Little Women in the 21st Century
Written by Samra Karamustafic
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation strays slightly from the beloved tale, but for the better.
Many of us recall the days of reading “Little Women,” a story that follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo – as they navigate the ups and downs of growing up and finding their place in the world. Many agree that Louisa May Alcott’s best-selling novel has become a staple of many of our childhoods, as well as a withstanding emblem for love, family, and what it means to be a woman of any time period. And with Greta Gerwig’s recent remake of the age-old classic, it’s got us reminiscing on the good old days (except now we’re taking Buzzfeed quizzes to see which March sister we are while fangirling over Timothée Chalamet).
If you were expecting Gerwig’s “Little Women” to be an identical rehashing of the novel, think again. With a few slight differences, she takes a story – which once conformed to the outdated societal roles and standards of the 1860s – and molds it into an empowering depiction of what it truly means to be a woman, but without the bodices and draping skirts.
For this article, I’ve decided to focus on the reimaginings of Meg, Amy, and Jo’s character arcs, because Gerwig didn’t stray too far from Beth’s storyline in the novel.
Let’s be honest: many of us probably thought Meg was the boring sister when we first read this book. She was the oldest, she was the most mature, she didn’t want to go on to become an actress, and she decided to get married first …. yawn. When are we getting back to Jo’s storyline, again?
Well, Greta introduces Meg as the “leader," but she’s far from boring; we’re given a glimpse into the love she has for dances, spending time with her family and friends and having fun. We also learn of her love and talent for acting while producing plays with her sisters. Unlike Jo, Meg isn’t interested in seeking the limelight, instead, she falls in love – and that’s okay, too.
In one particular scene, before Meg marries Laurie’s tutor John Burke, Jo runs to her room and tries to stop Meg from marrying, suggesting the two run away and become famous for their talents. Meg interjects with just one simple but powerful reply: “Just because my dreams are different from yours doesn’t make them unimportant.” These days, it can be easy to fall into a trap of equating feminism with this belief that whatever you do, you shouldn’t want to get married and start a family. Gerwig takes this dynamic between Jo and Meg to say, “Hey, it doesn’t matter if you want to get married and have kids or if you want to focus on yourself and strive to get that dream job first – either one is okay!”
The film also made a slight shift into the personal struggles with which Meg dealt. Alcott’s novel mainly attributed Meg’s frustrations to adapting to motherhood. Meanwhile, Gerwig chose to emphasize her financial struggles instead, both before and after getting married, while being surrounded by richer friends. Gerwig doesn’t forget to show how Meg evolves as she weans off any and all societal pressures from her wealthier peers. We as the audience can see when she realizes that what she has in front of her is more than enough. She also realizes that she and John will try their hardest to provide the best life they can for their children, no matter what financial situation they may be in.
One of the most talked about points that followed the release of “Little Women” this past year was that Amy was actually likable. As Slate writer Marissa Martinelli points out, “Amy is a much more sympathetic figure in Gerwig’s adaptation than in others, where the story’s lack of a villain means she sometimes falls into the role by default.” But, in this adaptation, Gerwig takes the time to not only develop Amy as a character (with strengths and weaknesses like any other human) and also by gives us a glimpse into how mature and in-tune she is with what it meant to be a woman in the late 19th century.
In one scene, a 20-year-old Amy discusses the idea of true love and following her dreams with Laurie. Laurie questions why she would marry someone solely for economical purposes and why she doesn’t become a painter. To put it simply: Amy gives Laurie a wake-up call regarding what it’s like to be a woman in their time. She goes on to mention an array of hard truths, like how it would be nearly impossible for her to earn a living on her own for herself and her family, how limiting it is to her self-worth once she does get married (everything that’s hers would essentially go to her husband) and how he isn’t able to understand these truths because he’s a man in a man’s world. She ends her speech with a final, heartbreaking but truthful point: “So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.”
That scene alone paints an entirely different picture of Amy March than what we’ve been given in past adaptations - and one that we can certainly relate to. Like Jo, Amy has dealt with her own struggles in making her way in the world. Although women’s rights have improved exponentially since this novel was written, women who watch this movie can still find solace in Amy and her journey into not just being taken seriously, but into claiming her independence and self-worth, too.
"...empowering depiction of what it truly means to be a woman..."
A favored feminist icon for decades, Gerwig’s Jo March is still the same tomboyish, carefree spirit we’ve grown up reading about – and even more relatable than ever.
Near the end of the film, we see Jo, played by Saoirse Ronan, as she sits with her editor to discuss her completed book. The camera pans back and forth as the two quibble over just what percentage of the profit Jo will receive. Jo, straight-faced and resilient on receiving the amount she prefers – and her editor, exasperated and deciding whether to argue or to let the disagreement go entirely. Finally, they reach a middle ground and we later see a gleaming Jo as she watches her book being printed through the window, like a mother gazing upon her child in the nursery of the maternity ward.
It may be a short scene, but it mirrors situations that many women deal with in the workplace today, especially artists. You can probably recall the famous legal feud between Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun this past November, which led to the backlash against Braun and the hashtag #IStandWithTaylor trending everywhere. What exactly happened? Taylor was in a legal dispute to win back the rights to perform the music that she wrote herself. By including this scene to illustrate some of Jo’s struggles, Gerwig subtly speaks out on the ugly truth of what goes on behind the scenes for many women today, whether they be entrepreneurs, athletes or artists. YouTube channel Be Kind Rewind made a similar point along the lines of this ongoing “women in the workplace” discussion in their “Little Women” analysis, saying, “through this lens, Jo’s story is not just about employment, but also taking women seriously, respecting their ambition and compensating them correctly.”
Don’t let the fact that this is the eighth adaptation of “Little Women” scare you away from seeing this film. Gerwig’s “Little Women” not only prompts a discussion into struggles we as women still deal with today, but also serves as the perfect celebration of being a woman and as a love letter to Louisa May Alcott herself for what she’s done. So, in honor of Women’s History Month: movie night, anyone?