The powerful man at the beginning of Little Women wishes the story had more scandal.
Greta Gerwig’s sensational, swoon-inducing adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel takes an audacious swing, and it connects beautifully. Rather than tell the story from beginning to end, her narrative jumps back and forth through time, depicting the March family’s struggles and evolution over the seven years after the Civil War. Alcott’s own experience trying to sell her novel are subtly woven into the story arc.
Bookending the film are scenes between Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and a publisher (Tracy Letts). His advice about her writing is reductive and sexist; he underestimates her talent and worth because she’s a woman, and, later, he misjudges the universal appeal of a story about four sisters grappling with their identities and desires.
“The country just went through a war,” the publisher tells Jo when she first offers him a draft of a short story. “People want to be amused, not preached at. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” After he shortchanges her on the fee, he offers a warning: “If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married at the end. Or dead. Either way.”
The scenes are a bit of a meta wink at the climate Gerwig’s Little Women is being released in, recontextualizing the timelessness of Alcott’s stories and her characters’ journeys against women’s continued battle today to have their worth validated. “I want to be great or nothing at all,” Amy (Florence Pugh), the March sister most often criticized as vapid, even says. “What women are let into the club of geniuses anyway?” Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) replies.
These exchanges, then and now, are meant to provoke a patriarchal culture, and maybe even incite the smallest crisis of conscience. What wasn’t intentional—or, actually, perhaps it was—is precisely how damning a critique of society, powerful men, and tastemakers the film’s themes would turn out to be.
Awards pundits and movie critics who had seen and almost unanimously loved Little Women were left scratching their heads earlier this month when the onslaught of pre-Oscars awards nominations came rolling in and Gerwig’s film underperformed significantly.
Gerwig, Ronan, Pugh, and the film were expected to be significant players in major categories. Yet at the Golden Globes, only Ronan and the film’s score managed a nod—Gerwig’s snub sparked a now-annual all-male Best Director field outcry—and it was passed over completely by the Screen Actors Guild.
The culprit, according to sources at Sony in an article reported by Vanity Fair: “Little Women Has a Little Man Problem.”
Little Women is a property that has mattered deeply to generations of women, from the novel’s 1868 publishing through seven film adaptations, culminating in Gerwig’s feature this winter. It’s no surprise then that pre-release screenings for guild members and awards voters were overwhelmingly populated by women. But as the article shrewdly points out, “the voting memberships of various Hollywood awards ceremonies are not.”
There is a strong suspicion that men have not been deigning to see the film because, based on the legacy of its source material and the female-forward cast and creative team, it wouldn’t be of interest to them—or, more crassly, deserving of their dutiful consideration.
Malicious or not, with screenings skewed two to one in favor of women, there’s an impression that men aren’t giving the film a fair shot.
“I just can’t believe we’re still having this fucking discussion where movies by men, and about men, and for men are considered default movies. And women’s movies fall into this separate and unequal category,” Letts, who plays the publisher in the film, said. “It’s absurd.”
It is absolutely insane to think that Gerwig’s Little Women is “for women.”
Or that a massive-scale studio adaptation of one of the most popular and important American novels in our culture’s history, helmed by a filmmaker widely considered one of the most exciting directors working today, and starring the industry’s most talented performers—including freaking Meryl Streep—wouldn’t merit your interest because you are a man.
Or that a movie this masterfully shot, constructed, and beautifully acted wouldn’t rocket to the top of any awards voter’s must-see list.
What has always made Little Women so popular with female readers and audiences are the ways in which its fully drawn characters make them feel seen. Their concerns are represented. Their anxieties over the expectations placed on them and their own desires to explode those limitations are detailed with a nuance rarely given to female characters in pop culture who are coming of age. That’s a wonderful thing. But it’s not an exclusionary thing.
Gerwig, in particular when directing Ronan in this and in Lady Bird, finds impeccable ways to tap into the specificity of how gender impacts her lead characters, but also the universality of their ambitions. I relate more to Jo March and Lady Bird McPherson than any young protagonists on film in recent years.
Little Women isn’t just a movie about women. It’s a movie about people who are ecstatic. Who are sad. Who are feelings big things, whether they’re leaping off carriages to flag down old friends in Paris, dancing on the veranda, mourning the illness of a dear sister, or fretting about… well, everything. Do I deserve love? Will I be happy? Should I even dare to want happiness?
It’s also a movie about finances. For the March sisters, “marriage is an economic proposition,” as Amy says. Why should they be doomed to that when they have their own gifts to share? But how will they afford the life they want if they don’t?
Yes, Little Women exists in a constant emotional swell, but why is feeling things “for women”?
It’s no more sentimental than 1917, which is perhaps even fussier about emotion than this. Except, you know, it’s a war movie. Or what about Parasite, which is about the complications of desire? The Irishman and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood are awash with wistfulness. Or, dear god, how about the fireworks of pathos that is every second of Marriage Story? The best cinema this year has navigated our need to feel things and what it means when we allow those feelings to come out. In that regard, Little Women should triumph over them all—a universal, timely success.
It’s a movie that’s constantly alive, constantly in motion, energized by and thriving off these four sisters who feel things so deeply, whose desires and thoughts and concerns are so intertwined that, when around each other, they’re uncontainable. They practically fall all over each other. The movie exists in a hustle and bustle. When they stop moving, the stillness wrenches all the emotion out of you. It’s devastating.
There’s something about Gerwig’s style of filmmaking that evokes Ang Lee in its sweep and epic nature. The cinematography takes your breath away, but it’s all in service of the emotional scope. Nothing is gratuitous, not a single frame, not a single emotion, not a single take.
But perhaps it should not be a surprise that when Lee creates films in this milieu—or when Steven Spielberg does, or Sam Mendes does, or Alfonso Cuarón does—they are immediately championed by the same awards voters who are neglecting Little Women. It’s a systemic, institutional bias, unconscious or not.
It’s not just Little Women.
No film directed by a woman is nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, and only one, Marriage Story, has a true female lead. (You could fudge Knives Out into that argument.) Hustlers and Booksmart, two of the best-reviewed movies of the year, both written by, directed by, and starring an ensemble of women, were noticeably absent in a Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy category that should have included them as worthwhile nominees.
It’s hard to even consider the Little Women discourse as anecdotal or its omission as an anomaly when films directed by women and telling women’s stories are routinely dismissed.
Statistics are imperfect—this is art, not science or math—but they’re still pretty illuminating.
Of the 89 films nominated for Best Picture in the last 10 years, only 7 were directed by women. While 70 percent of Best Actor nominees (35 of the 50 contenders) were from films that were also nominated for Best Picture, only half of Best Actress nominees were—a stat that’s telling of how seriously voters take films that tell female protagonists’ stories.
There are currently eight frontrunners with shots of scoring a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Oscars, according to awards prediction site GoldDerby.com: Renée Zellweger (Judy), Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Saoirse Ronan (Little Women), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Awkwafina (The Farewell), and Alfre Woodard (Clemency).
Based on how the voting shakes out in both categories, how many Best Picture nominees end up on the ballot, and if the reception toward Little Women changes, it’s a real possibility that Bombshell, The Farewell, and Little Women all miss out, making Johansson the only Best Actress nominee from a film also up for Best Picture—the fourth time that would happen in a decade.
This whole discourse all too closely mirrors the exchange between Jo and the publisher. He casts off the material completely, assuming no one will take interest in the March family’s story. It’s only after his daughters express how enthusiastically invested in the characters they are that he agrees to move forward with it. In real life, Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles ruled the book dull until his niece found it, read it, and demanded to know what happened to the Little Women. The rest is history.
Could a tidal wave of interest from women tip off the gatekeepers and surge Little Women’s chances? Or the chances of many incredible female-directed films this season, as in most seasons, that might not be getting a fair shake because of gender bias: Hustlers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Queen & Slim, Clemency, Booksmart, or The Farewell?
If anyone, Jo March is up for the fight.