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.