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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The Soul Care Series: Self-Knowledge

Woman journaling

 At the beginning of this series, I talked about how I was frustrated to see a mainstream publication talk promote tarots as a beneficial way to know more about oneself, so I think the time has come that this series addresses the subject of self-knowledge, which in a way is linked to the previous topic of planning around our heart’s desires. Over my years as a Christian, the question of self-knowledge has been usually dismissed as easily answered: just pray about it. As if people always know how to truly pray and most importantly they know how to discern the response from God. Last Sunday, the Mass readings for the day contained the passage in 1 Kings 19 about the prophet Elijah finding God in the whispering voice after the powerful ways in which God has spoken before did not make him manifest. Bishop Barron in his homily had a great point about how God doesn’t use one way to communicate, and unless you have dramatic experiences that you can’t deny it’s God’s speaking, it’s not as simple as “just pray”. 

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Intuitive Eating: my experience

Food in 3 plates

In the latest Soul Care post about nutrition, I mention in passing that my food philosophy nowadays (after a lifetime of disordered eating of various shapes and forms) is Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating is not a diet, but rediscovering the way our bodies were created to work. For me as a Catholic woman, God has made us need food, but also able to enjoy it, giving us hunger cues and other signals that indicate to us that it’s time to eat, or that we’ve had enough and we are satisfied with what we had.

This approach to nutrition originated with the work of Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the mid-90s, but it has some commonalities with previous discourses in psychology and the way the 3rd wave feminist movement looked at fat and women issues in the 70s. To this day, it appears to still be strongly linked to the fat acceptance (also referred to as liberation) movement, but I believe it shouldn’t be the stuff of radicalism and instead be the mainstream. The diet industry keeps us engaged in a rat race that replaces God’s vision for humanity with a lot of negative feelings life self-loathing, desire for controlling and punishing the body for just existing and taking space and moralising our food choices even when we’re in no real danger to our health, and so far the best option I have found to counteract this mentality is Intuitive Eating. 

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Adele: my favourite looks

Microphone on stage

It’s Adele’s birthday, and one of the most beautiful voices in pop music in recent years is 32. She is only one year older than me, and has under her belt 120 million records sold, 15 Grammys, 18 Billboard Awards, 5 AMAs, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, the fastest-selling album in iTunes history and the best selling album of the year 4 times in a decade (according to Joe Sanders on Twitter). Still, somehow, in our diet-obsessed culture, everyone is just focusing on the fact the picture of herself she released to mark the occasion shows her significantly thinner than she has been in the past. 

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I gave up perfectionism for Lent…here’s what happened

They say “Be careful what you wish for”, and boy, are they right! It was as late as Ash Wednesday and I didn’t know what to give up for Lent. I asked myself the question: would giving this thing up make me a better person at the end of the 40 days? Food was a no-go because I don’t really have something I can give up, I’d rather forgo coffee entirely than have it unsweetened and I am down to the minimum amount possible to avoid being a cranky zombie with a migraine. I thought about giving up entertainment, but I realised that the effect on my schedule would be marginal. I have so much time on my hands I should be able to keep the monastic schedule of prayer, tackle my to-do list and still waste a lot of time playing games and watching Asian dramas. A lot of that time used to be wasted scrolling on social media, but I was already tackling that because I can’t give them up entirely (I was already home alone all day before the lockdown started). So after a lot of prayer and thinking, I decided to give up perfectionism.

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