Little Women – How Greta Gerwig Captures Womanhood
February 3, 2020
Caution: Spoilers for the 2019 film Little Women
As we shift into the new decade, the fight for female representation in Hollywood, both onscreen and off, is beginning to feel stale. We’ve been here before; in fact, it feels as if we’ve stayed stagnant, stuck in the same spot in regards to women in film for the past century. There is a dearth of films that convey women’s emotions and experiences outside of a romantic relationship, as well as a dearth of films directed and produced by women. However, even when female-led or created films are made, they’re snubbed by the film industry.
Last month, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who nominates and votes on the Golden Globes, came under fire after releasing 2020’s nominations. Despite the plethora of women-directed films released in the 2019-2020 film season, there were no female directors nominated in the Best Director category. Also, only one film in the Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy categories revolved around a female protagonist. Additionally, after Oscar nominations were released earlier this month, the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences faced similar criticism after no female directors were nominated in the Best Director category. This season, critically acclaimed female-led films that were directed by women, such as Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, were continually scorned in favor of less-deserving, male-dominated narratives.
Hollywood clearly has a misogyny problem. However, despite the arduous road that female directors face in terms of receiving recognition, their work still shines, quiet but bright.
Enter: Greta Gerwig. Gerwig proved herself to be the master of quiet films with characters who desperately want to be loud in her 2017 directorial debut Ladybird, a coming-of-age film about a teenage girl living in Sacramento in 2003. Ladybird‘s protagonist, Christine, portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, is a brash girl living in a tragically mundane suburb, who has to come to terms with the fact that she might never make the impact on the world that she wants to. Similarly, in Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, Gerwig takes the familiar story of the March girls and twists it into her own narrative of a family of rowdy sisters living in a quaint Massachusetts town. She turns characters that have been re-imagined so frequently that they’ve become worn into vibrant, bright women.
Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Christine in Gerwig’s 2017 debut Ladybird, once again shines as showrunner Jo March in Little Women. In most adaptations, Jo is fearless. She faces adversity with her chin held high, not letting anything touch her. However, in Ronan’s performance, she allows Jo to feel; in the face of defeat, Jo tries to keep up her tough girl act, but eventually falls. It’s in these weaker moments that Ronan’s performance truly excels. At the climax of the film, as Jo grapples with the loss of the life she’s known, Ronan delivers a gut-wrenchingly honest monologue about loneliness and the expectations on women. There was something so satisfying about seeing Ronan’s Jo show that, like all of us, she is not immune to sadness or frustration. She’s human. Ronan portrays Jo with a humanity that every viewer can relate to and empathize with, crafting a beautiful, grounded performance.
Of course, Jo wouldn’t be Jo without her sisters. While Ronan’s portrayal of Jo is front-and-center, the ensemble cast around her all give stellar performances, as well. This is, in part, due to Gerwig’s script. She takes the characters that the public knows and gives them a fresh coat of paint.
Amy March, the youngest of Jo’s sisters, has been the least favorite of the March sisters since Alcott’s Little Women was published in 1868. In past adaptations, Amy has been hard to sympathize with. She’s bratty, and when things don’t go her way, she acts out, making life difficult for those around her. However, Gerwig spins the character of Amy on her head, granting her an actual story arc that allows for growth. In Gerwig’s 2019 update, the audience sees Amy grow from a bratty child to a rational, ambitious woman who’s eager to get her footing in the professional world. However, not all of the credit can be given to Gerwig’s writing and direction of Amy. Florence Pugh, a relative newcomer to Hollywood who has dominated the film industry with last year’s hit horror film Midsommar and now Little Women, brings both child-like wonder and maturity to Amy, molding the character and crafting her into someone new. Between Gerwig’s writing and direction and Pugh’s performance, Amy quickly becomes a fan-favorite of the film.
Meg and Beth, the other two March sisters, are also given new depths by Gerwig. While both sisters are typically cast to the side, Gerwig gives their quiet characters room to breathe amongst the outspoken Amy and Jo. Meg, the oldest March sister, longs to live an extravagant life – she wants to attend balls, wear frilly dresses, and marry a man she loves dearly. However, when Meg does fall in love with destitute tutor John Brooke, she faces an issue that many viewers can empathize with: the working class struggle; she has to chose between the elite life that she’s always dreamed of and the reality of her class. Watson pulls the role off with ease. She brings genuine heart to a role that could be seen as uppity and obnoxious, and pulls off Meg’s arc of eventually finding pride in the identity she’s shunned excellently. Opposite to Meg, Beth, the meek, middle sister, is content with the life she leads. In the beginning of the film, Beth makes herself scarce, following in the footsteps of her sisters, her unyielding kindness the only trait that makes her stand out from her family. However, through the course of the film as Beth struggles with a Scarlet Fever diagnosis, she develops immense courage in the face of her illness. As she faces imminent death, Beth holds her head up high and accepts her fate. Scanlen portrays Beth with an innocence that only someone so green to the industry can pull off, the youthful joy that she brings to the role making Beth’s eventual death all the more tragic.
Outside of the March sisters, Little Women‘s ensemble cast excels, each minor character feeling like a fully fleshed-out person. Laura Dern stands out especially, capturing the world-worn but loving feeling of motherhood as Marmee, the March sisters’ mother. Also, Timothée Chalamet brings a boyish charm to Laurie, Jo’s best-friend and Amy’s eventual love interest. Watching Little Women felt like holding up a mirror to my own life. Every character in Little Women feels like someone I know in real life, all with their own individual struggles and unique quirks. Gerwig poured her own life into an age-old story, crafting something fresh that is able to appeal to all audiences.
Little Women makes people feel seen. There are few movies that truly encompass womanhood as truthfully as Little Women, and having a film that so many young women can relate to now is a gift. Films like this are rare, and should be celebrated. If there’s any director that deserved a nomination for creating a film that resonates so thoroughly with audiences, it’s Greta Gerwig. It’s a shame the Academy doesn’t feel the same way.