlds—Anne's farm is in the rarified company of 221B Baker Street.
This was the era when popular culture began to be steeped in irony and one approached sincerity with nonchalance, a reaction that of itself confirms Anne's icon status. Annekenstein's barbed parody played to cultural familiarity with sketches like Win a Waif (placing Anne alongside other iconic urchins Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist). In hindsight, the show's Sid and Annecy sketch (written by well-known Canadian actor Rick Roberts) anticipated today's remix and mash-up culture—think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Comedian and show writer Rob MacDonald played the titular monster as a lumbering figure in a pigtailed fright wig. "You're not a true celebrity until you are made fun of by The Simpsons," MacDonald recently told me, with a laugh. By that measure, Anne truly earned her pop culture wings after a winking cameo: glimpsed as the book the similarly precocious Lisa Simpson is reading in the aptly named 2015 episode "Lisa With an S."
I realized none of this as I read Anne as a bookish nine-year-old, when I immersed myself in Avonlea and Ingleside before moving on to Narnia, Middle Earth and Pemberley. Or in my 20s, when after Annekenstein, I picked the series up again, and the strangeness wasn't in being an adult reading a childhood classic but the reverse: I wondered what my middle-school self could have found appealing in the ups and downs of middle-aged Anne's career, marriage and motherhood.
It would take another return to Avonlea, during these politically tumultuous times when human and especially women's rights are under assault yet again to bring the themes of otherness, sacrifice and acceptance into sharp relief.
Next: Visiting the set of Anne...
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