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Little Women Goes to War

books and culture

Little Women Goes to War

“Woke” critics express outrage that men stay away from a movie with little to offer them. January 13, 2020
Arts and Culture

You might think that when a film you love is nominated for an Oscar for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actress, and best supporting actress it would be a time for champagne, but in the case of Little Women, it’s been sour grapes all around.  The film received six nominations in total, but its many avid admirers were still furious: Greta Gerwig, the film’s director, was not nominated for best director, proof that misogyny reigns in Hollywood.

Even before it opened, the film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel had taken on heavy sociological and political significance.  Amy Pascal, the movie’s producer, had tweeted that men were not attending screenings of the Greta Gerwig–directed movie due to “unconscious bias” against women. Another Hollywood feminist VIP, Melissa Silverstein, jumped in: “I think it’s total, fully conscious sexism and shameful. The female story is just as universal as the male story.” The media were off and running: “Little Women has a Little Man problem,” Vanity Fair announced. “Men Are Dismissing Little Women: What a Surprise,” was the snarky title of a New York Times column.

Actually, the reasons that men (and a fair number of women like myself) don’t share in the widespread euphoria over the film couldn’t be more mundane. For one thing, the movie is based on a children’s book—to be precise, a book for girls. Thomas Niles, Alcott’s editor at Roberts Brothers, asked her to write a “girls’ book.” And that’s exactly what she set out to do. She wasn’t keen on the idea, but she needed the money. “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this kind of thing,” she complained in her diary in the spring of 1868. “Never liked girls; never knew many besides my sisters.” When Niles reported to Alcott that his niece had found the early pages enthralling, Alcott, who remained unenthusiastic about the project, conceded: “As it is for them, they are the best critics.” No surprise, then, that grown men aren’t crowding theaters to see the latest movie version of a nineteenth-century girls’ book.

Here’s something else that might limit the film’s appeal to men: Little Women was a work of commercial fiction, meaning that it had to satisfy the taste of Alcott’s intended young, female audience. True, the unconventional Alcott chafed against this commercial imperative. She felt exasperated by her fans’ insistence that Jo March, the most independent of the sisters and the writer’s alter ego, marry her neighbor and childhood mate, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little woman will marry as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” she grumbled. She refused to “marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” In the end, though, she had no choice but to throw her readers a bone. She married Jo off, all right—to a stout, older, German professor. Worse, in the eyes of contemporary readers, she had the high-spirited, ambitious Jo give up her “scribbling” in order to be what her contemporaries would have thought of as a proper wife. The compromise pleased no one, whether romantics, traditionalists, or feminists; the author herself admitted that she had made the match “out of perversity.”

Of course, that perversity wasn’t enough to deter millions of readers. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were children’s books known for simple moral lessons— punishing-the-wicked-and-rewarding-the-good kind of stories—but none specifically for girls. Little Women’s rich, varied characters and the disarming warmth of the March household transcended the genre and lifted it into the canon of revered American literature, read by female and male schoolchildren for generations. 

That richness has supplied Little Women with plenty of male admirers. The Rough Rider himself, Teddy Roosevelt, was a fan. Likewise, today, some men have lined up in praise of Gerwig’s movie. Like Alcott, Gerwig clearly wanted to create something more than a children’s tale. She jumbles the timeline in ways that demand careful attention. She draws a winking parallel between Alcott’s forced pandering to her girl readers’ demands for a conventional romantic ending and the Hollywood-approved requirements of her own time. She not only marries Jo off but also transforms the creepy old professor into a sultry foreigner with a vaguely European accent.

But the movie Little Women could not—should not—escape its origins as a girls’ book, any more than Macbeth should escape the genre of tragedy. This brings us to the other understandable reason that many men may be cold to the film. In culture-war terms, to choose to see Little Women is not just to decide on Friday night’s entertainment; it’s to engage in a political act. As the Times op-ed put it, by not wanting to see the movie, men are rejecting “a plea for women to be seen as human beings.”

This is what Alcott might have called “humbug.” Now, there’s no question that Alcott was a proto-feminist vexed by the constraints on women of her time. Jo’s boyish physicality and ambitions, like Alcott’s own, challenged the era’s standards of femininity. Little Women is in large measure an exploration of whether and how women could fulfill their natural talents in nineteenth-century America. Still, Alcott’s progressivism is not NOW’s. A child of Transcendental moralists, she was grounded in a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice, usefulness, and self-discipline that modern progressives would find stifling. Indeed, the one thing that Alcott’s modern fans complain about is the book’s moralism, though the author herself believed that the self-expression she longed for had to be ballasted by virtue. “[T]ry with heart and soul to master this quick temper,” Marmee tells her headstrong daughter in the book. It’s a charge that Jo takes seriously.

Instead, Gerwig stokes women’s anger by exaggerating the oppression they suffered in Alcott’s world—not easy to do when you’re depicting a time when women couldn’t even vote. The director portrays Jo’s editor as a “mansplainer,” outwitted by the clever protagonist when she bargains for the copyright to her books. And she has Laurie ask sardonically when Amy announces that she wants to be a great painter: “What women are allowed into the club of genius?” Well, as it happens, many were. Harriet Beecher Stowe helped change American history when she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin a decade and a half before Little Women. The publisher of Alcott’s work, the Roberts Brothers, also brought Emily Dickinson, Maud Howe Elliot, Julia Ward Howe, and a series of biographies of famous women to American readers. And, according to preeminent Alcott biographer John Matteson, it was her editor at Roberts Brothers who advised her to keep the copyright to her books and made her a very wealthy woman—the exact opposite of how Gerwig portrays the story.

Recognizing the reality of Little Women’s origins might have tempered the uninformed, melodramatic reactions of people like Cheryl Strayed, the best-selling memoirist. “I wept at the end, thinking about Alcott and the many women writers who, like her, had to endure so much resistance to write and publish their work,” Strayed emoted on Twitter. “Thank you, Greta Gerwig. Thank you, women writers who came before me.” It also might have helped moderate the condescension coloring a Washington Post column entitled: “Dear Men who are afraid to see Little Women: You can do this.” The columnist sermonized: “Men need to be reassured, again and again, that there are all kinds of ways to be a man.” 

Is there any more surefire way to get men to stay away—from anything?

Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

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