4 Reasons to Love Greta Gerwig's Little Women
On a film with a uniquely countercultural disposition
|Jan 8|| 8|
by Joy Clarkson
I entered Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with trepidation. While I thoroughly enjoyed Gerwig’s previous film, Ladybird, the trailer for this film raised my suspicions that it might attempt to distill its Civil War-era characters into modern icons, eclipsing the elements of the story that rendered it so beloved to many people. My fears were in vain. This warm hug of a film is a cinematic anti-dote to the hardened cynicism eating away at our disappointed modern souls, a gentle invitation to be soft, hopeful, and un-ironically good. In the paragraphs to follow, I offer not so much a review of the film, but reasons to love it, which centre around its needfulness as a nourishing tale in our weary world.
The Intimacy of Sisterhood
By almost any standard of measure, we are currently experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. In a world largely dislodged from stable, local community, we tend to imagine that the only place we can count of this sort of intimacy and commitment is in romance. This puts a huge amount of pressure on romantic relationships to fill all the relational needs that used to be met by an entire community, a network of family and friends.
This is what I found so refreshing about Little Women. In a world starved for affection, and unable to conceive of non-sexual intimacy, it honored the profound comfort, strength, and delight in sisterhood, motherhood, and friendship, and placed these non-romantic relationships as central, not sidelined by romance. In fact, it was sisterhood that was the beating heart of the story, not romance. Jo’s famous relationship with Laurie is less important here than her relationship with Meg, Beth, and Amy.
There is an image repeated throughout the film that represents this closeness. Marmee is seated on her chair, her throng of daughters piled around each other, laughing, chiding, and stroking each other’s hair. A few feet back from this merry dog pile, stand the men, observing the women at a distance—distinctly solitary figures. It may seem an odd, small thing, but I loved how the film showed female intimacy and the way that men often stand outside of that and admire it and want inside, and seek to do so by getting married, a reality that is often experienced, I think, but rarely portrayed. The men in the film all seem oddly stranded and isolated: Laurie the lonely orphan, Mr. Laurence the widower, Mr. Brooke the isolated tutor, even Professor Bhaer, separated by an ocean from any near relations.
Each of these characters is drawn into the circle of the March family love. Which reminds of a needful truth: if we are ever to recover from our cultural loneliness, we must realize that romantic intimacy is not the only kind of closeness our hearts crave.
An Earnest Moral Story
Critics of the novel Little Women have sometimes pointed to its too-tidy moralism. The March girls give their breakfast to the Hummels, Meg learns not to be vain, and, perhaps least believable of all, Jo forgives Amy for burning her book. In a world as complicated as our own, can such simple tales teach us anything?
In Gerwig’s hands it is still a moral story because it is about people genuinely trying to be good. The movie makes it seem possible to have big emotions, to wrestle, to hate your sister, but also to move toward self control, purpose, and forgiveness. There is a refreshing earnestness, a lack of cynicism in the way characters move toward forgiveness, sacrifice, and accommodation, without the moralism of the original book. It believes people can struggle well and do good. In our confused and cynical times, we need stories that remind us that right is right even when no one is doing it, and wrong is wrong even when everyone is doing it. The March family culture can be summed up by Beth’s simple request of Jo: “Do it like Marmee taught us: for the sake of others.”
A Message without a Sermon
When we treat stories like the only important thing about them is the lesson they teach, as though the story were only a more circuitous way to get across a point, the stories become brittle and bland. Little Women the book has sometimes been criticized for this very fault. Nonetheless, Gerwig’s movie manages to be profound without being preachy.
People are complex, and Gerwig is a skilled story teller, able to display what little tea cups of contradictions human beings can be. The movie manages to be profound without feeling like an overbearing feminist parable because, at its heart, the movie tells the story without proclaiming a message. Each character was meticulously developed and multifaceted. Jo wants to be strong, independent, creative, but is not immune to loneliness. Amy is ambitious and proud, but also feels the weight of being the family's financial hope.
Gerwig’s version of these characters aren't contorted into modern ideals, but her film still speaks profoundly to the complications of living today. Our world is in desperate need of stories that explore the beauty and complication of life, work, and womanhood, but those stories will be more powerful if they are not forced to fit into the moulds of our present ideological preoccupations.
Sometimes it is assumed that only gritty, dark movies can be deep. This assumption increasingly seems odd to me; in a world where we are constantly confronted with sexual manipulation, violence, and cynicism, why do we continue to believe that the most important films are those which almost ritualistically indulge in the same themes? Perhaps sometimes we should open the window, and seek fresh air.
Little Women shows sweetness and family in its most potent and least saccharine form. It reminds the viewer that wholesomeness isn't naiveté, that it can be a life-giving force to be reckoned with. It is innocent, wholesome, and un-ironically so. Little Women reminds me that before we can know how to conquer evil, we must be deeply in love with what is good. This wholesomeness is not one which hides its eyes from the darkness and pain of the world—the Marches live in a world with war and financial strain and the death, after all. But wholesomeness and innocence aren’t things that can be snatched away forever; they are instead dispositions toward life which can be cultivated, teaching us to see the world in terms of hope, love, and kindness, instead of scarcity, depravity, and isolation. Cultivating this disposition is countercultural and teaches us to live radical lives of kindness and meaning. Watching this movie will make you want to join the March girls in the battle for a love of goodness.
Joy Clarkson is a doctoral candidate in theology at St Andrews University, where she studies the role of popular art in moral formation. She host a weekly podcast that aims to give people an arsenal of good stories, music, and images with which they can courageously, wisely, and beautifully navigate life. She also writes for publications like Christianity Today, Plough, and the American Bible Society.
If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal. The Winter 2020 issue will hit mailboxes in February.