The Parallels Between Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Contemporary Feminist Issues
Louisa May Alcott’s famous literary character Jo March has been a long-standing feminist icon and, alongside the other three March sisters, has become a source of adoration and inspiration for many readers. This became even more true when Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation of Little Women saw Winona Ryder take on the role of headstrong heroine Jo and a whole new audience found their home with the March family, seeing themselves in their complexities and intricacies.
When it was first announced that actress and director Greta Gerwig would be taking on the task of adapting the beloved story opinions were split. Lovers of the Lady Bird director swooned at the idea of her taking on a period piece. However, whispers of skepticism spread across the film industry and Gerwig must have known the hefty task of directing a version that had to be both loyal to the source material and yet still excitingly innovative.
It is with such pleasure to see that Gerwig has managed to do justice to Alcott’s beloved family and has also created something that is both familiar and new. She brings you back home to The March clan and has opened up a new world of family and sisterhood to an entire new audience.
The March sisters have become famous in their different and varied representation of women and the struggles that they faced in a world dominated by patriarchal control. All four sisters wrestle with their inner turmoil of finding their place in the world and it’s not difficult to find yourself relating to individual aspects of each character.
Jo is certainly the most well-known and beloved sister within the story and it would be fair to say that Gerwig’s version of the talented and sharp sister embodies some of the conflicts that modern women still face today.
Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan) is arguably one of the most famous fictional feminist icons and Gerwig has done a wonderful job of writing her in a way that makes her relatable but aspirational. Her desire to be taken seriously as a writer and a woman feels particularly relevant right now. You only have to look at the recent disappointment at the lack of nominations for female filmmakers and writers to see that we’re still struggling within an industry that is saturated with male dominance.
Gerwig is amongst those who have been, for want of a better word, snubbed. Many journalists and industry experts have commented on both this issue and the lack of male audiences in the initial press screenings and how screeners were not being watched by male critics.
It has been argued that a male audience just wouldn’t connect to Gerwig’s adaptation and this disappointing idea isn’t far off from Jo’s experience with her editor Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). He simply doesn’t understand why anyone would want to read the kinds of stories that Jo writes and encourages her to change her style for something more dramatic and salacious.
It’s not just Jo who represents some of the plights that women still face. Gerwig’s Amy (Florence Pugh) is perhaps the most complex version of the character and we’re able to witness her grow from an immature, infectiously sweet - if spoilt -child to an ambitious woman. Amy’s story is often drilled down to her eventual marriage to Laurie (Timothèe Chalamet) but Gerwig really delves into Amy’s motivation and her love for Laurie is second to her turbulent relationship with Jo.
In regards to what they want while growing up, Jo and Amy are on opposite ends of the scale. Jo resents attending social events, while Amy is desperate to go. Jo cares not for fashion and appearance, while Amy enjoys all things traditionally feminine. Gerwig doesn’t make us pick sides, she encourages us to empathise with both characters and it reflects an attitude that women are trying to apply to their lives in modern society.
Jo and Amy struggle with their differences but their sisterhood survives every test. For so long women have been pitted against each other, both in film and popular culture, but inclusive feminism is fighting to stop this. Groups of women from all backgrounds, those who both conform or differ from traditional femininity, are working together to achieve equality for all.
This is a subtle call to feminism from Gerwig but it could have been all too easy for her to write Amy as the anti-Jo, a character that we’re meant to look down on and judge because she’s not our feisty heroine. Instead she writes a multilayered, strong woman who’s passionate about her art and reaching her highest potential but also wants to love and be loved and is focussed on having all of these things; it’s not difficult to see how women today can relate to Greta Gerwig’s version of Amy March.
Feminism is about choice just as much as it is about equality. Our choice to live our lives as we please, without fear of judgement or losing our vital place in society. Little Women has always explored this idea and Gerwig expertly showcases how each character suffers from making choices that are deemed wrong or inappropriate.
Living as a woman in a contemporary Western society of course comes with privilege, but we’re still facing backlash against the decisions we make as individuals. It feels as if we’re constantly fighting for acceptance, justifying what we want by compromising where we shouldn’t.
Gerwig encapsulates this so beautifully in a monologue for Jo where she breaks down in frustration at only being seen fit for love and family duty because she is a woman. It’s maddening, the idea that women who don’t want marriage and children are deemed lesser or unfulfilled compared to those who do. Yet even Jo is tempted by the lure of companionship and social conformity to make life easier, to be less lonely.
Patriarchal oppression transcends time and Gerwig allows us to blur the lines of fiction and realty through Jo and her sisters. Audiences are able to relate to these characters and Gerwig explores something that I firmly believe we’re still fighting for; true equality and the opportunity to succeed while making choices that benefit us and us alone.