(or the timelessness of Little Women)
by Tommy James
“Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn’t mean they are unimportant,” a serene Meg March says to her disgruntled sister, Jo. Whilst deep in the world of Greta Gerwig’s refined adaptation of Little Women, we learn to love the dreams that drive the sisters – Jo writing, Amy painting, Meg performing, and Beth playing the piano. As the sisters age, their dreams alter; perhaps not directly or forcefully by external factors, but maturity slowly yet surely changes them. As the famous line in the first chapter states, “They were no longer little girls; they were little women.”
Change is one of the key motifs in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, as it is with Gerwig’s adaptation. But, before diving into the feminist theories behind the film, it is crucial to reflect upon Gerwig’s alterations to the story. For those who haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers ahead. Firstly, and most notably, time. Little Women disregards the classical chronological timeline found in the novel and other adaptations for a narrative that hops between the adolescent girls and their adulthood seven years later. With Gerwig’s approach, she streamlines the constant time travel with these seamless transitions from characters to develop them further. A caring Jo, for example, watching over her sick sister Beth as a teen repeats the same action years after even spending time away from them. But if anything, Gerwig manipulates the perhaps old-timey dialogue to be culturally relevant; which is what I’ll be discussing.
In the aftermath of the Academy Award nominations, I read an interesting observation about how the Academy awards the ‘most’ of something rather than the best. The ‘most’ director for example, being a figure who does something radical in their field, perhaps something remarkable or not but certainly notable. I can apply this thought to Gerwig’s direction because, even though it isn’t the flashiest or bombastic, it is so subtly excellent that it probably went unnoticed. She isn’t forceful with her representations of either gender. Sure, the original message of the book is still equally potent but she allows these characters to be people.
Looking at Judith Butler’s ideas surrounding gender performativity, she highlights how everyone is putting on a gender performance to abide or rebuke cultural configurations and expectations of said gender. Bringing Jo into the spotlight, she is a writer who frequently mentions that she doesn’t need a husband; a gender performance that she maintains. One of Jo’s most taxing quotes is, “Women, they have minds, and souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m just so sick of it,” she pauses for a moment before rasping, “But I’m – I’m so lonely.” Jo is in a sticky predicament. Her whole life she has upheld a mantra of being the independent and progressive thinking sister. Yet, with Meg married and Beth sadly passed, she has no one left – even more so since Laurie has declared his love for Amy. How Little Women handles the conclusion of Jo’s story is so effervescent with the cross-editing between Jo running after her beau Friedrich and finalising a deal for her book to be published evidently implying that a woman can do both without creating a binary gender group.
Butler also states that gender should be a fluid variable which shifts and changes in different contexts and times without being a fixed attribute in a person. Linking this to Marmee and her wonderfully caring persona, it is not unreasonable to assess that Marmee would be the typical gender figure of that time. This isn’t seen as a weakness but rather the contrary. In fact, looking at Beth and Meg also, both characters celebrated for their domestic capabilities, they assist those in need, and it’s seen more of a loving characteristic rather than a drawbacks. Yet, one scene sees Marmee opening to Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” showing this swallowed anger from a ‘grin and bear it’ generation. We can look at the entire March family as a microcosm on society at that time. Aunt March, the matriarchal head of the family, is quietly miserable and disgustingly set in her ways revelling in her wealth and constantly reminding the March sisters to marry rich. And then Marmee March is the generation below, a woman so fed up of her future destined for her, especially with the war her society was heading in to. The four March sisters were maturing in the midst of the war with an uncertain future ahead of them and the possibility of leading a gender revolution. The dynamics of the three generations play off each other wonderfully whether it’s due to the source material, directions or performances of the leads (I realised I haven’t mentioned how truly excellent everyone is in the film).
Obviously, I’ve gushed over Gerwig’s direction she’s taken the film in, especially for a newer audience, but Louisa May Alcott’s original vision for the novel is the revolutionary idea for Little Women. Ultimately, she incepted the progressive March sisters into an 1800’s audience with a story of hardship, loss, and love yet the overall idea that your life is whatever you choose it to be. And that doesn’t have to be a story specifically for women. If the Judith Butler ideals dotted throughout this piece still have any prevalence, Little Women can offer a takeaway for any little woman and indeed any little man.