A Love Letter to Gerwig’s Little Women

NCH Student Blog | February 24, 2020

Taking my seat in the Odeon Cinema, I knew the coming two hours and fifteen minutes watching your film would be time well spent. Coming out afterward, I felt inspired by your unapologetic nod to author Louisa May Alcott’s almost certainly true intentions for the novel’s autobiographical protagonist, and the celebration of each and every character for being nothing more than human.

Little Women was the first classic novel I ever read in full (i.e. from start to finish and not the kids’ version), when I was eleven or twelve. Alcott’s enduring story of sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is a keen insight into how an America divided by civil war shaped the ideals and desires of a society, tackling issues such as economic struggle, social conflict, and particularly what it was to be, or to become, a woman. I finished the book, took a moment to take in the messages about family, ambition, desires and love, and the next day swiped back to the first page in my family’s Kindle and read the entire thing over again.

Since then, I have always thought fondly of the story, and enjoyed its several translations onto the big screen. It was easy to revel in Winona Ryder’s fiercely feminist 1994 portrayal of obvious hero Jo, a backlash against 80s pre-third wave feminism portrayals of women in film. Everybody wanted to be the tomboyish untamed rebel, who would do whatever it took to protect her family and publish her writing by her own means, and just as she had written then.

But that was just it – it was the Jo Show. Meg became the sister who gave up and settled for a life in the kitchen, obviously because she didn’t hold her feminist believes dearly enough. Beth was the ‘nice’ one, who hardly gets considered at all except when it’s important for another sister’s storyline. But perhaps most notably, and most irritatingly, Amy was portrayed as a whiny (yes alright she is at a younger age, but not for the whole timeline covered in the book!), nasty, uncompromising brat who only cares about money and pretty things, *sigh*. You know who you’re supposed to root for, and who you’re equally supposed to dislike.

This is not to say that the ‘94 version is a bad movie, or to call for its rejection. To the contrary, much like the previous ‘33 and ‘49 versions, the interpretations of the characters by both the director and actors make for a stimulating, reflective product of their time. And the 2019 version is no different.

I still believe the character of Beth is not represented well enough, reflecting films’, and on a grander scales society’s rejection of the ‘nice girl’, whose greatest aspiration is to make those around her feel loved, not believing her capable of representing true feminist ideals, or being a role model. Perhaps even Alcott’s choice to have Beth die in her youth represents a belief that the place of the ‘nice girl’ is dying, and will have no future within modern womanhood. Nonetheless, the audience still do get to see more of Beth’s exploits, visiting the mother who cannot afford to feed her children, Beth’s intense sorrow being portrayed excellently by Eliza Scanlen. She, like the other March sisters, still gets more of her voice heard than in previous adaptations.

This is where you come in, Greta. Because I believe that, whilst it is an integral component of it, ferocity is not the be-all and end-all in the fight for equality. It is a choice that takes that award. The choice to pursue writing regardless of your age or gender. The choice not to get married. The choice to get married. The choice to become a housewife and put your children first. The choice to secure financial stability before indulging your true interests and talent. You, Greta, show us that all these choices are legitimate and empowering, and to choose what you want, regardless of what society says you must, is truly winning.

And this is where I must say a short bit on Amy too. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s fallen in love with Florence Pugh in the last few months. Her performance as the strong-willed Amy March only proved further her acting talent. The ‘economic proposition’ speech given by her to Laurie, for me, is the greatest moment of the movie – yes, even more so than the likening of Jo getting her book published to Alcott’s own publishing problems and pursuits. It reflects the reality of women’s lives in the late nineteenth century so poignantly, and, rather than squirming with disgust at a woman who chooses not to rebel against the system, cries ‘yes! We know the harsh reality of this time, and we cheer you on for working within the system as best you can to find happiness! You know what you want and you take it!’

Again, Greta Gerwig, you celebrated choice, and that it what should be remembered. So, thank you for creating your version of a remarkable story. I anticipate your next releases with excitement and hope.

From a true fan,