What is Little Women? It’s a book by Louisa May Alcott. It is seven films, a BBC mini-series, and a Broadway musical. It’s a parable of feminist authorship.
Who are the Little Women? They are Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. They are sisters who form an enduring portrait of young womanhood, in a story set at the height of America’s Civil War.
The better question is, what do the Little Women promise us? To start: laughter, chatty conversation, petticoats flaring in play. They promise us slender legs running freely through long grass or town squares. Noses red from crying, cheeks flushed with exertion, and ringlets—burnt, lopped off, replete with both monetary and symbolic value. The Little Women promise us a tom-boyish nobility of spirit. They enact for us a racially privileged kind of femininity, and with this good fortune they also promise guilt, administered in small, carefully considered doses, like a homeopathic.
Asking what Little Women promises us is another way of asking what white girls promise us, today, within and across America’s collective imagination. What fantasies are made available because of white girls? What do white girls, on screen and in books, do for us, and why do we keep watching them do it?
This year’s on-screen adaptation of Little Women—directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan, among other luminaries of feminist Hollywood—presents white girlhood as first and foremost a series of sumptuous tableaus. Left behind in Concord, Massachusetts, by a father traveling with the Union army, the March sisters face financial destitution, but you wouldn’t know it from the film’s visual opulence. In Gerwig’s Little Women, tea sets, lush fabrics, and cakes iced in pastel shades crowd the March household, flushed with the warm colors of Instagram beatitude. This domestic abundance, fringed as it is with economic anxiety, calls to mind another famous set of white girls—also sisters—who listed toward poverty but nevertheless retained an association with beauty and material luxury. The Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, especially in the 2005 film featuring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, looked clean and happy and always had great hair. They rode in the backs of carriages; freshly cut flowers often bobbed into the frame when they were present.
Sisters like the Marches and Bennets partake in a cinematic tradition that has never managed to wane even amid demands for more politically engaged representations of women. It’s a vision of white girlhood that locates hardship in an overtly romantic, aestheticized panorama of femininity, arranging bodies and objects under a fetching curatorial impulse. Though these characters brush against patriarchal pressures or experience the young woman’s economic precarity, their lives are also meant to be envied and coveted. This much is evident in the internet’s robust circulation of GIF sets featuring the dresses and cheekbones of the Bennet sisters, as well as admiration for the lovely mise-en-scène that Gerwig created in the Marches’ family home. Such a tic of mainstream cinema ensures that certain subjects, particularly white female subjects, can never not be visually pleasing when they appear on-screen. The extreme limit of this tendency is Midsommar (2019), which remained visually dazzling even as it dropped its white girls into a world of horror and misogyny (flower crowns, incidentally, serve as a recurring hallmark of all of these works). This placement of precarity and privilege in artful relation to one another is a crucial fantasy; it induces catharsis by weaving patriarchy into a fanciful, luminous vision instead of depicting its effects for what they amount to: mundane reality.
In Little Women’s 2019 incarnation, Gerwig toggles between the Marches’ past and present lives, revealing how the sisters are gradually rewarded or punished for their childhood ambitions. Jo (Saoirse Ronan)—the second-eldest, the most bookish, and the camera’s clear favorite—always remembers youth as richer than her present, and Gerwig faithfully translates this into image, depicting adulthood in threadbare grays and blues, drawing stark angles to evoke hard-earned grief. The symbiotic correspondence between Jo’s inner life and the aesthetic sensibility of her surroundings is itself a privilege that the film takes for granted. Moving through the world with ease, Jo finds that it will always answer to her emotions, that its palette deepens or blanches in accordance with her mental state. Such harmony exists sparingly, for select characters; the film cannot countenance or truly consider the existence of individuals who, for one reason or another, may live in discord with the environments in which they are embedded.
All this is to say that Little Women dramatizes the stakes of white female liberty even as the history it carries within itself, the history it necessarily tries and fails to outrun, is that of systemic racism and American plantation slavery. Literary critic Fredric Jameson once wrote that the literature of early twentieth-century metropolitan Europe—written by authors such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster—marked a moment when the Western novel became leached of meaning. Emerging within the shadow of empire yet refusing to account for empire’s inherent brutalities, these works could not represent the economic system of their milieus, a system that was always grinding on elsewhere, in the distant, invisible domain of the colony. This spatial partition ensured that “daily life and existential experience of the home country,” the “very content of the national literature,” no longer had “its meaning, its deeper reason for being, within itself.” Fumbling at its own underpinnings, literature could not understand that the basis for its existence remained in an outer world it wouldn’t portray or look at.
To white girls, we have outsourced the task of suppressing ugly histories in favor of beautiful stories.
In much of the American canon, including Little Women, the absent space that destabilizes and threatens a work’s meaning is not found in distant colonies but within the country’s borders. The oft-erased national legacies of slavery and white supremacy haunt these works, and undermine the particular myths of perseverance and bodily freedom that Little Women, the film, promotes with such visual splendor. A hasty scene where Mrs. March (Laura Dern) professes to having “long” felt “ashamed” of her country cannot gesture beyond individual emotion to examine the foundational violence in slavery, or the opportunities this violence makes available, materially and emotionally, to her family. The Marches are abolitionists, and while the film is careful to have them voice an occasional progressive opinion, we are never meant to receive these moments as anything other than exonerating evidence. Rather than expose how good intentions and personal virtue can coexist with complicity, the film anxiously seeks to assuage our concerns, to permit our continued affection for these characters. Yet the joy with which Little Women lavishes opportunities for rebellion and mischief on its beloved protagonists occludes the realization that this ability to flout convention has, in the long scheme of things, been made available very selectively to people in America.
To white girls, we have outsourced the task of suppressing ugly histories in favor of beautiful stories. Viewers can watch these characters and find that, even in their encounters with structural oppression, their genius and talent don’t get ground to dust, but actually deepen, gain texture and charm. They model for us a well-calibrated ratio of hardy perseverance and delicate femininity. Perhaps we remain invested for this reason; in her best and final trick, the white girl can be asked to overcome and beat back violence on our behalf. The ways she does it—easily and with grace—is difficult to believe in and even harder to ignore.
Cresting on a wave of recent girl-power blockbusters, Gerwig’s film adapts Little Women to align with certain contemporary mores. Its first concession is that each March sister may serve at will as a paragon of feminist virtue. When Meg (Emma Watson) insists that her dream to marry and make a home is as valid as her sisters’ artistic careers, she is winking at the audience, giving them the permission they need to enjoy a love story executed on unequal legal terms. Little Women also winks at its viewers when it hints that the March matriarch is unhappy in her role as selfless caretaker, and that in portraits of domestic cheer there may lurk groundswells of resentment. The movie’s biggest wink is its ending, which is actually two endings. In one final scene Little Women shows Jo falling in love and in another it depicts her alone, publishing her first book. The film makes it unclear whether both endings happen—it suggests that the version with Jo’s marriage may be a fantasy concocted and included to please a more conventional subset of viewers. (As one character says dismissively,“Girls want to see women get married.”)
We are thus supposed to smirk at the ending montage of Jo’s courtship even as, crucially, the film still feels compelled to show it to us. We witness a kiss in the rain, and then a bright choreography of men living alongside women, children running past them in delight. Little Women proffers both traditional femininity and its subversion, refusing to make the viewer choose. This is the utopian ideal of have-it-all feminism interpreted to an unbearably literal extent. In simultaneously invoking romantic tropes and deriding them, the movie somehow patronizes and indulges its viewer at once. It commits a sin that is unforgivable within the generic constraints of the rom-com and possibly cinema itself: it tries to be smarter than its own fantasy.
What might an adaptation of Little Women do, then, given its release at a moment when a certain political rigor is, or ought to be, demanded of popular culture—when Hollywood is being cajoled to reckon with the narratives it has seeded into society? One possibility is to not try to have it both ways. Hollywood could have given us—as it so often does—the fantasy alone. It could have said, here, we have created 135 minutes of escapist cinema by weaponizing everything we know about desire and romance. We have buffed and polished reality to an inch of its life—now why don’t you shut up and enjoy yourself.
The other possibility is that, in the year 2019, which is now the year 2020, we could have decided the one thing we didn’t need was another Little Women.
I have long thought that the more interesting ending for Jo wasn’t that she should remain alone, but that she’d marry unhappily, and we as readers and viewers would be forced to contend with this unhappiness. One of the best scenes in Gerwig’s interpretation follows Jo as she confesses to her mother that she may marry Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a man she does not love, after all. She is sickened by the prospect of a husband, exhausted by a social system that grants women value only through marriage, but she is also, in her words, “so lonely.” She wants to be loved. This drama—of wanting to want certain things, and failing to not want others—is the film’s untapped vein of truth. To want and not want, and never in the right way, forms the foundation of much of heterosexual romance. It is what movies and childhood train us to do.
As a viewer, I wanted to not want Little Women. I saw it in theaters with my family on Christmas Day, and I should note that next door they were screening the latest movie by Clint Eastwood, who, even at the age of eighty-nine, is still making a macho brand of cinema that has never once apologized for or second-guessed its manufactured fantasies. Walking out the doors after Gerwig’s ambiguous dual ending, I realized that I had liked one version better than the other, and it was shamefully not the version that showcased a woman at her most autonomous, her most accomplished. I had enjoyed myself, though that enjoyment had been mingled with anger and uncertainty. My reaction—a set of desired and undesired desires, requiring a lifetime to understand and master—was its own cruel lesson in femininity.