Reading & Listening

“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.

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