Micro lectures can't derail Greta Gerwig's savvy take on Louisa May Alcott's classic tale.
It’s worth remembering that modern art is made to address modern issues.
Rarely is art made specifically just to reflect on a specific time in history for the sake of it. For example, If you’re wondering why so many movies about Nazism are coming out right now it’s because Hollywood leftists are deathly afraid that there’s a covert clan of Neo-Nazis on the rise being led by famous Nazis like… Ben Shapiro.
The same can be said for a feminist movie like “Little Women.” It’s unlikely this book was adapted just for the sake of pleasing literately purists. Director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the famed 19th century novel carries with it many progressive dog whistles that might alert a sensitive audience to its ulterior motives.
The casting of famously progressive actresses like Emma Watson and Laura Dern suggests an attempt to draw upon their audience appeal to young feminists. The movie is even peppered with subtle jabs about immigrants not being welcome in society and how the glass ceiling (unnamed) is preventing women from achieving their true potential.
The most overtly cynical line in the movie comes in one scene where Dern is working as a nurse at a Civil War hospital with a black female nurse. She mentions offhand that she’s always been ashamed of her country, and the nurse turns to her and tells her she still should be.
This particularly intersectional hit is hard to square with the fact that her husband is currently on the battlefield fighting for the abolition of slavery. That said, Dern’s film characters have been known for feminist jabs as far back as “Jurassic Park.”
Still, that’s hardly a slight against the movie.
Gerwig is a deeply talented artist, and the movie mostly arrives intact outside of a those progressive moments. While the movie focuses on the character’s deep lack of complacency, the story is very much a story of its time. Given that there’s more of a case to be made that feminism was necessary in 1861, these jabs are forgivable.
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For those who haven’t read Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel of the same name, the story creates a portrait of four young women living domestic lives in New England in the midst of the Civil War. This version of the story is told strangely and confusingly out of order, but there’s a seeming method to the madness.
We see glimpses of the lives of his family set across multiple time periods from their childhood to their late adolescence. The moments are intercut to emphasize the characters’ growth. or lack of it.
This isn’t a story about the resolution to these characters’ journeys so much as it is an examination of how they all interact in it.
The heart and soul of “Little Women” is found in the sister Josephine (Saoirse Ronan). She’s a spinster “lost cause” who dreams of living a marriage-less life as a writer in New York City. She ends up being the measuring stick by which the rest of the girls’ lives get compared to in the narrative.
The most pressing theme of the film is that of the role of women in a society that doesn’t expect anything of them. Clearly, Gerwig had deeper intentions for this to speak to modern society but modern society is hardly as austere as Mid-19th century New England.
These women largely don’t have career options. Most are expected to marry rich for the sake of their family. All of the sisters resist or embrace this to different levels.
Each of these reactions explores different ideas of how women are able to live out their desires relative to the society around them. Some embrace marriage and family life with open arms.
Others do so reluctantly.
The story does get quite cynical at points. There’s a line repeated twice that says marriage is an economic arrangement. It’s clear this line really spoke to Gerwig as it highlights just why Josephine is so desperate to avoid it. She wants to advance the cause of women to a character fault and rejects the notion of austerity and love for its own sake.
The concept that marriage is an entirely economic is a trope commonly repeated in Marxist circles. This is the kind of unexamined prototypical far-left idea that would eventually devolve into ridiculous progressive book titles like “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism.”
Liberation for the sake of liberation takes you to strange Ideological places.
This self reflection is present in the film, though. The movie isn’t dishonest about the fact that women tend to love girly things. Our heroines relish in their femininity.
At one point Meg desires to role-play as Daisy, a girly girl who loves dresses. Afraid of finding out the reaction of her radical sister, she asks those around her to hide her wearing the dress from Josephine. Josephine even goes as far as to beg Meg not to be married for love.
Meg ultimately does so, and marries a poor man out of love. Unlike her sister, she embraces the idea of traditional homemaker and wife because it’s what she craves.
Eventually the thought comes full circle with Josephine herself, who admits in confidence that her rebellious image is hurting her. She wants to fall in love and yet feels a responsibility as a proud woman to advance the cause of her sex. That doesn’t mean she also doesn’t want to fall in love and achieve companionship.
This is one of the few moments a quintessentially modern conflict bubbles up in a way that’s interesting and honest. It’s a sad reality of the modern world that working women and homemaking are often too intensive to live out so women do have to make a choice in that regard.
The movie is honest on this point and lets the tragedy of these characters trapped between impulses bubble up.
“Little Women” offers a more gentile and tolerable level of feminism than most of what modern Hollywood offers. It crafts genuine heartfelt characters and lets the viewer explore different impulses through them and lets us enjoy the journey the whole way.
This film is definitely going to end up in the Oscars discussion, and Gerwig deserves it. What she’s able to express here is so much deeper than the mere whims of woke progressive anti-complacency. At the heart of this film is a real interrogation as to what it means to be a woman.