Growing up with an English teacher for a mother meant growing up with books. It meant that my parents read to me every night before I fell asleep. It meant that when I could read on my own, my mom recommended books that she loved when she was my age. It means now that I’m older, we talk about books we’ve both read and love, some of which I have recommended to her. It means that when I told her I was writing an article about the new “Little Women” movie, she mailed me a hardcover copy of the novel.
I first read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” when I was in fifth grade, and the story has stuck with me ever since. I remember wanting to be part of the March sisterhood, loving Laurie and desperately wanting Jo and Laurie to end up together at first. I remember liking Amy, despite her infamous reputation, and the fact that she and Laurie found their happy ending, even if it wasn’t what I had originally wanted. I remember admiring each girl’s individual spark. I remember how real and raw and genuine the story felt. Like for many other women before me, “Little Women” is something of a sacred text—a testimony to the strength and depth in the characters of women that had been overlooked for so long.
So, I was very excited for the 2019 adaptation of “Little Women,” directed by Greta Gerwig and brought to life by an extraordinary cast: Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie and (Vassar alum) Meryl Streep as Aunt March.
On a chilly winter afternoon, my mom and I scurried off to the movie theater to watch the highly anticipated film. Immediately, I noticed that the audience was mostly female, with mothers, daughters and elderly women filling the seats. It turns out that this was not uncommon. According to Forbes, “[A third] of the opening weekend audience for “Little Women” was male” (Forbes, “Box Office: ‘Little Women’ Doesn’t Need Male Moviegoers To Be A Hit,” 01.06.2020). Forbes goes on to argue that the presence of male audience members is not necessarily important for the financial success of the film, and I agree. Look at the numbers: the movie earned $60 million at the box office (Forbes, “Box Office: ‘Little Women’ Doesn’t Need Male Moviegoers To Be A Hit,” 01.06.2020). However, the ramifications of this fact run much deeper than box office performances. Why are movies gendered? Why is a movie about women a “female” movie? Why aren’t more men watching “Little Women”?
After watching the film, I scoured YouTube for any and every “Little Women” interview, talk show appearance and behind-the-scenes preview. I was infatuated with the cast and wanted to stay immersed in Gerwig’s curated, colorful and cozy world for as long as possible. While watching various cast members appear on talk shows, I noticed a running theme: the (male) hosts emphasized the story’s appeal to female audiences. In an interview with Pugh, Stephen Colbert said, “A lot of women that I know who read the book—and pretty much all the women I grew up with read the book—they relate to Jo…” (YouTube, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “Florence Pugh Got To See Another Side Of Her ‘Little Women’ Co-Star Meryl Streep,” 12.11.2019). Similarly, when Ronan was on his show, Colbert mentioned, “Everyone in eighth grade—every girl in eighth grade or seventh grade[’s] summer reading list… [includes] ‘Little Women’” (YouTube, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “Saoirse Ronan Enjoyed Having The Emotional Upper Hand Over Timothée Chalamet In ‘Little Women,’” 12.10.2019). When Gerwig appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” host Jimmy Fallon joked about his own interest in the movie and a conversation he had with his wife, explaining: “You know any other person you’re like, ‘What’s your husband doing?’ Like, ‘Oh he’s watching the game with his boys. What’s your husband doing?’ ‘He’s taking a bubble bath and watching ‘Little Women’’” (YouTube, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, “Cardi B Inspired Greta Gerwig’s Vogue Cover and Directing Little Women Pregnant,” 12.21.2019).
These responses are perfect examples of a much-needed attitude shift when it comes to how we value female-centric narratives. It’s too bad that so many men missed out on reading “Little Women” when they were younger, but they still have the opportunity to experience the story with Gerwig’s retelling. A movie as cinematically stunning and well-written as hers should be appreciated by everyone.
This demeaning attitude permeates not only the discourse surrounding the film but its award nominations as well. A Vox article summed it up, noting that “[a]t the Golden Globes, “Little Women” only managed to scrape up nods for Saoirse Ronan’s turn as Jo March and for Best Original Score. It didn’t win in either category. Greta Gerwig’s screenplay has a WGA nomination, but her direction went unnoticed at the Directors Guild Awards. And the Screen Actors Guild Awards ignored the movie completely” (Vox, “In 2020, Little Women has a men problem. But it used to be seen as a story for everyone,” 01.13.2020). Ronan commented on the Golden Globes snub, saying, “It’s sort of vital for something like this to happen because it reminds us of how far obviously we still need to go” (YouTube, TODAY, “‘Little Women’ Stars React To Greta Gerwig Golden Globe Snub,” 12.10.2019). In a separate interview Gerwig elaborated, “There’s so much beautiful work by women this year that you would love to see it acknowledged by anyone who has trophies to give out. You hope that they give them to some ladies” (BBC, “Little Women cast on female Golden Globe nominees,” 12.17.2019).
This trend of snubbing stories about women, by women has continued into the Oscars, where “Little Women” has been nominated for six total awards, including Best Actress (Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Pugh), Best Picture (producer Amy Pascal) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Gerwig). Notably missing is Gerwig’s Best Director nomination. Despite the success of the film, her lack of a nomination comes as no surprise. Only five women directors and 22 directors of color have ever been nominated for the Oscars (Vox, “In 2020, Little Women has a men problem. But it used to be seen as a story for everyone,” 01.13.2020).
This disparity mirrors a central narrative in Gerwig’s adaptation. Jo wants to become a writer, but her chances of success are slim because she is a woman; she has to fight in order to be given the same respect as her male contemporaries. While we have made strides since Alcott’s time, Jo’s narrative persists. This is part of what makes “Little Women” such a compelling story. Times may have changed, but the message remains the same: Women still have stories to tell, and everyone should be listening.