Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is by far the most ambitious film to date on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic. It packs an astounding number of scenes from the beloved novel into a standard feature run time. And it gets so much right: the setting, the energy, the joy of girlhood, the pain of growing up, the ways that Meg, Beth, and Amy negotiate that pain and pursue fulfillment as adult women.
Yet, for generations of readers, Little Women has been predominantly Jo’s book. And, Saoirse Ronan’s brilliant performance notwithstanding, Gerwig gets Jo — and, by extension the feminist heart of Little Women — wrong.
It seems that Gerwig’s ambition is not to tell the story of Little Women through a feminist lens, but to validate postmodern feminism through the lens of Little Women.
In the case of Jo, Gerwig’s film misses Alcott’s point entirely. For Gerwig, Jo’s enemies are outside of herself: a family in economic need, a society in which marriage is the only respectable option for a young woman without money, and a readership that wants to see heroines “married or dead.” For Alcott, though, these troubles are all secondary. Jo’s real journey is that of self-mastery — of conquering her own desires and passions (just like many a male hero) so she can see what is truly important. “You I leave to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it,” says Marmee to Jo in Alcott’s novel, “for only then will you find that there is something sweeter.”
But for Gerwig and her postmodern feminist translation of the novel, there is nothing sweeter. The self-aware adulthood that Alcott espouses through Jo’s character development — that is, the slow and painful recognition that individual ambition is a poor substitute for familial and communal responsibility — is, for Gerwig, merely a capitulation to the domestic and economic pressures of 19th-century womanhood.
This is why Gerwig pointedly blurs the character of Jo March, the heroine of Little Women, with the life of Louisa May Alcott, the author of whom Jo is a semiautobiographical representation. Gerwig’s film glosses over the romance between Jo and Professor Friedrich Bhaer in a rushed and comical fashion, while interspersing scenes of that romantic union with the book negotiations between Jo, as a stand-in for Alcott, and her publisher. This version gives credence to the notion that Alcott — who herself never married — would have preferred that Jo remain single rather than marry Professor Bhaer.
The end result is not a commitment to realism, nor a tendency toward pessimism, but the suggestion that Alcott considered the freedom of independence fundamentally superior to the obligations of interdependence, even in a good marriage.
Why is Jo March’s equally hard road to self-mastery and self-sacrifice any less heroic? Because she is a woman of extraordinary talent and ambition, rather than a man?
In the first half of Alcott’s Little Women, Marmee tells Meg and Jo that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing that can happen to a woman” and that it is “better to be old maids than unhappy wives.” The first statement was standard fare in Alcott’s day. The second was radical in its deference to women’s individuality and agency. Together they reflect the mature nuance of Alcott’s take on womanhood.
Alcott is beloved among many feminists for insisting that women matter as human beings, with broad thoughts and ambitions independent of marriage. But Alcott’s Jo, if not Gerwig’s, absorbs far more than that: She eventually recognizes that those two statements — that marriage to a good partner can be life’s greatest blessing, and that marriage should not be the chief end of any woman — are in no way contradictory.
This recognition doesn’t make Jo — or Alcott — less feminist than postmodern champions like Gerwig; it makes them more so.
In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the young George Bailey is resistant to settling down and intent on higher education. George insists, “I don’t want to get married, ever, to anyone.… I want to do what I want to do.” Yet no one watches this beloved holiday movie, rife with George’s manifold sacrifices to his family and community, and thinks: “It would’ve been a more wonderful life if he’d stayed single and traveled like he wanted to.” No, we accept that the heart-wrenching self-denial — traded for service to family and community — throughout George’s life is what makes it so inspiring, and so wonderful. He is a hero.
Why is Jo March’s equally hard road to self-mastery and self-sacrifice any less heroic? Because she is a woman of extraordinary talent and ambition, rather than a man? Rather than accepting Gerwig’s postmodern speculation that perpetual singleness would be more satisfying for Jo, it might be more interesting and less condescending to wonder whether Alcott, given her representations of marriage in Little Women, would have married herself if 19th-century American society had provided any possibility for the kind of genuinely egalitarian marriage she invents for Jo.
Gerwig has said that Jo March was her heroine as a girl but that her heroine as a woman is Jo’s creator, Louisa May Alcott. The two are not synonymous, but they are inextricable. Jo March, the greatest heroine in American literature, stands on her own just fine, without the need for any postmodern updates. The woman who wrote her, Louisa May Alcott, surely knew that.
Elizabeth Grace Matthew works at the University of Pennsylvania, in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies.