What we are watching: Little Women, feminism, and our childhoods

Him: “Are you going to see Little Women?” 

Me: “Hell, YES! What about you?”

Him

Him: *shrug* “…maybe…”

Me: “Well you don’t have to see it. I’ll go by myself–I grew up with that story and love it.” 

How many heterosexual couples do you think had this conversation around Christmastime? I’m guessing more than a few. At the time, I shrugged too, thinking nothing more than we just had different reactions based on preference. Plus, I have come to enjoy seeing a movie of my own. 

This movie, however, had special meaning beyond a nice night out. Little Women was a story that wove through my childhood and teen years, and having it re-emerge in my adulthood felt exciting, like rejuvenating an old friendship. Little Women has personal nostalgia in spades along with a lovely social connection with all those who love it with me. 

Greta Gerwig wrote a screenplay that sparkles with feminist relevance and a crafts a new connective tissue between familiar characters and plot points. While some were confused by Gerwig’s experimentation with parallel timelines (I know this from listening to their conversations exiting the theater), I loved the juxtaposition of Amy, Jo, Meg, and Beth’s childhoods set against scenes of their emerging adult lives. I was delighted by every actor’s performance from the natural chemistry of Timothy Chalamet and Saorise Ronan to the surprising remake of Amy through Florence Pugh and the elevation Meryl Streep brings to any production she graces. Laura Dern’s Marmee was warm and strong. Emma Watson’s Meg played the perfect foil to each of her screen sisters in turn.

In short, I swooned. Then I went into a deep Internet hole–reading every article, watching every interview I could get my hands on. A perfectly timed obsession with the holiday break. 

What about my partner? Why don’t I let him tell you himself how he ended up in that movie theater with me.

Him

I’m going to be the big person, here, the guy willing to admit his blind spots the world, his upbringing, and THE PATRIARCHY instilled in him.  Which is to say, I was less than enthusiastic about seeing it at first. That’s on me. That’s my bad.

Doubtless, some of this hesitation came from the fact that my older sister loved the 90’s version, and me being the contrary little shit I was, this meant I hated it.  However, it was better than Black Beauty to my brain.
So when Brianna suggests (she rarely ever just suggests anything, there’s usually some enthusiasm surging through it) we try to watch all the films nominated for the main Oscar categories, I was all-in.  We’d caught a lot of them the prior year and I loved it!  However, when Little Women came up it definitely caught for a moment–like a saltine chomped with nary a sip of water in sight.

I’m not a totally oblivious barbarian.  I picked through why my default response was the “Who farted?” face and couldn’t come up with any good reason – because there wasn’t one.  On this topic, I defer to the analyses and thinkpieces numerous enough to fill Aunt March’s house. They do a better job than me.

I came around without too much cajoling, the obvious result being that I’m glad I did!

Me

One of the best articles I read on 2020 Little Women (remember: holiday-break-Internet-hole) was written by the Pulitzer prize winning biographer for Louisa May Alcott, the author of the original book Little Women: One Way the New Little Women Film Is Radical. His analysis helped me understand more about why this story has always been unique and important to me. And the fact that he is swooning knowing this story and its author as well as he does offers validation to my fawning. 

His piece opens with this description: “A visually gorgeous period drama, the film poses a question of eternal relevance: How can a person behave unselfishly without annihilating herself?” Which addresses the overt an feminist theme both inherent to the original story and elevated freshly by Gerwig’s adaptation. I saw this question echoed in the specific questions raised through Saoirse Ronan’s Jo: How can Jo forge her own path in this world without succumbing to the world’s expectations and isolating herself from her lifeblood, her family? How can she write to support herself when women’s words are worth less or nothing? How can she love without sacrificing her autonomy? How can she allow herself to be loved without finding herself bound in marriage with all its obligations? How can be who her family needs her to be without losing who she wants to become? These questions are woven through every scene Jo shares with her sisters, her mother, and, of course, her childhood best friend Laurie. 

The most compelling aspect of this film was watching Jo March attempt to answer these questions. Because Gerwig splices her stories between childhood scenes and scenes in the future, the juxtaposition of Jo’s journey is even more stark. A scene where her first manuscript is burned by her vindictive little sister Amy is spliced near a scene of her living in New York, negotiating with an old man about the worth of her short story. We know her journey toward being a published (and paid) author was built on work, tears, passion, and a choice to believe in herself. 

Him

“Visually gorgeous period drama” is spot-on.  The movie is gorgeous, regardless of season or setting.  One of my favorite touches was the way Gerwig framed the movie’s chronological progression (brilliant!) and the visual cues that reflect the past/present-future.  The past interiors really bear this out, from the rich colors of Christmas decorations and its feast to the glowing heat of a makeshift dance hall. You can practically feel the bead of sweat gliding down your spine.  The colors of the attic club and its overly-ornate accoutrement pop with youthful joy.

The cooler present-future choices were also well-executed.  In my mind, the most compelling representation of this is Beth and Jo’s trip to the beach, when Beth reveals she’s come to grips with her impending death.  The contradiction – a beach trip, so often associated with warmth and joy – is here reduced to a cold simulacrum of the past. I’m always a sucker for a well-executed visual language, the heart of film.

And let’s not forget Amy!

Me

The reinvention of Amy as an equal and foil rather than antagonist is brilliant. Gerwig should have all the accolades for seeing the potential for a new Amy to emerge, and Florence Pugh’s brilliance to bring her forth. Amy’s impetuousness contrasts with Jo’s passion, her practicality with Jo’s idealism. Neither has to be diminished for the other to shine. It’s the most feminist of interpretations. 

Did we find Laurie’s relationship with Amy, including the final result, believable?

Him

No.  If I had to cast an aspersion upon the film it was that this relationship felt rushed.  They had one semi-flirtatious scene in Amy’s art studio, where she gives him the epitome of a cold shoulder. Then her love for Laurie seemed to land with a thud when she tells him she’s always loved him.  I think the intention was to further paint the historical progression of this with more scenes from the past, and indeed a scene soon after has a younger Amy mentioning Laurie, but it just didn’t gel for me.  What felt so deeply real was Amy’s indignation that she would not be second place to Jo in this thing.

I think this could have been all well and good if Ronan’s Jo and Chalamet’s Laurie didn’t spend the rest of the movie acting the hell out of their flirtatious and clearly deep, if not mutually romantic, love.  The contrast between the blazing glow of this and the cool coalescence of Amy and Laurie is what makes it feel underwhelming.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  There’s a clear point to be taken from this about the differences between youthful love and its wrecking-ball willingness to crash through any obstacle and the measured approach to adult relationships.  There is definitely a happiness in Laurie at the end with Amy, but this still feels like it was crammed in rather than earned.

Am I alone in this?

Me

I think you make good points about how Amy’s proclamation lands in the final quarter of the movie. I was curious how it felt for you because those of us who know the story know this ending. I was willing to believe this love story because Gerwig’s Amy seems to have recognized her capacity to hurt, but also her inherent pull toward jealousy. She isn’t willing to give up her trip to Europe to save Jo’s feelings, but she also needs that trip to get away from the constant love between Jo and Laurie. 

In France, Amy is determined to create a path for herself, even if that includes the prospect of an economic marriage. She’s determined to take the practical path while Jo blazes toward her dreams in New York. But Amy’s adult character seems to convey this theme: love cannot be wrangled or controlled. When Laurie shows up suddenly in the middle of her practical plans does seem to upend her. 

When we were watching the movie, you commented on the difference in color hues between the scenes from childhood and the slices of Jo, Amy, and Meg’s adulthood. When did you notice that and how do you think it contributed to the experience? 

Him

I noticed it right away.  It’s not necessarily jarring, but it cleaves the visual language of the film very clearly.  Going from gooey-warm to icy-cold not only delineates the timelines immediately for me, but it also serves as a strong cue as to the emotional and physical realms the characters inhabit in these two separate spaces.  Warm is joy and possibility, while cold is loss and finality.  For Beth, of course, these are exacting truths, but they’re cruelly apparent for the other characters.  In the horror of impending lifelong loneliness, Jo comes around to Laurie’s love, but this is obviously a panicked reaction.  Also, if Jo embodies elements of masculinity, this is 100% what any number of men experience when they realize they can’t be total and utter shits in life with regards to their relationships.

For Amy, the temporal divide is probably the most nuanced, and we’ve touched on this.

I like the way the hopefulness of love shows up in Amy’s story for you.  I hadn’t looked at it that way, but it’s definitely there. She strikes me as the second-most tragic character after Beth “I’ve Got the Black Lung, Pa” March, more so than Jo, because while Jo eventually has to come around and examine herself, her natural tendency is to plow through whatever gets in her way.  Amy had to learn this from Jo.

I think, though, the movie ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note, even if we chop out Gerwig’s tacked-on schoolhouse fever dream.  Jo is free, Amy has what she wants in Laurie, Meg got what she wanted and never looked back. Marmee, uh, I don’t know?

Me

Marmee!!!

Him

Laura Dern can do whatever she wants, forever.  I’ll watch her chop vegetables or tie shoelaces.

Me

Yes, she was brilliant in this role, as always. She conveyed the restraint of a woman who has assigned herself the superhuman role of protecting her daughters from losing their childhood innocence during a war that has stolen their father. Her subtlety in giving the veteran soldier her own scarf or plying her daughters to give up their Christmas breakfast…well, it’s entirely heartwarming and inspiring. 

However, one of my favorite parts of the whole movie is the scene between a whispering Marmee and a somber Jo who is reckoning with the consequences of her own anger and passion. 

Marmee: You remind me of myself.

Jo: But you’re never angry.

Marmee: I’m angry nearly every day of my life.

Jo: You are?

Marmee: I’m not patient by nature. But with nearly 40 years of effort, I’m learning to not let it get the better of me. 

Jo: I’ll do the same, then. 

Marmee: I hope you’ll do a great deal better than me. There are some natures who are too noble to curb and too lofty to bend. 

This dialogue is gorgeous. The acting is superb. And I get goosebumps listening to it again. 

Also, part of my Internet hole was finding this fantastic interview with Greta of how this dialogue and scene developed. 

Him

It’s a great quote, too good to leave out of the movie once it was found in Alcott’s very own letter.  If it were just a little bit shorter we’d see it tattooed under Gen-Z sideboob for years to come. Then again, people will do a lot for the ‘Gram.

It’s late.  Can we just skip Meg?  Nothing to see here. Move along.  (No offense Emma; if you’re reading this, I’m a big fan.)

Me

Sigh. But she’s a crucial character in that she wants the traditional pathway and Jo needles her about it throughout the whole story. Gerwig’s movie weaves a lovely social critique through Meg’s character, posing this question to modern viewers: Do we accept and respect women who want all the fine things and desire only the traditional path or do we denigrate and undermine them in favor of the career-driven, independent Jo? The same Jo who actively interferes with all of Meg’s marriage prospects and then declares late in the movie and decidedly poignantly, “I’m so lonely.” 

Without Meg, Jo’s version of bold feminism resorts to hollow feminism, a cliche in our modern times. Without Amy, Jo’s character doesn’t stay grounded in the context of the time. Without Beth, the sisters aren’t forced out of innocence. They are all important. 

Him

I guess we’re doing this.

Sure, any discussion of feminism and its representations has to address the space for women who openly and unabashedly embrace the traditional roles women have occupied in society, because to deny them this isn’t feminism and to suggest they aren’t “liberated” or smart enough or wise enough or whatever to know what’s going on strips away their agency as much as the patriarchy ever could (or, well, close).

Me

So we agree that Meg is worth discussing. Good then.

Him

I didn’t say that.  Logically and in any critique of a dominant system, the dominant system is implied.  No rebel is a rebel without a system to rebel against. There is no night without day.

I guess she’s fine, but the whole world exists around them to make this point.  If there’s a failing of this movie, it’s that Meg has two good scenes, one with Laurie and one with Jo.  Even these are only good, not great. “I just want to be a girl, yo.” Sure. Fine.

Me

We are *mostly* in agreement, and I will concede to move on. Let’s end with this: Would you recommend this movie? If so, what’s the pitch– specifically for men who had your initial reaction?

Him

Unequivocally.  It’s well-structured, well-written, well-blocked, well-acted, well-shot, and well-edited.  It’s a really, really good film. I love a fresh, redefining interpretation of a well-tread story, a new take that owns itself not by setting it in space or adding zombies, but by driving straight to the core of what the story is.  In this case, these “little women” and the lives they live with each other, and how they each shape each other in a world that has always told women what their lane is. It’s about family.

Me

I echo this endorsement. But everyone already knew that. Watch this movie for what it makes you feel, how it challenges you to think about relationships, love, and passions. Watch this movie for a feel-good story that doesn’t ring hollow. Watch it for the controversial ending. 

I’m rooting for it to win best picture at the Oscars, even though it is clearly the underdog. 

Him

Can I be boorish and ask for the last word?

Me

No. It’s my blog. XOXO

Internet-Hole Resources

Dear men who are afraid to see Little Women: You can do this. by Monica Hesse 1.1.2020

One Way the New Little Woman is Radical by John Matteson 1.1.2020

We watched 15 straight hours of Little Women and things got weird by Caitlin Gibson and Monica Hesse 12.23.2019

This year’s Oscar snubs are as much about genre as they are about gender by Ann Hornaday 1.13.2020

The Oscars? Still So White by Alison Willmore, E.Alex Jung, Angelica Jade Bastien

2 thoughts on “What we are watching: Little Women, feminism, and our childhoods

  1. I loved the 90’s version of this movie. I would basically say it was my favorite childhood move that always brings me to tears. W
    We should talk about the newer version sometime! While I overall enjoyed it, I couldn’t get the original out of my head and found myself annoyed at moments with the characters in the new one!

    Great blog entry. Love the ending. Xoxo.

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