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Precarious Little Women
Director Greta Gerwig's Masterpiece is an Ode to Liberalism
After thoroughly enjoying the Barbie movie — which elevates Greta Gerwig to a very particular pantheon of directors able to take a toy property and make a “how in #$%K@^ is this that good!!” movie — I decided to finally get around to watching her prior movie, Little Women. I’ve had the movie on my watchlist for years, but as a fan of the 1994 classic starring Winona Ryder, I felt no urgency; after all, what was there really new to say about Louisa May Alcott’s story?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Gerwig’s direction is a tour de force that introduces novel elements — ie, a biographical frame tale with flashbacks, a mumblecore veteran’s interest in realistic line delivery, and a reimagined happy ending — while keeping the thematic core and best scenes from both the original text and past interpretations. However, I was struck for the first time with the extent to which Gerwig’s direction, whether intentionally or not, surfaced the profound liberalism of the story.
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Alcott’s little women occupy a small, warm space marked by familial contentment and female joy. Their mere happiness would have been a radical statement at a time when women could not vote, could not leave abusive husbands, could not openly enter many male-dominated professions, and so on. It’s a story by a woman about fully-developed female characters over a century before the Bechdel test was even devised! Alcott herself was an ardent suffragette, and, while the book avoids much overt politics, there is abolitionist and proto-feminist subtext throughout.
But it was easy for that frisson to be lost on 20th century audiences. Think about it this way. Alcott’s exploration of gender reads very differently in a time when women's suffrage had become universal, female education normal, and gender equality was at least broadly aspirational (if not always fully actual). The story’s radical promise gets overlooked, and, as a result, the story is reduced to a romantic comedy with a happy, gender-affirming ending. Boy woos girl; girl refuses; girl regrets; girl kisses boy in the rain. It’s cliche for a reason.
Indeed, that was how the 1994 movie was received in my conservative, religious circle growing up. Little Women was an anchor of the unofficial film/tv canon for young fundamentalist women (along with Anne of Green Gables). There might not be any surer sign that the story had had its rough, radical edges rubbed off than the fact that notable lines from the film were part of the student vernacular at Bob Jones University!
Gerwig’s decision to resurface the original, radical valence is most obvious at that same point in the movie. Her version of Jo March kissing Friedrich is done with cinematic wink and a surrealist nod. The heightened dialogue and overwrought music in the scene tells you precisely what Gerwig thinks of the dour, male editor’s belief that, “Girls want to see women marry, not consistent.”
Do note that this isn’t some modern, feminist meddling with the story. (Although I’m always happy to see an interesting feminist reinterpretation of classic material.) Bear in mind that Alcott herself despised the ways she had conformed her story to fit contemporary social norms, calling it “dull,” “moral pap for the young.” And so Gerwig, in that sense, is an originalist, restoring the author’s preferred vision for her work.
Gerwig does an additional service for modern audiences. She highlights the precarity of the March family’s situation. Their little bubble of happiness is constantly under threat from external forces.
For example, while the March family enjoyed the various markers of the respectable middle class of the time — eg, in-house domestic labor, non wage-earning mother/daughters — their social and economic status was unstable. They had enough money to feel an obligation to give their Christmas dinner to a poor, immigrant family (the Hummels), but not enough money so as not to end up the recipients of a similar act of charity themselves. They had rich, upwardly mobile relatives, but if their father had not returned from the war, they might have fallen into the working class.
And thus there is constant pressure in the story for at least one of the girls to marry well, to find a man wealthy enough to secure the family’s social position and fortify its financial status. To quote Gerwig’s Jo, “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition even in fiction.”
But no matter how desriable the prospect, marriage always comes with risks for the discerning little woman. You might marry for love and find yourself poor, stuck at home with children like Meg, and realizing how much you gave up in the process. You might marry for money and find out later he’s a dissolute playboy, like Amy encountering a pre-reformation Laurie. You might marry, find yourself constantly at odds with each other, but be trapped together in perpetuity, as Jo warns Laurie.
And even in the best (albeit fully hypothetical) scenario, in which one can marry for love AND money, it still means giving up non-familial aspirations and accepting the crushing weight of new social expectations and gendered obligations. As Jo pleas in a stirring monologue — that Gerwig actually borrowed from another Alcott book — “women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.” While the idea that women are fit for more than marriage sounds commonsensical to most today, it was once a radical proposition.
Now consider what hath liberalism wrought. If we think of the March family as the beneficiaries of a small, thin sphere of happiness and ease, then liberalism has meant the steady expansion and thickening of that sphere. Liberalism keeps pushing back against the fundamental limits of natural scarcity and human finitude.
The most obvious example is that of Beth, who was fatally weakened by the dreaded scarlet fever, which killed millions in rolling pandemics during the mid-19th century. But improved nutrition as a result of falling food prices and the advent of modern medical science have all but eradicated scarlet fever fatalities in the developed world, as you can see from the chart below.
Beth wouldn’t have died from scarlet fever today and thus the little women would have remained four instead of three. But to step away from the literal for a moment, bear in mind that life expectancy in the US has doubled since 1850. Beth’s death is symbolic of an era when nutritional deficits made people vulnerable to death from a host of uncurable and barely treatable illnesses.
But in the century and a half since, the rise of global market capitalism has unleashed previously unthinkable gains from agricultural productivity and technological innovation. Malthus be damned, that has meant billions of people around the world living longer and better lives than at any prior point in human history.
Similarly, almost all Americans today enjoy a degree of material prosperity once reserved for only the elite of Alcott’s time. Consider three seemingly simple objects used as plot points in Little Women: a piano, a pickled lime, and a visit to Europe.
When Laurie’s grandfather gifts Beth a piano, it’s an act of extreme generosity. Consider that a quality piano in the mid-19th century could cost upwards of $800 at a time when the average daily wage of a carpenter in Massachusetts was just $1.45. That piano cost a little less than twice the average yearly earnings of a common worker. Yet today, you can buy a digital piano for half the price. And that’s in absolute terms!! In relation to earnings, pianos are several hundred times more affordable today.
In the movie, there’s drama revolving around the schoolchildren trading pickled limes. I doubt many folks alive today have ever even heard of pickled limes, but they were once imported en masse from the West Indies. They were the perfect treat given their long, briny shelf life and their ability to skirt the high tariffs on fresh agricultural produce. (You can try the recipe yourself.) Yet today, globalization means that we can source fresh limes year round and think nothing of picking up a bag of seven of them at the grocery store, and even pay for them with food stamps.
One of the plot points in the movie is Jo’s disappointment that Amy was chosen to go to Europe with Aunt March instead of her. But I’m not sure viewers can feel that sting quite as strongly as Jo would have, for whom that was likely her only chance to ever leave the United States. In the mid-19th century, only a few thousand Americans traveled abroad each year, most of them men. A European tour was the finishing step of a young gentleperson’s education, something typically reserved for only the wealthiest 0.1%. Now, by contrast, nearly three quarters of Americans have traveled abroad at least once. In fact, the odds that someone today has traveled to 10+ countries is perhaps 100x higher than a person from Little Women's time having traveled to a single foreign country. (!!)
Now, these are luxuries, of course, but they reflect a massive, general improvement in basic living standards. Real adjusted wages in America today are an order of magnitude higher than they were in the mid-19th century.
More importantly, we live in a society that’s wealthy enough, and in which gender norms have changed sufficiently, that a modern March family would no longer face the financial and social precarity of the historical Marches to anything like the same extent. The March women could now work for wages without imperiling their social status. And marriage is no longer the only strategy for middle and upper class young women seeking to escape financial insecurity.
Nor does marriage entail the same degree of risk today. In the 19th century, it could take a resolution of the state legislature to approve each individual divorce. Suffice it to say, non-elite women were frequently trapped in abusive relationships. The liberalization of divorce laws has quite literally saved the lives of countless women by lowering female homicide and suicide rates. (It has also, somewhat paradoxically, improved marital satisfaction for those who don’t divorce.) Marrying is a less fraught choice for women today than it was in Alcott’s time.
Nor, today, is marriage quite so singular a choice. If marriage is a more palatable option, so too is the decision not to marry at all. Similarly, the gay rights movement has won a degree of social toleration and legal freedom that would have been nearly (though not totally) unthinkable in the mid-19th century. Liberalism has acted as a universalist and individualist acid on pre-modern institutions, from patriarchy to heteronormativity.
And while liberalism provided the material and institutional substrate for these cultural disruptions, it was stories like Little Women that channeled those changes in a particular direction. I’m reminded of a pivotal scene in the movie where Jo questions the utility of writing stories of “domestic struggles and joys” because they don’t have “any real importance.” “Writing,” she says, “doesn’t confer importance; it reflects it.” Her sister Amy responds, “Perhaps writing will make them more important.”
That’s how history works. The stories we tell have teleological power. They’re more like self-fulfilling prophecies. Thus Louisa May Alcott wrote stories about women who have minds and souls and not just hearts. And those stories, by inspiring future generations of little women, including one Greta Gerwig, helped make it so. They made it important. So let’s continue telling and retelling such beautiful, liberal stories.
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