Little Women’s Real Feminist Problem

The film reveals that there was, and is, something powerful about domestic life, and that women are particularly attracted to it.

Saoirse Ronan in "Little Women"
Wilson Webb

Not again, I thought. How did Greta Gerwig get herself mixed up in this? I was at a movie theater, realizing that the trailer unspooling before me was for yet another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I loved the book as a child, but as an adult I’ve always found it cloying. Movie versions have tended to be even worse. The thought of doing the stations of the cross one more time—the cutting of the hair; the burning of the manuscript; the catching of the scarlet fever—was out of the question.

But could that many critics be wrong? I bought a ticket to see the movie, settled down for a long winter’s nap—and from the opening scene was in its thrall. Gerwig laid the story flat, cut it apart, and rearranged it; she added new sections and then turned the whole thing into a paper lantern—beautiful, unexpected, and glowing. She recognized what few filmmakers do when they approach a widely known story: Fans won’t countenance cutting major episodes, but they will happily see the story expanded in new directions. She understood that the wide familiarity with the story wasn’t a challenge but a fantastic opportunity. She’s given us Once Upon a Time Concord, Massachusetts. The novel had an ending all of us hated, and she created one that changes everything.

When a movie is this much of a triumph, there are bound to be complaints. “Little Women Has a Little Man Problem,” Vanity Fair; “Men Are Dismissing ‘Little Women.’ What a Surprise,” The New York Times; “Dear Men Who Are Afraid to See ‘Little Women’: You Can Do This,” The Washington Post. The male gaze is back! Only now we want it. Try to keep up.

It seems to me that the real feminist problem of this new Little Women is not that so many men don’t want to see the movie; it’s that so many women do. The movie has some explicitly feminist passages, dealing with the nature of marriage in the 19th century, and they are very good. The heart of the movie, though, is the private lives of the March girls, who are making a home together and following their natural talents in writing and acting in plays and painting and taking care of small children. Their STEM dreams are not being thwarted. Jo is not up in the attic making a rocket ship that the stupid patriarchy will ignore. If, as Christopher Lasch claimed, second-wave feminism represented the incursion of capitalist individualism into the life of the home, Little Women reveals that there was, and is, something powerful about domestic life, and that women (see the makeup of the audience) are particularly attracted to it.

Men might not feel great after seeing Little Women, because the movie, like the book, takes a dim view of them. As in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books—another world of women in which the household is more a unit of production than consumption— the much-adored father is a bit like Joseph in a Renaissance painting: a slumbering and irrelevant figure. He’s often absent, and when he appears he is usually ineffectual. Marmee is the indestructible leader of the family, no matter what comes her way. The two principal men in the story, Laurie and his grandfather, are largely without purpose until their lives intersect with those of the girls. Fan-favorite Jo can do very well without men at all. I can’t have been the only kid who assumed  she was a lesbian—or, as they were called in 1968, a tomboy. In the novel, her father calls her “my son Jo”; she cuts her hair short; her only romantic possibility is with someone named Laurie, who often addresses her as “my dear fellow”; and she is completely uninterested in getting married to a man she does love, except … not in that way. Little Women is about the resourcefulness, power, and imagination of women; the notion that Gerwig’s movie needs male ticket buyers to affirm its quality is ridiculous.

The other complaint is that the movie has been overlooked during awards season. As the writer Kristy Eldredge noted in a Times op-ed, Little Women has thus far garnered just “two Golden Globe nominations and zero Screen Actors Guild nods” (one for Best Actress, one for Best Original Score, nothing for Gerwig). Perhaps this fact has less to do with the gender of the creative talent than with the fact that Little Women is the whitest movie I’ve seen since The Swiss Family Robinson. It has the same attitude toward the past that is at the core of the American Girl business: history is not a nightmare to wake up from; it’s a beautiful wonderland where there is always some girl whose life circumstances allow her to have a jolly and guilt-free time.

Gerwig is clearly aware of and anxious about the intersectional challenges presented by her source material. If ever there were an illustration of “white feminism,” it has to be Jo’s excitement at getting the better of her male publisher—while 700 miles to the south, African American women her age were confronting the new “black codes” and all that came with them. Gerwig has tried to indemnify herself against the unbearable whiteness of Little Women by grafting snippets of critical race theory into a couple of lines of dialogue, but they clang to the floor like trays of silverware. If the movie is aware that—as a young African American girl patiently explains to a soberly listening young white girl—the North benefited from and was therefore complicit in the original sin of slavery, it must account for it in the world it creates. If Jo and the girls understand that their delicious Christmas breakfast has been provided to them through a market economy dependent on slave labor, I don’t want to see them eat it. You can’t have it both ways. Either you take characters from the past on their own terms, or you create a story that acknowledges modernity in some significant way.

The objections about the movie’s few nominations may disappear when the Oscar nominations are announced—I can hardly imagine Gerwig’s work being ignored. Certainly the Academy has lately been more eager to notice films made by women than it was in the past. But the clear intention lately has been to recognize more films that are by and about nonwhite people, films that the Oscars might once have overlooked entirely and that studios might never have funded. Three of the past six Best Picture winners—Green Book, Moonlight, and 12 Years a Slave–have specifically addressed aspects of the African American experience. Against these imperatives, the story of four white girls making magic together during the Civil War may not amount to a hill of beans.

Little Women has found an audience, and it’s selling tickets. But it breaks no sociopolitical ground, and men don’t like it. If it earns Oscar nominations, how are the filmmakers to know that they are the result of the movie’s excellence, not of the campaign conducted by angry white women in the prestige newspapers? Perhaps the film may suffer the lowest fate of all in the outrage economy: to be understood, principally, as a work of art.