Why 'Harriet The Spy' Is Super Feminist

by Kaitlin Reilly

I still remember bringing home the Harriet The Spy VHS from Blockbuster. Little did I know at the time that the contents of the neon-orange video tape (the film was released under the Nickelodeon Movies banner, and orange cassettes were its iconic mark) would stay with me for years. After all, there are some characters you just can't forget, and Harriet M. Welsh, 11-year-old spy, was certainly one of them. Harriet's espionage adventures were what drew me in to the story while perusing tapes at the now mostly defunct video rental retailer, but what stuck with me was the very real way Harriet The Spy portrayed its young, female protagonist. Though I wouldn't have known it when I was 11, Harriet The Spy was a super feminist film — and one very important for young girls to see.

The 1964 novel of the same name upon which the Harriet The Spy film was based was way ahead of its time. Though the 1996 film, which starred Buffy, The Vampire Slayer's Michelle Trachtenberg in the titular role, was set in modern times, it still felt like a particularly progressive film, one that gave young girls the agency and perspective that many other films for a similar audience lacked. Here are just a few reasons why Harriet The Spy is the feminist children's movie kids need to see:

1. We See The World Through Harriet's Eyes

Harriet, a young woman, is our eyes into the story, and we see the world how she sees it. When she misinterprets the actions of the people whom she spies on, so do we. Harriet The Spy is therefore a specifically female movie, but the fact that Harriet is a young girl as opposed to a young boy doesn't change much about how the story is told, nor does it squash the action — Harriet still scales dumbwaiters like any young boy could. Film studios, start taking notes — your characters don't have to automatically be male in order to tell "big" stories.

2. Harriet Is Flawed

You may have wanted to be Harriet when you were a kid (I mean, really, who wouldn't want an awesome side career in spying?) but she's hardly Disney Princess-level perfect. Harriet is seen in the film as being bitter, angry, and vindictive at times, especially after her classmates read her notebook and engage Harriet in a full-on war. These aren't traits that one would want to emulate, of course, but they are traits that make Harriet a complex, complicated person.

3. The Female Villain Isn't One Dimensional

Baby Blair Waldorf Marion Hawthrone definitely comes off as a Queen Bee in training during the film, but it's not long before it's revealed that part of the reason she's so cruel is because she's hurting from her dad leaving the family. It doesn't excuse her behavior, of course, but it's refreshing to see a "mean girl" get a backstory that doesn't leave her as just another example of a catty girl. Unfortunately, that's one thing we see far too often onscreen, especially in movies where filmmakers don't allow for enough time to give "bitchy" women a reason for their attitude. (Even feminist film Mean Girls declined to give Regina George a real reason for her power-seeking behavior.) It may not excuse Marion's behavior, but it does explain it.

4. Harriet's Girl BFF Is Into Science

Harriet's best friend Janie is obsessed with science and experiments. Given that girls are often stereotyped as being afraid of anything STEM-related, it's refreshing to see a young girl so aggressively pursuing a career in the sciences — even if her mold experiment does end up all over her mother's face.

5. Harriet Has A Strong Female Role Model

How awesome is it that Harriet's version of Yoda is a woman? Though Harriet's parents love her, Golly is one of the few people in Harriet's life who actually understands her. She encourages Harriet to be herself and follow her pursuit of knowledge and truth. Giving Harriet a female role model is a feminist move: it's a case of a woman helping another woman be the best version of herself she can be.

6. Golly Shows Harriet There's More Than One Way To Be A Woman

There in no rulebook to growing up girl, but that doesn't mean young women aren't subtly encouraged to follow certain paths — specifically, ones that don't make a lot of noise or trouble. Harriet isn't one to be quiet or sit still, despite what her parents want of her. Golly's advice to Harriet when she's feeling troubled is particularly important because it acknowledges that it's OK to allow Harriet to be something that her parents don't expect of their "little girl." As Golly states: "You’re an individual, and that makes people nervous. And it’s gonna keep making people nervous for the rest of your life. Stay true to who you are and accept the cost."

7. Harriet Has Big Ambitions

Harriet is a spy, sure, but her real quest is to become a writer: her spying is really more of an observational exercise that she uses for fodder for her writing. Never once does Harriet question her ability to become a writer, nor does she stop writing when she's shamed for her words by Marion. Harriet's grit may not seem like a feminist quality, but ultimately it is. The film makes it clear that the expectations put on Harriet have a lot to do with the fact that she's "only a little girl," something her parents reiterate time and time again. As Dove's research reports, girls' confidence drops during puberty Harriet The Spy reminds girls that it doesn't have to.

Harriet The Spy was a groundbreaking piece of children's media, and one that should inspire girls everywhere to be a little bit more like Harriet: fearless, ambitious, and an individual through and through.

Images: Paramount Pictures (3); Giphy (3)