Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” and the meaning of being a woman

Little WomenIt’s ironic how I ended up as a relatively free-spirited writer when, as a little girl, I really hated Jo. There is some sort of prejudice that girls were like Meg but said they wanted to be like Jo, but for me, it’s the opposite. Meg embodies everything that I saw as positive: beautiful yet practical, and it was always more believable in the way she wished away the genteel poverty in which they lived. I was always less capricious than Amy (I am, after all, the eldest child in my family), but I could relate to her too, and I find her grown-up version quite an inspiration. Beth was always too perfect for me to relate to, but I was deeply affected when she died. Jo was always annoying and immature in my eyes, not at all what I’d see as a role model for myself. I will also die still hung up over her refusal of Laurie’s proposal because it didn’t fit her self-reliant view of the world. Over the years, I have come to appreciate how a mature Jo would be Marmee, who is a great role model, but I’m still not her biggest fan (at all). 

In hindsight, it’s entirely possible that my dislike of Jo is due to seeing so many things I don’t like about myself in her, and I hope that I have succeeded in taming the beast enough to be more like Marmee. The biggest criticism of Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal as missing the mark and moderating Jo too much was a positive with me when it comes to the new film. I came to it with a bit of fear I’d hate the fact it’s like Gerwig’s love letter to the novel, since the last adaptation of a beloved classic had me scream to the screen for missing the whole point of Emma (that’s a rant for another day). To my surprise, I found that the approach worked. Unlike the novel and the 1994 film (which is basically the visual version of the novel), it’s less of a general coming of age story and more of an exploration of the birth of the artist. The film switches between present-day and flashback with a transition so smooth that it truly only rested on the shade of colour of the picture, and I guess that’s kind of how our mind works, especially for us writers. 

The original Little Women already sat with the tension between a woman’s heart and the demands of real life, which is something that, I think, is often missed about Meg, in the rush to paint her as too compliant and already the perfect “little woman” in contrast with Jo, who is painted as ahead of her time and therefore more acceptable for us modern readers. It is also believed by scholars of Alcott’s work that she wrote a lot of herself in Jo, so it’s often assumed that she was painting a positive picture just of her, and implying criticism of everyone else (except, perhaps, Marmee). If one pays attention, though, one can see that Meg is not picture perfect at all, and Gerwig has captured that in a few scenes. I liked the way she handled the tension between Meg’s awareness that her dreams were as valid as her sister’s even if they were not dreams that she would consider exciting, but also how the reality of pursuing that dream was not easy.

There was none of the love conquers all nonsense that is often found when painting a positive picture of domesticity: Meg’s happy ending was realistic, she had a man she loved by her side but she still struggled through tough decisions about her life. Finding that love did not make everything rosy like a film on the Hallmark Channel. Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch the sickness-inducing saccharine Christmas films they put on, but I love them precisely because they are sickness-inducing and saccharine and unrealistic, not in spite of it. I don’t watch them to be given food for thought or the chance to explore the meaning of life, but this version of Little Women has been such a chance for me. As an adult, I can now see how Marmee embodies the principle of countering your worst tendencies by going the opposite way, like St Ignatius of Loyola growing his hair and nails to fight vanity. Her radical generosity and patience aren’t there because she has always been that good, but because she wasn’t and she learnt to exercise virtue against her innate inclinations. 

It’d be easy to be tempted to see Marmee as an embodiment of what it means to be a Christian woman, especially after what I just said, but one thing that the film does (by accident rather than design, I think) is remaining faithful to the idea that there is no such thing as the ideal little woman. All of them can and do grow into the better version of themselves that they were meant to be. Looking back on my life, this is a lesson I needed but somewhat missed, and too often I have tried to fit into a mould that couldn’t contain me. I guess better late than never. 

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