“Writing things is what makes them important”: Gender and Genre in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) on New Year’s Day, and for REASONS (the novel was formative for me, I’m a specialist in C19 literature) I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This think piece is the result.


Let me begin by saying that I’m not here to talk about how closely Gerwig’s Little Women conforms to the book. I like to think of adaptations as completely new stories, which, if we’re lucky, take the characters and worlds we love from dog-eared, tearstained, and well-worn pages and show them to us in a new light. An ideal adaptation is, to steal a phrase from another beloved nineteenth-century novel for girls, a “kindred spirit” in conversation with an earlier work. The conversation between Gerwig’s and Louisa May Alcott’s versions of Little Women revolves, fittingly, around the written word itself. More specifically, it revolves around the way that the written word reflects and even shapes women’s experiences in and of the world. But in its effort to highlight the book’s feminism, Gerwig’s adaptation lost track of the nuance of this genre-gender dynamic, and as a result its feminist update feels flat. Like a quote out of context. I’m here to talk about that.

There’s a sequence of scenes toward the end of Gerwig’s Little Women in which the already tenuous boundary between fiction and life becomes blurred. It is this sequence, more than Jo’s ambidextrous writing or any of the film’s other nods to Louisa May Alcott’s life, that earns the film’s designation as “semi-biographical.” It also just happens to be the sequence that caps off Gerwig’s message of female empowerment. Jo negotiates with her publisher over the ending of her novel, fighting for the ending Alcott originally wanted. The publisher insists that readers will expect a marriage––economics must win out over artistic vision. Jo objects, but ultimately concedes, pitching a new romantic ending which we see in full detail.

There is something fiercely, joyously defiant in these scenes, despite Jo’s failure to convince her publisher to keep the marriage-less denouement. As we cut from “real-life” entrepreneurship to fictional proposal and back again, it is tempting to see Gerwig’s juxtaposition as a radical reassertion of Alcott’s lost vision for women’s independence. And it is an important sequence. But Alcott’s vision was never really lost, marriage plot notwithstanding, and Gerwig’s “update” falls short in part because, even though it reframes Little Women almost entirely as the story of Jo’s writing career, it fails to convey how very much the novel’s complicated feminism is intertwined with its depictions of writing and the written word.

Like many nineteenth-century novels, Alcott’s Little Women is intensely intertextual––referencing and alluding to other texts in ways that deeply inform meaning and characterization. In the novel’s first chapter one such reference is made when Marmee reminds Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy how they used to pretend to be characters in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This impromptu memory is brought on by a letter from their father, in which he instructs Marmee to:

Give them all of my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.

This letter sets each girl thinking of her “bosom enemies” and how she might best “conquer” herself. And Marmee’s helpful reference to past make-believe sessions leads Jo to declare, “we were in the Slough of Despond tonight, and Mother came and pulled us out as Help did in the book. We ought to have our roll of directions, like Christian.” “Look under your pillows Christmas morning, and you will find your guidebook,” Marmee replies. The next morning, each of the girls wakes to find “a little book” under her pillow. Alcott writes that Jo “knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and [she] felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey.”

These “little books,” pocket-sized copies of the Christian New Testament, are a sort of yardstick by which the girls are measured as they strive to become the titular “little women.” And while it is understandable that Gerwig left the books out in her depiction of this early March family Christmas, their absence blunts the complexity and power of Jo’s story arc in the film. For it is within the context of these “little books” and what they represent––respect for the absent father figure, who just happens to be a military chaplain––that Marmee takes Jo aside to chat about her own “bosom enemy”: anger. And it is this small moment of confession––“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so”––that will come to define not only Jo’s eventual character growth, but also the March sisters’ feminisms.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page before I move on: the March sisters resolve, in the first and second chapters of the novel, to conquer themselves in service to a militant religious patriarchy represented by their father. And Marmee, admitting that she is “angry nearly every day of [her] life,” does her best to ensure that the girls succeed in conquering themselves. Not the world. Not oppressive gender roles. Not unfair social expectations. Themselves.

It’s easy to read this as internalized misogyny. And, to some extent, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s also more complicated than that––something Gerwig recognizes in her depiction of this quiet exchange. There is, as Gerwig’s adaptation shows, radical power in Marmee’s rage. But I would also suggest that there is power in her mask, her ability “not to show it.” That is the power she strives to pass on to her daughters. And that is the power, I suspect, Alcott was most interested in. After all, the world in which Alcott wrote was a world in which women had little legal power or financial freedom once married and, often, little power at all if they did not marry. Marmee, more than anything, wants her “little women” to survive.

As Naomi R. Cahn notes, “in the nineteenth century, conformity benefitted women,” particularly in the US, where, “if they were the innocent spouse who had taken care of the children, the household, and their husbands, then they were,” at least to an extent, “protected against divorce.” And divorce, which often included the loss of one’s children, home, and social standing, was for many women a best-case scenario. The temperance movement, alluded to in the novel briefly, gained traction in this period largely because activists like Carrie Nation saw it as a way to address the plight of women reliant upon drunk, cheating, abusive, and financially reckless husbands.

Marmee is all too aware of the dangers life has in store for her “little women.” And so she urges Jo to learn to hide her anger and advises Meg to do whatever it takes to keep Mr. Brooks interested and happy. If, in 2020, we can recognize that self-care is radical feminist praxis, then surely we can see Marmee’s lessons in self-preservation as equally radical.

But even the rage-filled wisdom that prompts Marmee to give the girls those “little books” has its limits. There is more to life than mere survival, even if surviving is radical. And so Alcott ushers in other texts with which to explore women’s experience: Jo’s newspaper and plays and manuscripts. I won’t dwell on the Pickwick Club newspaper and the sisters’ playful inhabitation of male social life or on the almost unconscious competition Laurie incites between Jo and Amy, leading to the fateful manuscript burning and an equally fateful brush with death. Instead, I want to focus on the Jo’s chosen genre––sensation fiction­­––and her writing life in New York.

Jo successfully sells a number of stories in the novel and the film alike. But what neither Gerwig nor any other director has depicted is that she begins selling her work long before she leaves home for New York City, that she’s writing highly sensational tales of crime and passion all along, and that her family, for the most part, accepts that. I know this doesn’t seem terribly momentous or unusual to twenty-first century eyes, so let me try to explain a bit better: Jo writes popular fiction in a genre that is (1) dominated by women, (2) believed by many at the time to be fluff at best and harmful moral poison at worst, and (3) the genre Alcott herself prefers to work in. And Alcott not only lets Jo enjoy writing this kind of story but also shows us that she’s good at it and her family thinks it’s fine. And then Jo meets Professor Bhaer, who works himself into her good graces and then promptly gaslights her into giving up this genre she loves writing and instead work on something worthy of her time. Like, say, a domestic novel. For girls. This is mic-drop worthy stuff, particularly because Alcott infamously wrote Little Women for cash and hated every minute of it

Very little of this context makes it into Gerwig’s Little Women. Instead, there is a poignant exchange between Amy and Jo about Jo’s latest––and last––writing project. “Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo says, when explaining what her book will be about, “it reflects it.” Amy counters this perspective, arguing that “writing things is what makes them important.” And this story about women and their lives and ambitions and challenges is absolutely important. But this sisterly declaration conveniently obfuscates the fact that, almost from the beginning, novels were domestic stories, often featuring women protagonists. From Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, from Jane Austen’s domestic heroines to the Brontë sisters’ tragic and ambitious orphans and governesses. In fact, at the time Alcott was writing, domestic fiction was more popular than ever. Literary critic Susan K. Harris notes that it was “the dominant novelist subgenre of the 1850s and 1860s.”

While it is important to recognize that domestic stories do matter, that traditional representations of women’s lived experiences matter just as much as what we may (not necessarily correctly) see as more progressive non-traditional ones (and vice versa), the fact of the matter is that at the end of Little Women, Jo isn’t writing something groundbreaking and new. She’s being bullied back into “her place.”

The real tragedy of the novel isn’t that Jo marries––it’s that she stops writing what she loves, churns out what the patriarchy (in the person of her suitor) deems is worth her time, and then quits writing altogether. Gerwig’s disruption of the marriage plot does nothing to address this, even though the film is better than most Little Women adaptations when it comes to depicting the fuller story Alcott told.

Reading and Writing as Self-Care

NB: This post was originally published on 8/11/2017. I’m migrating some old posts from my previous author website and WP won’t let me change the date of publication to reflect when I actually wrote the post.

CW: This post contains ableist language. I’ve since realized how harmful using these terms can be, and am working hard to keep them out of my vocabulary.


It’s been a bit, dear readers. But on this blog I’ve always been pretty transparent about the fact that these posts are an occasional pursuit compared to my full time obsession with churning out other content like…I don’t know…my dissertation, my podcast, my novels and short stories (including “H&D Plumbing,” which is forthcoming from Fireside Magazine!).

Anyway, this is one of those occasional times when I feel like I have something to say that is best said here and not on Twitter or Facebook or even Instagram.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what writing means for me, and what reading means too.

I read voraciously as a child, but after my B.A. I’d read so much and so widely in my favorite genres that I started to feel like I’d read all of the good stuff and had only the slush pile to pick through for the rest of my life.

Of course, that cynical thought was really naive–I’m currently awash in amazing work by amazing writers. But it FELT true, and so I started reading a little bit less. And then I started an M.A. program, and read a bunch for school but very little at all for fun.

And that, my friends, basically destroyed me. 

Last year, at my wits end with anxiety and stress and insomnia that skyrocketed right after I graduated with my M.A. and only got worse and worse leading up to some major exams I had to take for my Ph.D program, I started seeing a therapist. She asked me what I do to relax and take care of myself, and I shot off a few rote answers like “drink tea,” “do pilates,” and “take deep breaths.” All of which are great. Really. But over the course of weeks and months, my therapist helped me realize that engaging body and mind in something you’re passionate about is also immensely beneficial to well being. My creative outlets and passions, the first things–along with exercise–I had been in the habit of letting drop when life and work got busy, help me acknowledge that my anxiety is real, but that it’s lying about what matters. They help me process this crazy world and my place in it. They help me get things out of my head and sleep at night.

So I’ve been making an effort to amp up my creativity when I’m feeling out of sorts, anxious, and exhausted.

And, guys? I think it’s working.

See, I’ve been doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge for a few years and I’ve noticed something interesting this year. When life gets hectic and stressful and insane, I READ MORE and, when I’m smart, I WRITE MORE, TOO.

I’ve given myself permission to turn to a good book, even when there’s something else I need to be doing. And let’s be honest: I’m a doctoral student and instructor–there’s ALWAYS something else I need to be doing. But that impulse to bury myself in a story–be it someone else’s or my own? That’s my body telling me I need a break. And I intend to listen from now on.

My insomnia isn’t magically gone, but I am getting more sleep.

My anxiety is still there, but I can still breath and relax and think about the future without turning into a vicious tangle of stupid emotions–even when there are PLENTY of reasons turning into a vicious tangle of stupid emotions would be a perfectly legitimate response to life right now.

Calabacitas Meet Enchiladas: or, Veggie Enchiladas Fiery Enough to Warm this NM Expat’s cold, cold heart.

NB: This post was originally published on 10/16/2016. I’m migrating some old posts from my previous author website and WP won’t let me change the date of publication to reflect when I actually wrote the post.


Even though I love living among the trees and rain in the Pacific Northwest, I miss my home state’s food. Especially during green chile roasting season.

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People keep suggesting local Mexican restaurants, but I prefer my enchiladas NOT to be doused in tomato sauce with cilantro and oregano seasoning #thankyouverymuch. So, I’ve taken to concocting my own recipes.

Before I give you the recipe, I just need to mention that I put enchiladas together the LAZY way. I stack them, instead of rolling them. If you’ve ever made lasagna, the same principle applies here. Feel free to roll these if you’re morally opposed to stacking, but know that I’ll be giving you serious side eye. Because why make life harder for yourself? The enchiladas are just as tasty the lazy way. #teamstacking

This recipe makes 1 large (9″) and 1 small pan (bread loaf sized. Not sure of actual measurements) of enchiladas.

You’ll need:

  • 2 jars of green chile sauce of your choice (I use El Pinto’s, because it’s the only authentic New Mexican stuff I can get my hands on in the Pacific Northwest. It’s only available in medium, here, but very flavorful. Tastes like home.)
  • 3-4 roasted green chile, peeled and diced
  • 3 medium zucchini, halved and sliced
  • 2 medium bell peppers, diced
  • ~15 oz frozen corn
  • 24 corn tortillas
  • ~8 oz grated cheese of choice. I recommend a sharp cheddar.
  • Sour cream (for topping)
  • ~160z refried beans
  • olive oil (2-3 tablespoons)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 2 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1-2 tsp salt (to taste)

Toss zucchini, bell peppers, and corn with olive oil, cumin, chili powder, cayenne powder, and salt. Spread into a thin layer on a sheet pan and roast in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes (until soft but not smushy). I did not defrost the corn, so my roasting time was on the higher side.

Once roasted, transfer vegetables into a large bowl and mix them with 1 1/2 jars of the green chile sauce. Reserve the remaining 1/2 jar for later.

Oil a large, oven-safe casserole dish and line the bottom with six corn tortillas. It’s fine if they overlap. Spread a generous amount of beans on the tortillas (about 1/2 of them). Sprinkle with cheese and cover with six more corn tortillas. Spread about 1/2 of the vegetable mixture. Layer six more corn tortillas on top of the vegetables and spread those with a thin layer of beans, some cheese, a small amount of the remaining vegetables, and about 1/2 of your remaining green chile sauce, and 2/3 of your diced green chile.

Repeat this process with the remainder of your ingredients in the smaller baking dish.

Bake 35-40 minutes (or until the tortillas are soft / easy to stab with a fork), remove from oven, and top with more grated cheese. 

Top with sour cream, chopped onions, avocado, or just as is. Whatever floats your enchilada boat.

Enjoy!

NOTE: the green chile sauce I use contains roasted tomatoes. If yours doesn’t, you may want to add some diced tomatoes to your veggie mix about halfway through the roasting time.

Rereading Great Expectations 1000 Miles From Home

NB: This post was originally published on 2/18/2016. I’m migrating some old posts from my previous author website and WP won’t let me change the date of publication to reflect when I actually wrote the post.


The first time I read Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), I still hadn’t left my home town. I was either finishing up or had just finished a Master’s degree, and I had a lot of time on my hands. Reading Dickens felt like a productive and enjoyable use of my time, and I found myself falling hard for Pip and his world–the Ram-Pages, the Pumblechookian annoyances, everything.

Reading through it now, my affective experience is immensely different. And, I’ve come to realize it’s precisely because I no longer live in my hometown of twenty-four years. I left home, just like Pip. So, if now I really think Pip is an ahat of immense proportions, I now also no longer have the comfortable ability to look down on his ahattery as if I have no part in it. I feel uncomfortable reading about Pip because, every now and again, I see a fragment of myself in him. Like Pip, I left home with “great expectations.” His were a fortune and life as a gentleman, and mine were a PhD and whatever that brought with it–but both of those things effectually reclass the individuals to whom they apply.

Funny how time and distance can change the way one experiences a four-hundred page novel that, theoretically, hasn’t changed for 165 years.

Like Pip, my new experiences and expectations have necessarily affected the ways in which I relate to old friends and family. Like Pip, I’m often struck by regret and wish these changed  relations weren’t the case. Like Pip, I find myself unable (or unwilling) to do much about it. I want to, but I’m distracted. I want to, and try to, but I don’t know how. A call now and then, a letter now and then, a visit now and then. All of these just remind me of how different everything is, how impossible it is to go back. Ergo, I must consider myself, like Pip, a bit of an a**hat.

Except, everyone else is changing, too. They can’t go back to the way things were anymore than I can. In fact, they are all working toward their own “great expectations,” and, probably, struggling with their own attendant regrets. Nobody, not even Pip’s pal and provider Joe Gargery, is sitting at home unchanged. So maybe it’s time I cut Pip, and myself, a break. Maybe, in the great bildungsroman of life, this is just another lesson all of us learn as we’re growing up.

On Selling a Story

NB: This post was originally published on 8/18/2014. I’m migrating some old posts from my previous author website and WP won’t let me change the date of publication to reflect when I actually wrote the post.

CW: This post contains ableist language. I’ve since realized how harmful using these terms can be, and am working hard to keep them out of my vocabulary.


Finally.

After years of scribbling madly, researching writer’s guidelines and possible markets, mailing and emailing, and desperately waiting by my inbox as reading periods drew to their ends, I’ve finally sold a short story.

It won’t be in print until next year, but I just signed the contract and sent it to the publisher. It was one of my newer stories, and I’d submitted it to several places only to be rejected. It was sitting in my dropbox folder, wasting away, when one of the many magazines I follow through social media posted an update. It was accepting submissions. (THIS IS ONE OF THE REASONS SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE INVALUABLE TO WRITERS.) In a burst of inspiration, I opened the story and tore through it, changing the ending and cutting, cutting, cutting until it fit within the confines of the magazine’s word count limit.

And then I waited. And nearly forgot I’d submitted. And saw a reply in my inbox yesterday, nearly flinching as I clicked on the subject and opened to read. I’ve become so accustomed to getting rejections that I never even thought it would be an acceptance. I’m a novelist and short stories don’t come easy to me. They usually just morph into inciting incidents, way too big and juicy to be constrained to a few thousand words. This one had that potential as well, and I’ve got enormous plans for this protagonist and her world. But, I managed to wrangle this particular idea into short story form after deciding that it wasn’t how I needed to start my first novel in this series.

Sure, I’m still a long way from having “made it” as an author. I’ve sold one story out of the countless stories and novels I have to sell. I still have a day job (and, honestly, probably will even if I ever do “make it,” because I like to keep in touch with the world and, every so often, slip on some daytime clothes and leave my house). So, why does the sale of one story matter so much? Because now I know that there are people in the world who I don’t know, am not related to, and have no influence over who LIKE MY WRITING, my characters, and my world enough to put them out into the world, and to pay me for the privilege.

What can I say? It’s a pretty magical feeling.

“To survive, you must tell stories.” –Umberto Eco

The LEMON BARS At the End of the Universe

NB: This post was originally published on 7/22/2014. I’m migrating some old posts from my previous author website and WP won’t let me change the date of publication to reflect when I actually wrote the post.

CW: This post contains ableist language. I’ve since realized how harmful using these terms can be, and am working hard to keep them out of my vocabulary.


If, in some alternate universe, I ever wander through a wardrobe and find myself in the wintry reaches of Narnia, the White Witch will tempt me with these lemon bars. BUT I WILL LAUGH IN HER FACE BECAUSE I CAN MAKE THEM ANY TIME I WANT AND EAT THE ENTIRE PAN. BAHAHAHA. JOKE’S ON YOU, WHITEY.

Ehem.

Anyway. These lemon bars have converted–nay, seduced–people who normally avoid lemony desserts. Demons may or may not use them to convince people to sign over their souls. They’re probably great for bribing. Or other, less nefarious activities.

So, if you are brave enough to take on the soul-crushing responsibility that comes with these lemon bars, the recipe awaits below. Don’t let these babies get into the wrong hands.

THE LEMON BARS AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE:

Crust
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 sticks (8 oz) cold butter
1/2 of a unicorn’s horn, grated (optional)

Gooey Lemony Layer
4 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp lemon zest
1/2 cup lemon juice (3-4 good sized lemons)
THE GOLDEN AURA OF YOUR FAVORITE CHILD (optional)

Instructions
For the crust, it is easiest to use a food processor or a hand mixer. Measure the sugar, flour, and unicorn horn into a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter and beat until the mixture looks like slightly lumpy cornmeal. Or, until the head of the BSLM (Bureau of Supernatural Land Management) hunts you down and throws you in the slammer. Press into the bottom of a rectangle baking pan (preferably glass). I’m not great with math, so I just make sure it’s about 1/4 inch thick. Any pan that accomodates that thickness will work. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 (or until the crust is slightly golden at the edges).

Whip all of the filling ingredients together with a whisk or your hand mixer. The mix should look foamy. This is due to a chemical reaction between the child’s golden aura and the sugar. Now you know why children get so hyper when they come into contact with sugar. (You will probably need to whip the mixture again before you pour it into the pan. Listen to Devo’s “Whip It” if you feel uninspired.) When the crust is done, remove it from the oven and pour the mixture over it. Bake for another 20-30 minutes, or until the foamy filling is slightly golden at the top and gel-like to the touch.

Wait as long as you can for this pan of molten deliciousness to cool and then eat the whole pan. Or bribe someone. Whatever floats your boat.

*The author does not encourage anyone to ACTUALLY bribe anyone else and is not legally responsible for anyone stupid enough to attempt such an act.

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