When in December I heard an interview with Greta Gerwig on All Things Considered about her film adaptation of the 1868 novel Little Women, I admit that I felt territorial. Reading Little Women was my first experience of finding myself helpless inside a narrative, such that whatever happened to the four sisters seemed to be happening to me. I first read Little Women at age nine, at a time when—even in downtown New York in the ’70s, even with freethinking bohemian parents—I could see a Mack truck of gendering bearing down on me. Suddenly, my Barbies seemed despicable to me and I threw them all out; but I wasn’t interested in what was coming next. And so, I was perfectly primed to fall for Jo March, the second sister and central character of Little Women, a girl who wanted to be a boy.
Reading Little Women to my daughter a few years ago, I discovered a completely different book than the one I’d remembered. Alcott advocated for women’s rights, but that does not mean that Little Women is a feminist book, at least not in a sense that we would recognize today. What women in the 19th century were fighting for was very, very basic: simply to not live in a position of servitude in relation to men; to have some legal control over one’s body and life. What Alcott did not call into question in Little Women was the social construction of girlhood of her time; on the contrary, the novel is to some degree an instructional manual on how to humbly and selflessly submit to that role.
So, I was curious and a little anxious to see how Gerwig would negotiate between the memory of a beloved novel and the actual text. Seeing the movie has helped me think through the difficulties involved in the adaptation process, more in resisting Gerwig’s choices, however, than in appreciating them. Her version of Little Women is deft, chronologically remixed, unsentimental, and deeply personal—perhaps even a 21st-century feminist fantasy. But in that sense, it’s more like the story of four Greta Gerwigs than of young women living in the 19th century. As such, it’s very accomplished. But it’s not Little Women.
Jo March has always been widely understood to be a stand-in for Alcott herself, who also grew up poor but genteel in Massachusetts and had three sisters. Jo is fierce, tall, plain, and so ungainly that hardly a scene goes by without her breaking something. She writes dramas for her sisters to act in, plays the male leads, and uses slang—“Christopher Columbus!”—that is considered masculine.
The way Jo stampedes into the life of a neighbor boy, Laurie, is one of the most exciting things to happen in American fiction, because he takes her exactly as she presents herself, and they love each other as equals. (The novel’s publication came on the heels of Romanticism, when it was still the fashion for a boy to express a range of strong emotions unrelated to sports.) Laurie turns to Jo when his grandfather has humiliated him, when he longs “to be petted,” when he’s lonely. And Jo gets a fellow traveler in boyhood, at least for a while.
So, I find it disappointing that Gerwig’s Jo is played by Saoirse Ronan without Jo’s boyish mannerisms or speech, or even her clumsiness. Instead we get fourth-wave-feminist Jo, running around in waistcoats that look like they were made by a minimalist Belgian designer: beautiful, strong-willed, wanting to be a writer, ready to take on a world that is not ready for her. But this is nonsense; Jo’s vocation is hardly an act of rebellion; writing fiction was one of the few occupations considered suitable for a gentlewoman in the 19th century. What drew generations of readers to Alcott’s Jo is that she is a girl who wants to be a boy.
Gerwig’s version is deft, chronologically remixed, unsentimental, and deeply personal. But it’s not “Little Women.”
Let’s take Alcott at her own words, in an interview toward the end of her life: “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” One of my favorite illustrations of this sentiment in the book is the way Jo will apologize unconvincingly about some way she has failed to be a girl, as when she first meets Laurie at a ball and tells him that she has burnt the back of her best dress and can’t dance. He couldn’t care less, and they jig down an empty hallway.
In Gerwig’s adaptation, Jo and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) go out to the porch and perform a jagged, erotic, Twyla Tharpish number that actually made me angry. Jo and Laurie do not need to do a sexy modern dance in order to be ahead of their time. It is precisely that their relationship is not romantic (at least for Jo) but respectful, affectionate, and comradely that makes it unusual and transgressive. For me as a girl, it was lovely to imagine that such a friendship with a boy could exist. I think it still feels radical.
Furthermore, by not allowing Jo to be a boy in a girl’s body—possibly even trans—or at least a very boyish girl, Gerwig is denying female viewers the pleasure of recognizing in her the very common experience of rebelling against the construct of girlhood writ large, which includes not just the limitations placed on our actions but also the way we exist in space, hold our bodies, and speak.
None of the film versions of Little Women, Gerwig’s included, has been able to do much with the eldest March sister, Meg. Here she is played by Emma Watson, and I already have a quibble. In the book Meg is repeatedly called “plump”; you would think in casting her a feminist director in this great age of Lizzo, with body positivity forming a pillar of the fourth-wave platform, would choose an actress who was not completely gaunt.
In fact, the problem with the book’s Meg is that she is precisely not cinematic.
Meg is well behaved, nice to her sisters, and wants to please others. The greatest moral failing she shows in the 183,833-word book is to buy some fabric for a dress that she can’t really afford. But she must say no to the dress; she has married a poor man for no better reason, it seems, than that she is persuadable and he is good.
In Gerwig’s adaptation, Jo and Meg argue about whether she should “just” be a housewife—Jo wants her to be an actress. Gerwig then attempts to inject some agency into Meg by having her tell Jo, “That’s not what I want.”
This is an impossible conversation to have occurred in the 19th century. The Jo of the book is devastated that Meg is leaving her, but she does not critique Meg’s desire to be a housewife; far from it. Alcott writes that Jo admires Meg’s “good, womanly impulses” and how Meg will learn “that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home.”
Alcott was raised in the transcendentalist movement, an American Christian sect that supported abolition and equal rights for women. Her family did reject the idea that any human being should be debased or legally subject to another; but it did not reject 19th-century gender roles. In the book, the March parents lecture the girls relentlessly—albeit gently—to be better “little women,” and praise them the more they are tidy, tender, meek, pious, and selfless. Toward the end of the narrative, one of the sisters is even presented as a paragon of Christian girlhood for the submissive spirit in which she returns to “the best lover of all,” meaning death. Yes, girls, do please go gentle into that good night.
The sad truth is, many of us “girls,” 140 years later, are still Megs. Gerwig’s somewhat triumphal-feminist vision of the 19th century may please today’s audience, but it obscures the mental constructs of gender that we have inherited and are still unconsciously performing as women; that is, the ideology that women have to strive to be perfect, that we must put the needs of others before our own, and that we exist to please and give pleasure. The ghost of Meg March is still inside us.
The youngest sister, Amy, has generally been presented in film adaptations as spoiled, vain, and uppity. She asserts that she wants to be an artist, or a wife, or both, if she chooses, and that if she marries a man, he will be a rich one. This didn’t go over well in the 20th century, but the fact is, apart from throwing a story of Jo’s in the fire when she is 12, Amy is a very decent person. She is polite, disciplined, and wants to be better. The difference between Amy and her sisters is that she doesn’t feel bad or constantly critique her desires.
Florence Pugh, who plays Amy here, is the astonishingly present actress who electrified Midsommar, and also the best thing about Little Women. She portrays the youngest sister as a sort of id to the Marches—if Jo is their ego—wanting it all and willing to run after it. Amy’s wish to marry money is, in Gerwig’s script, a canny protofeminist assessment of what is available to her as an ambitious young woman, and although a speech she makes explaining this felt clunky and jarred me out of the narrative, I think it does reflect the spirit of Alcott’s Amy. The very thing that in the past made directors misunderstand Amy is what makes Pugh’s performance compelling today. Getting what you want is very much an idea for our time.
Amy may play well for today’s audiences, but Beth is no more a heroine for our age than Meg is; filmmakers have generally rendered her as quiet and fond of kittens. The Beth of the book is cripplingly shy, as well as unambitious, self-effacing, and barely able to leave the house. Today she would probably be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
The truth is, much as I wanted to be a Jo, I was a Beth. My mother had to bribe me to talk to other children at the beach, because I wanted to play with them but was too shy, and was happy to be at home crafting 12 hours a day. I did not need much encouragement to be good; I was terrified to be anything else. My doting parents, like Beth’s, let me be who I was.
Gerwig does not. She has Beth played by Eliza Scanlen, an actress who projects a quirky, deadpan coolness, gives side-eye, and is apparently a passionate piano virtuoso.
the perceived need to be special, brilliant, hardworking, above average, and so on has become the newest plague in the apocalypse of contemporary female adolescence.
The endurance of Little Women is based on archetypes in which readers may recognize themselves to varying degrees: a girl who would rather be a boy; a people pleaser; someone who wants to stay at home and not achieve anything today. In the book, Beth’s sisters worship her as the embodiment of Christian humility and acceptance because of her modest needs and utter self-abnegation.
By making her cool, talented, and ambitious, Gerwig is unconsciously adhering to a social construct of our time, that every girl should be cool, talented, and ambitious. She is denying Beth, this dear, timid creature, the right to exist even in film, and denying girls who may see a part of themselves in Beth the message that it is valid not to be “exceptional.”
I think this is particularly pertinent for girls today, for whom the perceived need to be special, brilliant, hardworking, above average, and so on has become the newest plague in the apocalypse of contemporary female adolescence.
And what did Alcott make of her own book? In a meta scene at the end of the film, Gerwig references a real-world fact: Alcott was asked by her publisher to have the character Jo marry—rather than remain single, as Alcott wanted her to do—and that, being a practical writer, Alcott acquiesced. Gerwig’s ending posits that Alcott wanted her Jo to remain single because it reflected Alcott’s own decision to remain single. The sense is that Alcott’s publisher, by forcing Alcott to marry Jo off at the end, spoiled the truthfulness of the book.
But Little Women is not the story of a feisty self-actualized young woman spoiled by a false ending; in fact, if Alcott had been truly self-actualized, she would not have written the book at all. The novel was her publisher’s idea to begin with, and she unenthusiastically gave it a shot, assuming it would fail. But history ran away with her, and she became famous and wealthy, and being practical, she was fine with that.
What bothers me about Gerwig’s ending is that it ignores the fact that Alcott had to live in the 19th century all the time, not just when she went to see her publisher.
Yes, Alcott’s lifelong companion was her writing, and that was her choice. But it was not the same thing as getting what she wanted.
In one scene toward the end of Little Women, a 25-year-old Jo wistfully reads a letter of Amy’s about “how much like heaven” it is to be in love; Jo then puts the letter away, “as one might shut the covers of a lovely romance, which holds the reader fast until the end comes, and he finds himself alone in the workaday world again.” Alcott lived in a world in which, unlike Amy, she could not have it all. Whether she was lesbian or trans we will probably never know for sure—she was almost certainly queer. What we do know is that she preferred to write stories full of sexual intrigue, adventure, and romance, and described loneliness with the ring of truth.
In the second half of the book, Jo becomes increasingly self-doubting and feminized, and her apologies for herself, which in the beginning were so unconvincing, become more serious. She ends up meeting a man who criticizes the sensational stories she writes for newspapers as immoral, and she is ashamed and stops writing them. Then she marries him. That this ending is completely fictional does not make it untrue, however; it makes it more true. Alcott is calculating what would have to happen to Jo to shrink her down to fit into the marriage box, and this is based on what she knows about her era.
Why is this important? Because if Little Women were presented in a film as it is in the book, we might be able to see how gender constructs operated within the mind of a feminist writer in 1868, how deeply she internalized them, and how that affected her life. By seeing all this, we might in turn be able to see more clearly our own inheritance of these constructs. We might see the ways in which we are still apologizing for ourselves, thinking that we have to be perfect—talented, ambitious, and cool, in today’s terms—and that somehow at the same time we must be pleasing and constantly catering to others.
To be sure, in the interview with All Things Considered and elsewhere, Gerwig has made no bones about intending to encode contemporary, fourth-wave feminist values into her adaptation of the novel. But that “contemporary” version of feminism may be more regressive than we who live with it currently realize. As fine a film as it is in its own right, what Gerwig’s adaption misses is that Alcott’s novel gives us both a more radical take on gender than the film reflects, as well as a useful reminder of how long-standing are some of the habits that still hobble women.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
Featured image: Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women