The 2019 adaptation of “Little Women,” written and directed by Greta Gerwig, successfully embodies female empowerment. The film focuses its attention on four women and the difficulties they endure. The main character Jo struggles with her work not being taken seriously and being paid less than her male counterparts. All of the women in the film have to cope with being valued solely for their looks and marital status. Any of that sound familiar? The fact that Louisa May Alcott’s female characters from the 1800s are facing the same problems we face today, shows just how much work we have left to do.
Greta Gerwig portrays the difficulties women face in a technically beautiful way while also hitting the mark emotionally. Gerwig’s successful depiction of the complex struggles women undergo is not something every director can do. The infamous female superhero scene in “Avengers: Endgame” is a prime example of a film trying to push female empowerment unsuccessfully. In this scene, every female in the franchise suddenly shows up in the same area of the battlefield and dramatically walks together. The irony is especially apparent when you think about how Marvel released their first-ever female-led superhero film in 2019. I feel extremely uneasy when I detect a filmmaker attempting to push a feminist agenda in an inauthentic way. Female characters should be empowered in movies, but it needs to be done right.
Many women struggle to feel powerful in a world where we are often powerless, and when a film really understands that, it is incredibly impactful. Feminism becoming more mainstream is a good thing, but some creators can be preachy and over the top when they try to depict it; Gerwig does not have that problem.
My favorite scene in the film is the prime example of Gerwig exploring the complexity of feminism in a compelling way. The scene is a conversation between Jo March and her mother Marmie. Jo tells Marmie that she may have made a mistake when she refused Laurie’s hand in marriage. Marmie then asks Jo if she loves Laurie and Jo says that she cares more to be loved. Marmie responds, “That is not the same as loving.” Then Jo says, “I just feel like 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 just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely.”
Jo wants to be seen as more than a wife and mother in her life; she wants to be recognized for her writing and her talent as well. But Jo is also a human being and she wants to love and be loved. Gerwig effectively relays the issues that women have to grapple with throughout their lives. Wanting to be valued for more than what you look like or what person you love is something that I, and many women, still desire to this day. Gerwig manages to capture all the nuances of this complicated issue beautifully.
On the podcast The Q & A with Jeff Goldsmith, Gerwig and host Jeff Goldsmith discuss her latest film. She states, “I have always been interested in, to be totally honest, the lives of girls and women, and I think for me, Louisa May Alcott was my godmother, my spiritual godmother, because she was really the first one who wrote about what was happening in the lives of girls and women in an expansive way. And I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, men don’t know what women are doing when they’re not there, so sometimes an epic happens in a kitchen.”
What Gerwig feels about Louisa May Alcott is exactly how I feel about Gerwig. I am interested in stories about girls and women and she is one of the first female directors to make me feel understood. I feel so lucky to be living in a time where amazing female directors like Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay, Lulu Wang, and more are given the chance to create. I am hopeful that more women will get that same opportunity moving forward.