Have you ever watched a movie where your heart ached from beginning to end? That’s what it was like for me watching Greta Gerwig’s screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century literary classic Little Women.
I didn’t expect the ache, and I didn’t seek it, but it came — and it didn’t leave — until the credits started rolling, and a book I had so loved as a young girl had been brought back to life for me as a melancholic masterpiece. I wanted to crawl into the screen and join that world, if only for a little while. I found myself moved to tears by the sheer beauty of that beach scene, by the quiet, unrequited love in Laurie’s eyes, by the bittersweet nostalgia of watching the minutiae of their teenage lives unfold and by the breathless determination in Jo’s ambition, her relentless efforts to create stories and make her mark in the world beyond traditional wifehood and motherhood.
Gerwig’s updated and unabashedly feminist screenplay of Alcott’s Little Women allows Jo to address the age-old question still being asked today: why are women’s stories so often seen as unimportant, mundane, banal — as little stories about “little lives”? Why is women’s literature so often downgraded, dismissed and relegated to “chick lit,” something so many people (usually serious men) scoff at?
A scene involving Jo’s publisher and his daughters explains the why. Women’s artistic contributions have traditionally been viewed as inferior or trivial because the people making the decisions about what has artistic, literary or commercial value have traditionally been men.
It’s simple. If men, who have historically held positions of power and influence, are also viewed as de-facto arbitrators of what is culturally valuable and important, then what doesn’t interest them or focus on them is inevitably seen as “boring,” “unserious” and “unimportant.” It never occurs to many of these power brokers and social influencers that some things may not interest them or speak to them simply because they were not meant for them. They were never the intended audience! It’s an unconscious bias that’s hard to grasp when male perspectives are often valued above all else, when men’s narratives are hailed as the main, “universal” stories, as our common history, and everything else is merely an oddity, a side story, a footnote.
The primary audience of a half-packed theatre the night I went was female, prompting my friend to ask: “Why will women go see movies about men, but men will rarely see movies about women?” It’s a good question.
The answer has a lot to do with female writers and female artists being undervalued in our society. Women’s writing about domesticity and “ordinary affairs” (the worlds and roles they’ve often been confined to) has often been looked down upon as unimportant, but author Annie Dillard was right when she wrote, “How we live our days is, of course, how we live our lives.” The magic is often in the mundane.
The gatekeepers and the tastemakers (critics, publishers, museum curators, etc.) have traditionally always been male. The fact that these positions have historically been occupied by white men also explains the lack of diversity. Opportunity, not lack of talent and ability, has held back artists who were neither white nor male throughout history.
Some quick stats: Women still only account for 11 per cent of top film directors. Just 11 per cent of all museum acquisitions and 14 per cent of exhibitions at 24 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists, according to a recent Artnet News study. The same report reveals only two per cent of global art auction spending is on work by women. There are far more male bylines than female ones and far more books published and reviewed by male authors. This, of course, is changing, but progress is slow, and more action is required to level the playing field. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently committed to only acquiring works by female artists in 2020. Why such a drastic decision? Because of the 95,000 works in the museum’s permanent collection, just four per cent are by women. The gender gap is still staggering.
When Laura Dern’s Marmee, the March family matriarch, tells her daughter Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” I felt that in my bones. Little Women was written in 1868, yet those words, that very modern sentence, belongs to Louisa May Alcott, not Greta Gerwig’s adapted screenplay. Much may have changed, but then again… much hasn’t. To be a woman in a world that often tries to define you, undermine you, undervalue and limit you is to, no doubt, know anger.
How women win
By sheer coincidence, I arrived home from Little Women just in time to catch some of the Golden Globe Awards show airing that night. No women were nominated for best director at the awards this year. Greta Gerwig was in the audience, but only because she was accompanying her partner, director Noah Baumbach, whose film Marriage Story was leading with six nominations. Other nominated films, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, barely had speaking parts for women.
I turned on the TV just as actress Michelle Williams, on stage for winning for best actress in a limited series for Fosse/Verdon, gave an impassioned speech about reproductive rights and used her platform to remind women to vote.
“I’ve tried my best to live a life of my own making, and not just a series of events that happened to me,” she said in a beautifully fearless and eloquent speech that seemed to serendipitously echo the complex and starkly different choices I had just witnessed the March sisters making for themselves in Little Women.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without employing a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “To choose when to have my children and with whom. […] So, women 18 to 118, when it is time to vote please do so in your own self-interest. It’s what men have been doing for years, which is why the world looks so much like them.”
Reproductive rights are at stake in the next U.S. election. Just recently, over 200 members of Congress asked the Supreme Court to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, which guarantees the right to an abortion. It’s 2020 and women’s bodily autonomy continues to be debated, discussed and under constant threat. Make no mistake: anti-abortion zealots aren’t interested in hypothetical lives — they’re interested in control. If they were, they’d be in favour of free contraception, sex-ed in schools, socialized daycare. They’d be interested in eradicating poverty. But they aren’t.
Women continue to try and make a place for themselves in a world that still tries to limit who they can be and what they can do. Even a Hollywood star like Michelle Williams knows this. Ordinary women who try to navigate a life often limited by social, financial, racial, religious and political constraints and biology know this. I hope the 53 per cent of white women who foolishly voted for Trump in 2016 have come to know this, too.
What made Williams’ battle-cry of a speech even more powerful is that she is pregnant and already the mother of a 14-year-old. Despite the religious right continuing to paint pro-choice advocates as selfish, morally defective one-dimensional caricatures, female lives are much more complex and nuanced than that. Statistics show that women who are already mothers have more abortions than anyone else. Many women who had abortions go on to have children later.
Reproductive freedom is not a rejection of motherhood and family; it’s an affirmation of bodily autonomy, and of personal choices made. It’s about being allowed to carve out your own life the way you see fit, make your “own way in the world,” like Jo March defiantly dreamed of, and, if you’re lucky, get to write about it. That’s not such a little thing, is it? ■