When Gilbert Blythe is a Dudebro: Reflections on the Netflix "Anne with an E"
(Behold, my original edition Anne books!)
I admit I struggled to watch the new, trauma-informed Anne With an E Netflix mini-series because like 98% of girls who grew up with the 1985 original movie (and reading and re-reading ALL the 8 books in the series), I am excessively attached to every scene, every moment, every actor/actress, and have most of the lines memorized after almost 25 years of watching.
I tried to watch it back in May and didn’t make it past the far too histrionic apology scene with Rachael. But I was told to try again, which I did recently with a friend, and found it a satisfying and transformative Anne-watching experience.
I am a feminist trauma-theorist by training. I did in fact need to watch this new version that shows how Anne is a story of a young woman living with PTSD.
In the new version, there are lots of assholes in Avonlea, as one of my friends put it succinctly. In the new version, Anne’s propensity to find the exquisite beauty in every moment of her life is a survival strategy for coping with harm.
Her imagination—which we all admire and find so endearing—is what holds together her mental health. With no experience of early childhood attachment or love, she has to create a world inside herself of beauty, kinship, and love. The new version does a lovely job of inviting us into all this psychological complexity.
The trauma is hard to watch, but it is real, and it needs reckoning with.
But there is something else startling in this newest version I think we must reflect upon. Gilbert Blythe IS A DUDEBRO.
Now, I have been in love with Gil since my awkward days of penny loafers and anti-gravity bangs. He has a sacred role in my imagination since the age of 12 and he holds no small portion of my feminist hopes. So, of course, at first I was shocked, appalled, and uncomfortable with Gilbert as a dudebro and I wanted to turn the show off, because I need somewhere in my 36-year-old fantasy life to keep non dudebro Gilbert Blythe intact.
However, I came to realize that 1) he is actually a dudebro in the original book, so this was an accurate version and 2) it’s important to see his transformation out of dudebro-ness and 3) it’s useful for how we understand male privilege and pain and healing.
First, let me explain how Gil is a dudebro when we first meet him in Anne With a E.
We meet him saving Anne from a group of abusive dudes. Saving Anne does not make him a dudebro. It makes him a decent human being who stepped in to help another human being. What makes him a dudebro is that after he saves her, he keeps invading her boundaries and expecting her attention and pestering her to connect with him when she states clearly she does not want to. Invading boundaries like that is dudebro-ness, especially when a young woman has just gotten out of a situation of severe boundary violation from other dudebros. (Come on, Gil!!)
We also see Gil’s swagger when he walks into school and everyone starts orbiting him. It’s well and good everyone is excited to see him. But that *swagger* tells me everything. Gil is cute and smart and wears a newsy cap (swoon) and all the girls like him and the boys also think he is very cool. None of that especially makes him a dudebro. BUT, the way he feeds off working a room with all that male-privilege-swagger does, in fact, make him a dudebro.
When I saw what was unfolding on the screen, my beloved Gil as a dudebro, I turned to my friend Louise. I was very alarmed at the situation.
“But, Kim, Gil is a dudebro in the original book. He is.”
I sigh. I know she is right. I know that my grown-up imagination needs finally to make space for a Gil who has been socialized into patriarchy. The idealizations of my 7th grade self, held so firmly intact for 20+ years, must fall.
But, what I came to appreciate so much about Gil’s character in this new version is that his dudebro-ness is seen up against all the pain he is holding. Gil’s dad is dying. In my feminist reading of the new mini-series, I think that when he is being a dudebro it’s pretty clear he is entering his male-fantasy-world where he can escape pain, at least temporarily, if he wraps himself up in all that swagger and male privilege and adoring attention from girls.
At home he cares for his dying father. At school, he can be a dudebro because being a dudebro feels better.
As a feminist theorist who thinks long and hard about gender socialization, I wonder how much of dudebro-ness is choosing to enter a kind of male-privilege gender fantasy, because society allows it and even rewards it, that place where men can pretend not to hurt, the place where having women orbit them, where getting acceptance from other dudebros, anesthetizes pain.
This isn’t an excuse for dudebro-ness. At all. It’s just to say that our society allows men 1) not to recognize or heal from their pain and 2) use women like a supply, sometimes even their whole male-privilegeed life, to anesthetize their unhealed pain, all the while usually downloading that pain onto women in their lives.
Part of addressing how male privilege is enacted, and how much it harms women and femmes, might in fact be addressing where men’s pain is and providing feminist healing spaces, because dudes are also living in a really broken world with all kinds of injustice also effecting their lives.
That said, dudebros need to develop empathic capacity to truly understand the labor that women do putting up with the patriarchal harm on the way to dudebro’s healing. (Ahem, Jay-Z. The ever brilliant Candice Benbow’s 4:43 nails it.) The amount of pain and harm dominant forms of male privilege cause women in our relational lives is truly astounding to me. I MEAN, THE LABOR WOMEN DO—and particularly the profound labor women of color do in a white supremacist and patriarchal context.
So, any cultural turn toward healing spaces for men needs to acknowledge—and I mean deeply acknowledge—not only the harm male privilege enacts, but also the labor women do helping menfolk wake up, and the labor we women and femmes do healing from their dishonesty and use of us.
Anyways, back to the early 20th-century trials and tribulations of Avonlea.
Gil is 16 in this film and his father is dying and he is in a process of transformation from dudebro-ness. Any dude raised in patriarchy has to transition out of his socialization through a process of growing up. Some dudes never do, of course. But, some are trying in very sincere ways.
What I love about his character is that he does in fact grow up. And, Anne also has lots of growing up to do. I happen to really like the scene where he calls her out on being incredibly insensitive to his grief, when, in an attempt to build connection, she centers her own experience of loss instead of allowing him space for his own pain. (Oh Anne, I have been there, too.) Anne does deserve to have her pain seen, but not at the funeral of Gil’s dad. I like that scene because both characters have growing up to do, and Gil speaking what he is feeling, and staying connected to what he is feeling, helps Anne self-reflect and grow, too.
I like scenes where people get to grow up together like that. That’s kind of my only hope for how a relationship across gendered difference can work out—that mutual growing and healing.
However, let’s just remember they are kids getting to stumble around trying to grow up here. Kids get to do that. It’s where they are at in their life experience and development.
Where I get concerned is when I see men in positions of public power and immense cultural influence inappropriately centering their own redemption stories or their please-feel-bad-for-me stories, instead of centering the amount of labor women have done on their behalf, instead of centering how their behavior has impacted those around them for all these years.
I am all for self-growth— and for healing from patriarchy— but we need deeper reckonings.